Before you started writing fiction, you were managing editor of a weekly newspaper. How did your background in journalism inform your fiction writing?
Asked if a newspaper offered good training for writing fiction, Hemingway supposedly said yes, if you get out of it soon enough. Journalists sometimes have a tough time making the transition to writing books. The first obstacle to overcome is working in solitary instead of a busy newsroom. Also, a reporter stays out of the fray. My first editor said that my hero should not be an observer, that he would have to act and react. On the plus side, newspaper work teaches you to write a simple declarative sentence and to recognize a story.
You say you owe your fiction writing career to the pirate Samuel “Black” Bellamy, tell me about that.
In 1717, Bellamy’s ship sank off Cape Cod in a ferocious storm. In the late 1980s, rumors that the ship carried a fabulous treasure drew three competing salvage groups. I started covering the story, became immersed in the history and modern-day controversy about shipwreck archaeology, and got to know the salvors, who were all characters. I tried to sell a non-fiction book based on the search and salvage. When that effort fizzled I decided to try my hand at a detective mystery set against the backdrop of a treasure hunt. I had never written any fiction, and had read few mysteries, but reasoned it couldn’t be that hard. It was, but the result of all that sweat and tears was my first book, Cool Blue Tomb.
Writing the NUMA Files with Clive Cussler represented a departure for you—from a localized Cape Cod PI to a high-octane adventure series. How did you change your approach to fit? Your latest solo novel is an adventure—what are the differences between writing the two?
Clive used to kid me about that. “Who would have thunk?” he’d say. I was helped by the fact that my detective series plots were often complex, but I was like an architect going from one-level houses to multi-level apartment buildings. I decided not to try to be a Cussler, but to write the best adventure novel I could. I would also try to maintain the tone of Dirk Pitt series without copying it. The first thirty pages of Serpent went very well, but Clive was disappointed with the next hundred. I trashed them, said I needed help, and flew out to Phoenix for a one-on-one with Cussler that produced a bestseller. The main difference between a mystery and an adventure, is that in one you don’t know who the bad guy is until the end.
Tell us a little about working with Cussler. Was it difficult to tackle a series created by another author?
Clive kept a tight leash on the series, but he realized that we were pretty much on the same wavelength, creatively, and allowed me a lot of latitude. He sketched the biographies of the four major characters, and I fleshed them out. The original NUMA characters I used from time to time—guys like Sandecker and Gunn—were so sharply defined, that it was relatively easy to write them. Clive has an instinctive feel for plot twists, characters and the kind of thing that readers like. As long as I heeded his advice I was in pretty good shape.
You’re releasing a new adventure book, The Emerald Scepter, on May 21st, tell us about it, and about the experience of writing a non-NUMA book.
The Emerald Scepter is similar to the NUMA Files formula in some ways. It has a historical prologue, an underwater theme, a long-lost treasure whose recovery could have international consequences, and a race against the clock. It also uses the four-character team approach that worked well in the NF. The treasure originated with Prester John, the legendary ruler of an incredibly wealthy and powerful kingdom east of Babylon. The centerpiece of the treasure is an emerald encrusted gold scepter, which disappeared on its way from Prester John to the Pope. I have tried to emphasize character more than I had in the NUMA Files. Matinicus Hawkins and his odd-ball team all have personal issues that both hinder and help their mission.
What’s coming next for you? Will we be seeing more of NUMA or Socarides?
I’m writing a seventh in the Socarides series. It is set on the island of Nantucket, and no surprise, weaves an old mystery into a new one. It has some nifty high-tech underwater stuff, international implications, brings back CIA trouble-shooter John Flagg and Soc’s cat Kojak. After that, I would like to tackle a second book using Hawkins and his team. It would involve the secrets of the ancient Minoan civilization of Crete. Now that I’ve established the main characters, I think I would lean a little more toward the weird stuff that I had fun with in the NUMA Files.
WOULD YOU COULD WRITE WITH ANY AUTHOR, WHO WOULD IT BE?
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QUICKIES WITH PAUL:
Writing ambience: When the window is open in the office I rent near my house, I can smell the heavenly fragrance issue from the pizza place next door.
To outline or not to outline: The best thing for me is to sketch out a vague outline of the story, then start writing.
Reading now: Fall of Kings by Ken Follet.
Book or eReader? Kindle, although I tend to use an e-book when traveling and books when I'm not.
Book(s) he wishes he could read again for the first time: I have read The Great Gatsby several times and will probably do so again.
Favorite sentence he's ever written: The quote that still makes me chuckle comes from John Flagg who said: "Biggest problem with being a trouble-shooter is that sometimes trouble shoots back."
Where he'd time travel: World War II era heros and villains were beyond anything I could conceive as a fiction writer.
Favorite online resource: I use Google to find esoteric sources I never even knew existed.
One thing he wishes he knew when he started: How danged hard it was going to be!
His most effective promotional tool: I'm still learning how to use the Internet, but Facebook seems to be a good way to cover a lot of ground.
Favorite independent bookstore: I think it would be hard to beat Barbara Peters and The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale..
If he could invite any four people to a dinner party: Anyone who wouldn't argue about the bill.