Ken and I write in the same genre, thriller-crime, but his characters are more or mostly adult, whereas my characters are adolescents with cops and FBI thrown in. He and I are both on Facebook, and I noticed him commenting on several of my posts. What really caught my attention was his offer to help or coach and provide feedback to any writers who have the FBI and/or its agents in their writing. I thought it was a generous offer. It was because of that offer, I wanted to interview him.
Ken retired from the FBI, after thirty-two years, as a cybersecurity executive. With over three decades of writing intelligence products for senior Government officials, Ken provides unique perspectives on the conventional fast-paced crime thriller. While this is his first traditionally published novel, he previously self-published two novellas and two novels. He spends days with his wife Nicolita, and two Labradors, Shady and Chalupa Batman. Evenings are spent cheering on Philadelphia sports. Ken firmly believes Pink Floyd, Irish whiskey, and a Montecristo cigar are the only muses necessary. He is a native of New Jersey and currently resides in Northern Virginia.
What was it that made you decide you had a story to tell and to become an author?
For my early self-published books it was as easy as being around many creative people on an online community, a few of which were writing and exchanging critiques. Add in an online class at Chuck Palahniuk’s Litreactor.com on self-publishing and I was off and typing. Despite not using an editor, the reviews were positive enough to keep my fingers on the keyboard. Two novellas and two novels later, a multi-year case of writer’s block set in.
For my current two book run with Black Rose Writing (BRW), it was the great convergence of a handful of things the same time. In January 2020, I received an incentivized early retirement offer from the FBI, the pandemic and ensuing lockdown hit soon after, along with the realization that The Rockford Files streamed for free on the Peacock app. Memories of watching the show with my father filled my head and despite being stuck in the house, I was pretty happy. Somewhere between Season 1 and 2, I had the realization that I could write a hard-nosed, sarcastic, dry-witted private eye character. With NANOWRIMO coming up, I grabbed a pad of paper and a #4 Ticonderoga pencil and started jotting down ideas. The end result was a contract to publish The Pine Barrens Stratagem and a belief that I could do this, again.
As an author or writer, what sets you apart from others?
Ha, not a damn thing! I’m just another guy behind a keyboard trying to make sense of the ideas swimming around in my head. I’ve been able to get them down in some sensible order that a few people seem to enjoy. Others might not be so lucky on the idea front, but I’ve been there. I’ve suffered multiple three year runs of writer’s block where I would write the greatest idea for a story, wake up the next morning and trash everything written the day before.
Its having survived those instances that for my current writing endeavors, I make a point of not letting myself go more than one day without getting something down in Scrivener (my writing software of choice). The fear of another long run like those two previous periods of inactivity, scare the hell out of me.
So, I’ve droned on to basically say, tenacity. I don’t write for a publisher, agent or reader’s attention or approval. I write the story because it interests me. I like it. If you don’t, who cares? I had a blast crafting it. And I hope to continue well into my retirement life.
What genre do you write, and why?
Crime-Thriller is my genre of choice, although that might be a stretch. Is there such a thing a humorous, sarcastic crime thriller?
Previously, I tried to write my love of horror. It’s 99% of what I read, so it only made sense that when I first sat down behind a keyboard, horror would be my go-to. After self-publishing a light horror novella, Huckleberry’s Hail Mary (2012) I realized I was unable to suspend belief enough to write to tell a compelling story in that genre. If I know one thing, it’s my limitations so I moved on.
As for the aforementioned humorous, sarcastic crime thriller, my 32 years with the FBI provided me with good background. People have asked why I don’t write an FBI-thriller and that’s an easy answer. There are way too many people writing about the FBI and I don’t need to add to it. But I will say, one thing that grinds my gears is that a lot of the FBI-thrillers get so much wrong, it’s a chore to read when you know the inside baseball. So many things are wrong with these writer’s interpretation of the Bureau, things you could just straight up Google. But maybe they’re just suspending belief?
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, and why?
I’ll go one better and bring up Peter Straub’s Blue Rose Trilogy (Koko, Mystery, and The Throat).
