I’m often asked about the research process that creates the texture in my books. These stories are international: high-octane chases, mysteries, and adventure tales, layered and threaded within the politics, cultures, sights, and smells of foreign countries, many of them in the developing world—thrillers that follow Vanessa Michael Munroe, a character who’s a chameleon that combines a bit of Jason Bourne, Jack Reacher, and Mitch Rapp—except the non-testosterone version.The series wasn’t exactly planned this way. In fact, the series wasn’t planned at all. My goal when I first began writing wasn’t even to get published but rather to lay claim to having finished writing a book. I had no plot, no characters, no writing background, or any idea, really, of what I was doing. I simply wanted to bring to life the paranoid and corrupt realities of a small country off Africa’s west coast where I’d lived for a little over two years. Those humble aims eventually resulted in, as one reader recently wrote, “one of the most complex, violent but compelling characters in modern adrenaline-filled action-packed adventure fiction,” and a bestselling series that’s stretched to 5 ¼ books—each one growing increasingly time-consuming and more difficult to write.
My stories push the boundaries of realism in terms of action and character ability, and that’s balanced by solidly grounding them in real-life locations, subject matter, and cultural settings. For that reason, there’s a lot of exacting detail in each book: a lot to have to get right and, because they cover so much territory, a whole lot that’s easy to get wrong.
In novel-land, there’s a creature referred to as the ideal reader. This is an imaginary person or audience for whom the writer crafts words and turns phrases, aiming to please, always hoping (but of course!) that this ideal reader will connect with the work.
In a perfect world, my imaginary person would love me, and get me, and wouldn’t care if I sometimes messed up the details. Instead I ended up with an ideal reader who’s a hardass, always ready to point out flaws and inaccuracies, suffering from multiple personality disorder. One day he’s a gunrunner, the next she’s a sex-trafficking victim, the next a border guard, or a diplomat, a biochemist, or a mercenary. My ideal reader, like it or not,will always be an imaginary real-life someone I’ve never met who’s more intimate with the terrain than I. Forget aiming to please, I’m motivated toward accuracy as a way to keep the imaginary mocking laughter to a minimum.
This was especially acute when researching for The Catch, a tall tale of modern-day ship piracy whose texture draws heavily on the maritime industry, armed transit companies, and the Somali diaspora—all very difficult subjects to accurately breathe to life without firsthand experience.
To conduct research for this book, it was out of the question that I visit Somalia or tag along on a freighter plowing down the Somali coast. As much as I love adventure and traveling off the beaten path, the obligations of being a mother wouldn’t let me do it, and that overrode the imagined laughter of the ideal reader. But the laughter was still there and needed to be vanquished.
Salvation came in the form of a ship captain who was so unbelievable that, had a fictional character been gifted with his backstory and abilities, howls of reader protest would have ensued. Officially, Max Hardberger is an aircraft pilot, ship captain, and maritime lawyer, with an MFA in creative writing. But he’s done far more. Nestled on his résumé between a few other interesting sideline careers is the biggie: hijacking. Max is the world’s only maritime repossession specialist—the guy you call to steal back stolen ships.
Right around the time that Max’s memoir, Seized! A Sea Captain’s Adventures Battling Scoundrels and Pirates While Recovering Stolen Ships in the World’s Most Troubled Waters, was published, I’d begun toying with vague and wispy ideas for The Catch. I wasn’t sure, really, if the premise was plausible enough to fit within the reality-based scope of the series, and even if it turned out to be, I wasn’t convinced I could pull together enough accurate detail to put several of the ideal reader’s personalitieson mute.
I picked up Seized! as part of the advance research reading, thinking that because it was a memoir and by definition real life, I might get a sense for plausibility and accuracy for my own story. I ended up with so much more.
Completely taken with the man behind the book and the fascinating life he’d made for himself, I had to email him. That initial exchange turned into a longer one, and from there eventually to a face-to-face meeting. Max and I spent two days talking shop and I got to ask the types of questions for which one hopes being a novelist is considered a solid defense when the FBI comes knocking.
Max taught me how he’d stop a moving ship on the open ocean, taught me about the law of salvage and about shipbreaking, told me stories of others who’d prepared to steal back hijacked and guarded ships, and ten dozen other things, most of which never made it into The Catch. Later, Max sent me pictures from a port-building project in Somalia: sporting a worthy beard, dressed like a local with flowing robes and headscarf, carrying his AK-47.
Last I checked, Max is still alive and, gratefully, so am I. With the research for The Catch now in my wake, I’m eager to head off to learn whatever exotic locations this series takes us next.
Taylor Stevens is the award-winning New York Times bestselling author of The Informationist, The Innocent, and The Doll. Featuring Vanessa Michael Munroe, the series has received critical acclaim and the books are published in twenty languages. The Informationist has been optioned for film by James Cameron’s production company, Lightstorm Entertainment. Born in New York State and into the Children of God, raised in communes across the globe, and denied an education beyond sixth grade, Stevens was in her twenties when she broke free to follow hope and a vague idea of what possibilities lay beyond. She now lives in Texas. Her latest novel, The Catch, will be published by Crown on July 15, 2014.