I spoke with Abbott over email about his new novel, parkour, cyber attacks, and the influence of his grandmother.
STEVE WEDDLE: You started off close to your Texas roots with the Jordan Poteet mysteries, then with the Whit Mosley series. Your Sam Capra series was more “globe-trotting,” as are many of your other books. Blame returns your readers to Texas. Why set this story in Texas?
JEFF ABBOTT: I wanted to set a story in the suburbs, and the suburbs in Texas are the ones I know best. I grew up in the Dallas suburbs and I live in the Austin suburbs now. Most of the Jordan and Whit novels are set in rural small-town Texas, but the towns in those books aren’t suburbs. The feel is different — Austin is a city where there has been explosive population growth, and a great deal of money made, and people in these areas have built very comfortable lives for themselves. I wanted to see what it was like to turn all that upside down — to take away all the comfort and expectation. Kids in these kinds of suburbs are groomed for success. The best schools, the best teams, the most AP classes, the most extracurriculars — they start working on their resumes for their college applications in their freshman year. What happens to a kid in this world who has all her future promise torn away from her? How do people here react when their safe, perfect world is shattered or revealed to be a sham? I feel in Blame I’ve put these characters’ futures and very identity of who they are at enormous risk. No one will come out unscathed.
Blame is a thriller with a story that becomes more fascinating as it unfolds, as Jane Norton begins to remember more of that tragic night. What sort of research went into this novel and her condition?
I chose to focus on the experience rather than the science, because every case of amnesia is different. I read a number of first-person accounts of amnesiacs, some of whom had lost their memories in what we would consider minor mishaps: a mother who lost all her memories when a ceiling fan fell loose and hit her head as she shielded her toddler, an executive who slipped in a bathroom and had no memories of his family or life. One careless moment, one slight mishap, changed everything in their lives. And guess what … amnesiacs get sent home. There isn’t a great deal of physical treatment available for them. They reenter a life they don’t remember and simply try to cope. Other people are telling them who they are, what they like. It’s as if your own personal history gets rewritten and reedited by others. This to me felt like a new take on the “unreliable narrator” when the unreliable narrators are all the people around you — loved ones and friends you would think you could trust. With Jane’s crash, it was more a question of how much of her amnesia is due a physical cause (the terrible car accident) or an emotional cause (what was she doing with her friend and neighbor David that night, and was she responsible for David’s death). I wanted that question posed in the reader’s mind immediately.
One of the more successful aspects of Blame is that, as we get to the final third or so of the book, the possibility increases that any of the characters we’ve already met could be involved in the tragic crash. Nearly everyone we’ve met is suspect. Do you have an elaborate Chart of Schemes taped to your wall or do you get toward the end of the book and work your way backward planting seeds?
I write a rough outline of the book, not highly detailed, to get me through the first draft. But the outline is a guide, not a contract. I usually get better ideas for scenes, discover new aspects of characters, et cetera, as I’m writing from that outline. Usually when I get to the last hundred pages I redraft the outline before proceeding to be sure my new ideas are seamlessly integrated, I’ve set up the payoffs at the end of the book, I’m accounting for all the story logic, and so forth. But even then I do a very heavy rewrite. In the case of Blame, there was a lot of cutting and tightening and good advice from my editor on how to make the story stronger by focusing a bit more on characters rather than plot twists — but then of course, new and better twists occurred to me as soon as I put all my energy on the characters and the wrenching choices they are making. It’s a constant back and forth with me and the manuscript. I am trying to make the book very, very hard to put down. There’s a thousand other things you could be doing other than reading. So I want to give you every reason to read the next chapter instead of a Facebook status or a tweet or binge-watch Netflix. I’m also writing a television pilot for Harvey Weinstein based on my novel Panic, and there is much more detailed outlining and planning that happens in writing for TV. So I’m adjusting to that greater planning in writing for TV and trying to apply that wisely to books.
You’ve said that your favorite book when you were a child was Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, a book that plays a crucial role in your new thriller. What was it about the L’Engle book that captivated you, and what draws you to it now?
Well, I loved that book from page one. I had never read anything that combined faith and science so beautifully, and was a page-turner. I’ve read accounts that so many publishers didn’t want it and I think it was because it was such a risk — it was a science fiction adventure, but not at all the kind we’d seen before, it had a female lead at a time when that was rarer in this kind of book, it was as much about philosophy as physics. It’s a bold book, still, about the choices we make in our lives, the world that we build for ourselves, and what we do when we are tested and threatened by something that could undo the very world we live in. I felt it was the kind of book that would have been Jane Norton’s favorite, too. And both Meg Murry and Jane are on a quest where they truly don’t know what is going on or what they’re getting themselves into. I felt Meg’s bravery, compassion, and intelligence was a beacon for Jane. I still reread Wrinkle once a year; it still speaks to me. But you don’t need to be familiar with Wrinkle to read Blame, at all. The role that Wrinkle plays in Blame is that Jane’s worn copy is a particularly treasured object from her pre-amnesia life.
