I’m thrilled to welcome Jon McGoran to the blog! The third book in his Doyle Carrick series, Dust Up (it’s awesome, trust me), will be out next week, and he kindly answered a few of my questions about it, and more.
What can fans look forward to in Dust Up? Will you give us a teaser?
Dust Up is the third in my series of ecological science thrillers starring Philadelphia detective Doyle Carrick, following Drift and Deadout. The whole series is set against the way biotechnology is taking over food and agriculture today, and the enormous power some of these large corporations wield. Dust Up looks at the international influence exerted by agribusiness giants, and the collateral damage that can result when they collude and compete. One of the things I like to do in my books is to start small in a way, with a human-scaled focus, and then to unfold what’s going on until it is revealed to be part of something much bigger. Dust Up starts literally on Doyle’s front steps, when he and his girlfriend Nola wake up to a stranger being murdered at their door, and the man’s wife driving away. Doyle has little respect for the homicide detective who picks up the case, Mike Warren, and even less when Warren’s perfunctory investigation focuses solely on the wife, who has gone missing. But when there’s no explanation for why the victim was at Doyle’s house, Doyle begins to look into things himself. When it turns out both the victim and his wife worked at the same biotech company, and they were suspected of corporate espionage, Doyle’s investigation starts to suggest they were actually whistleblowers. Under pressure from his Lieutenant, Doyle reluctantly agrees to abandon his investigation, but when the widow shows up to tell him her side of the story, and what she and her husband had uncovered, Doyle finds himself on his way to Haiti, in the middle an explosive case with international ramifications involving whistleblowers and corruption, shadowy activists and deadly diseases, and the destabilization of foreign governments.
I love the ecological aspects of these books. What kind of research did you do for Dust Up, and for the series?
I had been writing about food, agriculture and biotechnology for a long time as editor of a monthly newspaper published by Weavers Way, this great food co-op in Philadelphia, so I knew a lot about the subject when I had the idea to write Drift. I often say, half jokingly, that the idea came to me when the food news I was writing during the day started getting scarier than the thrillers I was writing at night. I think it is a fascinating area: massive changes in the technology and control of vast areas of our lives have taken place largely without our knowing it, and we still don’t know enough about it. A big part of what makes the issue so controversial is how much the information about it has been hidden or obscured: the stealthy roll-out, still no labels, inadequate research, bad information coming from some sources on all sides. It can get really confusing.
I have had to do a lot of research for all three of the books. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a part of the process that I really enjoy and find really rewarding.
In a massive stroke of good fortune, I found out that Chris Holm, who is one of my favorite writers, and along with his wife Katrina Niidas Holm, among my favorite people, is a molecular biologist. He was incredibly helpful in my research for Dust Up. I was lucky to have been able to interview agronomists, geneticists, activists, and medical researchers, as well as other molecular biologists, but talking with Chris was especially helpful because as a novelist, and a thriller writer, he totally got where I was coming from, which parts of the science were relevant to the narrative and the plot logic, and what I needed to know to depict it realistically.
Since so much of the book takes place in Haiti, that required a lot of research, as well. I realized early on that if I was going to set the book in Haiti, I needed to actually go there, and I was able to visit Haiti on a service trip with my wife’s church, working with an amazing organization called MPP – The Papaye Peasant movement — which has been promoting sustainable agriculture and land reform for forty years.
As a writer, though, I have a pretty strong aversion to anything that feels like exposition. So while the themes, issues and ideas in the books are important to me, the most important thing is always telling a good story with compelling characters. As a novelist, I feel strongly that you should never let anything else get in the way of that.
Doyle Carrick is a smartass, but I love that about him. Is there a bit of you in the character?
Afraid so. One of the reasons I love writing Doyle so much as a character is that there are definitely similarities in our voices and our ways of thinking. I’m like, all of his smart-ass with none of his bad ass.
You’ve been writing for a while, but have you always wanted to be a writer?
