Neil Nyren — No Longer a Man of Mystery

JT Ellison

It is my great honor and privilege to welcome legendary
editor Neil Nyren to Murderati. Neil kindly agreed to be accosted by my
keyboard for an interview, and I’m delighted he was willing to partake. First,
a little background for the uninitiated.

Neil S.
Nyren is senior vice president, publisher and editor in chief of G.P. Putnam’s
He came to Putnam in 1984 from Atheneum, where he was Executive
Editor. Before that he held editorial positions at Random House and Arbor
House. Some of his authors include
Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, Jack Higgins, W.E.B. Griffin, John
Sandford, Dave Barry, Daniel Silva, Ken Follett, Randy Wayne White, Carol
O’Connell, James O. Born, Patricia Cornwell and Frederick Forsyth; nonfiction
by Bob Schieffer, Maureen Dowd, John McEnroe, Linda Ellerbee, Jeff Greenfield,
Charles Kuralt, Secretary of State James Baker III, Thomas P.M. Barnett, Sara
Nelson, and Generals Fred Franks, Chuck Horner, Carl Stiner and Tony Zinni.

And now, on with the show!

You edit so many of my favorite fiction authors – John
Sandford (Lucas Davenport), Daniel Silva (Gabriel Allon), James O. Born (Jim
Tasker), Carol O’Connell (Kathy Mallory) and several writer that any reader of
fiction would recognize (Clive Cussler, W.E.B. Griffin, some guy named Tom Clancy.)
Let’s talk about the crime fiction authors first. Each writer brings unique
stories and characters to the crime universe. What attracts you to the
characters in these novels?

In many ways, this question is related to #7, what I look
for in a new writer, so I’m going to combine them.

Whenever I get a new ms,
here’s what I want to see: 1) Something different, a situation or character or
voice that I haven’t seen hundreds of times before (or if they are familiar
types, presented so damn well that I can’t resist them); 2) A sure command from
the very first page – I want to feel immediately that the author knows what he
or she is doing – if it’s wobbly, I’m just going to move on to another
manuscript; 3) Something extra. This is hard to describe, because you only know
it when you see it, but for me it’s a special intensity, a fierceness or
passion that makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

After all that, I’m interested in who the author is, because
if the author has something about him or her that’ll help us gain attention for
the book, give us a leg up amidst the sea of new fiction pouring out, then
that’s helpful.

With Jim Born, I liked the first book, Walking Money, not only because it had a great voice, a
well-executed plot, and a nice collection of quirky characters, but because his
hero was in the FDLE and Jim was in the FDLE, and that guaranteed not only
authenticity, but some leverage for getting attention once the book came out –
which was exactly what happened.

With Sandford, not only was the first book, Rules of Prey, truly electric, but I
loved the dangerousness of Davenport, the sense that he might do anything to
achieve justice. The same was true of Mallory in Carol O’Connell’s Mallory’s Oracle. Carol’s style is so
unique and her heroine so unpredictable that I definitely felt those hairs on
the back of my neck. I immediately called the people selling it – which
happened not to be an agent but Random House UK (how a NYC author came to be
first published and represented by a British publisher is a whole other story)
– and said, “I want this. What will it take to pre-empt it?” And with Daniel
Silva – well, you don’t get as complex a character as Gabriel Allon that often
in suspense fiction, and he has only become more so with each book.

And the blockbuster thrillers? Are you swept away by the
action or interested in the detail?

Action or detail? The answer is both – I want to get
swept away, get the adrenalin pumping, and that’s what the best thriller
writers do so well. They don’t give you time to hesitate – you have to keep turning the pages. I often
think of the writer and the reader at opposite ends of a rope, and the writer
is pulling the reader forward,
steadily, inexorably, not letting the rope slack or the pace sag, until the reader
ends up, exhausted but happy, at the last page.

I also like the thriller writer to create his own universe,
if appropriate, and invite the reader into it. That’s always been one of
Clancy’s secrets – he brings the reader into his world, makes him feel he’s
learning things no one else can tell him, whether it’s about technology or
geopolitics or the way institutions think and act. Cussler does the same thing
in a different way. He digs deep into history and technology, then transforms
them into complicated interlocking what-if storylines and setpieces.

Redemption is a strong theme throughout many of the books
you edit. Do you think it’s vital for a series character to grow and change?
How many iconic characters like Jack Reacher, who are who they are and don’t
“grow,” can crime fiction afford?

Readers love to follow their favorite characters through a
series and watch them evolve – we feel a kind of ownership of them. But that
doesn’t mean that all heroes have to
evolve. Travis McGee never changed one inch, but we loved him all the same – in
fact, it was sometimes a comfort that he was always the same man.
Contradictory? Nope. Just means we like all kinds of characters. How many Jack
Reachers can crime fiction afford? As many good ones as we can get!