You’ve published nearly 20 novels so far. What draws you to starting a book — character or story — and what’s your process for getting those first few chapters down?
Sometimes writers say they always start with either character or plot, but I’ll take whatever comes. Sometimes I think of an interesting character first, sometimes I think of a plot situation that seems unusual or promising. Then I spend a lot of time writing out notes, thinking about who these characters are — who lives in this new world I’m thinking of creating. I think more about the characters at this point than the plot, because the choices the characters make are the plot. Then I write the outline I previously mentioned, and I have a pretty strong idea of how the book ends. Then I just start writing.
From international terror to domestic horror, you’ve written about all kinds of threats. What are some of the threats we should be paying attention to now?
I think the threats we face from the cyber world are the most dangerous, both to us as a nation and as individuals. Everything from our banking system to our energy grid to the information we consume is at risk. The damage such a cyber attack could level could be much more devastating than the physical attacks we understandably are concerned with preventing. I think the other threat is complacency. That no matter the choices we make, as individuals or in larger groups, we often believe that our standard of living and our freedom will be maintained as they are. There is zero guarantee of that.
You said you’ve been influenced in your storytelling by other books, by Shakespeare. What has been the most unusual influence on your storytelling?
I think the most unusual influence wasn’t a writer or a book but my grandmother. She taught elementary school for 35 years in a small east Texas town. She taught me to read using one of those big primary readers that fit on an easel, from back in the time when the schools couldn’t afford to give every student a textbook. I was four when she taught me to read. I don’t think it was that I was bright, but rather that she was such a good teacher. She let me read anything that grabbed my attention — history, fantasy, comic books, mysteries, nonfiction. She told me reading would open a whole new world to me. Her gifts to me were always books. When she died, right after I graduated from college, the entire town shut down for her funeral, except for the bank and the post office, which were required by law to remain open. They couldn’t fit everyone into the church. I remember the pastor asking how many there did she teach to read, and nearly every hand went up. She had always told me that story was critical to human society. And those raised hands were the proof. She’d basically taught that entire town to read. I have heard from some of her former students who realize that she was my grandmother and the incredible effect she had on their lives. I think nothing would have made her prouder that I am writing books. I think her influence on me has always been that reading should be a joy, even when writing feels a chore. I don’t want anyone to read one of my books and think, “Oh, he worked hard on that.” I want that work to be invisible to the reader.
Much of what you’ve written has been built on notions of trust, of loyalty. In Adrenaline, for example, Sam Capra loses the trust of his employers when his wife’s loyalty is questioned. Even the title of your latest thriller — Blame — carries connotations from the other side of that coin. Lose trust and receive blame. Who can we trust? Who can we blame? The more Jane Norton remembers, the less she is able to trust people. Her mother. Her friends. Anyone. Who is loyal? Whom can she trust? Is the search for trust key to us all? Is recovering lost trust a type of redemption? Trust is comforting to receiver, of course, but it seems to be a commodity that is at least as valuable to the giver. Jane isn’t whole when she can’t trust. Why is the concept of trust central to your best writing, to your strongest characters?
I think the loss of trust is a cornerstone of crime fiction. Each day we trust that those around us will follow the law and not harm us, not hurt us, not break the most sacred rules of our society. I think trust is the foundation of our nobler impulses: love, joy, respect. I think in Jane’s case, she has trouble trusting those closest to her since because of her amnesia she doesn’t know who they are. She is dependent on them explaining to her both who they are, and who she is now, and what their relationship was like during those lost years. That requires a huge amount of trust. I think a journey like Jane’s is as much about trusting herself as it is trusting others. When everyone around you knows so much more of the world, and yourself, than you do, self-doubt can be crushing. And there are several big dramatic moments in Blame where she has a trust breakthrough with other characters: either in learning to trust them or realizing that, sadly, she cannot. Trust is one of those aspects of life that every single reader can identify with. It can lead to high drama and, in turn, deeper understanding of characters.
Going back to Sam Capra for a moment. He’s a spy, of course, but he’s also a traceur and former bartender. In terms of the story, parkour and bars play a major role. In terms of character, these seem integral to Sam. The controlled lines of parkour. The mixing ingredients together to come up with the perfect drink — much like the various pieces of a character. In the book, you brilliantly built on all these to make Sam a fully realized character. You mentioned earlier that you sometimes start with character, sometimes plot. Can we drill down a little on this? Are you sitting home with the beginnings of Sam’s character in your head when you see a documentary about parkour and you realize that this is Sam? Do you see an article on mommy blogs and know this is Jane’s mom? And how do you know when you’ve hit on a great character? And, without the magician revealing his tricks, do your characters grow more distinct as you’re writing the story, the edges of who they are becoming more distinct as they move the plot forward?
