A Conversation With Gayle Lynds

by Claire E. White

New York Times bestselling author Gayle Lynds grew up in a small town in Iowa near the Missouri River. A
Photo of Gayle Lynds
champion debater, she went on to graduate from the University of Iowa with a degree in journalism and then moved West, first to Arizona and then to Southern California, where she remains today. Gayle is a former investigative reporter and an editor with Top Secret security clearance at a think tank where her government projects ranged from making deserts bloom to designing cutting-edge military hardware that had the capacity to wipe life from entire continents.

But she left the world of top secrets to be a stay at home mom for ten years. She sent her husband off to his law office, sat on PTA boards, and baked scrumptious cookies. The mother of two small children, she was in a very difficult situation when she faced divorce. After being unemployed for a decade, she didn't know how she was going to keep food on the table for her children. She had begun writing fiction in her spare time and had two of her short stories published in literary journals. But the pay was less than stellar. So when a friend asked whether she could write pulp fiction paperbacks for men, she jumped at the chance.

Nick Carter is America's version of James Bond, and many men have written some 500 paperbacks published about his adventures. Her friend had a contract. He developed an outline. So Gayle set aside the literary novel on which she was working, and instead she wrote The Day of the Mahdi, Nick Carter #190. The publisher loved it, and Gayle went on to write many more of the spy yarns. After all, she reasoned, pulp paperbacks have provided a training ground for some of the top male authors today, such as Dean Koontz, Nelson DeMille, and Martin Cruz Smith. Why couldn't a woman do the same thing? She says of the experience, "I was learning. I was exploring characterization, suspense, plotting, and style, and I was being paid for it."

Over the next few years, she wrote eleven pulp novels, all with male leads, all aimed at male audiences, most with international settings. As she finished the last of her book contracts, she realized that what she really wanted to do with the rest of her life was to write thrillers, like those of Robert Ludlum and Frederick Forsyth. By then, Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, Mary Higgins Clark, and many other female authors had proved women could hold their own in mysteries. She thought that it was high time that women made their mark in the spy thriller genre, as well.

So Gayle began research for Masquerade, which is based on an actual CIA "black" program in mind control. She was convinced that readers would find a strong, brainy woman caught up in an international suspense story fascinating, especially if brought to them by a female writer who'd trained in the male pulps while remaining decidedly a woman. Masquerade was ultimately bought by the president of Doubleday. But it was a woman who first turned the book down at another publishing house, saying that it had to be a fake -- that no woman could have written such a book. Needless to say, Gayle found that quite ironic.

She went on to write the stand-alone bestselling thrillers, Mosaic (Pocket Books) and Mesmerized (Pocket Books) and to co-write The Hades Factor with Robert Ludlum, who personally picked Gayle to be his co-author from a slew of potential writers. Mesmerized, which was just released by Simon and Schuster tells the story of a brilliant trial attorney who undergoes a heart transplant. When she starts taking on some of the characteristics of the organ donor (a former KGB spy), things get tricky indeed, as she is plunged into a world of espionage and terrorism.

Gayle and her husband, fellow author Dennis Lynds, live in a house overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Together, Gayle and Dennis have four children, and enjoy traveling extensively for research and to keep up with their growing family. Gayle talked with us about her journey from being a newspaper reporter to bestselling author, how she created her hot new thriller, Mesmerized, and what it was like to co-write a book with Robert Ludlum.

When you were growing up, did you know that you wanted to be a novelist?

Oh, my, writing a book was so far beyond anything a kid from Council Bluffs, Iowa, could ever dream that I never even dared allowed the idea to enter my head. I revered books (and still do). In fact, in my awe, I thought that only dead people wrote books or, at best, gods and goddesses.

In truth, books were the one area of my life that made sense, and I was so obsessed with them that I even taught myself grammar and spelling by reading. (How sick is that?) So I suppose it was inevitable that I would do a lot of therapy and write.

What did you enjoy reading when you were a little girl?

Anything I could get my hands on, including Campbell soup can labels and the inside roll of cardboard on which toilet paper comes. That was how I learned that Crown Zellerbach was the largest paper producer in the world in those days. When the lady who lived next door to us died, she left behind a small library of books. Her children planned to throw them out, and my mother heard about it. She asked whether I could have a few. They said sure, and then I went over. I looked through the books, quietly salivating. Finally they asked which books I wanted. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I said, "All of them, please."

They were so relieved that they didn't have to haul them away that they said sure, fine, take them. Immediately I carried the boxes to my house. I was worried they'd get some common sense and change their minds. What a treasure trove. It was everything from Graham Greene's adventure stories as well as literary works to Lowell Thomas's eye-witness accounts of World War II. I was incredibly happy, drunk on books.

What was the first thing you ever wrote? What reaction did you get from the people who read it?

When I was fifteen, I began my first short story. I remember the soaring joy of it all, the heady sense of being in the stratosphere of possibility, daring the undareable. But then I read it. It wasn't good enough. I put it away and didn't try another piece of fiction for ten years.