As long as I can remember, although not without interruption. I wrote science fiction stories when I was a kid, maybe nine or ten years old, and I wrote on and off into my first year of college. By then I was playing music and writing songs pretty seriously, and that consumed most of my creative energy for about ten years. I dropped out of school to do music. It wasn’t until a few years after I quit playing music and finished college that I started writing again. I was surprised at how many of the tools I had picked up from songwriting — music as well as lyrics — transferred directly to writing fiction.
What’s one of the first things you remember writing?
I wish I could remember some of the stories I wrote as a kid, but it’s probably just as well that none of them are still around. But I do remember that I had this great neighbor, Steve Zucker, who was a science fiction aficionado, and he would read my stories. That was a big thing for me, having an adult read what I was writing, to take an interest and at least pretend to take it seriously.
Why suspense? What do you enjoy most about reading, and writing, in the genre?
I actually love the whole spectrum of crime/mystery/thriller/suspense, although I am not a huge fan of cozies. I also love science fiction and, to a lesser extent, horror as well. The thing I love most about thrillers is probably the propulsion, the driving forward of the plot. But I’m also one of those writers who likes to borrow from different genres as I see fit, or more to the point, as the story demands. The Doyle Carrick books are first and foremost thrillers, but there are definitely elements of mystery in there. Some thrillers start off with everything on the table, and the thrill of it is the ride. I like to unfold things as I go, so you know you’re going somewhere, but part of the fun is figuring out where that is. There is a science element as well, with a hint of science fiction. I love that. I love reading books that blur those lines a bit, and I love writing them as well.
What authors have influenced you the most, in your writing, and in life?
Elmore Leonard has been a massive influence on my writing — his style, his humor, his characters, his dialogue, his economy. He was a master at many of the things I consider most important in my writing. Crichton was an influence, as well, for the way he borrowed that science aspect from science fiction, ratcheted down the extrapolation so that it was really current events, and incorporated it into a thriller format. Philip K. Dick and Joe Haldeman and Kurt Vonnegut were also big influences. I was a major Philip K. Dick fan when I was younger. I still find the ideas in his books fascinating and far out, but very relevant, and increasingly so. I thought Vonnegut was pretty funny, but I especially loved the way Joe Haldeman, in my mind at least, brought smart ass to science fiction. I just reread The Forever War, which influenced me a lot, and I was relieved that it held up really well. More recently I’ve been influenced by Margaret Atwood. I thought the Maddaddam trilogy was brilliant.
As far as influences on my life goes, I would say L. Ron Hubbard, but that is just me being a smartass. Seriously, though, my pal Jonathan Maberry is a damn fine writer, and if this question didn’t have two parts, I probably would have included him in the first part, but I think he has had even more influence on me as a human being than as a writer. He’s a genuinely nice guy, incredibly smart and generous — infuriatingly prolific — and deeply committed to the idea of paying it forward, from wherever you are, especially as a writer helping other writers. He has done a tremendous amount of good in the world and particularly in the community of writers, directly, as someone who personally goes out of his way again and again to help other writers. He provides a great example of how to ‘be’ in the world.
What do you like to see in a good story? Is there anything that will make you put down a book, unfinished?
There are lots of things I like to see in a good story, and lots of different types of good stories that I like. There are definitely some types of stories and some story elements that I like more than others, but the most important thing always comes down to characters that are believable and compelling and writing that is immersive. One thing I don’t like to see in a story is the hand of the author, to have that sense of ‘writing being done.’ If I find myself thinking about the author, then I’m not thinking about the story, or more to the point, not experiencing it or being immersed in it. I also have pet peeves about excessive exposition and point of view inconsistencies — partly because they make me think of the author. Sometimes you read a book and intentionally pick it apart to see how it works, how it is constructed. But generally, when I read a book, I like to just read the book and enjoy it.
