A Conversation With Alan Jacobsonby Clare E. White
The Internet Writing Journal, June 2001
Bestselling mystery author Alan Jacobson took a
Alan was certainly no stranger to publishing, however. While at Queens College, he was co-editor-in-chief of The Fugue, a literary magazine produced by the Writing Skills Workshop. In addition, his short stories and poetry appeared in the college's Drum and Non-Sequitur publications. Later, while at Palmer, he was named editor-in-chief of The Argus, the college's monthly newspaper. But these credits were far from writing an intriguing, bestselling novel.
While re-learning the nuances of character, setting, dialogue and the like, Alan heard of an ongoing legal case that intrigued him: the 1954 Sam Sheppard murder trial. The basis of the TV show (and future Harrison Ford movie) The Fugitive, it was the tragic tale of a physician who was falsely accused (and convicted) of murdering his wife. Those who are familiar with the story know that it was not until many years later -- after Dr. Sheppard had served ten years in prison and died a few years after his release -- that it was definitively determined through DNA analysis that the doctor had been falsely accused. Alan was fascinated by the concept of being innocent -- yet being unable to prove it. Combined with his experience in the legal arena, he was inspired. False Accusations grew out of that inspiration.
While writing False Accusations, Alan audited a class at the California Criminalists Institute. Not only was this instrumental in shaping the plot of False Accusations, but it also put him in contact with an FBI agent, a profiler for the bureau's Profiling and Behavioral Assessment Unit at Quantico. Alan spent the next five years researching the FBI and working with its agents. The resulting research laid the groundwork for his next two novels. The first of these, The Hunted, was recently released in hardcover by Pocket Books.
False Accusations met with critical acclaim and landed on the USA Today Bestseller list. False Accusations was translated into seven foreign languages and recorded as a books-on-tape audio cassette by noted actor Zeljko Ivanek (A Civil Action, TV series Homicide).
His latest release, The Hunted, is an exciting thriller which asks the question, "How well you really know your loved ones?" The book centers on psychologist Dr. Lauren Chambers, who teams up with private investigator Nick Bradley to find her missing husband. Their search reveals some very disturbing information that has Lauren questioning herself, her judgment and her marriage. Booklist says of The Hunted, "Jacobson keeps readers guessing right up until the last page, so trying to put this book down is like trying not to eat the last chocolate chip cookie: most of us will just give in."
Alan lives with his family in Northern California. He is currently at work on his third novel. When's he's not working, you might find him spending time with his family or pursuing his favorite hobbies: photography and graphics design. Alan talked with us about The Hunted, his trademark "turn on a dime" endings, and how he made the move from practicing chiropractor to bestselling novelist.
What did you like to read when you were a boy?
From what I can recall, I read mostly adventure books, mysteries and assorted science fiction. I don't remember reading many short stories. As I got older, I migrated toward early Stephen King and then only had time for college-assigned reading materials.
What was the first thing you ever wrote? Did you show it to anyone?
The first substantive story I can remember creating was a short story for a writing workshop class in my freshman year of college. The tale involved two young soldiers from opposing sides who get stranded from their units and must help each other to survive. I vividly recall my professor raking me over the coals because I'd given one of the youths an abdominal wound, and evidently didn't convey the true amount of pain such a wound would cause. Apparently, this was sensitive topic for him. Afterwards, an elderly woman seated beside me touched me on the arm. "I thought your story was wonderful," she said. "Don't worry about what he said." I later discovered this woman was the namesake for the college creative writing award! The experience did teach me one thing of value, to which I still currently adhere when writing my novels: always research your facts. Whenever possible, get it right.
What led up to the publication of your first novel? What was the most challenging part of the experience?
It was all a challenge, partly because I didn't take
|"I've always been partial to twists, going back to when I began reading O'Henry. That chill, the jaw dropping 'Oh, my god' feeling is so precious...I love it."|
But the missing piece to this puzzle was the Maui Writers Conference. I met in private consultation with 14 agents and editors, and had interest from nine of them. One in particular was so taken with my writing sample that she told me to consider myself "under development," and asked me to overnight her the entire manuscript as soon as I returned home. A week later, I had a contract for representation. Two weeks after successfully suing my prior publisher and re-obtaining my rights, I had a two-book hardback contract from Simon & Schuster's Pocket Books; the first book published was False Accusations and the second was my new release, The Hunted.
I'd like to talk about your latest novel, The Hunted. What was your inspiration for the story?
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Dr. Lauren Chambers is an interesting character; she's smart and courageous, yet she suffers from the effects of a childhood trauma. What was behind your decision to make Lauren suffer from anxiety attacks? It's an interesting choice of characteristics for a heroine.
You have a very keen insight. It is, indeed, a curious choice for a heroine. That's probably why it's such an unusual character quality to find in a novel. I wanted Lauren to grow as The Hunted progressed. By giving Lauren agoraphobia, it was easier to show that growth and change, particularly because a good portion of the novel is told through her eyes. She has to face her fears or be consumed by them-and her husband's life is hanging on her choice. I also liked agoraphobia because it's a condition you rarely see used by other authors, probably because it's difficult to have a character with this affliction and still have an effective heroine. It's always challenging -- and preferable -- to do something that others haven't done.
