How do you come up with your books ideas?
Every now and then, seemingly random things filed away in my brain suddenly find order and focus, like planets aligning. I’ve learned to respect this process because it’s not something that can be forced. However, I can generate better odds of those magical alignments called “ideas” by stimulating my creativity through reading.
What inspired you to write Bounty?
Bounty was born out of my contempt toward the clever bankers and financial wizards who’d engineered the 2007/2008 financial crisis—a $64 trillion heist that decimated the life savings and dreams of hundreds of millions of people worldwide—yet whom were never taken to task legally or otherwise. It made me wonder what extreme measures a modern-day vigilante might take to remedy the situation, and how ordinary people—the “mob”—might punish bad guys if guaranteed anonymity.
What were the biggest challenges in writing Bounty?
Though my MBA minor is in Computers and Information Systems, the Internet I’d studied in 2000/2001 is a much different animal today. So I had to brush up on network architecture, online surveillance, and encryption. Plus I had to get inside the minds of NSA analysts, FBI cyber and criminal agents, DEA and Homeland Security and Secret Service agents, various police forces, foreign intelligence agencies, and hackers. I read stacks of actual FBI cybercrime case files, and studied Edward Snowden’s documents. I read mainstream books written by hackers and studied the FBI’s takedown of Silk Road—a darknet eBay for assassins and drug dealers, which transacted in Bitcoin and procured its contraband via standard mail. I watched Ted Talks and documentaries and tutorials, and consulted with the FBI’s media relations department, FBI agents, and IT professionals. Add to that the ancillary research of weapons, vehicles, and all the logistical stuff that get my characters from place to place.
To keep the novel manageable at roughly 110K words, I had to be incredibly economical in the narrative, which meant lots and lots of revisions and sacrificed pages and cut chapters and tight squeezes. Throughout the book, I incorporated lots of social media blurbs and Tweets—nothing forces you to communicate more efficiently than Twitter—to show what’s happening around the world as the story progresses. To help the reader feel like a participant in the investigation, I also inserted actual (fictional) correspondence between the FBI and NSA.
What inspired you to write The Sacred Bones?
On a pristine September morning in 2001, I stood on a hilltop in New Jersey and watched the Twin Towers collapse into heaps of smoking rubble. It inspired me to read up on Islam and the centuries-old conflicts between East and West, and an ongoing turf war over a tiny piece of real estate in Jerusalem called “Temple Mount”—the sacred crossroads of the three Abrahamic religions, where fragile politics and hardline ideologies are so extreme, that any single act of aggression committed there could spark a third world war. In The Sacred Bones, I imagined one such event that might ignite the tinderbox.
What inspired you to write The Sacred Blood?
At the conclusion of The Sacred Bones, the discoveries and revelations were simply too big to not take them to the next level. In the sequel, The Sacred Blood, the action increases and the plot thickens with even greater discoveries and revelations about those mysterious bones the Vatican’s mercenaries violently extracted from beneath Temple Mount. A second installment gave me the space to explore the tantalizing links between the Christ story, Egyptology, and the apocalyptic visions detailed in the Dead Sea Scrolls, all culminating in an ancient prophecy fulfilled through my protagonist from The Sacred Bones, Charlotte Hennesey.
What inspired you to write The Genesis Plague?
In the Bible’s opening chapters, there are two versions of Creation: Genesis 1, in which man and woman are created at the same time, and Genesis 2, in which Adam wanders Eden solo until God creates Eve to keep him company. Ancient Jewish texts claim that the woman in book 1 was Lilith (not Eve)—a crafty seductress who wouldn’t bend to Adam’s wishes, who went off to shack up with the Angel of Death, Samael, to spawn demon children and pestilence. Ancient Iraq (Mesopotamia)—the very same region U.S. ground troops scoured in search of WMD, al-Qaeda, Saddam, and Osama—is ground zero for not only the biblical myths of Eden, but also Noah’s flood, the Tower of Babel, and the rise of the Israelite patriarch, Abraham. In the modern day, I imagined the U.S. military stumbling upon artifacts dating to the beginning of recorded of history, when the first civilizations were being ravaged by flood and a mysterious woman wreaked untold death and destruction—who left behind physical clues that might ultimately be used as a modern-day weapon.
How long have you been a writer?
Informally/sporadically: 20 years. Formally/regularly (and paid): 10 years.
