Jeff Abbott Answers Fifteen Questions

Credit: Amy Melsa Photography

In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing victim author andthey choose their own interview by picking which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer. Jeff Abbott’s novel, Downfallbegins with a mother vowing to do anything to protect her child. Powerful stuff. Here is what Jeff had to say about reading, writing, and the fascinating contrast in the widening economic gap.

Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?

I’m Jeff Abbott—I write suspense novels, both standalone and a New York Times bestselling series featuring Sam Capra, a former CIA agent who now owns bars around the world. Think Jason Bourne crossed with Rick Blaine from Casablanca. My latest novel, Downfall, is my fourteenth novel and the third in the Sam series. I got started writing because my second-grade teacher told my parents I was disrupting the class by telling stories during recess to my schoolmates and ending on cliffhangers. She suggested they get me a Big Chief tablet and a pencil for my creative urges. I like to write thrillers that have a balance between action and emotional investment. My novels are in the school of international intrigue, but always feature strong elements of family. I’m a three-time Edgar Award nominee, a winner of the Thriller Award, and am published in many languages. Most importantly, I am a husband and a father.

I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?

I try to keep to a steady work routine when I’m working on a first draft, writing 2,000-3,000 words a day. I like to listen to film soundtracks when I’m writing, or music such as Muse, Radiohead, Sigur Ros, Phillip Glass, or LCD Soundsystem. My only food routine is when I’m done with a book, I have some Haagen-Dazs rum raisin ice cream. I did it when I finished my first book, not really for any reason, but it’s a ritual I’ve maintained over the years.

Write the question you would most like to answer in an interview, and then answer it.

Question: Why do you use the words that you do?

Answer: Because I am trying to create an effect that carries beyond a phrase, a sentence, a page. Because I want to be economical. Because I want to keep you turning the pages. Because, as Amy Tan pointed out to Stephen King in his introduction to On Writing, no one ever asks about the words.

What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time?  What impact did telling this story have on your life?  Did you find that it had changed you? 

Downfall is about a group of people who have taken the idea of an old boys network—one where favors are done on the sly for each other—to a cold-blooded, murderous extreme. We live in a world where the economic gap is getting wider and wider—people are not just getting rich for themselves, but at levels that could mean that their grandchildren will never worry about money. And yet most Americans don’t have three months of savings. The contrast fascinates me. I looked at this from the view not of someone with a political agenda—I have none, and my only agenda is to entertain—but in terms of the characters who could find themselves in this kind of story. What would you do to secure your family’s future? How far would you go to be sure your kids never had a worry? It’s hyper protective parenting taken to an extreme. The bad guys in Downfall think nothing of destroying a stranger’s life for their own benefit, whereas Sam will help a stranger because it’s the right thing to do. And when I have my protagonist and antagonist in such perfect balance, that is when I know I have to tell that story.

What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors?  Has writing your own book changed the way that you read? 

Right now I’m reading the massive biography Van Gogh: A Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. Vincent had parents who loved him but couldn’t understand him: I’m about 150 pages into it and I’m ready for him to start painting instead of trying and failing to be a salesman or a minister or a teacher. The whole Van Gogh family is gnashing their teeth about how he’ll turn out and I wish I could tell them: a genius walks among you, so maybe chill out a bit. I have a huge number of authors I enjoy, but am only going to list some I’ve just read recently: Harlan Coben, Kate Atkinson, Laura Lippman, Daniel Stashower, Hilary Mantel, Stephen King, Bernard Cornwell, Lee Child. . .

Are you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working your own book(s)? 

I do read when I write. I’m not sure I can say other books inspire me, but I am certainly aware when I’m writing when I’m reading a book that is well-structured, is dealing with technical issues with a confident hand (such as introducing information in a non-boring way, rounding out characters, etc.) If I get stuck, though, I tend not to turn to books but to movies. I’ll watch a Hitchcock or a Kurosawa film and I’ll get unstuck. I think it’s exposure to a story well told that manages to oil the gears and get me going again.

What types of books would some of your characters have if they were readers?  Given their issues what book(s) would you suggest for them to read? 

Sam Capra is unusual among suspense heroes in that he’s in his mid-twenties, as opposed to be in his 30s or 40s. He’s not settled; he’s still finding out who he is, and what his life is going to be. So I think I’d have Sam read Eric Ambler, who was Hitchcock’s favorite suspense writer—Ambler’s heroes are often younger men, such as the schoolteacher accused of treason in Epitaph for a Spy. His partner, Mila, who is a mysterious woman with a damaged past, her I’d have read Laura Lippman, because Laura excels at characters who are dealing with a past disruption of their lives and the consequences of it. I’d probably start her with Laura’s fine novel What the Dead Know. And since Sam owns bars, he must have a copy of Brad Thomas Parson’s excellent book on cocktails, Bitters, which is full of amazing recipes.

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