I’m a huge fan of Straub’s story telling since I read Shadowland when I was fourteen. His characters and stories have never failed to grip me to the point that I’ll pick up anything he’s written, edited or contributed to, sight unseen and dive in.
The Blue Rose Trilogy is story telling over three novels, I only wish I could accomplish. Heck, I’d settle for half. The characters of Tim Underwood and Tom Pasmore have stuck with me long after I put each book down and until a few years pass and I pick them up again. I’ve lost count of the people I’ve tried to turn on to this series. Mr. Straub could seriously toss me a few advertising bucks. I sincerely hope to meet him one day, but our current global climate appears to not want that to happen.
What authors do you read regularly? Why?
Peter Straub, as mentioned previously. Stephen King, Robert R. McCammon, Chuck Palahniuk, Dan Simmons, Brian Lumley, Brent Michael Kelley, and The Best Horror of the Year (edited by Ellen Datlow). When I find a horror author I enjoy, I stick with them. Except for Dean Koontz and John Saul. I was fans of both into my twenties, but recycled plots and having a protagonist return home after a long time to encounter a supernatural force gets old.
My love of King will never die as he injects a lot of humor and sarcasm into his characters. A trait I happily claimed to have copied. Brian Lumley’s Necrosope series is an amazing vampire story. So good that its run over eighteen novels and some cool graphic comics. The Best Horror of the Year is a yearly Christmas present from my children. I hope one day to perhaps try my hand at horror again and come up with a few short stories to start.
If you were to have dinner with 5 individuals living or dead, who would they be and why?
I knew this was coming and still had trouble coming up with a proper response. Historical figures? Controversial figures? Sports heroes? Lost family members? All have been done before to death. I’m not sure anyone wants to hear about my dad, mom, and the Three Stooges sitting down to chicken cutlets, although I would definitely sub out Curly for Shemp. So, I’ll end up going with five that most of you haven’t heard of: Doug Standhope, Greg Chaille, Andy Andrist, Brett Erickson, and Chad Shank.
I have been a fan of comedy my entire life. I absolutely love stand-up and more recently, comedy podcasts. Having a bad day? Put on your favorite comedy podcast, kick back and forget about all the horrible stuff going on in the world. Two of my favorite comedy podcasts, “The Doug Stanhope Podcast” and “Issues With Andy” have helped me survive the pandemic, lockdown and some dark times when my mind wanted to take a hard right turn at Albuquerque. The two share personalities across both shows and their roughly three hours a week of content keep me sane.
If I’ve learned anything in my 55 years, is that it’s practically impossible to find people, known as Killer Termites and Squirrels, with the same sense of humor as me. The internet and social media have helped fans of these two shows connect and share. That’s a good thing, right?
What is your writing routine? When you write, are you a planner/outliner or are you a “pantser”?
Combo, but the majority, I just sit and let my fingers flow. At the most, I’ll sketch out some vague chapters and see where it takes me. I’ve been lucky in this two-book run with BRW (and hopefully a third that I’m halfway through the first draft), that I haven’t had multiple days where I couldn’t find direction. If I have an idea when I’m not writing, I open the notes app on my phone and talk-to-text my idea. I’ve woken up in the middle of the night, grabbed my phone and hustled down the hall to shout a couple of sentences into my phone.
As for my writing routine, I make sure I plant myself in front of the keyboard or a pad of paper every day, between the hours of 7 a.m. and noon. Sometimes longer, but always with the music cranked and the door shut. I have to be courteous to my wife, who works from home and pays the bills. Music helps me get into a trance, the kind where hours pass by, and you have no idea how long you’ve been at the desk, but your coffee is empty and you’re shocked your bladder hasn’t exploded.
When writing, how much do you read? Do you read in or out of your genre?
If I’m on a writing tear, I barely read anything. The fear of writer’s block is real. Like a great white, if I stop, I might die. But I will say, if I’m not in the middle of a manuscript, I try to read as much as I can. I just completed 45 Years of the Rockford Files by Ed Robertson. I know, it’s not horror, but my love of the Rockford Files and the show’s inspiration on my private eye series is the exception to the rule.