Also, Lauren not only has agoraphobia, but she's a psychologist, which makes her different from most people who suffer from this malady. She understands her condition from all perspectives. This is both good and bad -- she knows what she needs to do to overcome her anxieties, but it frustrates her because it's one thing to know and understand, and another to be capable of acting on it. In short, I think it adds to her character because her worst fears literally come to fruition. And to save herself and her husband, she has to confront these fears in order to survive and succeed. And she's doing this against tough odds, against a ruthless killer who will stop at nothing to get at the truth…
The book has some fascinating scenes at the FBI's headquarters and at some of the training facilities. How do you approach the research which is necessary for this kind of book?
It was more difficult before I was published to cold call or walk in and ask for someone's time. I was a long shot at best, and some contacts were wary about wasting their time. When you can give them your card that says "bestselling author," you generally get a better response -- especially if they've read your books! However, everyone has to start somewhere, and if you approach it professionally you'll likely find someone willing to talk with you. For the FBI, I was fortunate. Through a series of circumstances, while researching False Accusations, I was invited to audit a weeklong class given by the Department of Justice on blood spatter pattern analysis. FBI agents, criminalists, and homicide detectives from all over the country took this class. I had an enormous pool of resources right there in the room!
Most importantly, I became friendly with one of the FBI agents. He provided a great deal of information I needed for the manuscript I was writing at the time, and we remained in touch. He was promoted to Quantico and became one of the then-dozen FBI profilers. He invited me back to tour the Academy, which I did -- he didn't have to ask twice! Though I had seen much of what I needed the first time around, I needed to see other areas, mundane places you wouldn't normally want to see, but which I needed in order to make the experience real for my characters who lived there -- and thus for my readers as well. Some of the photos I took there are available on my website in The Hunted's photo gallery.
Was there anything you found in your research for the book that surprised you?
I guess I was surprised at how many different things the FBI did, and how well they did it. The Bureau gets a lot of negative press, mostly because when they do something questionable, or controversial, or wrong, it draws exhaustive coverage by the media. All the good things they do go unnoticed and unpublicized -- which is, curiously, how they prefer it.
Other than that, nothing actually surprised me that I can recall. I learned a great deal, and found all of it fascinating -- which is one of the great things about doing research.
Michael Chambers, Lauren's missing husband, is another interesting character. How much of Alan Jacobson is there in the character of Michael?
(Laughs.) A lot. He's a resourceful guy, and
|"I think many writers are misled into thinking that if they write a great novel, it'll automatically find its way to the bookshelves. It's assumed that if you're putting all this effort into getting it published, you've written a great novel. But publishing is now big business, particularly with commercial fiction, and you have to learn how to function within that business in order to be successful."|
Do you think you would have made a good FBI agent?
My wife says it's my male fantasy. I think I would have, and for a fleeting moment while researching The Hunted, I actually gave it some thought. The difficulty is that you have to be prepared to move periodically, and you don't get to choose where you live. When you graduate from the Academy, you can request a city where you'd prefer to be stationed. Some agents get their first or second choice, but many don't. Wherever you end up, after a two year stint of "getting your feet wet," you're transferred to another city for a more permanent assignment. I believe you have one or two options of refusing an assignment, or requesting assignment to a specific city, but it's not something you want to use up unless absolutely necessary. Thus, for me, it'd be a hard thing to do with a family. (Besides, I love writing!)
To answer your question, I think I would've made a good agent. I like the challenge of playing detective; I enjoy the investigative hunt. Plus, as I discovered at the Academy's indoor shooting range, I'm a great shot!
I'd like to talk about the actual creative process. Would you describe a typical writing day for you?
If I had to use one word to describe it, it'd be flexibility. Sometimes I have to be able to write in undesirable surroundings: on an airplane with someone's back reclined in my lap; in a noisy room; in a mall…but most of the time I write in my office beside a large picture window with a scenic view.
I don't have a set schedule, because so much depends on what's going on at the time: am I writing the original draft, editing, rewriting, going through editorial comments, doing research? Each one requires a different approach.
How do you approach plotting for a new book? Do you use outlines? How much of the plot do you know when you start writing?
I know the entire story before I start writing. I do write from an outline, but I allow myself the freedom to roam and create. A novel is dynamic, organic. It has to be allowed to grow and change, or the writing becomes stiff and rigid.
If a character says or does something unexpected, and it's intriguing, I'll go with it and see where it takes me. It may be something that adds a dimension to the manuscript that was previously lacking, or it may be a dead end -- in which case I back it up and delete it. In False Accusations, I came across a forensic detail by accident, when I was halfway into the manuscript. I reworked some scenes in the outline, and it ended up enhancing the reader's experience. But I always know the beginning, middle, and end, as well as most of the small details that happen along the way -- before I write the first word.
