You may recall, at the beginning of March, Brett very kindly did an interview/review for the US publication of my Charlie Fox thriller, FOURTH DAY. It was an absolute pleasure to be able to return the favour with his latest – the excellent THE SILENCED. I confess I’d put off reading this book – but only because normally, reading on screen makes my eyes go a bit square, but this one no hardship at all! Highly unusually for me, I read it straight through in about a day and a half. Yeah, once the story grabs hold it really doesn’t want to let go.
Brett, as you all probably know, is the award-winning author of three previous books in the thriller series centring around Jonathan Quinn, whose chosen profession is that of covert cleaner. He’s the man who knows exactly where the bodies are buried – mainly because he’s the one who put them there. THE SILENCED is the fourth outing for Quinn, accompanied by his deadly companion, Orlando, and young apprentice, Nate, on a deadly chase across America from west to east coast, and then on to Paris and the UK.
Zoë Sharp: So, Brett – sitting comfortably? Is that spotlight OK? Electrodes not pulling out too many hairs, I hope? Duct tape allowing some circulation?
Brett Battles: Uh…help?
ZS: So, let’s begin. You were one of the original KILLER YEAR authors – the class of ’07. For those of us with the attention span of a goldfish, can you remind us how that all came about, and how much you feel it helped kick-start your career?
BB: Ah, yes. KILLER YEAR. It started back in 2006. There were several of us with books coming out in 2007 who had taken to blogging as a means of interacting and getting our names out there. We started following each others’ posts, sharing information, and becoming friends. We were always talking about how hard it was to get attention and market our books. I’m not sure who mentioned it—Jason Pinter or our own JT, one of those two, I think—but someone said if only we could band together, it would be easier to be heard. Instantly a big giant light blub went off over our heads, and within minutes a tag line came to me: It’s Going to be a Killer Year. Jason or JT shortened this to KILLER YEAR, and we were off.
It was great! And did exactly what we hoped, especially within the Thriller and Mystery community. When we showed up at conferences, people already knew who we were. Other members included former Murderati folks Toni McGee Causey and Robert Gregory Browne, and also Bill Cameron, Sean Chercover, Marcus Sakey, Dave White, Marc Lecard, Gregg Olsen, Patry Francis, and Derek Nikitas. We got an anthology out of it (KILLER YEAR: STORIES TO DIE FOR edited by Lee Child—that was almost all JT’s doing – thank you JT!) Also, the debut novelist program that ITW runs now is a direct offshoot of KILLER YEAR.
ZS: Where did the character of Jonathan Quinn originally come from? And did the name arrive all of a piece, or did you agonise over it?
BB: I didn’t agonize, but he didn’t arrive fully formed either. I knew I wanted to write an international espionage type story, but I didn’t want to do an assassin or super spy. There were enough James Bonds and Jason Bournes and John Rains in the world. I wanted to do something different. I also have this fascination with the concept I refer to as “what happens after?” By that I mean what happens after the main event occurs. We get news articles about accidents or murders or robberies or whatever, but we seldom ever get the follow up stories of what happens after these things occur. I consider Quinn an “after” character. He gets to work after the main action goes down, though he then is often pulled into creating some of that action himself. So I thought about him for a while, and he slowly took shape, and when I finally felt I had a good idea of who he was, I started writing.
ZS: Quinn’s character is a cleaner – he moves in and deals with the aftermath of death, cleaning up and disappearing the bodies. On the surface, he doesn’t sound like a very sympathetic character. How do you go about combating that?
BB: Good point. I definitely wanted him to be sympathetic, and knew I had to be careful there. Part of what I did was basically give him a personal moral/ethical code that included working for agencies and governments he feels are doing the right thing. This is something, of course, he can’t always know for sure, and could put him in the situation of working for someone he thinks is doing right, but who is actually doing something underhanded. I also try to show that he has a clear human side and cares about things. Though he might try to hide it sometimes, it’s always there, right underneath.
ZS: In THE SILENCED, the character of Liz asks Nate if Quinn is a criminal. He replies that Quinn is possibly the most honourable man Nate has ever met, but doesn’t that side-step the question slightly? After all, Quinn is a freelance operative – he works for the highest bidder, even if he does reserve the right to walk away from jobs he doesn’t like. Did you set out to give him this conflicted set of morals – this ethical dilemma – right from the start?
