Tuesday, September 30, 2008

INTERVIEW - Brett Battles, author of THE CLEANER and THE DECEIVED

About a year ago, we reviewed one of the best new thrillers this reviewer had read in years. THE CLEANER was a breath of fresh air, a real action thriller that started moving from page one and never gave up. Since then, the marvellously monikered Brett Battles has released THE DECIEVED, the second pulse-pounding Jonathan Quinn thriller. In that period, over several months (due to personal issues) we interviewed Brett on THE CLEANER, his writing and his background. After a longer than necessary delay (Mr Battles, we owe you a beer next time we see you; maybe more than that), we present the lost interview:
CRIME SCENE SCOTLAND: Brett, welcome to the Crime Scene Scotland interview. I should start by saying that THE CLEANER is an excellent novel, reminds me of a very tight action movie with a definite Bondian influence. In fact your lead, Jonathan Quinn, is a kind of secret agent, working for a very covert operation. But he’s not a Bond character, he’s more like the guy who cleans up situations after the fact, ensuring nothing seems out of place. He’s a very ordered personality, very tight and withdrawn, and the situation he finds himself in challenges that, forces him to make potentially sloppy and dangerous choices that deviate from routine. So I guess I?m asking, what made you think of the clean up guy as protagonist? And what do you feel attracted you specifically to the character of Jonathan Quinn?

BRETT BATTLES: Thanks, Russel. Glad you enjoyed it.

Your understanding of Quinn is exactly right. He’s not Bond, but he does get pushed into some Bondian situations and must adapt. As you say, deviating from his routine.

I think what attracted me first to create a character whose role is more behind the scenes is that I’ve always been fascinated with the story behind the story. What I mean is, you hear about some catastrophe, let’s say a random killing. You’ll read about what happened, you’ll get the blow by blow, you might even get the story of what happened leading up to it. But what I want to know is what happens next. The idea of a cleaner, of Quinn, being my protagonist grew from that. He’s a what happens next character. As for Quinn, himself, he was a natural extension of that. I lived with the idea of a cleaner for a while, and eventually as he started to take shape in my mind, there was Quinn.

CSS: One of the things you do very well is make his world come to life - - that is, the Office - his employers - seems perfectly plausible, despite being such a shady organisation. And the way Quinn reacts - especially in the beginning, where he's impersonating an FBI agent - to other agencies feels just right. Was there much research that went into Quinn's world and profession? Did you find anything to model Quinn's own practices on in the real world? Or was it a matter of extremely good bluffing? I have this horrendous feeling you're about to shoot back a one word answer of, "bluff"...

BB: I mulled Quinn over in my mind for many months before actually starting the
story. And in that time I did do some passive research...in the sense of paying attention to news stories I heard that might have some relevance, watching documentaries on investigative techniques, that kind of thing. But the short answer...I created him how I wanted him to be, and how I imagined it would be like to do his job. Is that a bluff?

Its kind of a bluff... but one that you pull off very nicely. There's a very nice feel for Quinn as a professional who knows what he's doing, or at least who seems that way to the reader...

CSS: As you say, you spent a great deal of time making sure you got the right hook for the novel, the proper point of view in Quinn. I've known a lot of writers who "audition" characters before ever getting them down on the page. Others who simply hear the rhythms of a voice and let the character run riot on the page. How much do you know about these guys - not just Quinn, but also his protege, his enemies, his loves - beyond what there is on the printed page? Are you the kind of guy who keeps notes on characters or lets them run instinctually? And I'm guessing the kind of approach you use probably indicates the kind of plotter you are as well....

BB: I know them more and more everyday, but I'm kind of like that second example...I hear the rhythms and let the characters tell me who they are. That's not to say I didn't think a lot about Quinn before I began writing about him, but I learned so much more as I wrote THE CLEANER. Some of the other characters, Nate, Quinn's apprentice, and Orlando, Quinn's best friend and colleague, grew on the page as I wrote them. Most of my other characters are the same way. As for notes, I do keep a few as I'm going, knowing I will need them in future stories. And you're correct about the type of plotter I am. I have an idea of where I want to end and where I want to begin, what happens in between comes to me as I'm writing. Now that said, basically what happens is that my first draft is like a 400 page outline that I'll polish and tweak and sometimes heavily rewrite several times before handing it over to my publisher. It's a process that works well for me.

CSS: Seeing as the whole thing grew quite organically (and, yeah, I think its a good way to work - - keeps you as surprised as the reader in some ways which helps with the energy of a piece), were you approaching the original draft of THE CLEANER as the first in a series or was it ever intended as a

BB: You're absolutely right about the organic approach. It keeps me interested, almost like I'm a reader, too, and want to know what's going to happen next.

When I started THE CLEANER, I wasn't thinking series. I was just thinking, Write the damn book!" But when I was about half way through, a writer friend in a critique group I was in at the time said I had the makings of a series character with Quinn. Since then it seemed like a no brainer.

CSS: You say that you didn't think of THE CLEANER as part of a series initially... now there are two ways to go with series characters and that's to have a limited run (George Pelecanos with the Nick Stefanos books) or to keep them going indefinitely (JLB's Robichaux, or Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder). Do you have plans to keep Quinn around only for a little while or are you just seeing how it goes? And do you think that a series character should have a natural stopping point?