Can you tell us about your job at the think tank?

Cover of Masquerade by Gayle Lynds
It was fascinating in many ways. I had to use number codes or show my badge to enter many areas in the buildings, since so much classified work was going on. Posters on the walls reminded us never to speak of anything secret. I was an editor and worked on a wide variety of projects, everything from making deserts bloom to creating weapons that could wipe life from entire continents.

One of the reasons I took the job -- although I was a journalist and ordinarily would've been a reporter in some daily at that point in my life -- was that I'd had some lit classes in which Kurt Vonnegut briefly taught.

He told us he wrote Cat's Cradle based on his experiences as an editor at a think tank, and I was intrigued by the loony characters and events he described from his days there. When I went to work at my think tank, I found the same thing. Everyone pretty much bordered on nuts, me included.

You left a successful career to be a stay at home mom for several years, and began your career as a literary author. How did you end up writing pulp fiction novels (the popular Nick Carter series)? What did you learn from working on this series?

Yes, I feel so fortunate I was able to be at home with my kids when they were young (and so was I---what fun!). That's the period, when both they and I were doing so much growing, and that's when I finally admitted that all I wanted to do was write.

Then, of course, divorce. Poverty was on the horizon, and I was very fond of my children, who had grown accustomed to eating.

"I write for those who love sweeping suspense novels. It's interesting to me that my audience seems to be half male, half female. I feel that's a tremendous compliment, because it indicates to me that it's the story that counts, and I must be doing something right."
A friend asked if I could write male pulp fiction, and I lied. I said yes, without knowing whether I could, but I was desperate. Whoever said necessity is the mother of invention is wrong. Desperation is.

I loved the Nick Carters. They're America's answer to 007, and I figured I was being paid to learn to write. I'd already been publishing literary short stories, and I wanted to broaden my abilities. By going to the opposite end of the spectrum (which the Nick Carters definitely were), I figured I'd learn a lot. I did, and I'm most grateful.

Is it true that your first stand-alone thriller, Masquerade, was at first rejected because the publisher didn't believe that a woman could have written it? What was your reaction to that, and how did the book eventually end up at Doubleday?

Yes, that was Elaine Koster, who at that time was the head of Dutton. Her assistant called my agent, Henry Morrison, to tell him she liked the book and would make an offer, but it couldn't be until tomorrow morning, because Ms. Koster was at home with a cold.

But when the next morning came, she phoned Henry to say she'd changed her mind. because "no woman could've written this book," and she accused him of being a bit on the shifty side.

My goodness, in the 1990s that sort of silliness was still going on. After I got over the shock of it, I laughed. But of course there was no way we wanted to sell the book to Dutton after that. Even if she were to believe I'd written it, there would always be a lingering taint.

As a footnote, Elaine has gone on to be a very successful agent. Someday I'd like to meet her. So Henry sent Masquerade to Doubleday, where Steve Rubin, the legendary head of the company, never asked a question and bought it. What a thrill.

I'd like to talk about your latest novel, Mesmerized. What was your inspiration for this story?

Cover of Mesmerized by Gayle Lynds
What actually triggered the book was my discovery that the largest group of retired KGB spies outside of Moscow lives in the Washington, D.C. area.

I was intrigued. There's no way the largest number of our retired CIA would have settled around Moscow. So what had happened to get so many of our former enemies over here?

The answer, of course, was the end of the cold war, when an avalanche of top ex KGB, GRU, Stasi, and other Iron Curtain spies defected to us. When their debriefings were finished, they wanted to stay in the D.C. area, which of course they knew from being debriefed there and also because it's such a cosmopolitan metropolis, much easier for them to assimilate into than would be a little town in the Midwest.

The book deals with an interesting phenomenon: that recipients of donor organs sometimes claim to have "inherited" memories or sensations for the former owner of the organ. Is there any scientific evidence supporting this?

Yes, there's a growing body of evidence, and much of it I detail in Mesmerized. The phenomenon is called cellular memory. I'd like to stress, however, that this isn't a horrible thing. In fact, many of the transplant recipients who report cellular memory incidences are fascinated by the experience and find they learn a great deal that they're very happy about.

Briefly, here are a few facts.... Recently it's been proved that not only the brain but the heart has neurotransmitters, which are the critical substances that transmit nerve impulses across the brain's synapses. The brain needs electrochemical energy so it can think. As it turns out, the heart has even more juice than the brain -- in fact, five thousand times more, in the form of electromagnetic power. Everyone remembers Einstein's breakthrough: E=MC squared. Scientists now say energy may be interchangeable not only with matter, which Einstein postulated, but with information. If so, this electric power could explain how the heart might think and communicate. There's a lot of hardwiring between the brain and the heart -- super conduits of energy and thought, if you will.

The book's main protagonist is Beth Convey, a Washington, D. C. trial lawyer who ends up involved with espionage and a terrorist plot. Beth is a tough, competent attorney, yet she definitely has strong feelings. How did you create the character of Beth? Is there any of Gayle Lynds in the character of Beth?