In my mid-twenties, I wrote a short story titled Hell is a Traffic Jam, about a crummy guy who’s crammed in a car, stuck in eternal traffic on a road to nowhere, his flesh rotting away and regenerating over and over again, ceaselessly tormented by the events of his shitty life. The year I’d graduated college, I wrote a full-length sci-fi novel, Waves (1993), about a scientist who uses brain implantation to step inside the mind of a serial killer. A few years after grad school, I wrote To Create a Savior (2004), about an evil corporation in the future that uses time travel to transport a techie “miracle worker” named Jesus, and his twelve buddies, back to ancient Palestine to create Christianity as a scheme for acquiring massive real-estate holdings… only to be undermined by a quantum physicist with a conscious named Judas. Both novels were turned down by numerous agents and publishers, and have yet to see the light of day.
However, the same themes of science and religious history/conspiracy found in these previous “failures” later laid the foundation for my first published novel, The Sacred Bones (2007), which became an international bestseller.
How did you learn how to write?
The short answer: trial and error. The other short answer: I’m still learning.
I’m self-taught—no formal writing classes; no degree in English Literature. I simply made a decision to dig in, pay my dues, and immerse myself in reading and writing. Therefore, I’m a work in progress. I’ve benefited greatly from listening to YouTube interviews of many respected authors explaining how they approach the craft (spoiler alert: everyone does it differently). Over the years, I’ve also had the good fortune of receiving brutally honest constructive criticism from very knowledgeable people who’ve helped me focus on mechanics, while developing a unique voice and style. Not sure that I’ll ever master grammar and sentence structure, but thankfully I have brilliant editors and copyeditors watching my back.
As Thomas Edison said, “Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.”
How do you research your books?
When possible, I visit the places I write about in my books, since it adds authenticity, color and texture to the narrative. For The Sacred Bones and The Sacred Blood, I went to Israel to see Jerusalem and Temple Mount—topside, underside, you name it—plus the cliffs overlooking the Dead Sea, Bethlehem, and more. I’d hired a Palestinian tour guide to introduce me to the locals and better understand the politics and culture of the place. Similarly, I scoured the Old City in Rome and neighboring Vatican City to observe the old Empire’s physical impact on humanity. However, I wasn’t able to visit the remote regions of Egypt for The Sacred Blood, and I certainly didn’t have boots on the ground in war-torn Iraq to capture the feel of The Genesis Plague. I don’t let limited access to the places I write about get in my way, since Google Earth, books, and our dear friend the Internet do a fine job giving me a lay of the land.
My first three novels required a doctorate-level study of the religious texts and history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam—a huge undertaking. You’ll also find lots of forensic science, anthropology, genetics, and computer science woven into those stories—though I’m sure the scientific community would love to school me in my handling of each of these disciplines. With most subjects, I typically start with videos and documentaries to get the top-of-the-trees overview, then I move into the meatier stuff in books, then to the minutiae found in magazines, research papers, museums, etc.
How did you first get published?
On June 21, 2004, I read The Wall Street Journal article, “Book Idea in an E-Mail Box,” which referenced a website called PublishersAndAgents.net that would, for a fee, email an aspiring author’s unsolicited query and sample chapters to a proprietary list of reputable agents and publishers specific to the author’s genre. And that sounded much better than mailing a 450-page printed manuscript to a bunch of agents (very costly!), crossing my fingers, and waiting a couple months for a stack of boilerplate rejection letters. I gladly paid PublishersAndAgents its $210 fee, uploaded my query and sample chapters for what was to become The Sacred Bones, and shotgun-blasted my pitch to the publishing world. Within hours—not months—my email inbox got blitzed with dozens of responses from legitimate agents and editors: “How the hell did you get my email address?”… “Sorry, I’m not accepting any new clients at this time,” … “Great idea, but not for me,” … “Yes, I’d be interested in reading your complete manuscript,” and so on. I took a leap of faith with a seasoned agent in London who was particularly keen on the project. That connection eventually led to publishing deals in 25 countries. At that time, the buzz surrounding The DaVinci Code had generated huge interest for books like The Sacred Bones, so I’d be remiss to not point out that timing and luck played their part, too.
How often do you write?
I have a demanding day job, so I write in the mornings, evenings, lunchbreaks, weekends, holidays and “vacations.” Early mornings work best, because that’s when my brain is the least preoccupied. Once a book idea moves from concept to execution, it stays with me—haunts me—until the final draft of the manuscript is approved by the editor. Once it’s in the production stage, I take a breather to reboot my brain.
Where do you write?
Once I have that aha moment, I bring a legal pad and a pen to the beach or a park or a bar and let my thoughts flow—jot it all down as fast and furious as I can. Then it’s off to my home office, where I do most of my writing. But I’m also perfectly fine going mobile with a laptop to write at a coffee shop or a bar or any kitchen table while I’m on “vacation.” I don’t let the space or the tools or the noise dictate my creativity and focus. No excuses.