BB: That's an interesting question, and one I've been asking myself for a while now. I don't think I see Quinn as a ever-ongoing series. I think that for most series characters there is a natural stopping point, a time when the can no longer do the job perhaps. Not all characters, though. Depends on how the series is set up. Still, for me, I haven't made a final definite decision yet, and will probably play it out as it goes. In my mind now, I see an end, but I also see the possibility of spinning one of the other characters off at some point, or even bringing Quinn back in a supporting role in some future stand alone, for instance. I want to keep my options open and not stick myself with a decision I'll regret later.

CSS: THE CLEANER is definitely in the grand thriller tradition with its exotic (and not so) locales, which seem to be drawn from your own travel experiences - quite extensive if your own website's Q&A and bio is to be trusted... Were these travels part of a misspent youth or (if you can talk about such things!) work related? And what was it about Vietnam and Germany especially that drew you to include them so prominently in the novel?

BB: Ah...my travels. I've been a traveler since I was about 15 and went on a high school trip to London and Paris. That's a long way to go for a young kid from California. But the adventure of it all captured my imagination, and turned my life into one of exploration. Vietnam and Berlin are more recent trips. Berlin was for business. I actually worked there for about four months on a project, and really got to know the city. I love Berlin, it's interesting and exciting. Vietnam I visited in the late 90s on a trip to pick up my daughter from the orphanage she had spent her first year of life in. The nature of a Vietnamese adoption at the time meant I had to spend two weeks in Ho Chi Minh City as paperwork was processed. Again, I did a lot of exploring. Most of it with my new daughter in a carrier on my back looking over my shoulder

CSS: I'm very interested in what it is attracted you to the thriller genre. What is about these kinds of novels that makes you want to write - and I presume read - them?
BB: I think I've been attracted to thrillers since I was a kid. There was this great series of books called Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators. Three teenage boys out solving mysteries. I loved it. That led into books by Alistar Maclean, then Jack Higgins, BLACK SUNDAY by Thomas Harris, and then pretty much everything by Robert Ludlum. Later I grew a deep fondness for novels by Graham Greene.

I think what makes me want to also write these types of books is the excitement of the stories, the idea of people knocked out of their comfort zone and suddenly having to act just to stay alive, and the great characters that come out of all of that. I love to be sucked into a story. In fact that reminds me of a very important author I forgot, whose work completely sucks me in. Stephen King. The way he writes, the way his stories unfold just make me want to sit on my couch all day and read until I'm done.

CSS: One of other things I notice about the novel is it has a very filmic quality. I've already mentioned James Bond - definitely comes across in your use of locations - but also your use of action and the way you structure your story comes across as visual and structured in the way an action blockbuster might be. Do you find that films influence your writing in the same way as your reading? In fact, more generally, do you think that filmic storytelling in general is beginning to influence prose storytelling?

BB: I think film is a huge influence on me. Since I was a child I've been both a reader and a movie watcher. I even ended up majoring in Film Criticism (basically film history) because I loved the medium so much. My favorite class, by the way, was an entire semester on Alfred Hitchcock. And I don't think filmic storytelling is beginning to influence novel writing, I think it has been doing so for years. Take Stephen King for example...the way he has always written is very filmic. Michael Crichton, Robert Ludlum, Lee Child, they all write that way. Personally, not sure I know how to write in any other fashion

CSS: Before we go, Mr Battles, I have to admit I’m a little confused about your publishing history. I found a postcard for a novel called HUNG OUT TO DIE the other day - fell out an old issue of Crime Spree - which I understand was an early title for THE CLEANER? I know you had a fairly convoluted road to publication, and I always think its intriguing to hear how writers broke into the business....

BB: Convoluted indeed, more so than most, I think. HUNG OUT TO DIE wasn't even the first title. Before that I was using the working title DEVIL MAY CARE...it didn't mean anything, but it kind of stuck while I was writing the initial draft. Like most writers I sent out dozens of queries, and like the majority, I received mostly thanks but no thanks replies. (My favorite was an agent who sent back my query letter with a small ink stamp in the corner that said "NOT FOR US".) A few wanted to read a couple chapters, but ultimately it came to nothing. I was finally to the point that I was going to put the book on the shelf and start a new one.

Then I ran into a writing friend of mine, Nathan Walpow, who was being published by a small press called Ugly Town. He said he'd provide me an introduction. So I sent them a copy and wait, and waited, and waited. It was just about exactly a year later when one of the publishers at Ugly Town called me and said they were buying my novel. That was one of the best moments of my life. Over the next several months we changed the title to HUNG OUT TO DIE, and got the manuscript ready for publication. But things didn't work out exactly the way I thought they would. Due to a distributor who had gone bankrupt the previous year, Ugly Town ran into financial difficulties and were forced to suspend operation. It looked like my dream was going back to square one. But the Jim and Tom at Ugly Town did a very cool thing. They sent my manuscript to a friend of theirs who was an editor at Bantam Dell. She loved, bought it from them, and ended up giving me a 3 book deal. It worked out like a dream. I couldn't be happier. It was after Bantam picked me up that we changed the name to THE CLEANER.

And for that, Mr Battles we are all grateful. And even more grateful that you took time out of your schedule to talk to us, even if the final product took a while to get online. If you haven’t discovered the sheer pleasure of Battles’ writing, Crime Scene Scotland prescribes THE CLEANER and THE DECIEVED immediately. Battles is a name you'll be talking about for a long time to come.

Russel D McLean for crimescenescotland, 30/09/08