You’ve seen some changes in the publishing industry
during your career. What are the best and worst trends you’ve witnessed?

A lot to comment on here, but I’ll just choose one, which
has been both good and bad. The independent stores are being increasingly
squeezed by the chains and price clubs and the internet, and that’s an enormous
shame, because there’s nothing like a well-run independent. You go into
Poisoned Pen or Black Orchid, and tell Barbara or Bonnie what you like and they
load you up with new writers they think might be up your alley, and it’s just a
joy. On the other hand, books are now available literally everywhere. Hundreds
of towns have bookstores now that never used to, or you can sit at home and
order whatever you want whenever you want. The ease and availability of
bookbuying now is unprecedented – and that has to be good.

As a sort of corollary, someone’s always writing in some
newspaper or magazine about publishing being in a crisis. Big publishers
consolidating and blockbusters dominating the industry and enough scary stuff
to make writers want to turn their PCs into planters. The vision is being
promoted of a handful of publishers
selling a handful of commercial books to a handful of accounts, and that’s the
future of publishing. But I don’t buy it. There’s a bunch of reasons why – but
that’s a whole other rant. Maybe some other time!

Is there a white whale in your background – the book that
got away?

No editor worth his or her salt doesn’t have a story like
this, a book that didn’t interest him enough and it went on to success
elsewhere. There’s a flip side, too, though – most of us have books that others
weren’t crazy about and that we published successfully. It’s all in the gut
reaction – you feel an affinity or you don’t. And if you don’t, then you have
no business messing with it.

Two stories, one on each side of the fence. Many years ago,
at a different publisher, I received a ms that, if I remember rightly, was
already on its second agent. I thought there was definitely something there – I
especially felt that intensity I mentioned before– but I was the only one
in-house who liked it. My boss said I could make a small offer, though. It
wasn’t enough for the agent, and I said I understood – that if he couldn’t get
what he was looking for, he was welcome to come back to me. Some weeks later,
he called and said, “That offer still open?” The title was Shrunken Heads, which we changed to When the Bough Breaks, and it was the first Alex Delaware novel by
Jonathan Kellerman.

Also many, many years ago: I received a legal thriller,
which had already been sold to Hollywood, though that and a token, as we used
to say, got you on the subway. The author had one other book to his credit,
which had done nothing. I thought the book was okay, but I wasn’t nuts about
it, and a couple of other readers felt more or less the same. We decided that
if we didn’t feel we had to have it,
then we shouldn’t get involved. Doubleday felt differently, however – and the
book was The Firm.

So there you go.

At the risk of growing your submissions pile, what do you
look for in a new writer?

See #1.

You do a great deal of non-fiction work as well. What
makes a non-fiction title a success?

Depends on what your definition of success is (just as with
fiction). You always hope to make a profit, of course – that’s one. But there’s always a great satisfaction in a
book that makes noise, that reaches an audience, that creates some excitement
or fills a need. I published a memoir this January titled The Birthday Party. It was written by a one-time federal prosecutor
who was kidnapped off the streets of Manhattan, and what happened during his
bizarre, terrifying, and sometimes downright Tarantino-esque captivity. It was
a project very dear to the author’s heart, for obvious reasons, and he’d spent
many years getting it right. When it was published, he got tons of local media,
and then the New York Times gave it a rave, and he graduated to nationals like
NPR and CNN. The New Yorker wrote him up in “Talk of the Town.” United Artists
bought the movie rights. He’s on top of the world now. And whatever the book
ends up making, that’s a success.

Tell our unpublished readers three things they can do to
help get them noticed by an editor.

1) Get an agent 2) Get an agent 3) Get an

Can you tell us what every writer should know about their
editor, but doesn’t?

Absolutely. What people don’t always understand is that once
the editor and writer have finished working on the ms until it glows like a
little gem – that’s when the editor’s work has just begun. Because it’s then
the editor’s job to figure out how to publish
it, how to cut through the noise in the marketplace, how to increase the book’s
odds of success. Every editor must be a mini-publisher. It’s not enough to find
the book and edit the heck out of it. He has to be aware of every aspect of its
publication and what every department in the house needs to know and needs to
do to make that book successful – and this is true no matter what level you’re
aiming the book at.

The editor is the liaison between all the departments and
the author – sub rights, publicity, sales, production. He or she has always got
to be thinking: what does the publicity department need? Is there a particular
hook? Is there something that can get the author in the press? Does the author
have contacts we draw upon to give us quotes, write an article, set up an
autographing, buy quantities of a book? Does the author have a track record?
Sales has got to know. Has the author published in magazines, does she/he have a
friendly magazine editor? Sub rights has got to know. Is there any particular
look for the jacket that might help, any jackets you think it should look like
to reach the target audience? The art department has got to know. And so on.

I’ve got lots of stories about aspects of this – but this
interview is already getting long! Suffice it to say that anything the author
can do to help the editor in these efforts will bear fruit.