Of course, I'm in all my characters. That's part of the writing that none of us has any control over. One way or another, we show up in not only our heroes but our villains.

But Beth is also based on a brilliant young woman who's an international attorney in Washington, D.C., who speaks several languages and just recently earned her Ph.D. from Oxford. Her name is Carolyn Campbell, and she was good enough to vet the entire manuscript to make certain all the legal and Washington stuff was accurate.

Beth gets involved with Jeff Hammond, an investigative reporter for the Washington Post, who may be more than he seems. Jeff is a complex and appealing character. Who or what was your inspiration for Jeff?

He's straight out of my imagination, but his work is based on my short tenure as a reporter. I like him a lot, too ... sexy, complicated, opinionated. Wouldn't mind inviting him to a party.

How did your collaboration with Robert Ludlum to write The Hades Factor come about?

Cover of The Hades Factor by Robert Ludlum and Gayle Lynds
Within a short time, Bob's first wife died and he left his long-time publisher. Bob was ready to make a fresh start. One of his ideas was to begin a series, his first official one. For that, he wanted a coauthor. He asked his agent to send him a pile of books of writers whom he considered likely suspects.

Apparently, Bob really liked mine a lot, and so my agent contacted me and proposed the idea.

What was it like working with Robert Ludlum? How did the collaboration work?

It was a lot of fun. Bob came up with an initial idea -- the name of the hero, the story was about a virus that somehow arose from Desert Storm, and the hero's fiancée would die early in the story. I took that and ran, creating subsidiary characters, a plot, and an outline. We kicked it back and forth. Then I wrote the book, and we repeated the process.

Although the Hades Factor is like neither of our standalones, it's an exciting book that pleased us both a lot.

Before his recent death, had he already started work on the next installment in the Covert One series?

Alas, my schedule is heavy, so I wasn't able to coauthor book no. 2. Philip Shelby, a fine writer, is doing it. It's called the Cassandra Compact, and it will be in stores in mid May. I'll be back next year with book no. 3, The Paris Option, in the spring of 2002.

I'd like to talk about the creative process itself. When you start a new book, do you use extensive outlines? How much of the plot and ending do you have in mind when you start writing?

Yes, I'm an outliner. When I first began writing novels, the last
"That's the secret everyone forgets: Most of writing is thinking. So now I spend a great deal of time not only gathering the information, but thinking about it, tossing ideas around in my head, trying out different scenarios, playing with characters, locations, 'what-ifs,' that sort of thing."
thing I wanted to do was to create an outline. I wanted to WRITE. However, I've learned the hard way that writing isn't just putting words on a screen, it's also thinking.

That's the secret everyone forgets: Most of writing is thinking. So now I spend a great deal of time not only gathering the information, but thinking about it, tossing ideas around in my head, trying out different scenarios, playing with characters, locations, 'what-ifs,' that sort of thing.

Eventually I reach a place where I have a sense of where the book begins and ends, and at that point I begin actually pounding out an outline. Sometimes this preparatory work can take as long as the writing itself.

Have you ever experienced writer's block? If so, what do you do to overcome it?

If one thinks going a day or two without being able to write is writer's block, then everyone has it now and then. However, as my husband always says, if you can't write for ten years, that's real writer's block.

Thank god, I'm not there yet.

What is your advice to aspiring writers?

I like to quote John Lescroart whenever I'm asked that question: "Don't get it right. Get it written."

How has the genre changed since you first started writing thrillers?

Gayle Lynds in her office
Gayle in her office.
I entered the field in the mid-1990s when many people said the international spy novel was dead, because the Cold War was over and we'd lost the Soviets as an easy target. Even LeCarré and Forsythe said the contemporary espionage thriller was finished.

And now, today, we have three major spy thrillers coming out from the movies in the next few months, and more and more espionage books are being published. It's been a 180-degree change, and I'm very glad to see it.

Do you write for a male or a female audience when you write? Do you even consider the gender of your readers?

I write for those who love sweeping suspense novels. It's interesting to me that my audience seems to be half male, half female. I feel that's a tremendous compliment, because it indicates to me that it's the story that counts, and I must be doing something right.

Are there any authors who influenced you in your formative years?

Cover of Mosaic by Gayle Lynds
Everyone, good and bad, literary and popular, Westerns, mainstream, detective novels, romance novels ... everything. I was a sponge, and now I'm so very grateful for all that apparently erratic reading, because it's given me a very broad foundation from which to create tales.

What is the greatest challenge that you've faced as a writer?

Always it's the next idea, because it can't be just any idea. It has to be good. Great is even better.

When you're not working, what do you like to do for fun?

Travel with my husband, detective novelist Michael Collins. We have so much fun!

You've written so much about espionage; do you think you would have made a good spy?

Nope, I'm much too chicken. Also, I like my own bed, regular meals, telephone calls from friends and relatives, and knowing I can get a shower whenever I like. Some things are really difficult to give up. I'm a wimp.

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