I have been intrigued by Paul for quite a while. I read his first book of the series, The Hollow Man, quite a while ago, and it stuck with me. It wasn’t until I had the opportunity to interview him that I understood why.
He writes from his heart, his experiences. He is attuned to dialog and setting and atmosphere. What you read between the pages, he’s seen it, walked it, lived it. Of course, that statement should apply to any writer, and I know from my own writing it is something I strive for. But I believe when you read my interview with Paul, you will fully understand and appreciate the heart and soul a writer places into his or her writing.
Perhaps more than any other interview, you will see that Paul is a willing teacher of writing. Hopefully, you will come to realize the tug of war, the wrestling match the writer goes through as he or she sits in front of a laptop pecking away at the keys.
I hope you enjoy this post as much as I enjoyed my interview with Paul.
What was it that made you decide you had a story to tell and to become an author?
The inspiration for my storyline comes from a series of true incidents that occurred during the early 1970s. The Hollow Man traces some of my lesser known exploits traveling in Europe as a young man. To make a long story short, I met a guy in early 1973 who thought I was wasting my time digging latrines in East Africa for the Peace Corps. He had a better offer for me.
At the time, terrorism was on the rise and I was assigned to learn as much as I could about it. I was to gather intelligence on specific people and plans in Europe that might bring terror to our shores here or otherwise go against U.S. worldwide interests. When I collected the information, I was supposed to turn it over to the professionals for final resolution, people who operated outside of U.S. borders. That’s how it was supposed to work. But when you’re young, wild, and untrained, things don’t always go according to plan. Here’s the environment I was working in:
Most early acts of terror were specific, personal, and damage was focused on a distinct, definable enemy. But by the early 1970s, terrorism was changing its strategy to the familiar, senseless chaos we now recognize. The death of political figures no longer seemed to bother us as much as these new, random attacks against our children we see today. Targets of innocence became preferable to politicians because it was this kind of shock and hurt that hit the hearts of normal human beings. The fear inside us grew larger with each incident.
Right now, you’re probably wondering how I got myself into such a situation. In college, I honestly majored in “Staying Out of Vietnam” with no particular future ambitions. I entered my advanced education at the end of 1967 and fell into a blossoming subculture that reshaped my reality, figuratively and perhaps a little too literally. There were several world changing events during that time and here I was participating in the 1968 Democratic convention protests, the Chicago 7 trials, and hanging with new world prophets like Carlos Santana, Garcia, and Grace Slick in the Haight. Then there was Woodstock. There’s an old saying, “If you remember the 60s, you weren’t there.” But there are some things you never forget. I remember what being 19 years old was like. I remember being hungry, buzzed, and pumped on adrenaline at the most memorable music festival of all time. I was wet and dirty at the same time. We shared what we had and only took what we needed. I remember dancing to the non-stop music permeating it all. What I don’t remember is another time like that.
After the university, I joined the Peace Corps as an alternative to war. Within 48 hours the sun rose over my initial training in Paintsville, Kentucky, just off the Cumberland Plateau, and a stone’s throw from the Lost World of West Virginia. A month into my training, I realized they weren’t kidding, so I jumped at an unexpected opportunity to see Africa. Lions and tigers had seemed preferable to dinosaurs, but not by much as it turned out. Before the week was over, I stood knee deep in mud and some kind of animal dung, completely immersed in my new position. Literally. The job I’d so eagerly accepted entailed digging latrines with a flat-nosed shovel during monsoon season. Feeling lost and abandoned at the edge of a rain-soaked crust of earth called Tanzania, I couldn’t tell if I was crying or if it was just raining harder.
Enter a man with a slick story and three months of training. My new “handler” offered me unrestricted travel through Europe with an occasional venture into watching, learning, and reporting on terrorist activities. It sounded better than what I had, but it was a decision I rethought many times during my training under a U.S. Marine instructor. I did actually quit about 100 times during a two-week survival training venture into the mountains with Italian Special Forces. Eating tarantulas over an open fire made me beg to go to Vietnam. I’m still not sure what spiders had to do with restaurant cuisine in Europe since I never saw one on a menu there. And thus began my first tour of Europe and The Hollow Man was born.
What genre do you write, and why that particular genre?
My genre is a mixture of thriller/action/espionage. It’s a natural extension of my early years in Europe and the best way to tell these stories. My experiences drive the genre in this case.
If you were to name one or two books that you deem unforgettable and that had a major impact on you, what would they be? How did they affect you?
