Monday 24 September 2012

Author Interview: David Kessler

Today we have multi-talented author David Kessler in the hot seat.

About the author:

 I have been writing since the age of 15. My writing ranges from thrillers to science fiction, to children’s books to chick-lit, but my greatest distinction is to be the master of the thriller genre. When you start to read a thriller by David Kessler, you know that you are going to be reading a devilishly cunning thriller full of twists and turns, almost every chapter ending on a cliffhanger and big twist at the end. But even then you cannot be sure that you’ve heard the last of it – there’s usually a sting in the tail.

I started my writing career more as an act of self-indulgence than anything else, with a screenplay that I sent to my mother’s cousin – film director Clive Donner. He was kind enough not to rip it to shreds but he did point out both its good points and its flaws.

It was at that point that I realized that I really did have a talent for creative writing and I resolved to become a professional writer.

Do you plan everything or just let the story flow?

I try to plan everything. If I write without a detailed plan, I tend to pad the story with a lot of gabbling that fails to move the story forward. Or it just ends too quickly. When I plan ahead, I am able to write a more complex story and to keep up the pace with short scenes and sharp cuts. But in order to plan, the book sometimes needs a long gestation period between initial concept and writing - like an architect spending a long time at the drafting table before the builders are allowed even to dig the foundations. But I have noticed that even with planning I tend to make changes on the fly as new ideas come to me. Some time I would like to have another go at writing a story with very little planning - as I used to do in my youth when I first started out. It will be interesting.

Do your characters ever want to take over the story?

Yes that does happen. There are always certain characters who take on a life of their own and surprise me. When that happens it is one of the most pleasant even joyous experiences of writing. I like to be surprised... and to be surprised by one's own characters is a thrill.

What is your favourite food?

Chicken schnitzel and potato kugel - home made of course! Also fried gefilte fish and potato latkes! And chicken soup with kneidelech and... Don't start me on food! I eat too much of it already. I also have a sweet tooth which is very bad for the waistline, the pancreas, the heart and God knows what else!

Are you a morning person or a night owl?

Hard to say. I suppose more of a night owl. But when I am able to adjust my body clock and get up early (in certain environments) that can be great fun.

Where do you dream of travelling to and why?

I'd like to go to Japan some time and explore both its bustling metropolises and its more exotic sites like Mount Fuji. I'd also like to do a road trip across the USA and then maybe come back via Canada. Why? Mainly because I haven't travelled much in my life. Even for research purposes I tend to do most of my "travelling" via Google Earth and Street View. I really need to get out more. I would like to go one some camping trips in America's big national parks. I'd also like to do a walking/hiking trip through Britain's Lake District and maybe a river/canal trip around Britain. I've been a townie most of my life, but I'd like to change that.

Do distant places feature in your books?

Very much so. My Alex Sedaka series of legal thrillers is set in San Francisco. This was because it was a death penalty story and I needed to set it in the USA. After settling on California, I had to set it near San Quentin because the whole story takes place in a day and the lawyer needs to be near the prison. So I set it in San Francisco and relied on internet research and a friend in California (albeit Southern California) to see me through. Since then I've made friends online with people in San Francisco and Oakland who have helped me with other Alex Sedaka thrillers.

My "Dan Brown" style thrillers, written under the pen-name Adam Palmer and featuring an expert on Semitic languages called Daniel Klein (note the initials) are set in all sorts of exotic locations. The first one (The Moses Legacy) spanned Egypt, Israel and Jordan. The one I am writing now takes in Romano-Britain, Italy and Israel. And the one I am planning after that will take in Greece, Crete, France and possibly some other locations.

Do you listen to music while writing?

Only if I want to get distracted and not do any work! I like music and sometimes it relaxes me. But if I really want to concentrate I have to turn off the music. Paradoxically, talk radio distracts me less than music. I can write creatively when I have talk radio on in the background, but music is concentration killer. I just enjoy it too much.

Could you tell us a bit about your latest release?