BB: Yes on all fronts. Definitely side-steps the issue. To many people there’s no question he’d be called a criminal. And I love the internal conflicts this causes him. In my mind, his job is slowly eating away at him from the inside.
ZS: I particularly liked the deceptively simple narrative style of the book, and the straightforward description of the action scenes – you let the action speak for itself rather than trying to over-dramatise something that is, by its nature, already dramatic. How do you go about putting together something like the scene with Nate and Julien’s colleagues in Paris?
BB: Thanks, Zoë. I appreciate that. I wish I could tell you that I sit there and plan everything out and find the best way to tell it, but, honestly I don’t. On that particular scene, I remember thinking, “Okay, Nate needs to go here, and find what he finds, and run into one of Julien’s colleagues,” then putting my hands on the keyboard and just writing it. Turned out he didn’t find just one of Julien’s colleagues but several, and I didn’t know that until it happened.
As far as action scenes themselves, I don’t know how to write them any differently than I do. It’s just the way they come out of my brain. And, like you said, scenes like that are already full of tension. I don’t need to go over the top.
ZS: And, following on from that, what are your pet hates in action narrative? What really pulls you in, and what throws you out of the story?
BB: Over description kills it for me. It makes me aware that there’s a writer behind the words, and takes me out of the actual story. Show me what needs to be shown, keep the tension high, and get to the point. That’s what works for me.
ZS: The supporting characters of Orlando, Liz and Petra are very interestingly portrayed and fleshed out. Are you in touch with your feminine side? Erm, I mean, how easy do you find it to write opposite-gender characters?
BB: Hahaha… I actually love writing female characters, in fact, sometimes they are the strongest characters in my stories. Orlando is often Quinn’s conscience and sounding board. She keeps him focused when he begins to wander off. In THE SILENCED Liz is great, too, as is Petra. These are all women who are sure of themselves while still having doubts and questions like any normal person would have. Am I in touch with my feminine side? I try to be, but that’s for others to judge, I guess.
ZS: It seems that many publishers, if they find a character they like, push for a series rather than standalones? Did you set out to write a series from the outset, or was it publisher-driven?
BB: I didn’t set out to write a series, but by the time I sold THE CLEANER I was thinking that way. A friend and former mentor was the one who mentioned the possibility to me. When he said, “I think you could have a series here,” it was like one of those hit yourself in the forehead moments. Of course, it was the first of a series. Why didn’t I see that?
ZS: The action of THE SILENCED shifts from your home city of LA, across to Maine and New York City, then on to Paris and London. I noticed with a smile the scene that takes place in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt in NYC, as it’s a familiar location to any ThrillerFest attendees and a nice nod to the genre. How did you go about researching the other locations of your novel?
BB: I’m big on location scouting. I love to travel, so I often plan my travel around stories I want to write. Such was the case with the London and Paris locations. I went there specifically because I wanted to feature them in the story, and took tons of pictures and notes and must have walked dozens of miles while I was there. The Hyatt in NYC I’ve been to many times, of course, and thought it would be a kick to set a scene there given that Thrillerfest and the Edgars are held in the building. As for the scenes in Gorham, Maine, I have a good friend who lives there. In fact, the house in question is loosely (very loosely) based on hers.
ZS: You’ve mentioned previously that you’re not an outliner – preferring to come up with the initial idea, maybe bullet-point the plot – and see where the writing takes you. Is that still the case? If so, how many drafts do you typically go through to get to the finished work? How much does the final version usually differ from your first draft, and in what respects? Major plot points? Minor elements? Any examples spring to mind with THE SILENCED?