To Kill a Mockingbird is the book that always seems to stay with me. I grew up in a similar small town in Alabama full of identical human strengths and weaknesses. I would like to think some of the same strength triumphed over weakness where I grew up, but unfortunately, they did not. But in the end, Harper Lee’s book at least keeps me grounded and has always inspired me to be a better person.
What authors do you read regularly? Why?
I read writers like Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Harlan Coben, and David Baldacci for tips on characters and settings. I read poets like Dylan Thomas, W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot for conciseness of story. No one can tell a story in a page or two like the great poets.
What is your writing routine? When you write, are you a planner/outliner or are you a “pantser”?
I write something every day around the same time. Sometimes it’s a few sentences and sometimes a few paragraphs or pages. Whether I’m a planner or a “pantzer” is difficult to define because I actually already know how the plots generally progress and the depth & range of characters, having lived through it some 45+ years ago. I do, however, have a one to two sentence outline for each chapter, but that’s so I can see the story flow at a glance on one page. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend such an approach for new writers. A little more planning will go a long way in helping to tell your story. The more you can “live” your novel with your characters, the better you will be able to tell it.
That said, I’m a believer in letting the characters tell their own story. If you can make your character real enough to jump off the page, they will lead your reader through the telling of their own story.
When writing, how much do you read? Do you read in or out of your genre?
Reading is part of the writing process for me. Whether I’m reading to research a subject or reading classic authors’ novels for writing insights and tips, I’m reading most of the time. More than reading their words on how to write or taking writing courses, I have learned a great deal from the way other authors develop characters, settings, plots, etc. within the finished works themselves. I don’t limit myself to the same genre I’m writing in. For example, I may find help for a love scene in an action novel from a romance or even a sci-fi novel.
Is there something you set out to do, but somehow, it didn’t work out for you? (In terms of writing, or something else you felt was important to you at the time?)
That’s the $64 thousand dollar question. I believe life is full of plot twists for every functioning human.
When I was in high school, I had toyed with being some kind of doctor. I took a job as a clean-up guy in a busy mortuary owned by twin brothers, thinking this may give me a small taste of what it might be like. A few days into the first week, I was sweeping the basement where bodies were kept for embalming prep. A scratching noise broke into the music in my head while I was working away. I glanced up through the dim light and dust to see a body slowly sitting up on a metal gurney. Strange sounds were coming from beneath the sheet, and that thing was between me and the door.
As I sprinted by, I used the handle of the broom as a jousting pole, knocking the body backward off the table. Some kind of moaning was right behind me so I kept running; up the stairs, past the chapel, through the main office, and out the front door. I was two blocks away by the time one of the brothers caught me in his car. He had to cut off my path to get me to stop.
“Hey,” he yelled out the window. “That was just my brother Bob having a little fun with you.”
“I quit,” I said.
“Sorry. All right then, come on by and pick up the money we owe you.”
“You can keep it.”
He sat looking at me a long time before speaking again.
“Can I have my broom back?” he finally asked.
All intension of Hippocratic service vanished at that moment but the nickname Doc stuck from then on. The whole school knew about the incident by the next day.
My life choices continued to be doomed in college. I was going to be a civil engineer when I began college. I wanted to put my name on bridges that I designed and built. But after the first semester courses of Analytic Geometry, Bio-Chemistry, Kinetic Physics and Geology, I knew the only way I was going to get my name on a bridge was to spray paint it on.
And, as you can imagine, my choice of believing that joining the Peace Corps would keep me from Harm’s Way, was also a bit of an overstatement.
What tips would you give to new or even experienced writers?
First-time authors may be overwhelmed by the amount of conflicting information that’s going to be flying at them. Try to tune the noise out and write. Write the story you need to tell with your own style and voice, not the one you think agents, publishers, and readers want. Find the time to write on a schedule, every day, and write until your story is drafted.
Proof it, edit it, stylize it, clarify your “voice” or whatever, until you’re satisfied with the result. Then hire a professional editor. An editor will raise your work to the next level. You will hate her, disagree with her, and argue with her, but listen to your editor and make the suggested changes. In the end, your book will be much better for it.
During the writing process, join social media and make friends, not followers. Ask questions on your social networks, and I guarantee we will answer from personal viewpoints of experience, knowledge, and strength. Avoid most of the Googled ‘how to’ articles which ask your same questions but never seen to get to the ‘how to’ part.
How do you handle a negative critique?
The worst review I’ve ever received was from a fellow from Ireland. He stopped reading after Chapter 9 of The Hollow Man, set in Spain and France. He questioned the book’s popularity by saying he was waiting for something to happen. When it didn’t he quit reading.