My latest book is called Hello Darkness My Old Friend (I was initially going to call it Marked Man). It starts with two young rich men getting into a skiing race on a dangerous slope in Switzerland that leaves one of them dead. Then it cuts to San Francisco, where a one-legged homeless man stabs another, only to get caught while running away. Confused and disoriented at the arraignment court, he asks for Alex Sedaka to defend him. Out of sympathy, Alex agrees to take the case pro bono (i.e. no fee) but his client is uncooperative and what starts as a clear-cut case is shrouded in mystery and takes on a life of its own full of unexpected twists and turns. For a start, no one knows the dead man's identity, but outsiders appear to be taking an interest in the case, including a suave, besuited Englishman, a tough guy with some sort of ex-military background and even Homeland Security, MI6 and the British Prime Minister. And as Alex Sedaka peels away the layers of the mystery, some of these outsiders are beginning to take an interest in him.

What have you learned about writing and publishing since you first started?    

Publishers don't know everything and don't always have your interests at heart. Of course publishers want every one of their books to succeed. But it's a numbers game. If your book flops but enough of their other titles succeed, then on balance they're ahead of the game. But you're not. You've only got one career and if you blow it, or let them blow it for you, you're unlikely to get another chance. I am probably one of the few who had two bites of the cherry, with a whole decade separating Hodder dropping me and Harper Collins giving me a new lease of life.

US Kindle Cover

But however grateful you are to have a publishing contract signed and sealed, once you've got it, you may have to fight them - and that could be over anything and everything from the cover design to the publication date. If it's a paperback, push for spring or early summer. If it's a hardback, November or December is fine. Resist a September release like the plague. If you don't like the cover design, tell them - and tell them forcefully. If they say they have the experience and you disagree, argue with them. Don't defer to them. Ditto for the title. If you don't believe me, take a look at the cover design of my book Mercy. Then look at the cover design that I used when I retitled the book You Think You Know Me Pretty Well and marketed it for the Kindle in America.    
Paperback cover

What may surprise you is that the cover design I used for my own version is very similar to one of the many excellent cover designs that my publishers came up with and then rejected before they adopted the bland, vacuous cover that they put on the equally vacuously titled Mercy!

Is there anything you would do differently?

Apart from what I said above about dealing with publishers, I suppose the big difference is that I might have chosen to go down a completely different path and write literary fiction instead of genre fiction. When I was 15 I wrote what I still think was my best ever piece of writing: a first person account of a teenage girl driven to suicide by bullying. It was a 10 page short story - based on a real case - which I wrote it in one day, directly into the old manual typewriter that I worked on in those days. It was a straight-from-the-heart explosion of emotion onto the page, which I subsequently rewrote about three times. Each time I rewrote it, it got worse as I spent more time thinking and the narrative became progressively more cerebral and less emotional. Sadly, several changes of address and a flood in my father's basement means that I no longer have the original first draft but only the third or fourth.

Why is that so relevant, I hear you asking? Well somewhere along the line I took a wrong turn in my professional life and decided to write thrillers. I had always liked thrillers and when I started out, I had quite a "catholic" approach to writing: thrillers, comedy, novels, screenplays, etc. But then I settled on thrillers in particular and stuck to it. Then, when I signed a publishing contract, I found myself even more constrained and constricted. Don't get me wrong, it has been both fun and lucrative. But as I get older, I realize just how ephemeral thrillers really are and I wish I had written at least one timeless piece of literary fiction.

Now with the new ePublishing platforms making self-publishing more practical and lucrative, I am diversifying my efforts (science fiction, Children's/YA, chick-lit) and even planning on writing material other than books. I am currently revising a play I have written about a couple of drug-addict brothers. It is a serious drama like the old "kitchen sink" dramas of the 1960s. I am also working in my spare time on a musical. But I don't want to say what it's about just yet, in case any one else gets the same idea.

Who, or what, if anything has influenced your writing?

At one time Ayn Rand influenced my writing - probably too much. More recently Harlan Coben. Also, Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner and Robert Heinlein.

Anything you would say to those just starting out in the craft?

In another interview, I stuck my neck out and suggested that struggling writers shouldn't have any qualms about sock-puppetry and posting fake reviews to kick-start their careers. My reasoning was that both the purpose and the likely outcome of such reviews is to boost the writer's profile, not to deceive potential readers. With the "look inside" option and personal networking, people are unlikely to buy a book on the strength of a stranger's review - unless it is a reviewer whose advice they have followed with happy results in the past.

But those four and five stars increase the likelihood that the book will appear on the first page when the customer signs in, and thus bring it to the attention of readers who might otherwise never learn of its existence. The greatest problem that the unknown writer faces is not that they will be pilloried by honest reviews but that they will be ignored altogether. My controversial advice was designed to counteract this silent but deadly threat.

However, I learned from the irate responses that if there's one thing worse than writer's block it's the execution block and I came damn close to being decapitated by my peers in their righteous indignation! So instead, I will proffer only this advice - which like all good advice is easier given than followed: Work hard, keep trying and to quote the Bard of Avon: "This above all: to thine own self be true."

What are three words that describe you?

Loving, Ambitious, Frustrated.

What's your favourite book or who is your favourite writer?

It used to be Atlas Shrugged, but I now feel; that the interminable speeches and preaching detract from the novel. The content of the speeches is best left unstated and should be proven by the events of the story itself. Stripped of the speeches, it is still a good book, but Ayn Rand's earlier novel The Fountainhead is in some ways more subtle.

I also loved Lady by Thomas Tryon. It was a wonderful book told through the mouth of an adult recalling his childhood. The book's theme was racial intolerance and in my opinion, it was better than Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

My current favourite writer is Harlan Coben. Some people say he writes the same book every time, but try as I may to guess, he nearly always manages to surprise me. His last few books have been a bit off, but I have no doubt that he'll get back to form pretty soon.

Blurb of your latest release or coming soon book

Hello Darkness My Old Friend

SWITZERLAND - the Jungfrau Region: A young man, from an extremely wealthy and powerful Middle Eastern family, dies in a skiing accident. The incident is captured by a lone photographer who cannot believe what he has just seen.

SAN FRANCISCO: A few months later, two homeless men stagger into a bar. One of them leaves, but minutes later the other is stabbed by a one-legged homeless man - George Stone.

Arrested at the scene and charged with murder with special circumstances, Stone asks for Alex Sedaka to represent him. But Alex is met by a wall of evasiveness from his own client. Even the identity of the victim is a mystery - the only clue being a tattoo on the dead man's torso.

However, it soon becomes apparent that this is anything but a straightforward case of violence between homeless people. After all, how many homeless people have $2000 on them. And why would a homeless killer leave such a large sum on his victim? More significantly, why is the British Prime Minister taking such an interest in the murder of a homeless "John Doe" over five thousand miles away?

But when Homeland Security become involved and an attempt is made on the accused man's life, both Alex and the DA realize that matters are running out of control. And as powerful forces up the ante, Alex also has to face the fact that his client isn't the only one in danger. And the threat reaches all the way across the Atlantic from the most powerful family in the United Kingdom - leading to a stunning showdown!

List of previous books if any
A Fool for a Client
The Other Victim
Tarnished Heroes (out of print)
Reckless Justice (out of print)
Who Really Killed Rachel (non-fiction, out of print)
The Wimbledon Common Murderer (carries on the story of Who Really Killed Rachel) ebook.
Mercy (US title: You think you know me pretty well)
No Way Out (US title: It started out quite simply)
The Moses Legacy (as "Adam Palmer")

ebooks (excluding those above)
Checkmate at the Beauty Pageant (a Dov Shamir novella)
Hidden Menace (a Dov Shamir novella)
Ethan and the Devious Doctor (Children's, as "Dan Ryan")
Ethan and the Cryptic Clues (Children's, as "Dan Ryan")
The Luddite Girls (chick-lit as "Karen Dee")
The Year of Compulsory Childbirth (sci-fi, as "Nigel Farringdon")
Spirit of Icarus (sci-fi, as "Nigel Farringdon")

(NB the sci-fi books are bloody awful, everything else ranges from okay to excellent!)   Any websites/places readers can find you on the web.

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