One of the themes of The Hunted seems to be that it's difficult to really know everything about the people you love. What interested you in this theme? Do you consciously think about themes when you write a new novel?
That's an interesting question. I don't (usually) consciously choose a plot based on a theme. In other words, the idea gives birth to the plot and characters, which together determine the theme -- not the other way around. The theme emerges early on in the plotting process, and once it's identified, gets strengthened in the writing. (I say "usually," because there was one manuscript I wrote in which the theme was what inspired me to write the novel.)
For The Hunted, the theme was something that arose out of the story I wanted to tell. As I got into the outline, the concept of people not being who they appeared to be kept coming up. Instead of fighting or ignoring it, I used it to enhance the plot, the characters, and, as a result, the ending. As to how the theme came up, I started thinking one day, what if I'd done something bad in my past, in my pre-teen years, and have repressed it? Sometimes all it takes is a wild idea combined with something you see in the news, and you're off and running.
Your books are known for having a fascinating twist at the end. Did you set out to write surprising endings, or did it just evolve that way with your first book?
I've always been partial to twists, going back to when I began reading O'Henry. That chill, the jaw dropping "Oh, my god" feeling is so precious...I love it. In fact, there's an experimental short story I wrote in 1981 (posted on my site), that contains a twist at the end. I wrote that while I was in college.
When I initially started thinking about the concept behind False Accusations, I wasn't planning to write a story with a turn-on-a-dime ending. However, my wife and I, in discussing the plot, said "What if…" and bang -- there was the twist. I started outlining it and everything fit very well. The False Accusations ending has received such a passionate response that it's been kind of like a positive reinforcement mechanism. I wanted the same passion from the reader with all my books. I was fortunate to have been able to do it again with The Hunted.
Twisty endings are fun to do, and I think after False Accusations and The Hunted, people are going to expect it of me. My agent wants me to become a modern day O'Henry. But the most important thing is for my readers to feel immensely satisfied when they finish one of my novels. If that requires a twist, and the story lends itself to it, then there'll be a twist. But I won't do it just for the sake of doing it. The writing would suffer.
How helpful are critique groups for writers, in your opinion? Do you let other people see your work before you submit it to your publisher?
The degree a group can help you is directly related to the people in the group. Kind of common sense, but having been an English major, I was involved in many critiques sessions in college. Sometimes people criticize because they feel they're expected to, and sometimes they do so because they want to hear themselves speak…in which case you'll be getting opinions that may or may not be accurate (or helpful). I think critique groups can be useful, but the bottom line is that you, the author, have to know when to accept someone's remarks and when to reject them.
I don't belong to a critique group. However, I have a core group of carefully chosen readers. Most are people who regularly read the genre I write in, while some of them read a variety of literature. In addition to my own readers, my agent reads my manuscripts, and she has her own group of readers that review it prior to submission. I feel that among all these readers, I get a solid cross section of opinion as to what may be right -- and wrong -- with the manuscript. Usually, if two or more of the readers focus in on the same thing, I've got to give this issue some attention. But I do read and consider each and every comment I receive.
Of course, the fact of the business is that despite these steps -- writer's groups or independent readers -- there's no assurance that a particular editor is going to like your manuscript or agree with the opinions of your readers. I still believe, however, that the critique process can be valuable and worthwhile.
What is your advice to aspiring writers?
Work hard; never give up. Think of publishing as a business,
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A section of my website, "The Writers' Site" is geared specifically toward writers, with information devoted to finding an agent and publisher.
How was the book tour? What do you enjoy most about touring?
The tour went very well. The reviews for The Hunted have been great, which always helps -- because publicity must precede your arrival in each new city. Meeting my readers is always a treat; I wish there was a way to meet more of them without having to travel all over the country. Tours can be very draining, as you get little sleep, you usually don't eat properly, and you're rushing to get back to the hotel to sit down to dinner at 10:30 PM, rush up to your room to pack at 11:30, then try to get in bed by 12:30 to get some sleep before getting up at 4:30 AM to appear on a morning news show or catch a plane to another city. After a few weeks of this, you get worn down.
Another fun part of touring is doing television interviews; after having done so many over the past two years, I've gotten it down to a science. I know what to give the producers ahead of time, how to relate to the anchors, and, in general what to expect of media outlets. Once you understand what they want and how they operate, you can better prepare yourself.
When you aren't working, what are some of your favorite ways to relax and have fun?
Playing with my kids, going out with my wife, reading, photography, graphic design, following my sports teams…
What are you working on now?
I'm going back to the FBI for a story that's been six years in the making. I started researching it soon after meeting a good friend of mine, who's a profiler with the Bureau's Behavioral Analysis Unit. The plot has been honed, the story's been outlined in detail, and the first hundred pages have been written. I'm very excited about it. I don't want to disclose the title yet, but readers can check my website periodically for updates as the novel moves through publication.