Interview with Catherine Coulter
(Catherine Coulter stands out as one of the most talented thriller authors of this generation. Her fast paced novels have consistently hit the bestseller lists and have earned her legions of fans eager to read her series books as well as stand-alone crime novels. Last month Gallery Books published her latest novel Insidious which also hit the bestseller list and earned praise from critics and fans alike. We spoke to Catherine about her latest book, the writing craft, and much more.)
AFG: Tell us about your latest novel Insidious.
CC: As with most of my FBI thrillers, there are two mysteries. In Insidious, both were both challenging, many times like a puzzle, since one mystery is set in Washington D.C. and the other one in Los Angeles. The challenge part was trying to get the drama to fit the timeline so the 3-hour difference didn’t bollix me up completely. Washington: Who’s trying to murder the grande dame of industry? Los Angeles: Who is the Serial killing off young starlets? Come to mama and let me make you cry like a little girl when you can’t solve the mysteries.
AFG: When did you decide that you wanted to write for a living?
CC: My first word was “Comma!” instead of “Mama” and she picked me up, whirled me around, and said, “Okay, if I’m a comma, what’s your daddy?” Okay, seriously: Writing was always easy for me, like math is easy for some people, painting is easy for some people, it was writing for me. I was a speech writer on Wall Street when it hit me – I was reading twenty books a week (my husband was in medical school), and one night, I threw the book across the room and said I can do better. I continued my job for three more years, then quit to write full time. Oh profound joy: no more high heels, no more suits. On the other hand, it meant that everything (including buying cat food) was on my head. I learned to get up, write, and not whine. Words to live by. It’s worked.
AFG: How many hours a day do you write
CC: I’m at my computer at 7:30 every morning (after spending an hour on emails and Facebook). I work until 10:30. Goodness, three hours. I sound like a slacker. But I’m fast, and my brain gets tired, okay?
AFG: What is your view on outlines?
Photo Partial by Charles Bush
CC: I know some authors live by the Outline, but nah! Not this puppy. I never knew what I was called until three years ago when someone said, “Hey, Catherine, are you a pantser?” Pantser means a writer who writes by the seat of his pants — as opposed to a “plotser”. I was fascinated that anyone could actually write down before the fact what the book was about (an outline, it’ called) because, speaking for myself, how could I since I have no idea. What plot? What characters? Howsoever, with J.T. Ellison, my co-writer of the BRIT in the FBI series, she and I work for two days solid and outline a BRIT thriller up to ninety-five chapters. Both of us are amazed since she’s a pantser too.
AFG: Your books require a lot of research—do you have sources within the FBI who you can call upon to ask them about your work or procedure?
CC: I have my own personal angel at the Hoover Building in Washington. I’ll call, ask, “Can I do this?” If the answer’s “Don’t be a moron,” it’s okay because then my own personal angel helps me figure out how to make what I want to do actually work and be logical in an FBI framework. I love FBI special agents. They’re excellent people.
AFG: Since you’re married to a doctor are you always asking him questions about medical terms, etc?
CC: One of his primary marital responsibilities is to make completely “realistic” any and everything medical in any of my books, even the Viking historical romances, in 920 AD. Also, my husband is the “Editor From Hell”. Yes, it’s also his responsibility to make sure all the myriad loose ends aren’t left dangling. And he’s ferocious. Thank you god, thank you god!
AFG: What was the inspiration behind The Maze?
CC: My publisher wanted another FBI thriller, and considered The Cove the first in a series. What series? I had no intention of writing another FBI thriller. Only The Cove. And then there was this lovely deep male voice in the back of my head saying, “What about me, Catherine?” That was Dillon Savich. Now all he needed was a Sherlock (I can’t remember where that name came from) and so The Maze was born. The Maze is, actually, Sherlock’s book, her nightmare, her settling into a professional life she loved. And there was Savich, of course.
AFG: Were you surprised by the success of the book?
CC: If I say no, you’ll think I’m an arrogant jerk. If I say yes, you’ll say don’t be so humble. The classic horns of the dilemma.
AFG: You’ve been writing since 1978. What are some of the changes you have seen in the genre? Do you think the changing landscape of publishing is something we should be excited about?
CC: Give me three week to discuss all the changes in the business. I’ll say only that this is a GREAT time to be a young writer. The sky’s the limit and you do not have to rely on some anonymous publishing house in New York to tell you that you don’t suck. Ebook publishing is something to embrace, not denigrate and run away from. Go!
AFG: Who are some of the writers that you read and enjoy today?
CC: I read everything I can get my paws on, to name a few, Jayne Ann Krentz, J.K. Rowking, John Sandford, J.D. Robb, Michael Connelly, Linda Howard –- just off the top of my head.
AFG: You’ve written straight up thrillers and romantic thrillers, which would you describe as more of a challenge?
CC: The thrillers are naturally the most challenging because I have not one but TWO mysteries and that always turns out to mean there are at least six times as many loose ends that I and the Editor from Hell have to keep searching out, and tying up, and they always seem to multiply, the little buggers. I also really enjoy writing historical romances because the change of genre keeps my brain unconstipated. Also, the pacing isn’t so demanding, e.g., I can take you to cat races with no one stroking out wondering who done it.
AFG: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
CC: Memorize Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, set your writing time and stick to it (regardless of death, unless it’s yours), be DISCIPLINED, produce new pages every day and the biggie? HAVE FUN.