As I mentioned before, my go-to genre is horror. I will say, since I joined BRW, I’ve read a dozen books outside of horror, and have been pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable they’ve been. I really need to broaden my reading horizons.
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 set out to do a lot, but I’ve found that for me, anxiety increases with age. My current motto is “Wanting to be included but not wanting to go.” I love to plan trips, excursions or getaways, and then find myself trying desperately to get out of these commitments the closer they get.
If I had to pick on thing? I joined the FBI straight out of college, hoping to become a Special Agent. The plan was simple, as I only had a Bachelor’s Degree, I would need three years of work experience to qualify. I thought, what better experience than with the Bureau itself? I signed on and three years later, I learned my eyesight had deteriorated to the point I no longer qualified for the Special Agent position. I choose to stay with the Bureau and make a career out of it, and I’ve had no regrets. I did some amazing things over those 32 years with some special people.
What tips would you give to new or even experienced writers?
The last thing I want to do here is repeat old tired clichés. Or give someone advice that only works for me, or a twisted other select few. The audiobook On Writing by Stephen King is something I listen to quite often. I know everyone recommends it, but it is that good.
I would tell someone starting out to write what you want. If you chase a genre that’s hot at the moment for sales, then I wouldn’t want to pick up a book of yours when you finally wrote from the heart. It’s like when Rod Stewart stuck his toe in the disco pool with Do Ya Think I’m Sexy. Sorry Rod, you’re dead to me, no matter how much I love the Faces.
But if you’re going to dive in, climb up a few extra rungs on the ladder before you jump. Don’t half-ass it. Set time aside each day to make a routine. Set a goal with some serious consequences if you bail out. Tell someone about what you’re doing so they can be nosey and constantly ask about it, thus laying the guilt trip you may need to keep your proverbial nose to the grindstone.
How do you handle a negative critique?
I tend to only read the negative reviews. Positive words regarding anything I’ve written makes me very uncomfortable. Embarrassed is a better word. Even if I’m all alone in my writing space, my anxiety won’t allow me to read a positive review. My wife usually reads them for me. She’ll tell me about it and then make me read it. Strange, but it works for us.
A negative review, if honest, can help me understand why someone didn’t like the story, or a scene caused them to come out of the book while reading. I get it, I’m definitely not everyone’s cup of tea and if you go into one of my stories blind, you might not like what you find. And of course, if ten people post negatively about the same thing, that should be a learning experience for me. Something is wrong that I should have caught and fixed earlier.
Now, sometimes a negative review is not based on the book, but more of a personal attack on the author. I’ve seen it and been the victim of it. Amazon allows anyone to leave a review, whether they purchased or let alone read the book. In my self-publishing days, I dealt with people with person grudges who would get their kicks leaving negative reviews. I’m sure most authors have. I once had a one-star review, under such a circumstance, for a self-published book that simply read “This book gave me AIDS.” Amazon refused to take it down and double down by saying the review did not violate their TOS at the time. I guess leaving a review up like that somehow helps old Jeff finance his next mission to space. After all, that’s what’s most important, or so I read.
So, I guess my answer, either way, is to have a couple of drinks and move on. The world ain’t gonna end.
Is there a type of writing/genre that you find difficult to write? Why?
As I mentioned earlier, horror. I can’t suspend the belief needed to craft an intriguing story. That being said, if BRW chooses to pick up the 3rd in the From the Case File of Steve Rockfish trilogy, I do have plans for reworking a previous novella after I finish that trilogy.
Huckleberry’s Hail Mary is a light horror, zombie novella which takes place during the Civil War It comes in at a svelte 29k words. I’ve had numerous people tell me over the years that I should consider going back over it and crafting it into a full-length novel. So that’s my plan for some time in 2022. Wish me luck. I’m going to need it.
How important are the elements of character, setting, and atmosphere to a story, and why?
A strong protagonist for me is essential. I have to root for them to succeed or at least only be mildly maimed if things don’t work out in their favor. Make me fear for their safety and afraid to turn the next page.