Do you believe the Internet has changed the face of
publishing in a good way?

The Internet’s definitely helped. Besides the fact that
books are universally available through it, there are many more publicity, and
to a certain extent, advertising possibilities for new books. If we have, say,
a novel about the Korean War, we have a guy here who’ll research Korean War
sites, contact them, offer news about the book or even free copies to be
included on the site. You’ve reached a core audience. Meanwhile, maybe you’ve
set up your own website for that book and linked it with others’, made the book
available to military bloggers, maybe advertised on some key sites. All kinds
of things are possible.

You can bring three writers from any time period along to
a deserted island. Who would you choose for pure entertainment value, who would
you to choose to provoke thought, and who would you choose to learn from?

Ah, I never know how to answer these questions. I’ll move
on, if you don’t mind.

What do you do in your down time? (Is there such a

In my spare time, I love movies and theater – and I read a
lot. The key to the latter is making the time for free reading, because work
reading takes up so much time on evenings and weekends. I read, first of all,
because that’s why I’m in the business to begin with, a love of books. It’s
also important for perspective. I may have a ms for what seems to be an
excellent WWII thriller in front of me – but if I’ve haven’t read some of the
masters of the WWII thriller, I may not realize, no this manuscript is okay – these books are excellent.

Is there room for women writers in the ranks of crime
fiction at the level of the Lee Child and John Sandford, or will this remain an
exclusively male club?

An exclusively male club? Hmm, Sue Grafton might disagree.
And Patricia Cornwell, Janet Evanovich, Mary Higgins Clark, JD Robb. Not to
mention Sara Paretsky, Martha Grimes, Kathy Reichs, Elizabeth George, Lisa
Gardner, Lisa Jackson, Linda Fairstein, Iris Johansen, Faye Kellerman, JA
Jance, Kay Hooper, Diane Mott Davidson, Lisa Scottoline, Sandra Brown…..oh, you
get the point. Sure, some of these women aren’t at the levels of Lee Child and
John Sandford (and those two are at different levels, by the way), but some of
them sell quite a bit more!

Thank you so much for taking time to answer these questions.
It’s been an honor to have you at Murderati!

Wine of the Week: Well, let’s do something special to celebrate Neil’s contribution to the written word. Château Cos-d’Estournel St.-Estèphe

Full disclosure — I can’t afford this wine, so take an extra sip for me.

23 thoughts on “Neil Nyren — No Longer a Man of Mystery

  1. Guyot

    Great interview.

    And I love the answer to the last question!

    I get sick and tired of hearing how women writers can’t get into crime fiction. I wish I had any one of those women’s careers.

    Otto’s attitude doesn’t represent anyone except Otto.

    It’s all about the writing. Write well.

    Good writing always finds a home.

  2. PJ Parrish

    Great interview Elaine,

    I first met Neil at SleuthFest — he gives great panel. So much so I invited him to be on the Agent and Editor panel at the Edgar Symposium this year (April 25) where he promises to deliver his favorite “Tirade About the Business.” I’m the moderator — I’ll have to steal some of these great questions!

    You can see his photo at

  3. Louise Ure

    Hi JT (and Neil),

    Thanks for a great interview to start my day with.

    Neil, I had the pleasure of a long, fine dinner with you at Book Passage’s Mystery Conference a couple of years ago. It’s nice to catch up here and learn even more about you.

    Here’s to great editors everywhere!

  4. Elaine Flinn

    I’m glad J.T. caught that ‘Great interview Elaine’ before I got a moment to drop in. Hell, I might have just said, “Oh, it was nothing.” 🙂

    So nice to meet you, Neil! And many thanks for an inside view of your world.

    Oh, almost forgot -GREAT INTERVEIW, J.T.!! 🙂

  5. JT Ellison

    As I’m sure you can attest to Elaine, the interview is only great when you have a fantastic subject to probe. Neil was a good sport!

    Louise, I raise a glass for that toast!

  6. Pari Noskin Taichert

    What an astoundingly frank and informational interview.

    J.T., this is the stuff writing classes.

    I learned so much about how Mr. Nyren thinks.

    What a pleasure.

    Thank you both for an excellent read and avenues for future thought.

  7. Mike MacLean

    Great interview J.T., especially for us newbies to the book world.

    I hate to disagree with Pari, but this is the stuff they DON’T teach in writing class—at least any that I’ve attended. I love author interviews, but it’s nice to read about the other side of the publishing fence (whatever the hell that means).

    Seems like some good advice he’s dishing out there too. Thanks Mr. Nyren. By the way, I’ve got this book and…

    1. Walter Zimmerman

      Neil was my classmate at Brandeis, class of 1969, so I can confirm his Brandeisness. I will leave the editing of the previous sentence to Neil.

      Walter Zimmerman, Brandeis ’69, London, Ontario, Canada

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