The week Jeff Abbott was interviewed for Lone Star Literary Life, he attended a Friends of the Library event in Mission Viejo, CA; did a signing at the Poisoned Pen in Phoenix; was interviewed live with Austin’s KOOP Radio Writing on the Air; spoke with Entertainment Weekly Radio on Sirius/XM, and signed books at the Fort Hood Military Base in Killeen.
In addition to Abbott’s natural talent, there’s a reason why he’s an international bestseller of thrillers. He works at it. Not too surprisingly from a fellow who wrote a five-hundred-word novel while still in high school. His mastery of social media comes into play as too: we recommend the series of videos he’s starred in on his Facebook page — pairing classic cocktails with detective novels.
Austin-based Abbott graciously agreed to our interview last week, and we’re thrilled to have this renowned writer of thrillers with us today.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Jeff, I saw that you were born in Dallas in 1963 (the memorable year JFK was assassinated) and grew up in Dallas and Austin. You essentially came of age in Texas in the 1970s. How would you describe your formative years in the Lone Star State?
JEFF ABBOTT: I had an uneventful, (happily) quiet, suburban childhood, filled with books and playing outdoors. Both my parents were from small towns so I spent a lot of my summers with family in small-town settings, which definitely influenced my first two mystery series, the first featuring small-town librarian Jordan Poteet and the second series with justice of the peace Whit Mosley and investigator Claudia Salazar on the Texas Coastal Bend. My grandmother taught school in the same town for over thirty years, and knew everyone, so I got a early look at social dynamics where everyone thinks they know your business.
What authors did you grow up reading?
My favorites were Lloyd Alexander (the Prydain Chronicles), Madeleine L’Engle (A Wrinkle in Time), and Edward Eager (Half-Magic). I also read a lot of Hardy Boys mysteries. As a teenager I was a big fan of Ken Follett, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, John D. MacDonald, and Stephen King. I would read anything: mysteries, fantasy, science fiction, historicals, biographies. I always had a book under way.
I double-majored in English and history; I never studied creative writing there. I read a lot of great books. Among my favorites were Jane Austen and Henry Fielding, so I guess I was drawn to stories where the drama played out in a certain social world, and that kind of setting and interaction is in a lot of mystery and suspense fiction. I also loved my Southern lit class, reading Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, and Eudora Welty. My Russian history professor, the late Gale Stokes, first got me interested in the complexities of that nation’s history, and later he came to my book signings in Houston. I thank him for his influence on me at the end of the new book, The First Order (Grand Central Publishing, 2016) part of which takes place in Russia and involves several Russian characters. I think he would have enjoyed that I set a book partly in Russia.
You worked for advertising agencies earlier in your career. How alike and unlike was that experience compared to the popular Mad Men television series?
I worked for an advertising agency in the early 2000s, and before that I did creative work at software companies, both startups and Fortune 100. There’s not a lot of overlap between what my work was like and Mad Men (I’ve only watched the first two seasons of the show, so I can't really say). I would say the creative meetings are somewhat similar — the concepting, refining, and selling of an idea.
I saw that you actually started writing books in high school. When did you seriously start trying to be a novelist?
In high school I wrote a five-hundred-page manuscript. So, even then, I was serious about trying to learn. You learn by writing, and I always wrote. I got serious about writing a novel for publication in my late twenties. I wrote a bad book in six months, but proved to myself I could finish a manuscript. For the next book, I got up at four a.m. and wrote for three hours each day, taking more care and time. That second attempt was my first book to be published, in 1994, a mystery novel called Do unto Others. It was about the murder of a book-burner inside a small town’s library. I had a lot of fun writing it.
Was there a turning point in your path to publishing, and how would you describe it?
The first book I finished wasn't polished enough; no agent was interested in it. When the second book (Do unto Others) was ready to submit, I still didn’t have an agent, but I went to a conference here in Austin where there were several editors and agents from New York. I did my research and prioritized meeting two editors there — both were originally from the South and I thought they might like my small-town mystery — but didn’t try to press my book on them until the last evening. Then I approached them in the hotel bar, asked politely if I could talk to them, described the book with a one-sentence pitch, told them the word count, and mentioned authors whose readers I thought the book would appeal to, and asked if I could send the first three chapters. They both asked for the full manuscript; I didn't linger, I thanked them and left. (Please note: this approach wouldn’t always work.) Four weeks later they both called me to make offers on the book, and having competing offers enabled me to get an agent very quickly. Do unto Others went on to win the Agatha Award for Best First Novel, for books in the style of Agatha Christie.
The second turning point was when my novel Panic came out in the UK; it became a surprise bestseller there. That success opened up a lot of foreign markets to my books and was a thriller nominee for Best Novel, and was a clear move for me into writing suspense novels.