Setting, not that important to me. It doesn’t really matter to me where the story is set. How small the town is or how big and dirty the city is. Give me a story line that makes me want to read longer than I have time for. Sometimes for me, less description is better. I want to give just enough for the reader to come up with their own vision. Sometimes that’s a bone of contention between me and my editor. He always wants at least two descriptors for a person or place to help cement that reader’s vision.
Do you see yourself in any of the characters you create? How/Why?
If there’s a socially awkward character, with dry humor and way too much sarcasm, then they’ve got some of me in them. Especially if they have a hankering for Irish Whiskey. And yes, that would be Steve Rockfish, my protagonist in The Pine Barrens Stratagem. I never admit to that, my stock answer is he’s part Jim Rockford from The Rockford Files and part David Addison from Moonlighting.
Is there an unforgettable or memorable character that will not leave your head, either of your own creation or from a book you’ve read?
Shitty Bill and Steve Spoons from my self-published The Last Left-Handed Smoke Shifter. I loved these characters, circa 2013, and have two uncompleted sequels with them at the helm. One of the unfinished manuscripts has our heroes locked in the trunk of a bad guy’s car. It still bothers me that I left them in that trunk for close to eight years now. Seriously, it bothers me to no end sometimes. One day gentlemen, hold tight.
I’ve previously mentioned Tim Underwood and Tom Pasmore from Straub’s Blue Rose Trilogy.
Another would be Donald Merwin Elbert, aka the Trashcan Man, from Stephen King’s The Stand. I think about that character often. A lot of King’s characters stick with me. Hope to make some as memorable someday. One day. Maybe.
Tell us about your most recent book. How did you come up with the concept?
The Pine Barrens Stratagem resulted from some pandemic binge watching of the Rockford Files. A light went on and said, “You can create a PI like that, with your own twist.” A story that would be fast, humorous and not require a whole lot of heavy lifting by the reader. Much like a television drama, leave them waiting for the next episode. The perfect beach or vacation read.
How did you come up with the title?
I had finished watching The Rockford Files, S2 E2, The Farnsworth Stratagem, and had to look up the word Stratagem. The definition is a plan or scheme, especially one used to outwit an opponent or achieve an end. I thought that was the story in a nutshell and added the location of the Pine Barrens as a pivotal scene and story background take place in the famed woods.
Most people hear The Pine Barrens and automatically think to the famous Soprano’s episode, with Paulie’s famous quote: “You’re not gonna believe this. He killed sixteen Czechoslovakians. The guy was an interior decorator.” But those woods are more to me than that. I grew up in the area. It’s the home to the birth of Mother Leeds thirteenth child, more commonly known as The Jersey Devil. I did two weeks of summer camp in the middle of the Pine Barrens when I was in second grade. The camp counselors started in with the Jersey Devil stories on the first night. I’m not sure I’ve recovered from the trauma. I have memories of driving down those dirt roads with friends at unsafe speeds, and canoeing the Basto River offering to buy beer off older folks with coolers. Good times with friends I’ve lost touch with.
From your book, who is your favorite character? Who is your least favorite character? Why?
Steve Rockfish is obviously my favorite. His sarcasm and quick wit allow him to get out of dilemmas without resulting in violence. Except when its needed and then he brings the pain. He drives a car that is very near and dear to my heart, which also happens to share a name with my previous Dodge Challenger SRT. I continue to live vicariously and drive that car through my character.
The least? Officer Louie Sommers. Everyone hates a cop on the take. Does he get his just desserts? You’ll have to pick up the book to find out.
I hope you enjoyed the interview. I find it fascinating that while Ken reads and enjoys horror fiction as much as he does, he finds that genre the most difficult for him to write. For your convenience, I listed links to his social media and his books for you. I hope you give him a read!
Twitter – https://www.twitter.com/08025writes
Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/kenharrisfiction/
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/kah623
LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/kah623/
Link to The Pine Barrens Stratagem
Amazon – https://amzn.to/3aIgesy
B & N – https://bit.ly/3pQUNOv