I have become much worse/better about putting down books I don’t like, and the thing that makes me do it most is clunkiness, an intangible mixture of elements that makes me think I, as a reader, am not in sure hands. When I am teaching writing or critiquing manuscripts or doing a developmental edit, that sense of sure-handedness is one of the subtle things that excites me most about a writer’s work — it makes my job harder because instead of reading critically and seeing the things that will make the work better, I find myself drawn in as a reader.
If you could experience one book again for the first time, which one would it be?
Elmore Leonard has long been one of my favorite writers. The first book of his that I read was Freaky Deaky, not his best, but it was unlike anything else I’d read, and it really spoke to me at time when I was just starting to consider taking writing more seriously and trying to write a novel. I wouldn’t say he made it look easy, but he definitely made it look fun. I went on a massive Elmore Leonard binge after that, read pretty much all of his crime stuff and some of his westerns, too. I would LOVE to rediscover Elmore Leonard for the first time, and to do it without having read the many other writers who, like me, found great inspiration in his wit, his dialogue, his economy and his breezy, snappy, crackling tone.
Have you read any good books lately? Anything you’d recommend?
Two books that really stood out for me in the last few months are The Killing Kind by Chris Holm and The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney, both just masterful, in very different ways.
What are you currently reading?
I just read John Scalzi’s The End of All Things, which I really liked. Up next is Owen Laukkanen’s The Watcher in the Wall and Chuck Wendig’s Zeroes.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
If you want to be a writer, you just have to write. Read a lot, too, but sitting down and writing is the most important thing, and sometimes the most difficult. I still sometimes have a problem with that, moving from one phase to the next, from brainstorming to outlining to drafting. Inertia is a powerful force. It can seem so much easier to keep doing whatever it is you are doing than to move on to whatever is next, at least, until you actually do it. The trick is to actually do it.
What do you hope readers will take away from your books?
There are a lot of ideas in my books that I think are important, and I hope people will consider them, and maybe think about them later, but the most important thing for me is to tell a great story with real flesh and blood characters. I hope my readers enjoy the story and care about the characters and want to read more.
When you’re not writing, how do you like to spend your extra time (assuming you have any)?
I wish there was more of it. I enjoy spending time with my wife Elizabeth, my son Will, and my dog, Kismet. I enjoy cooking and eating, reading and watching TV — ideally Better Call Saul.
What’s next for you? Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I’ve been working on several projects simultaneously lately, which is unlike me, but has been fun. I have three novels on the go and I haven’t yet decided which one I will be committing to finish first. I’ve also written a few short stories, so hopefully they’ll be coming out here and there in the coming months. I had a story in the X-Files anthology, The Truth Is Out There, which came out in February, and a Doyle Carrick novella, Down to Zero, which came out in April. The May issue of Fantasy Scroll Magazine will include a science fiction story of mine called “Grounders.”
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About Dust Up:
In this outstanding international thriller by Jon McGoran, Detective Doyle Carrick is awakened in the middle of the night by frantic banging on his front door, followed by gunfire. Ron Hartwell, a complete stranger, is dying on his doorstep.
A halfhearted investigation labels the murder a domestic dispute, with Miriam, Ron’s widow, the sole suspect. Doyle discovers the Hartwells both worked for a big biotech company and suspects something else is going on, but it’s not his case. Then Miriam tracks him down and tells him her story.
Miriam and Ron had been working in Haiti and visiting her friend Regi Baudet, the deputy health minister, when they stumbled upon a corporate cover-up of tainted food aid that sickened an entire village―and was one hundred percent fatal. They were coming to Doyle to blow the whistle. Before Miriam can say more, they are attacked by gunmen and she flees, then disappears.
Doyle tracks her to Haiti, a country on the brink of political chaos. Working with Miriam and Regi, he must untangle a web of deceit and unconscionable corporate greed in order to stop an epidemic of even greater evil before it is released onto an unsuspecting world.