How has publishing changed since you started?
It’s both bigger and smaller. The large publishers have merged and consolidated; self-publishing has brought new voices. In some ways the biggest change is that it is much easier for readers to interact with writers and to learn — from other trusted sources, such as bloggers or fellow readers on Facebook or Twitter — about books that they might enjoy. This can give books that might have, in the old days, struggled to find a readership a better chance. But the real challenge is that it is much harder to get attention for your book. There are just so many more books, and so many more ways for people to entertain themselves.
In your seventeen novels to date it seems you’ve traveled the world, do you do a lot of traveling for research. What are some of your favorite places to visit?
For the Sam Capra novels (Sam is a former CIA agent who owns bars all around the world), I usually go to the locale of the novel, which has been different for each book in the series. Some of my favorites have been London (a major setting for my novels Panic and Adrenaline), Paris (where I set much of Trust Me), and Miami (where I set Inside Man and some of The First Order). I’ve also done overseas travelling for book tours or literary conferences, including England, Ireland, and France. But I mostly like staying home in my office and just writing.
The First Order, your most recent novel, is your fifth Sam Capra book. For our readers not familiar with your work, would you describe the series and this newest volume?
Sam Capra is a former CIA agent in his late twenties, and a single father. He lost his promising CIA career in the events of Adrenaline (the first novel in the series, and a Today Show and Good Morning America summer reading pick). He came into possession of a number of bars around the world, to use as a cover while doing freelance work using his spy skills for a mysterious employer. Throughout the series, Sam has struggled over the death of his brother Danny, who was a relief worker killed in Afghanistan by extremists. In The First Order, Sam has found evidence that suggests Danny is not only alive, but has taken on the world’s most dangerous assassination job: killing the Russian president on American soil during a state visit. Sam has to go undercover into the inner circle around the Russian president to try to both stop and save his brother. I like to say it’s both an assassination thriller and a family novel: the book’s global stakes are stopping a murder that could lead to a war, and the personal stakes are Sam finding and learning the truth about his brother.
You are the incoming president of Mystery Writers of America. What sorts of things will you be doing for that organization?
It’s an honor to be asked to serve: recent presidents include writers such as Sandra Brown, Harlan Coben, Brad Meltzer, Charlaine Harris, Lee Child, Laura Lippman, Michael Connelly, and Sara Paretsky (who served last year). The real work of the organization is done by the administrative director, the executive vice president, and the board of directors, which includes the chapter presidents. They do the heavy lifting. My job as national president is to advise when needed and to host the Edgar Awards, which are mystery fiction’s version of the Oscars, held every April in Manhattan. For any Texas writers who are interested in MWA, the Southwest chapter includes Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas. We have regular meetings in Houston and Dallas, programs on writing, research, book promotion, and so on. Our “MWA University” offers workshops on crafting characters, plots, and more. There are a number of other benefits of membership, whether you are published yet or not. Interested writers can learn more at www.mysterywriters.org.
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Praise for Jeff Abbott's novels
“Abbott loads his story with entertaining plot twists...the bond and betrayal between the two brothers add emotional depth to the action.” ―Kirkus
“Fast-paced, high-octane...plenty of twists. ” ―Publishers Weekly
“One of the best ongoing series in the thriller genre. Readers will be hooked from the start...Inside Man jumps into the action right away, and the last 100 pages are downright terrifying. Abbott has a gift for creating great character-driven thrillers, and readers will clamor for more, especially given the cliffhanger ending.” ―Associated Press on Inside Man
“Thriller Award-winner Abbott draws on Shakespeare’s King Lear for his outstanding fourth Sam Capra novel...Abbott injects enough of Sam’s back story to make his intricate plot believable, judiciously spices his tale with tasteful but usually interrupted romance, and convincingly makes Sam a genuine contemporary ‘chevalier.’”
—Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) on Inside Man
“Inside Man is a tightly controlled roller coaster of a narrative, goosing the reader forward with almost every paragraph.” ―Austin Chronicle on Inside Man
“Abbott’s Sam Capra series represents some of the finest writing on the market, and the fact that it's squarely in the thriller genre-which means the story is fast and intense, and the stakes are stratospheric-makes Abbott one of the best writers out there, as his “who’s who” string of awards (Edgar, Thriller, Anthony, Agatha, Macavity) can attest to....With dead friends, mysterious women, snappy dialogue and clever twists, this is stellar work from an accomplished, sophisticated writer at the top of his game.”
―J. T. Ellison, New York Times bestselling author of When Shadows Fall
“Lots of action and plot twists make this a literary roller coaster.” ―USA Today on Inside Man