By Louis Do
Some people hate books; other people view books as a form of entertainment; then there are those who view books as a coping mechanism, an escape from reality. Coming from an oppressive home, books served as a lifeline for me. I fell in love with fast-paced, action-packed thrillers. Boston-based author Joseph Finder features prominently in this genre. Finder was kind enough to speak to me over the phone about themes in his books, his characters, and his thoughts on writing.
According to his personal bio, Joseph Finder’s plan was to become a spy, or maybe a professor of Russian history. Instead he became a bestselling thriller writer, and winner of the Strand Critics Award for Best Novel for “Buried Secrets” (2011), winner of the International Thriller Writers Award for Best Novel for “Killer Instinct” (2006) and winner of the Barry and Gumshoe Awards for Best Thriller for “Company Man” (2005). The New York Times praised him as “The master of a complex suspense formula.” According to The Huffington Post, “Author Joseph Finder is the king of “the hook” in writing style. This talented author can grab a reader’s interest quicker and more securely with his first few pages than anyone else writing today.”
The first book that I read from Finder was his 2006 release, “Killer Instinct.” What immediately struck me was that the main character, Jason Steadman was a regular guy. He wasn’t a cliché veteran with a haunted past, or a CIA agent who could kill you with a single look from his icy blue eyes. Jason was an ordinary guy with fears and hopes and insecurities. His idea of danger was to go to bed without brushing his teeth. Not to put too fine of a point on it, but Jason Steadman, like a lot of Finder’s other characters, is not a bad ass.
“The basic theme of all of my books has been an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation,” Finder said. “I just think it’s more relatable when it’s about someone like the reader. And it’s cool when it’s someone like the reader who is doing something extraordinary because there is a fantasy wish fulfillment element in that.”
For Finder and his readers, his characters’ lack of superhero prowess adds an extra layer of fun to both the writing and reading experience.
“If you got a superhero as a character there is no suspense. You know they are going to do whatever they set out to do because that’s their cartoon and I don’t like writing cartoons.”
In 2009, Finder introduced Nick Heller with the publication of “Vanished.” To the delight and astonishment of legions of fans Nick returned in a second installment, “Buried Secrets” in 2011.
“I got a lot of emails over the years from readers writing in and saying, when will such and such a character come back…For example, when will Adam from “Paranoia” or Jason from “Killer Instinct” come back. My response has always been that I can’t bring those guys back. What they’ve been through is so excruciating. It wouldn’t be fair. The protagonists in stand-alone novels see their world turned upside-down, and you can’t do that book after book after book to a character. I can’t do that plausibly.”
Finder’s stand-alone protagonists experience blackmail, cross and double-cross, betrayal by friends, and of course the daily dose of deadly killers gunning for them.
After looking at many emails, Finder decided that what people wanted was continuity.
“There is something familiar and comforting about a character in a series. Reading a new book in a series is like communing with an old friend. I’ll read Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch books, or Lee Child’s Reacher series, and you sort of know when you pick one up that you have a sense of what to expect. That is a really pleasurable experience, so I decided that I should do a series, but I wanted to do something that was different. I didn’t want to do a police homicide detective because as long as Michael Connelly is doing it, what’s the point?”
If not a homicide detective then maybe a former military cop like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher?
“What I love about the Reacher character especially is the brain. It’s fun to watch him beat the shit out of people, but what I love is being in his head. That kind of all-observing, steady intelligence was very attractive. I realized I wanted to do a hero who had the possibility for exploits, the possibility of getting involved in physical confrontations, but I didn’t want him to be a superhero like Reacher. I wanted him to be an ordinary guy. I wanted him to be someone who had a past, had a complicated family upbringing and therefore there would be more depth to the character than you would expect when you are reading a Reacher novel. I wanted to do something slightly more ambitious, frankly.”
Nick Heller also serves as a form of wish-fulfillment for Finder.
“I based him off a guy I knew who was in the CIA and then went private. I also based him in a lot of ways on me, and my own sense of humor, and my way of looking at the world. Nick sort of feels like wish-fulfillment for me. Who I wish I was.”
Finder published his first novel, “The Moscow Club” in 1991. However, unlike other novelists there isn’t a pattern to his writing schedule. He writes because he truly enjoys the writing process, and does not bend under the will of a publisher to come out with a half-baked novel on a specific cycle.
His writing schedule is, “more or less by choice. I was doing a book a year from “Paranoia” straight through to “Power Play,” and when I wrote the first Nick Heller book, I needed more time. I needed to get the character figured out and spend some time setting up the series, which is what I did.” There was a two-year gap between when “Power Play” was published in 2007 and “Vanished,” the Nick Heller debut in 2009. “I’m able to do a book a year, but I don’t always want to. Sometimes a book takes longer than a year, and my goal is to write the best book I possibly can. And if it takes a few months longer than the normal nine-month production schedule, that’s okay. As long as my publishers are supporting me in that I’m able to do it.”
As a reader who is blind, I am always amazed and appreciative by Finder’s attention to detail. Whether he is describing a seedy bar or a plush office decorated in the tastes of an 18th century French aristocrat, I can vividly imagine the scenery.
“If I’m creating a scene in a local place I would just go there with a notepad and walk around and start picking up details that jump out at me. The idea is that you can’t describe everything, but you can describe a few details here and there and if they’re the right well-chosen details they will invoke the feeling you are trying to get.”
A lot of novelists avoid light-hearted moments and banter. However, Finder is not beneath the use of a laugh-out-loud joke or witty pun for comic relief.
“My first agent told me that humor was antithetical to success, and I should avoid witticisms or light-hearted moments. I realized as I went on, I got another agent actually, that if suspense is going to be there it will be there whether you have light-hearted moments or not, as contrast to humor. I feel that banter, humor, light-hearted exchanges round out the character. They make him feel more real. It also tends to leaven the mood so when something bad happens, you really feel that, that contact.”
For some students at Berkeley City College, writing may be a chore, and Finder has some advice beyond the typical “just write.”
“You need to read. The way that you learn to write is start with imitation. It’s like speech. You start by imitating style or feeling. You need to allow yourself to write sloppy poor prose because you can always fix it later. I think that people, beginning writers especially, tend to get way too hung up on whether a sentence or paragraph is good prose. It’s like putting on the emergency break while you’re driving. I like to use an expression from Hollywood—you can fix it in post, meaning post-production.”
Finder’s latest novel, “The Fixer,” a stand-alone set in Boston, is available in stores and online wherever high-octane thrillers are sold. To learn more about Joseph Finder and his books, and maybe even drop him a note visit josephfinder.com.