BB: That’s pretty much still the same way I work. I’ve tried to do more detailed outlines, but a) they’re a chore, and I don’t want writing to be a chore, and b) once I start writing the book from an outline, I feel like I’m straight-jacketed and am just typing more than writing. The way I work is exactly how you described: a few ideas, maybe some bullet points, and usually a handle on where I want to end up, then go. I sometime refer to my first draft as a 300+ page outline. Rewriting is the key. I’ll do anywhere from four to six rewrite passes these days, with the first two or three being major passes and the others more clean up and polishing passes. I can’t recall specifically any huge changes in THE SILENCED, but there is one from THE CLEANER that I’ve cited before. In the version I sold, so that would already be draft three or four at that point, I had killed Nate off in the first 80 pages. Readers of the series know that here we are in book four and Nate’s still around. That’s because a smart editor convinced me it was a mistake to kill him off, and she was definitely right. I should point out that with the earlier books I had to do more rewrite passes than I do now, but that’s because, hopefully, I’m not making the same mistakes as much. I definitely try to learn from each book to the next.
ZS: Who are your first test-readers and what made you choose them/stick with them?
BB: The two I use (read abuse) for most books are Bill Cameron and Tasha Alexander. They are both great writers, and I trust their opinions. Bill and I often talk for an hour or more after he’s read a draft, going over all the points. They have both definitely made my books better. I’ve also started expanding my Beta Readers group. I’ve even roped Rob in to reading my latest.
ZS: I see you have a brand new Jonathan Quinn short story available in eFormat – ‘Just Another Job’. Will this also be available for us paper dinosaurs? Are you a frequent short story writer? I note that your story ‘Perfect Gentleman’ came in for particular praise in the KILLER YEAR anthology. What attracts you to short stories, and how did ‘Just Another Day’ come about?
BB: No plans just yet to bring the shorts out in paper. Perhaps once I have several I can package them together. I haven’t written many in the past, but I do have plans on writing more in the future, including several Quinn shorts from when he was just starting out…basically Quinn origin stories. ‘Just Another Job’ was something I did as a web exclusive for a member-only site a year or so ago, and was now able to make available for others to read. I do enjoy writing shorts, but sometimes find that it’s easier to come up with an idea for a novel than a short story. Don’t ask me why.
ZS: I see that as well as THE SILENCED you also have the first book in a new series with a new main protagonist, Logan Harper – LITTLE GIRL GONE. Tell us about this new departure? Why have you deviated from the Jonathan Quinn series? What avenues does Harper allow you to explore that Quinn didn’t?
BB: First let me say that I love Quinn, and will continue writing Quinn, but I’ve been feeling pulled lately to also write stories that are outside his world. Logan gives me this opportunity. Logan’s a former soldier and defense contractor who has returned to his hometown after losing his job and his wife over a crushing experience while in Afghanistan. He’s now just trying to make it day-by-day working at his father’s auto garage in the small California coastal town of Cambria. One morning when he makes his normal stop to get coffee at a shop owned by his father’s friend Tooney, he finds a man in back holding a gun to Tooney’s head. From there, Logan is thrust into a search for Tooney’s missing granddaughter that takes him first to Los Angeles, and then to Bangkok and finally to the beautiful Wat Doi Suthep temple above Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Logan allows me to have more of an everyman hero—albeit with some advanced training. He’s not a professional like Quinn. He doesn’t work for agencies or organizations. He just helps people, sometime reluctantly, while he tries to deal with his own demons.
I really love getting into Logan’s world, and am extremely happy with how LITTLE GIRL GONE has turned out. It’s been getting a lot of great response that I am very grateful for.
ZS: We’ve actually been to Cambria – lovely place, and we ate at a wonderful little restaurant that played Harry James and served terrific duck quesadillas. But I digress… So, what else is on the horizon for you?
BB: I have another book coming out later in April called SICK. It’s quite possibly the most suspenseful book I’ve ever written. And a story that will keep you guessing until the end. Oh, and then there’s the first in my new YA series, HERE COMES MR. TROUBLE. That will hopefully be out early May. At that point I may curl up into a ball and sleep for a year.
ZS: Well, Brett, it’s been real pleasure. One final question before the gag goes back on – what IS the best way to get rid of a body? Any last-minute cleaning tips I should know about…?
BB: I’d love to tell you, Zoë, but I can’t give away any trade secrets. I’m sure you understand. Thanks for having me! I’ve enjoyed it here at, what did you call this place? Murder-at-i? Well, whatever. Thanks!
I let Brett chose this week’s Word of the Week (think of it as a kind of last request) and he came up with shoice, which means when presented with several options to choose from, shoice is the option “choice” you “should” make.