Idol Talk: Heads Up

Mark May 24 on your calendar. That’s the day MCD, a new division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, publishes one of the best thrillers I’ve ever come across. I haven’t read something this good since Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, and that was 35 years ago. Turow’s novel is near and dear to my heart because it motivated me to finally start writing fiction, albeit 25 years later. (I was an investigative reporter and got accused by my subjects of writing fiction more than once.)

This amazing new novel is written by Chris Pavone and titled, Two Nights in Lisbon. I received an advance reader copy and will be interviewing Chris in the coming weeks. My story will appear in the May 1 issue of The Big Thrill online magazine—the official publication of International Thriller Writers.

I’ve never written a rave review before. I’m not sure I know how, but Pavone has forced my hand. If you’re not a subscriber to The Big Thrill, you can still read it for free.

In the meantime, here’s my story about Ben Mezrich, the Indiana Jones of thriller writers. My story about his thriller, The Midnight Ride, appears in the March issue of The Big Thrill. He has had an amazing literary life with movie deals and unsavory sources.  He writes both fiction and non-fiction.

IDOL TALK: Anonymous Calls in the Middle of the Night Are Ben Mezrich’s Life

Bestselling author and novelist Ben Mezrich has had a rich life, both financially and in the art of discovery. People come out of the woodwork and anonymously call him, urging him to write their wild stories. In many cases, he does.

This is not unusual when you’re an investigative reporter. Years ago, I was receiving these phone calls on a regular basis. One tip, which I’m ashamed to admit I sat on for a few days to complete less important work, resulted in my uncovering a Pentagon munitions scandal involving a crooked contractor that reached from Yugoslavia to El Salvador. (Lesson learned there.)

The result: the contractor enjoyed a Club Fed vacation.

While most investigative reporting is mundane research, from time to time, there are the made-for-movie moments like the time an anonymous source left me a packet of information in the bushes under a large shopping center sign. The sun had just set when he told me, “and by the way, I’ll be in my car watching you from the parking lot.”

That sent chills up my spin.

These stories make great cocktail party conversation even when they don’t turn up useful information. (That one did.) Most investigative reporting involves inner-nerd skills like reading volumes of government files, audits and reports, and having the oral stamina for countless phone calls urging sources to talk on the record. Then there’s the shoe leather dues that every investigator pays. Ben has paid that price. In fact, he says, for him it’s the most enjoyable part of writing.

The beautiful thing about most people you contact, they want to tell the truth, unless they’re a high-ranking government or corporate official. Then of course, they want to cover up.

And then there’s Ben Mezrich’s sources. He’s dealt with the scary Russian oligarchs who put Vladimir Putin in office, college math whizzes who took on Las Vegas, and he uncovered from a middle-of-the-night phone caller who was the mastermind behind the biggest unsolved art heist in world history. Ben Mezrich has had a full life of discovery and he’s not even old yet! I think you’ll find his story fascinating. I did. You can read more about Ben, his writing path and his latest novel about the great unsolved art heist, right here.

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IDOL TALK: Writing With an American Accent

Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher thriller novel series, talks with a British accent and writes with an American one. Talk with him at a cocktail party and there’s no mistaking he’s British. But if you read his books, it becomes apparent he’s lived in the States for decades, now in New York and Colorado. No doubt he’s the best selling and most popular British writer in the U.S. Or should I say retired series author? Two years ago, he turned over the Reacher franchise to his brother, Andrew.

Another bestselling British author, Robyn Young, who writes English historical novels, has just released her first American thriller, The Fields, under the pseudonym Erin Young (neither moniker is her real name). She’s pulled off a Jack Reacher with an Iowan accent. If you read her thriller about the American heartland, you’d swear she was American.

Sadly, British authors have often struggled in the U.S. to find readers. Peter James, Great Britain’s most popular bestselling thriller writer, has had to work at it to make the New York Times bestseller list. He says it’s a matter of language and culture. Americans don’t get the British vernacular, despite the proximity of our cultures and histories. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t translate for many. Perhaps Americans are just lazy or lack curiosity. Perhaps James will have to adopt the style of his British counterparts and write in an American accent to find greater success in the U.S. (Although, he hasn’t done badly reaching the Times bestseller list.)

It’s a sad commentary when you look at reading in America. The book market accounts for maybe 55-60 million avid readers in the U.S. out of more than 330 million Americans. About 27 percent of Americans don’t read books or haven’t read one in the last year. Another 25 recent or so read one to five books a year. Surprisingly, a large number of college grads don’t read books at all. The numbers vary among surveys, but they are all within this range.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of opportunities for American writers. Someone’s got to record everything, although news reporting jobs have plummeted. Someone must create the caloric content of all those tasty cable television and streaming service shows and video games that satiated the bloated American appetite for stories. I guess be grateful for something in our changing literary landscape, even if it’s not on a page.

After all, look what’s it’s done for Peter James. His books have been adapted for movies and cable television and gobbled up by Americans–at least in that format. And Lee Child—or rather Jack Reacher—is now a cable series.

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