Back several years, Garth Brooks, in an interview, stated he advised folks to give country music a shot. The interviewer asked, what happens if the listener doesn’t like Garth Brooks’ music? Brooks answered, “Give country music another shot.”
What he was saying is that there are all kinds of country music for the listener. Chris Stapleton sings country with a real bluesy feel to it. Darius Rucker is a bit more traditional, as is Reba McEntire. Jason Aldean is a country rocker.
The same is true in writing. My publisher, Black Rose Writing, has approximately 450 authors. Of those authors, approximately 50 of us write in the thriller-crime-mystery genre. I introduced you to several already in previous posts. Rick Treon writes a political thriller. Lynn Miclea has a lighter version without the killing that can happen in thriller fiction. I write thriller-crime and my main characters tend to be the patchwork family of adopted kids. JT Atkinson writes thriller with a horror twist. Paul Hollis writes thriller with espionage.
My featured author today is John Hazen. Like the authors mentioned above, John writes in the thriller genre. He differs from us because he writes with history and politics as a background. He uses his books to address and spotlight social issues. Like me, John is an author published by BRW. Same publisher. Same genre. Different slant.
I enjoyed my interview with John and I believe you will too.
What was it that made you decide you had a story to tell and to become an author?
Writing a novel was something I long dreamed of doing but “never got around to doing it.” Then when I got my first laptop computer, I decided to put my 35-minute train commute to good use, so I started writing. Since then, I haven’t looked back and recently published The Correction, my seventh novel.
Political pundit James Carville said in an interview that, after reading To Kill a Mockingbird in junior high school, he thought to himself, “This just isn’t right; I need to do something about it.” I like my writings to be rip-roaring good stories, but I also want to address issues and problems that plague us as a society through my writing. I’m not egotistical enough to think my books are going to change peoples’ lives or make them want to go out and change the world, but I’d like to believe I can get people to think a little more deeply about the world after reading one of my books.
I don’t know which came first, the writing or having a story to tell. I get a general idea in my head and then I write and the plot and characters come to me as I write. For example, in The Correction I started thinking about the fact that each of us has at least one decision we’ve made in the past that we regret and wish we could change. An ill-advised word said in anger, going along with the crowd even though you knew what they were doing was wrong, an action you took that ended up hurting other people, these are examples of things for which people would love a do-over. With this general idea swirling around in my brain, I just started writing about a man who has a special gift, called the Correction, which allows people the opportunity to go back in time and redo what they did.
I have a love of history, so I made this an inherited gift that has been passed down to the family for over eight centuries. This gave me an opportunity to give examples of how The Correction had been used to change people’s lives over time. This also gave me an opportunity to illustrate how this “gift” can have unintended consequences, and in one case even changed world history.
What genre do you write, and why that particular genre?
All my books fall within the suspense/thriller genre. I do periodically veer into the speculative/paranormal area, but these books are still considered suspense/thrillers. I enjoy writing in this genre because I think it gives me the best opportunity to not only tell a story but also provide commentary on broader issues. The Correction, for example, is on the one hand a fantasy about a supernatural power but it is also a statement on the power of redemption, on second chances. Another example is that my three book Vega Investigative Thriller Series is about a New York City TV Reporter, Francine Vega, who uses her skills as an investigative reporter to unearth the truth on current events. At the same time, I get to use these stories as ways to comment on societal issues such as racism and intolerance.
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?
I could cite a whole list of books that have had meaning to me and my life over the years. Therefore, narrowing the list down to two is a challenge, but here goes. The first book is a no-brainer. It has to be To Kill a Mockingbird. In my mind, it’s the perfect book. It has a great personal story, but it also has broader social commentary and discussion of perhaps the central important issue plaguing this country. For the second book, I went in a different direction. In fact, I’m venturing away from fiction. I’m a lover of history and always try to find a way to have history weave its way into my fiction, so I am constantly on the lookout for great histories that can help advise my writing. The book that best exemplifies this is No Ordinary Time by Presidential Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. In this book, she describes the lives and times of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt during their days together in the White. Although straight non-fiction, Goodwin makes her history read like a novel. I’ve read a lot of histories over the years, and many of them are a dry retelling of facts. I appreciate one in which the historian not only makes the characters come alive but does so in a narrative that fascinates and engages me.
What authors do you read regularly? Why?
I read a very eclectic assortment of writers. Although I gravitate to suspense/thrillers, I read an assortment of genres. I think my all-time favorite writer of multiple works who I periodically pull out is John Steinbeck. Again, it’s his interweaving of the personal and the global that captures me. I could have easily answered The Grapes of Wrath as a most meaningful book for me.
