Sunday, March 27, 2011

Guest Interview: John Ramsey Miller

Corrigan here.

I met John Ramsey Miller at Bouchercon perhaps a decade ago. I have always loved his U.S. Marshall Winter Massey novels, for their tight plotting and the touching family relationships he presents. John is the New York Times bestselling author of seven suspense thrillers published by Bantam/ Dell including “The Last Family,” “Inside Out,” “Upside Down,” “Side By Side,” “Too Far Gone,” “Smoke & Mirrors,” and “The Last Day.” His work has been published in fourteen languages, in audio format, and he has been nominated for both an ITW Thriller Award, and a Barry Award. He was one of fifteen thriller authors of the audio serial book, The Chopin Manuscript, which was the 2008 Audie Award Winner for Audiobook of the Year (beating out “Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows” as well as The Bible). “Watchlist,” which includes “The Chopin Manuscript” is now available in print. John’s first book, “As Nasty as They Wanna be,” was a non-fiction book about the 2 Live Crew obscenity trial in Broward County, Florida. John and his wife, Susan, live outside Gold Hill, North Carolina.

My lasting memory of John Miller will be this: On a Bouchercon panel, the mediator asked a seemingly routine question, “Tell us about selling your first novel.” Each member of the panel talked about getting “the phone call” or about seeing his or her first novel in print. When it came John’s turn to tell his story, I, like everyone else in the audience, was stunned when he explained that “The Last Family” was rejected more than 150 times before not only being bought and published but earning Literary Guild Main Selection and being optioned by Hallmark Entertainment. One of the other writers on John’s panel, a well-known crime-fiction writer, turned to him and said simply, “I wouldn’t have had the fortitude to stay with it. I just wouldn’t have.”

Few writers would have.

Enjoy the interview.

TYPE M: How did you come to writing? Could you talk about your start?

JRM: I became an author through the back door. Literally. My background is that I wrote for my own amusement through middle and in high school. One of my teachers read a short piece I wrote and as a result she got me to write a column for the school paper. The school paper got one page in the local newspaper. After my first column stirred up the town, my subsequent columns were heavily edited and censored by the principal. I wrote short stories in college and afterwards, still for my own entertainment. I was a commercial portrait photographer working mostly for advertising agencies and one day in 1984 I was delivering a set of transparencies when the owner of this agency burst into the art director’s office. The copywriter hadn’t come in to work and there were two emergencies for quick copy for a retail ad and a feel-good piece for an amusement park that was celebrating 55 years in business. I picked up a pad and took a quick shot at both while the art director and the owner were in a conference. The clients loved both and I became the agency’s copywriter. A year later the art director and I purchased the agency. The first year we were in business we were the New Orleans Ad Club’s advertising persons of the year. In the late 80’s when the oil and real estate markets crashed in New Orleans, I sold out my interest in the agency to my partner and moved to Miami to write.

I wrote campaigns for Bacardi Rum, before I wrote several cover features (and did the photos) for the Miami Herald’s Tropic magazine. My editors there, Pulitzer Prize Winner, Gene Weingarten, and Tom Shroder, both now with The Washington Post, said I was a “natural” and those guys gave me confidence to try my hand at fiction. With no background in journalism, I was never going to work full time for a major newspaper. I wrote a non-fiction book, wrote and sold a screenplay, and made the decision to write novels. I wrote four before selling THE LAST FAMILY, and garnered 160 rejections in the process. I guess you can say I paid my dues.

TYPE M: How have your day jobs influenced your writing?

JRM: Advertising helped me more than any other day job I ever had. I learned to handle rejection, to write for multiple varied accounts on a daily basis, and to make changes at the client’s suggestion. I learned when to fight for an idea, and when it wasn’t worth resisting change. I learned to use the fewest words possible to say what I needed to convey, how to write descriptions that were memorable, that I couldn’t afford writer’s block, and how to write for a target audience.

I studied abnormal psychology in college, carried a deputy sheriff’s badge in Nashville, spent countless hours in the field with police officers, US Marshals, as well as agents of the FBI, DEA, and Secret Service. I’ve known stone killers, military black ops technicians, CIA operatives, lawyers, prosecutors, medical examiners, judges, and Death Row inmates. I’ve witnessed numerous autopsies. I spent months shooting with a SWAT trainer, have had a concealed carry permit since I was in my early twenties, have been a target shooter and hunter since I was twelve years old. If I write about a weapon, I know it or I make myself familiar with it. I love research because I like to know far more about something than what I put on the page about it.

