Interview by MysteryPeople Contributor and Blogger Scott Butki
K.J. Howe has written a thriller full of multiple plot twists that will have you looking
over your proverbial shoulder. How appropriate that the author of the debut novel The Freedom Broker may be better known as the executive director of ThrillerFest, the organization’s annual conference held every July in New York City.
“Kidnapping fascinated me because it is such a painful and unusual experience, a purgatory of sorts. When you’re a hostage, you’re still alive, but you’re not really living.”
The book comes with quotes praising it from authors throughout the mystery and thriller community including James Patterson, Clive Cussler and Scott Turow. For her debut Howe has picked a fascinating yet disturbing topic: the practice of kidnapping for ransom. She has spent two years researching the topic, interviewing former hostages, negotiators, hostage reintegration experts, special forces operatives, and K&R insurance executives.
The premise is that there are 25 elite professionals who travel undercover to the deadliest spots in the world to bring hostages home safely by any means necessary. Only one of those 25 elite response consultants is a woman.
That woman, our protagonist, is Thea Paris. Her life was vastly affected by her 12-year-old brother’s kidnapping when she was 8. Howe makes an interesting writing choice in having Paris, an athlete,suffer from Type 1 Diabetes. Howe, like Thea, grew up all over the world.
I was lucky enough to do an email interview with K.J. Howe. K.J. Howe comes to BookPeople to speak and sign her debut this Wednesday, February 15th, at 7 PM. She’ll be appearing in conversation with bestselling thrillerist Jeff Abbott, whose latest work is The First Order.
MysteryPeople Q&A with K.J. Howe
Scott Butki: How did the story come about?
K.J.: Howe: I had the opportunity to meet former hostage Peter Moore, the longest held hostage in Iraq (in captivity for almost 1,000 days). Abducted along with four British military men, Peter was the only one of the five to survive the ordeal. Blindfolded and handcuffed for months, he spent days killing mosquitoes with his cuffed hands, keeping his mind focused by counting how many he could eliminate in a day. When Peter was finally freed of his blindfold, he was then chained to a radiator. He stared at the cracks on the wall and built an entire train system in his mind, which he was later able to replicate on paper. Peter suffered incredible hardships, illnesses, mock-executions, and beatings. But through his resilience and his ability to occupy his mind, he was able to survive. Peter’s story touched me deeply. I wanted to write about kidnapping, bring awareness to what hostages have to go through—and hopefully help more hostages come home. I feel honored to call Peter a friend, and I’m grateful he is free now, able to enjoy life again. He’s my personal hero.
SB: Why did you want to do a story about kidnapping and ransom?
KJH: Growing up, I was fortunate to live in many different places, including Africa, Saudi Arabia, Europe, and the Caribbean. Given my background, I really wanted to write a series about a character who had to travel internationally for her work. Kidnapping fascinated me because it is such a painful and unusual experience, a purgatory of sorts. When you’re a hostage, you’re still alive, but you’re not really living. Instead, you try to endure the hardships, the boredom of captivity, the fear that you might not make it back home and the fervent hope that freedom will eventually come. It’s a complicated and challenging crime. Even when the hostage returns home, the memory of captivity lingers. In fact, the day a hostage is set free often comes with mixed emotions: euphoria that the ordeal is over, and anxiety, because while you have been held captive, the rest of the world has moved on. People expect you to be the same person you were before captivity, but you’re forever transformed by your experience. It can be tough to adjust, and it’s very important to talk to a professional to receive assistance re-adjusting to your new reality.
When you start a fictional series, you want to make sure there is enough breadth and depth in the subject matter for many tales. With my character Thea Paris, I have a myriad of stories to share. Kidnapping is quite international in nature, so that allows me to take Thea to different parts of the world. Given my love of travel, the research provides an opportunity to visit intriguing places. There are also many types of kidnapping, from political to ransom to virtual to phantom to tiger, so I will never run out of story ideas. In fact, I wish I had more time to tackle them all.
SB: In addition to writing an entertaining novel, were you also trying to educate readers on this topic? Is there anything in particular you want them to take away from this book?
KJH: I would very much like to bring kidnapping to the forefront of people’s minds, create awareness for this growing international crisis. There are over 40,000 reported kidnappings a year—in part due to displaced military and police in many third world countries—and this crime is definitely on the rise across the globe. There are many hostages still being held in captivity, and we need to help them. The US administration created a new government body called the HRFC—Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, a multi-agency group spearheaded by the FBI, to deal with the abductions of Americans abroad, and I hope this effort will assist hostages and their families. We’re living in a challenging world, and we need to educate people on travel safety, so we can prevent kidnappings in the first place.
SB: Did you know anyone previous to your writing the book that had been kidnapped?
KJH: Yes, Peter Moore, as I mentioned above. And I’ve met other hostages during my research. There is an organization called Hostage US (and Hostage UK) that assists captives and their families during the reintegration process. Former hostages really need support, and I’m pleased that people are trying to help.