It is very difficult to not be personally involved when someone calls your baby ugly. I thought, wait a minute. There’s bomb blast that kills a prime minister, police chases, assassinations, a knife fight where my hand was split open, and a few more killings all before Chapter 9. I wondered what the reader meant by “nothing happened”.
In the end, the sting dissipated, and I realized this reader was looking for something different than The Hollow Man provided and it was okay. It’s impossible to be everything to everybody. Even during the most intriguing campfire story, someone is likely to walk away. In my reader’s case, I was certain he would not at all like my second book London Bridge is Falling Down, which deals with IRA bombings in Ireland and England. And I let it go.
Is there a type of writing/genre that you find difficult to write? Why?
I’m not sure how to answer this question. I’ve actually never thought about writing in another genre. For me I had a natural attraction right now to my genre because of my experiences. I needed to tell these stories in my own style as close to the way I lived it. Beyond this trilogy, I currently have no thoughts or plans to change to another type of writing or genre.
How important are the elements of character, setting, and atmosphere to a story and why?
My writing style is very visual. It’s important for me to completely immerse readers, drawing them totally into each scene. I want my readers to experience what’s going on around them, feel the excitement, and hear the voices. When readers say The Hollow Man Series should be on the big screen, I feel like I’ve made the story completely real.
In order to make that happen, I believe realistic dialog is key – beyond description, scenery, and story. Dialog makes characters come to life. Readers may skip parts of the description, scenery, and story but for some reason, they always seem to be drawn into what characters say. It has to be believable and has to use words the way people speak, complete with contractions (or lack thereof), slang, accents, hesitations, word selections, physical actions while speaking, etc. Each combination is unique and specific to that one character. When you get that right, your character walks off the page and enters the reader’s imagination.
The same applies to location. It has to feel real visually. Would you want to see a movie set in Paris or London that takes place exclusively indoors or on a Hollywood set? It’s important to take the reader along for the full ride. Each location provides its own set of rules in which characters must make decisions. In other words, characters are challenged by location – language, culture and people around them. For example, a conversation with a kid on the Jersey shore in an Italian restaurant might occur very differently to a conversation with a kid in a back alley behind the Iron Curtain in Prague.
The location, or setting, also can be used to create the mood of the story which helps shape emotions that a reader feels. It’s important for the reader to “feel” the environment around them – the proverbial mist of the fog in London, the taste of French cuisine, the excitement of bullfighting in Spain.
Do you see yourself in any of the characters you create? How/Why?
As you saw from the first question, the inspiration for writing my book series was rather personal. A bit facetiously, I like to say 80% of my books are 90% true. So, the “spy” in my books is 100% me. I was an expendable, untested beginner at the assignments I was given, certainly not the Bond or Bourne type miracle workers who are fast with their fists, quick with a trigger, and loose with the ladies. Doc, the main character, is young and impulsive, not talented or tested and never quite seems to follow orders very well. Most people in their mid-twenties fully believe they know everything, or at the very least don’t know what they don’t know and honestly I was no different.
Tell us about your most recent book?
My work in progress is called Surviving Prague, the third installment in The Hollow Man Series. A British MI6 agent (Zita from books 1 & 2) and an American field analyst (Doc) are running for their lives after being implicated in the murder of a high ranking government official behind the Iron Curtain. Trapped in a Communist country with no way out, the two are forced to find the killer to save their own lives. But the treacherous trail leading through the dark underworld of terrorism takes them right to the center of a plot to dominate Western Europe. It’s much worse than a few sanctioned executions.
How did you come up with the concept?
The concept is simply a follow on from the first two books in the series. The main characters, Doc and Zita, are back in action, this time behind the Iron Curtain in Prague during the height of the cold war. After London Bridge is Falling Down, Doc was sent to Munich, and Zita joined the British Foreign Service in their embassy in Prague. She is charged with the murder of a high ranking member of the Communist party. Not to give away too much, but I break into a country when most normal people were trying to break out. The plot thickens from there.
How did you come up with the title?
The name Surviving Prague comes from the honest assessment of the situation we found ourselves sheltered in. Czechoslovakia, at the time, had been under Soviet rule since its liberation from the Nazis in 1945. It served as part of the western line of Russian defense during the cold war. All things considered, there were not many more dangerous locations at the time.
Is there a message in this series that you want the readers to grasp?