I believe the one thing that most successful authors share is a natural (and insatiable) curiosity and a willingness to work hard. When you don’t know what you are writing about, it will show to those who know.

My main day job has always been observing, listening, asking questions, and learning. I have never had access to anybody that any other writer couldn’t gain access to. I have found that 99% of people who know a subject I am interested in love to share their information and passion with me. I found that was true long before I was an author. Often one person you are talking to for information on one thing will introduce you to someone else you want to talk to, and before you know it you are sitting in a CIA ex-operative’s kitchen drinking Vodka with General Richard Secord, a week after he was on the cover of TIME. You can find yourself with the Delta Force member who shot Pablo Escobar, or the man who lay under a tarp in an olive grove in Iraq for a week before he held a laser bead on the house where terrorist leader Al Zwahiri was hiding out. Curiosity and seeking accurate information from those who know will do that for you.

TYPE M: Could you talk about the details of your writing process?

Miller: I begin by thinking a great deal about the story I want to tell, and the characters I want to populate the story. Any time I hear an author say that they just create their characters then follow them around and them write the book, I think they just say that because it means they are really that talented, or that their characters are just that real. I see it as pretentious crap. Writing is hard work, not a trip through the woods with a pad in hand recording the actions of characters. I think people who believe that are more delusional than talented. I create my characters and I force them to stick to the story I am writing. I do imagine what all of my characters would do and think in a certain circumstance, but I create the circumstance. Unless I decide to change something to improve the work, they are stuck in my story and (other than staying true to their character in my situations) have no voice in what I write. They are never allowed to go anywhere without my permission and, for their own safety, only under armed escort. I outline my stories in my head, then I refine it using cards, and lastly on paper. I can’t write a thriller without knowing the outcome. You figure out where you are going, then you fill in the “how do we get theres.” A good thriller is a puzzle with tightly interlocking pieces. I write using a series of pulling the rug from under the reader, with a huge plot “bomb” at the end where I do my best to knock the reader of their feet.

TYPE M: What’s the typical day like for JRM?

JRM: Is there a typical day in my life? Maybe. But with three sons, six grandchildren, every day is different. I live in a rural area in North Carolina, seventeen miles from Concord, my home for 13 years before we moved out to the country. An ideal day goes like this: Weekdays I get up around six AM and have coffee with my wife before she goes to work 40 miles away. We have coffee on the back porch if the weather is nice while I check my emails. After Susan leaves, I go out and check on the chickens and our garden. There’s always a lot to do, so I can think and work or I can write what I’ve worked out. If I am going to write, I go to my studio that looks out into the woods. I drink coffee while I work at the computer (Apple only since 1884). I look over my last ten pages so I can slip back into the mood to write. When I first started I wrote seven days a week, often ten hours a day. I write much better now because I mull everything over before committing it to the MS. I usually stop around one PM and spend the rest of the day running errands, doing carpentry, or reading.

TYPE M: You have written both stand-alones and a series. Which do you prefer?

JRM: Both are hard, and both are easy, for different reasons. I enjoyed writing the same characters in the series because I grew them over time as their experiences over the course of the series altered them in ways that made sense to the reader. What makes a series more challenging is that every book in a series has to be a standalone. If a reader picks up SMOKE & MIRRORS, they want to enjoy the story without having to read INSIDE OUT to know who the continuing characters are. An author also doesn’t want to have to bog down the book with backstory. When the reader does read the other books, they are more rewarding because they contain the history the newer books ricochet against. Each book in a series adds to the richness and characters’ overall development as human beings. I introduce a killer in one book who comes back later.

A successful standalone might become a series, so you don’t want to lose a strong character, hobble, or pigeonhole them. An example might be Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme who is a quadriplegic forensic genius. For the rest of the Rhyne books he will not be able to move anything but his head. He bit one bad guy’s neck open, but its something he won’t be able to repeat. That has obvious limitations in plotting, which Jeffery handles very well.