One author I appreciate recently is Stephen King. I always was impressed with his creativity in his horror books, but I’ve grown to admire with his range and versatility as a writer. I was especially taken with his book 11/22/63 as it has a similar premise to my book, The Correction, involving going back in time to change a decision or action. I was very proud of the fact that in a review of The Correction by Literary Titan, I was compared to King!
If you were to have dinner with 5 individuals living or dead, who would they be and why?
I’d like to meet the three famous people I’ve used as characters in my books. The first is U.S. Grant (Dear Dad). I’ve always found him to be a fascinating person. He came from humble origins and had many flaws, but he was able to rise to the highest levels in the country. He had a marvelous ability to learn and adapt. I was always impressed with how unflappable he was, even in the face of destruction. After his Union army was roundly trounced after the first day of Shiloh and was nearly driven into the Tennessee River, General Sherman came up to him and said, “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” Grant calmly replied, “Yes. Lick ‘em tomorrow, though.”
The second person of note in my books is Mahatma Gandhi. In Journey of an American Son, after my protagonist runs across Gandhi in a tearoom in Calcutta, India, Gandhi opens his eyes to the world around him. I’d love to meet Gandhi just to be exposed to that much goodness in one man and to hear him talk about his experiences in staring down an empire.
The third, and probably the oddest person I wrote about, was Judas Iscariot (Aceldama). I’d be interested to hear from him what his motivations were in betraying Jesus. Did the thirty pieces of silver play a role or did he really feel he was acting for the good of his people?
The last two people I’d include to round out the list are Eleanor Roosevelt and J. K. Rowling. The former first lady was such a fascinating and accomplished woman in her own right, but she was also a keen participant and observer of a pivotal time in our history. I’d love to talk to her about the Great Depression, World War II, the leaders during her time, her influence on her husband’s programs and policies and her role in the United Nations.
I’d love to talk with Rowling about the world she created and how she came to create that world. I’d like to ask her if she thought writing about her world of magic was easier or harder than writing a straightforward novel. On the one hand, she needed to bring it all together and think through all the magical elements. On the other hand, her plot could get to a certain point that would seem to hit a brick wall, but then she could introduce something like an invisibility cloak to get over that wall. I’d like to talk with her about the struggle she endured to publish her books so that she could bring that world to us.
What is your writing routine? When you write, are you a planner/outliner or are you a “pantser”?
I most definitely am a panster. I have a general idea of the themes I want to write about, but the book’s plot and most of the book’s characters don’t emerge until I sit down to write. I will just start tapping on the computer and the story emerges. To illustrate, each of my books has one or more characters who I introduced solely to move the plot along at a particular point in time but, as I continue writing, they grow to a point where they are integral to the very book itself. I find these characters most fascinating. It’s like they have a life of their own and won’t let me hold them back. I fear that if I were to plan out my books and lay out my characters ahead of time, I would never know about these people. They’d be lost to me and my readers.
When writing, how much do you read? Do you read in or out of your genre?
When I’m writing, I’m afraid my reading gets curtailed. My writing process may be scattered and haphazard, but I try to focus when I write. Besides the reading I need to do as research, the only exceptions I’ll make is if I get a request from one of my Black Rose Writing colleagues for a review or beta read. I’ll never turn anyone down. Between writing books, I do tend to read books in the thriller/suspense genre, but like I said above, I’ll branch out if a book grabs me.
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?)
I think I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do when I grow up. Like my writing process, I’ve always been a bit scattered. I have degrees in psychology, sociology, and public administration so of course I devoted a thirty plus year career to environmental protection.
What tips would you give to new or even experienced writers?
I think the best piece of advice I could give any writer is to write, just write. Even if you don’t have one coherent thought in your head, get words on a screen or paper. You’ll be amazed at how the ideas will come together as you do this. There’s been many times that I didn’t quite know what to say or how to say it, but just the act of writing helped me to develop and organize my ideas. Before you know it, you have a story.
How do you handle a negative critique?
Alcohol? Seriously, I will look over a negative critique and determine whether it’s from a person whose opinion I can value. Then I’ll look to see if there’s any meat to their critique that I can use in the future. I try to treat everything as a possible learning experience, but it is hard sometimes. The ones I have the most problems with are the reviews that seem positive and even glowing but then they only give three stars or worse. I’ve had a couple of those and they’re very frustrating.
Is there a type of writing/genre that you find difficult to write? Why?
On his deathbed, the great Shakespearean actor, Edmund Kean, is purported to have said, “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” I agree with that assessment. I’ll insert a comical or funny scene in my writing every once in a while, to break things up or to lessen the tension when needed, but I could never write an entire comedic novel. I’m just not that funny of a guy.