AFG: What would you say is the best part of being an author?
CC: There are three best parts really: 1) I work for a strange individual but it doesn’t matter, since it’s me. 2) Scaring the crap out of people on the freeway when I have a plot epiphany and start chair dancing. 3) Opening the mail every day (well, except Sunday, which is a bummer) because you never know what the writing gods have sent you, e.g., a contract with Bulgaria for a book I wrote twenty years ago.
AFG: How did you come up with your FBI characters? Were they inspired by anyone you met?
Now there’s a story in itself. Special Agent James Quinlan, FBI, the main dude in The Cove, simply appeared, and I remember thinking, okay, an FBI agent is probably cool. As for Dillon Savich, who became the main dude in the FBI series, he only had a back-up role in The Cove. As for Sherlock, again, she simply appeared and she had a very powerful (and admittedly, sick) reason for joining the FBI. Together Savich and Sherlock are the thread that holds the series together. No characters are inspired by someone I met, know, read about — they simply appear magically from my medulla oblongata, or somewhere as yet unidentified, a place only writers know about.
AFG: Nicholas Drummond, Mike Caine, Dillon Savich and Lacey Sherlock—those names are priceless. Don’t tell me Sherlock Holmes inspired you to come up with Lacey Sherlock.
CC: To be honest, I do not remember where I got Sherlock’s name. Her father is a federal court judge in San Francisco and is feared by defense attorneys. Sherlock’s a sweetie and a big butt-kicker (Read Nemesis). I have to admit to a slight embarrassment: since the FBI series didn’t begin as a “series”, Sherlock’s first name is spelled two different ways: Lacey and Lacy. I’m trying to find them all to make them consistent. (But I don’t know which spelling I prefer — any ideas?) Good luck with that.
AFG: What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I love to work-out, read, watch the Big Bang Theory and play with my cute husband – movies, skiing, visiting places in the world that strike fear and terror into the hearts of saner individuals, e.g., London or New York.
AFG: What would you describe as the most difficult part of writing a book?
CC: This is easy since I’m a pantser. The most difficult part for me is always figuring out the two plots. The characters are always ready to come out and play and show themselves in all full plumage, but the plots – they take time and brainstorming and lots of chocolate.
AFG: Does it get any easier to write with time or does it become more difficult to find inspiration and new plots?
CC: If any writer says it gets easier, they are lying. If they claim they’re not, insist on a lie detector test. Every single book is different from every other single book, each presenting different challenges, different problems, but all require big time head-scratching. As Thomas Edison said, “Success (writing) is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.”
AFG: What is it like to work with J.T. Ellison on The End Game, The Lost Key and The Final Cut? Do you enjoy the collaborative process?
CC: J.T. Ellison is now an integral part of my family. I consider myself the luckiest writer in the known universe. We fit together perfectly, both with our individual strengths, our individual weaknesses. But the thing is: you put two writers’ brains together and you produce magic. We spend long weekends together, lot of work, lots of laughing, even some shopping thrown in to keep the brains cleared out. It’s an amazing process for us, one that I can’t imagine having with any other writer. Thankyougod, thankyougod.
AFG: Tell us how you managed to weave two complex plots together in Nemesis.
CC: In most of the FBI series thrillers, there are two separate plots, one starring Savich and Sherlock and the other introducing two new characters. Sometimes the plots do weave themselves together, like in Backfire – now that was an amazing epiphany when I figured out how to do it. (Remember scaring the crap out of other drivers on the freeway?) Writing two mysteries comes naturally to me now. It’s different in the series with J.T Ellison – The BRIT in the FBI – those are one plot, one focus, and insane wild action. Here’s to James Bond.
AFG: What books did you read and enjoy when you were growing up?
CC: I can remember my mom reading to me when I was about four years old. And I sat on my grandmother’s knee while she held a book on her lap (with me there too) and read aloud, pointing to the words as she read. When I was old enough to read on my own, I dove into anything and everything my mom gave me. Nancy Drew was a big-time favorite. As a teenager, I read books I shouldn’t have read, but hey, it didn’t ruin my morals.
AFG: I love the concept of the witness in Eleventh Hour who has seen a murder take place and is filled with fear. Plus the San Francisco setting was great. What are some of your memories of putting that whole book together?
CC: That first scene simply came out of my fingers. I had no clue what would happen and then it turns out that the murdered priest had a twin brother, an FBI agent in the CAU – Criminal Apprehension Unit – headed by Savich in Washington. So we have a homeless woman who witnesses the priest’s murder. And what happens? Then I had to figure out the mystery behind the homeless woman. What was her story? As it turns out, she was escaping from her own nightmare mystery. And it all worked out.
AFG: I know you like to travel. Are there any places you would count as your favorites?
CC: Any place in Italy. I’ve covered nearly every square inch of Italy now and when asked my favorite spot, I say, “The Almalfi Coast, then Capri,” then I stop cold, and say, “Wait, what about Venice? What about Florence?” Italy — talk about magic. There’s no sucky place in Italy.
AFG: What are you working on now?
CC: Oh my, hold onto your ball cap. The title is ENIGMA – and what does that make you think of? A complex cipher, something or someone scary and unknown. And what if you were an enigma? What would you be? Don’t forget about the vicious escaped criminal who stole a critical document. I’m scaring the crap out of myself and I’ve only started writing it. To be continued….