Is there a method to your writing?
My writing “process” would likely make most authors cringe. But it works for me.
I establish a framework for my story with a basic handwritten outline on a yellow legal pad, with sticky notes and multicolored pens. Then it’s off to the computer to type out the scenes/chapters that are most vivid in my mind—often out of sequence—to get a feel for the story and the characters. As the chapters pile up, I start arranging them in order.
When I’m in project mode, I try to write a chapter per day, or about 5-7 formatted pages (1″ margins, double-spaced, 12pt Times New Roman), which takes two to five hours, depending on the level of detail and required research. Before I start a new chapter I go back and edit the previous day’s chapter, surgically examining each sentence, cutting out the fluff, etc.
I repeatedly edit and rewrite and trash pages, passing over some chapter dozens of times before the first draft manuscript is complete. Let the cringing begin.
Do you have clear images of your main characters in your mind when you write?
When it comes to describing a character’s physical appearance, I envision a basic archetype with some distinguishing characteristics (I do this with fictional settings, too). I like to give the reader just enough information for him/her to formulate a personalized vision of what each character looks like (I do this with settings, too). I feel that characters are best fleshed out through dialogue and interactions with other characters. I skip lame shortcuts, like the hero gazing at himself in the mirror, or lengthy diatribes inside a character’s mind. Imagination is the joy in reading. Otherwise, everyone would just watch movies.
Do you use special software designed for novelists?
No. I use Microsoft Word. Just the basics. No crutches.
Do you only write about what you know?
I often hear big-name authors asserting that a writer should only write about things he/she “knows.” Yikes. I choose to write about what intrigues me. I aim high on concept, impose very few limits, then set about the heavy lifting of learning the stuff (gaining the “know”) that makes my story believable. Challenge accepted.
Have you considered ghost writing or co-writing?
Having explored collaborative writing projects and the possibility of ghost writing, I’ve firmly decided that I work best alone, invested and focused on advancing my own ideas and passions. Barring a very compelling proposal, I intend to remain a solo act.
Will any of your books be made into a movie?
Though I haven’t yet sold film rights to any of my books, I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
Since your first three novels are heavily interspersed with religious history… Are you a religious person?
Though organized religion fascinates me, I am not religious. I feel that morality matters most, regardless of the path one takes to achieve it, and that the virtues of society and human dignity are paramount. Religion can coexist peacefully in society provided that it doesn’t promote exclusionary doctrine, bleed into government policy, or stand in the way of advancing human rights, shared prosperity, and scientific advancement. But history shows that over the long-run, that’s a big ask.
Do you accept story ideas?
Please do not submit story ideas to me, because for legal purposes, I will not read them. The passion to create a story is organic, and needs to happen within the author himself. And if writing was simply about coming up with ideas, everyone would be doing it. If you have a great idea, you should write it.
Can you critique my manscript or refer me to a publisher or agent?
Any advice for aspiring novelists?
If you aspire to be published commercially, take the time to research the marketplace and your potential audience, and respect your editor. Having business sense doesn’t mean selling out.
Notwithstanding an extremely lucrative multi-book publishing deal with a fat pipeline of royalties, do NOT quit your day job, because inspiration works best if you’re not destitute.
Write and read A LOT; these are crucial workouts for the brain’s creative regions, which develop like muscle.
Welcome constructive criticism from seasoned professionals. If you’re thin-skinned and defensive, you’ll be dead in the water. And if you write something crappy, be honest with yourself, trash it and start over, even if it’s a finished novel. Often a great idea needs to be attacked from multiple angles before it’s “done right.”
Be realistic in your expectations. The book publishing industry is fiercely selective, under severe cost pressure amidst maturing/declining readership, and subject to wicked competition both within its category and against all other media. That said, there’s always room—and potential $—for fresh voices and novel ideas. But newcomers need to be very, very different and demonstrate much more than a command of the language. With crowded genres crammed by established leaders, that’s no easy feat.
Who are your favorite authors?
Fiction: Lee Child, Daniel Silva, Dan Brown, Daniel H. Wilson, Justin Cronin, Blake Crouch, Max Brooks, Vince Flynn (his early death was a huge loss), Steve Berry, Stephen King, Ian Fleming, Ken Follett, Nelson DeMille, Dave Eggers, John Sandford, John Grisham.
Non-fiction: Michael Lewis, Malcolm Gladwell, Robert Prechter, Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner.