Jon McGoran’s brand new thriller, Drift, is out today, and Jon dropped by to talk about the book, and much more, so please give him a warm welcome, and of course, don’t forget to snag a copy of the book!
You’re brand new novel, Drift, comes out today! Will you tell us a bit about it?
Drift is a thriller about genetically modified foods and the blurring line between food and pharmaceuticals, among other things. When Philadelphia narcotics detective Doyle Carrick loses his mother and stepfather within weeks of each other, he gains a twenty-day suspension for unprofessional behavior and instructions to lay low at the unfamiliar house he’s inherited in rural Pennsylvania.
Feeling restless and out of place, he is surprised to find himself falling for his new neighbor, Nola Watkins, who’s under pressure to sell her organic farm to a large and mysterious development company. He’s more surprised to see high-powered drug dealers driving the small-town roads—dealers his bosses don’t want to hear about. But when the drug bust Doyle’s been pushing for goes bad and threats against Nola turn violent, Doyle begins to discover that what’s growing in the farmland around Philadelphia is much deadlier than anything he could have imagined.
Drift is actually your fourth published novel, along with your series under the name DH Dublin. Have you always wanted to be a writer? Will you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
I am one of those writers that always wanted to be a writer. I used to write science fiction stories as a child and an adolescent. Then for about a decade from my late teens to late twenties, I focused my creative energy more on music and songwriting, then college and life intervened. When I returned to my first love, writing, I was more interested in crime fiction and thrillers, and I was more interested in novel-length fiction. It took me a while to work up the courage to start seriously working on my first novel, but once I did, I was hooked. I did finally get published, in the mid-2000s, a series of three forensic thrillers under a pen name, D. H. Dublin. Meanwhile, I was also writing nonfiction, mostly about food and sustainability, first as communication director at Weavers Way Co-op in Philadelphia and editor of The Shuttle newspaper, and now as editor at Grid magazine. And I am an advocate for urban agriculture, cooperative development and labeling of genetically engineered foods. I helped found Healthy Foods Green Spaces, a coalition that supports community gardens and urban farms in Philadelphia and I have been working with groups including Just Label it/Right to Know, Food & Water Watch, and GMO-Free PA to support GMO labeling. Over the last few years, I have been struck by the increasingly bizarre news about food, especially when it comes to GMOs. Frankly I was shocked and appalled at how some of these products were being pushed onto the market, and onto the world, without anything close to adequate testing. But to be honest, part of me was really intrigued, because it seemed like the perfect premise for a thriller. I could see a lot of potential places where a story could go, but what was already there, the things I was reading and writing about during the day, it already read like a thriller. I think that fiction can be a very important avenue to explore issues in ways that aren’t always easy in non-fiction. It allows you to explore an issue differently, different sides of it, different aspects. I think that can be an important role for fiction to play. So on the one hand, I saw this really intriguing premise for a book, and on the other hand, I saw an important issue that would greatly benefit from a more thorough discussion. Drift is like a perfect storm for me: a compelling backstory, a rich premise with lots of potential, and an important issue that begged to explored.
Will you tell us a bit about the science behind Drift, and what kind of research you did for the book?
As I said, I’ve been writing about this stuff for years, but I did have to do a tremendous amount of research. Much of that had to do with zeroing in on specific technologies and possibilities. Most of the technologies in the book are in use today, but there are a few things that are one or two steps beyond what we know is already happening. I had to make sure those things were well within the grasp of current technology. The bulk of my research was reading and interviewing experts. The research did give me a more nuanced understanding of the issues surrounding GMOs, but frankly, if anything it made me more concerned about the way these organisms have been put out there with so little research. And it also helped me to understand how it is that so little research has been done on GMOs, some of the regulatory and legislative background that allowed this situation to arise, and how the broad protections given patent holders give companies the right to greatly restrict what research is done on their products. I also visited the specific locations in the book, like Hawk Mountain and the area around it in Pennsylvania, but that was not related to the scientific aspects.
When you write, what’s your process? Will you walk us through it?
I’m a big proponent of outlining. I think I would be anyway, but especially when you are writing a mystery or a thriller, I think knowing where you’re going and how you are getting there is crucial. My books start with a kernel of an idea, and then I spend a few weeks or months expanding on that idea, imagining the world in which that idea could exist, all the different possibilities, and creating the characters. Then there is a period of winnowing out the extraneous ideas, getting to the core of the story, and at the same time expanding the characters, making them whole. At that point I have a big jumbled pile of story. That’s when I start to outline. I will usually write a 30 to 50 page outline, sometimes longer. And when that is done, I start the first draft. I will revisit the outline and tweak it, sometimes dramatically, several times while I am writing the draft. I also embed my draft with notes, ideas and digressions, while I am writing. So when I have finally finished the draft, the first thing I do is go back and one by one take care of all the little tasks I have left for myself. Sometimes it is 300 notes or more. Once I have done that, I call the first draft done. Then I read it through, line edit it, but try to do it quickly so I can see how the story flows. I may have one of my early readers look at it at that point, because at that point you need to take a break, get some distance from it, so you can look at it with some objectivity when you come back. Then I’ll go through it a few more times, send it to my agent and/or editor, get feedback, make changes. Then a few more line edits to make sure everything is polished. And before you know it, a year of your life has gone by and you have a book!
What are some of your biggest literary influences? Any favorite novels or authors?
Very early on, my main influences were the science fiction greats of the time: Ray Bradbury. Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and then Philip K. Dick. When I got a little older, I discovered Elmore Leonard, whose style I love, and Michael Crichton, who had a great knack for imbuing great, smart thrillers with cutting edge science. More recently, my influences have been a little closer to home. It may be in part because we have talked a lot about writing and have taught classes together, and in part because they are two of my closest friends, but I also think Jonathan Maberry and Dennis Tafoya are tremendous writers, and I have been greatly influenced by them.
What do you like to see in a good book?
I like to read the same things I try to put in a book – compelling, believable characters, a smart plot that moves, and engaging voice – the things you expect from a writer to make it worth it for you to make the effort to inhabit their constructed universe. I am partial the thrillers, and partial to thrillers with a clever scientific angle, but I enjoy a wide range of genres. One thing that has become increasingly important to me as a reader who is a writer is that sense of effortless competence that you get from a writer with a very assured voice. One of the pitfalls of being a writer is that when you read, intentionally or not, part of your brain is always looking at how the author is doing what they are trying to do. It makes it harder and harder to truly lose yourself in a book, so it is that much more of a treat when you come across writers whose prose is seamless enough to still pull that off.
What will make you put a book down, unfinished?
I guess the main thing is the opposite of what I just mentioned. If it feels clunky or forced, if the writing gets in the way of the story. And that can be because of any one of a number of reasons – sloppiness, clichés, plot holes. Unfortunately, the main thing is usually life, and I have a very hard time picking a book back up once I’ve put it down for more than a few days. I’ve missed out on the second halves of some very fine books just because life interceded.
What would you like to see readers take away from Drift?
Primarily, I want them to be entertained, to be engaged by the characters and the plot and the story. But Drift does touch on some very important issues, like genetically modified foods, and I hope people learn a little, and think a little more about those things.
When you’re not busy at work on your next project, how do you like to spend your free time?
I like to spend time with my new wife, Elizabeth, (a librarian!) and with my son Will. I like to cook. I love to read, watch movies. I try to keep up on the Daily Show and Colbert Report. I’m a big fan of shows like The Wire and Breaking Bad. I do try to maintain my involvement in and support of efforts to promote labeling GMOs and urban agriculture. And I like to spend time with my friends, especially my fellow writers in The Liars Club. Unfortunately, there is very little time for any of that these days.
What’s next for you?
I am hard at work finishing up the sequel to Drift, called Deadout, which is also about GMOs, but is also about Colony Collapse Disorder, the mysterious syndrome that is wiping out the world’s honeybee populations. I am hoping to be finished that by the end of the summer. I’d love to take a little break after that, and then get started on my next project, possibly a third Doyle Carrick book, or one of several other ideas I have been kicking around. I’ll also try to cut back on my caffeine intake and get a little sleep.
When Philadelphia narcotics detective Doyle Carrick loses his mother and step-father within weeks of each other, he gains a twenty-day suspension for unprofessional behavior and instructions to lay low at the unfamiliar house he’s inherited in rural Pennsylvania.
Feeling restless and out of place, Doyle is surprised to find himself falling for his new neighbor, Nola Watkins, who’s under pressure to sell her organic farm to a large and mysterious development company. He’s more surprised to see high-powered drug dealers driving the small-town roads—dealers his bosses don’t want to hear about.
But when the drug bust Doyle’s been pushing for goes bad and the threats against Nola turn violent, Doyle begins to discover that what’s growing in the farmland around Philadelphia is much deadlier than anything he could have imagined . . .