How important are the elements of character, setting, and atmosphere to a story and why?
These all are important elements in making a story unique and believable, but I’m more of an adherent to character-driven stories. I love the human aspect of books. I can’t ignore the setting and atmosphere, however, especially since I’m often drawn to history. These are crucial to make historic eras have a proper feel. The Correction is a perfect example. This is a story that goes back eight hundred years with stories from various eras along the way. It was important to make each of these eras feel authentic, not just in the people and their customs, but in the settings and atmosphere. Still, the stories must, when it comes down to it, revolve around the characters and their interactions.
Do you see yourself in any of the characters you create? How/Why?
I think all authors interject a bit of themselves into their characters. At a minimum, we interject what we think of ourselves (usually our most favorable characteristics) into a character. The best character I’ve written is Francine Vega, the protagonist in my Vega Investigative Thriller Series (Fava, Zyklon and Beyond Revelations). She’s a street-smart New York City TV Reporter who has sharp investigative journalist instincts and skills. I’ve also had three books to develop her and flesh her out. I don’t see myself in her, however, In addition to the obvious of her being a strong woman character while I’m not, she’s probably the furthest from me character-wise. In fact, she contains many of the qualities I wish I had. She’s outgoing, assertive and asks penetrating questions. She’s quite fearless when it comes to tracking down leads and clues for a story she’s working on. Not to mention the fact that she’s gorgeous.
I think the character I’ve written that is most like me is John Foster from Dear Dad. He’s intelligent but quite the introvert. He is often more of an observer of life than an active participant. His heart is in the right place, but he reacts more than he acts when confronted with situations.
Tell us about your most recent book?
How did you come up with the concept?
The concept for The Correction was rather easy to come up with. In fact, it’s universal. Everybody can think back to one mistake they made—an ill-advised decision, a rash action, a word spoken in anger—they would like to take back or correct. What if there was some way you could back in time to do it over? Well, I wrote about a man who can perform Corrections, which allows people to do it all over again. I thought it would be a concept most people could relate to.
How did you come up with the title?
This was a straightforward title. The actions taken to change the past are called Corrections, ergo the title. I knew pretty much from page one that this would be the title. My other books took me much longer to think of what to call them. The title for Fava didn’t come to me until about halfway through writing it. Likewise, this was the case for Journey of an American Son. I didn’t settle on the title Aceldama until after it was totally written, and I was in the process of editing it.
From your book, who is your favorite character? Who is your least favorite character? Why?
I have a fair number of candidates for favorite. I like my protagonist/narrator, Joseph Vance. He’s just a straightforward type of guy. Efrem Reynolds is another of my favorites. After using a Correction to save the life of a slave, Andrew, in 1852 South Carolina, Efrem takes Andrew and his family on a treacherous journey north to freedom. But I think Olivia, Joe’s wife, is my favorite character in the book. As I said about Francine Vega, I love to portray strong, intelligent and confident women in my writing. Olivia fits the bill. She’s the product of a mixed-race union and has had to overcome much in her life in the South in the 1930s and 40s. Her wit puts Joe back on his heels from the first time they meet, and he never recovers. She is also very strong. When she goes after something, nothing is going to hold her back. It never is clear whether she believes in Joe’s claim that he can perform Corrections, but she knows he believes it and that’s enough for her to support him. In fact, she gets angry with him one time when something happens that he could have corrected but didn’t because he was angry with the world. In the end, she forces him—or more precisely shames him—to perform the Correction.
My least favorite character would be Thomas Acton. He was an ancestor of Joseph and therefore could perform Corrections. He lived in England in the early part of the sixteenth century. He used Corrections for his own gain and personal benefit. From the very beginning, the rules of Corrections stipulated that they only be used to help others. Acton, however, learned that, while there was this rule, there was no penalty for breaking it. He therefore used Corrections to help himself rise through the ranks of King Henry VIII’s court. He is adept at padding his wallet and his resume, often at the expense of others. He was so self-serving that I did not enjoy writing him, but I needed him to illustrate a point that would come to bear later in the book.
If you liked the interview, check out John’s work. You can find his links, along with his social media below. He, like the others I’ve had the opportunity and pleasure to interview, is worth it. And paraphrasing what Garth Brooks said, “Give thriller fiction a shot!”
Author/Media Contact Information:
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/JohnHazenAuthor
Twitter – https://twitter.com/john_hazen
Link to John’s book on Amazon and B & N –
Amazon – http://amzn.to/2tM06Dz