My message is simple. Get out, see the world, and broaden your perspective. I’ve lived in some exotic places such as London, Brussels, Paris, Madrid, Rome, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Sao Paulo, Anchorage, and many more. I’ve been fortunate enough to work in all fifty states and almost as many countries. If you’re thinking of your dream vacation spot right now, I have probably been there.
These experiences have allowed me to interact with people within their own cultures, experience their spiritual and political environments, and understand their hopes and dreams. Consumed with an overwhelming fascination to learn something from every person encountered along my journey, I was able to understand the world through their eyes; its animosities, ambitions, and motivations. As a result, The Hollow Man Series has a ring of realism that pulls the reader into the scene with the characters, whether it’s entering a dark alley in Madrid or sitting in a café on the Champs Elysees.
From your book, who is your favorite character? Who is your least favorite character? Why?
All of my characters are based on real people. Some are cool and some are not. I love all of the characters but not all of the people behind them if that makes any sense. So, I’d rather leave the choice of favorite and least favorite to the reader depending on which characters pop off the page for them.
I read that when asked, ”What three things do you do to be a successful writer” you responded “market, market, market”. Please tell us more about this.
A writer can have the best well-written, most creative, most exciting, most interesting book ever written and if agents don’t read it and publishers don’t print it, then readers cannot buy and read it. As sad as that is, it gets worse. Marketing is not a once and done activity. Every space hour of every day will go to some kind of marketing. Writing queries, networking, connect with agents /editors / potential readers / etc., building social media outlets, creating your brand and author platform, designing printed materials such as business cards / book marks / other giveaways, and on and so forth. If you thought agents and publishers to this for you these days, you would be wrong unless your name is Patterson, Baldacci, Child, or Connelly. As the witting industry changes more and more to an online presence, more of the work is pushed down to you as a writer.
Keep the content you share fresh. Change it up every 3-4 weeks so Social Media keeps coming back to you. Social Media will not grow without a fresh supply of content for your followers to feed on.
A separate mention here goes to reviews of your book (especially on Amazon). Try to get as many reviews as possible. It’s one thing to champion yourself but nothing works better than having someone else champion your writing for you. Use their quotes about your writing in your Social Media. Readers love to see that other readers have read and recommend your book
You have a strong presence in Social Media. Please tell us about this.
Working Social Media is part of your required marketing activities. It all started with Facebook, then came Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and a number of others. Right now, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest seem to be the go-to platforms but stay tuned-in because it’s likely to change on a dime. As I’ve mentioned, Social Media platforms are about making friends, connections, readers, etc. – not just followers. An example of a brand after followers is any “perceived celebrity” today on Twitter who has 2 million followers then reciprocates in following only 5 back. On our plain-old-people level who are trying to build our own brands, this is the definition of the “me” generation – look at me; see how many followers I have? And, BTW, the celebs already have a well-established brand that does not need any more “friends to honor me”. Please don’t just post and repost, tweet and retweet. Engage. Interact. Exchange ideas. Offer your advice on subjects. This is how to build a community.
Most importantly, remember that YOU are your business. No matter what your image (brand image) largely reflects who and what you are as a writer. Although we all try not to, most of us do judge people on our first impression of them…so make sure that you always give a great first impression. Try to be constructive, encouraging and supportive of others in the industry (especially your genre). You are all in this together so don’t engage in extended “discussions” (code named “arguments”) over politics, religion, or any other topic that is destined to not change a single mind. Unlike many people who will argue about the consistency of dirt or the color of the sky, do your homework on any subject you post. Before you repost information from a follower, try to determine any negative effect on your brand.
THE HOLLOW MAN SERIES by Paul Hollis
The Hollow Man
London Bridge is Falling Down
— Links to author profile, twitter handle, Facebook pages, Goodreads pages, etc.:
Twitter Handle: @HollowManSeries (80K followers)
Facebook Author Page: https://www.facebook.com/TheHollowManSeries
Personal Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/Paul.Hollis.96
YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC6ZTImqZsUzCBMukyhrIxrQ
Amazon Book Page: https://www.amazon.com/Paul-Hollis/e/B00J5NPABM
Apple Book Page: https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-hollow-man/id853095647
Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-hollow-man-paul-hollis/1115563910?ean=2940045490689
The Hollow Man: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01LXGGPI6
The Hollow Man (Paperback): https://www.amazon.com/dp/1457520419
London Bridge is Falling Down: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B019LRRWZ8
London Bridge is Falling Down (Paperback): https://www.amazon.com/dp/1519232233
Surviving Prague: Coming Soon!