I didn’t come up with Sam as a parkour-running bar owner in one fell swoop of inspiration. I thought of lots of different possible post-CIA jobs for him, none of which seemed entirely fresh or right for him as a twentysomething kicked out of the agency where he believed he would make his life’s work. Then one day I was doodling, thinking about his character, and I drew a globe and underneath it a martini glass. And I thought: Bars around the world. And that each book could have a different setting, in a city where he owns a bar. So that immediately suggested a whole series of questions: How does he get the bars? How does he use the bars in his work of helping people? Could the bars function as safe houses? Who works for him at the bars, and who are his customers? It opened up a wide range of story possibilities. In that second, I knew I had found a key to Sam. Regarding parkour, I think I saw a video of guys in France running it and I imagined Sam chasing someone down using this. He’s younger than most suspense series heroes, and parkour is a younger person’s sport. So it was another way to differentiate him from the crowd of thriller heroes, and it was great fun to research. It also lent a cinematic appeal to some of the action sequences.
Regarding Jane — I thought a lot about her mom, Laurel, and how a mom could be seemingly attentive yet still distant. I have nothing against mom/dad/parent blogs, and there are many well-done ones, but I’ve also seen some where you can tell zero thought was given that the little kid being blogged about would one day be old enough to read this chronicle of their private life. Some kids would care, others might not. Jane was the kind of kid who would care. And Laurel projected this very public image of herself as a hyper-successful mom and wife. And she became tied up in that image, which was like trying to constantly live up to endlessly cheery Facebook statuses. Laurel didn’t have the mommy blog in the first draft of Blame. But when I thought of the idea, it just explained and informed so much of both her and Jane’s character and their relationship. So, to answer that final part of this question, yes, the characters do grow more distinct as I write. Even if I have a very clear idea of them as I start, the more time I spend with them, and they interact with other characters, they come into much sharper focus.
You published your first book, a mystery, in 1994, nearly two dozen years ago. In that time, how has your reading changed? In the past few years, my time has filled with reading novels for blurb requests, for writing panels, for interviews, for reviews, and so forth. While being a writer means you often see debut novels before the public and have the opportunity to read stacks of new novels each week, I wonder if you’ve seen the amount of reading you’ve done increased? And, presuming you have been reading new authors lately, who are some of the exciting new voices we should all be on the lookout for?
I no longer finish books I start reading that I don’t enjoy (I used to finish them, just to see why I thought they didn’t work). I took two years off from doing blurbs (after offering them for 20 years) and it was a smart move. I think I read less just because right now I’m writing novels and writing for TV and my kids are teenagers and so life is busier than ever. I’m sure I’ll read more when they’re both off to college. Some new authors I’ve really enjoyed include Louisa Luna, with her new novel Two Girls Down about Alice Vega, a fugitive recovery specialist; Joe Ide’s IQ, about Isaiah Quintabe, a modern Sherlock Holmes, a gifted kid in a tough LA neighborhood; and J. Todd Scott, with The Far Empty, a modern western about a small town in the Big Bend caught in a storm of corruption and murder. They’re more-established writers, but I’ve recently become a big fan of both Alison Gaylin and Lyndsay Faye, both terrific crime writers and Best Novel Edgar nominees this past year.
The layperson’s take on Jeff Abbott's career is that you moved from writing mysteries in your first two series to writing thrillers and suspense novels. What might be closer to accurate is that you’ve always written with conflict and suspense in mind, whether that’s Claudia Salazar running to answers or Sam Capra running from killers. One could argue that in your new novel, Blame, Jane Norton is unraveling the mystery of her past in a domestic thriller setting, so that the reader gets the best of both worlds. Do you find yourself building each new book based on lessons you’ve learned from your previous works?
I think there’s always an influence made by what you’ve written before; but only to a certain point. Sam Capra and Jane Norton are very, very different characters, and I couldn’t write Blame like it was a Sam Capra novel. There was an earlier draft of Blame where a number of characters died at the hands of the person stalking Jane, as one might expect in a Sam Capra novel. And I knew this approach wasn’t working for this story, and my editor made the point to say, “Well don’t kill them all off.” And she was right. What the drama needed in Blame wasn’t more action, it was these characters having to face Jane for their part in destroying her life and deal with their choices. I went back with that in mind and rewrote those scenes in ways I hadn’t imagined before and it entirely changed the book. The story was suspenseful, but in a different way, and much more emotionally rich. And now, Jane isn’t such a lone survivor as she is a person who has confronted her forgotten past and rebuilt herself in a new and stronger way by holding those who hurt her to account. That lifted the book up. So I think in writing Blame I tried to create as much suspense as I have done in the Sam Capra novels, but the suspense is delivered in a different way, more suited to the setting and heroine.
Finally, how different would Blame be had you written it earlier in your career?
If I had written Blame earlier in my career? That’s a brilliant question, Steve, and I’m not sure how to answer it. I think some books require more confidence from an author, and you get more of that as you build your career. I don’t know that I would have tried to write it earlier in my career. I didn’t have the idea then, so I’m not sure how I would have executed it differently. I think, when I was younger, I might have spent less time on the characters and more on the plot. Now I spend more time on the characters, and it works better for me.
Steve Weddle is the author of Country Hardball. His most recent fiction appeared in Playboy magazine.