TYPE M: What were your early influences? What are they now? Authors?

JRM: I grew up in Mississippi and lived through the Civil Rights era. My father was a Methodist minister in Mississippi and my mother a history professor. As the child of liberals I saw the best and worst people there in those days had to offer. In Starkville, in the early sixties, we lived across the street from a funeral home and the children whose parents ran it were constant companions of mine. I saw a lot of bodies in those years, people in stages of grief, corpses in various states. I was fascinated at an early age by violence and its effects on people. I was also fascinated by people who did the right thing even when it was difficult and usually against their best self-interests. The police and the people in power often did what they wanted, whether it was legal or not, or morally in keeping with who they were—or should have been. The tradition of maintaining a status quo at any cost, and keeping secrets that fester over time has always interested me.

The authors who have influenced me and continue to do so are so numerous, and cover so many kinds of books, it is impossible to select a few. I’m scanning my book case and I see: Truman Capote, James Clavell, Walker Percy, Frederick Forsythe, LeCarre, Eudory Welty, William Golding, Ira Levin, Larry McMurtry, Carl Hiaasen, John D. McDonald, J.D. Salinger, Thomas Harris, Clyde Edgerton, Richard Price, Larry Brown, Harper Lee, Jeffery Deaver, John Gilstrap, Kent Haruf, William Goldman, Shane Stevens, Stephen King, Robert Ludlam, Cormac McCarthy, Ann Rice, Ian Rankin, Ken Bruen, and maybe a hundred more.

TYPE M: Where do you see publishing headed? E-books? Do you own an electronic reading device?

JRM: I resisted for a long time, being set in my ways as I am. My wife gave me a Kindle less than six months and I use it constantly. I have not bought a paper book that was available for Kindle since. All of my books are still in print, but are all now available in eBook form, and so they will be available for a lot longer than if they were in paper only. I think reading paper books will become like people using typewriters, or cellular phones to trade spoken words through. Not one cell phone advertisement shows anybody talking to another person. It’s all about games, and texting, and Internet access speed. Kids don’t buy or read paper books and won’t miss holding the physical paper in their hands or turning the pages. I think collecting new first editions is a dying proposition. I think what maters is the stories making their way into minds and I do not thing the method of transfer is all that important. I have more books in my Kindle than on my book shelves and they weigh nothing and do not take up any space.

TYPE M: Any advice for new writers?
JRM: I had no idea what the odds were when I decided to write fiction or I’d probably never have done it. I tell aspiring authors that it’s a bad business to get into. I say don’t go into writing because you expect to make a lot of money at it. You’d probably do better panning for gold on a sandbar on the Mississippi River. I once read that ninety six percent of published fiction authors don’t make a living writing novels. Also remember that being published by a reputable house doesn’t mean your book will sell. And self-published books rarely sell more than a handful of copies. A person only a limited number of friends and relatives to market to. The problem with most of the books I read is that they have nothing new or different to say. Books are like drugs in that the more you read the more it takes to get you to the same place. A well-written book is just another book unless the writer has a memorable voice and isn’t writing a story you can see on television every night. Style means little if the author doesn’t have a slant on a story that grabs the reader, characters that are alive, and these days a way to market a book so that it breaks out of the hundreds of thousands of books that are competing.

That said, trying to keep an author from writing, is just as futile as trying to get a teenager not to try a first beer. Every day of the week a J.K. Rowling, Stephen king, or Truman Capote is putting a pen to a piece of paper, or opening a laptop for the first time and the best of these beginners don’t give a damn about their odds. Even if the know the odds they also know in their hearts that it’s what they have to do, and they believe they will make their mark. Thank God for each and every one of them.


John Ramsey Miller said...

John was pretty correct about the rejections, except I had 160 rejections on 3 MS's, forty-five of those on THE LAST FAMILY, 11 after the rewrite that sold it to Bantam's Beverly Lewis. One of the editors who rejected it was the man who took over The Literary Guild. He wrote me a note saying that THE LAST FAMILY was the best Thriller he'd seen in years. He didn't recall that he (or a reader employed by him) had rejected it a year earlier.

Rick Blechta said...

Some wise words here. Thanks for stopping by today!

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