SB: How did you research this book?
KJH: I’ve spent many hours interviewing and just getting to know kidnap and ransom negotiators, former hostages, K&R insurance executives, reintegration experts, psychiatrists specializing in the hostage mindset, and the Special Forces soldiers who deliver ransoms and execute rescues. I’ve also been fortunate to have many of these experts read my book. It’s very important to me to get the facts right.
I also enjoy researching weapons, cultures, locales, and pretty much anything else that will bring verisimilitude to my novels. My kidnap negotiator character, Thea Paris, has type 1 diabetes. As a former medical writer, I wanted to portray her condition accurately. I spent time talking to two active, dynamic women in their 30s who have type 1 diabetes to make sure that I had the details and nuances correct. I’m very grateful for their help.
SB: What’s it like publishing your book and having so many great writers praising you?
KJH: I feel incredibly grateful to have writers I respect and admire share positive feedback about The Freedom Broker. Writers spend so much time alone working on their prose, it’s absolutely touching to hear that the book resonated with someone. I’m dedicated to working hard on my craft and storytelling ability, and I hope to improve as a writer as I pen more novels. It’s a long and winding road, and I want to enjoy every step of the way.
SB: How did you get involved with the International Thriller Writers and later become the Executive Director of ThrillerFest, the organization’s annual conference held every July in New York City?
KJH: I started volunteering with the International Thriller Writers, and when I was asked to become the Executive Director, I was honored to accept. The ITW is a not-for-profit organization, and its mandate is to support thriller authors. Anyone who is enthusiastic about suspense novels will really enjoy ThrillerFest. We have loads of great programming for fans, aspiring writers, and authors. We meet every year in July at the Grand Hyatt in NYC for ThrillerFest. Please come join us. This year, the dates are July 11-15th, 2017. If you have any questions, drop me a line at email@example.com.
SB: What’s it like as a reader and writer to be able to meet so many great writers?
KJH: It’s like being a kid in a candy shop! I’m so passionate about books that it is a dream job to be talking about them 24/7. It’s fun to be able to ask some of my favorite authors questions about their books and receive a personal—and usually, entertaining—answer. I love that ITW’s bestselling authors are so accessible and helpful to our aspiring authors. Everyone pays kindness forward. We have a special group at ITW, and I’m honored to be part of the organization.
SB: How did growing up in Africa, Europe, the Middle East and the Caribbean affect you as a writer?
KJH: I’m grateful for the incredible experiences I’ve had growing up internationally. I’ve learned fascinating things about other cultures, and I hope that these experiences will add some richness and texture to my books. We’re all curious about each other, interested in learning what makes others tick—and the world is becoming a smaller, more diverse place with convenient airplane travel, so the understanding of other cultures is an important and useful asset.
I love traveling to different locales for research. For The Freedom Broker, I had the pleasure of visiting the beautiful island of Santorini, historically steeped Athens, and the stunning vistas of Zimbabwe.
SB: Why did you decide to have the protagonist have diabetes? I liked it. It reminded me of when I read my first Ian Rankin novel and the featured criminal was anemic.
KJH: Very pleased to hear you enjoyed the information about Thea Paris having type 1 diabetes. I wanted to demonstrate that no matter what illness you have, the condition does not define you. Although Thea constantly monitors her blood sugar levels and maintains her diabetes with great care, she doesn’t let it stop her from pursuing her passion of bringing hostages home. She lives an active and dynamic lifestyle, and diabetes does not hold her back. At the same time, having diabetes makes Thea vulnerable, which I feel is important. No one is invincible, and this brings humanity to her character.
As a former medical writer, I have researched diabetes extensively. My grandfather also had the condition, and I can remember him injecting himself with needles…that definitely made an indelible impression on me as a child, and I wanted to include the condition in my book. I hope Thea inspires people with diabetes to look after themselves and to pursue their dreams. There are many professional athletes, actors, musicians and other people with diabetes, and they are an inspiration for Thea.
“…one fact that stood out to me is how different countries react to kidnappings. There have been many instances of people being abducted in groups, and often the hostages are people of different nationalities. Given that each country has a unique policy of how they deal with kidnappers, as a hostage, your fate can be greatly influenced by your home country’s policy. A fate of birth, if you will.”
SB: What question did you wish I would ask that I didn’t? Here’s your chance to ask it and answer it.
KJH: Okay, that’s fun. How about this: What is an interesting piece of information that you’ve learned from your research?
There are countless fascinating details in the world of kidnapping, and I could truly write an entire non-fiction book about the facts alone. But one fact that stood out to me is how different countries react to kidnappings. There have been many instances of people being abducted in groups, and often the hostages are people of different nationalities. Given that each country has a unique policy of how they deal with kidnappers, as a hostage, your fate can be greatly influenced by your home country’s policy. A fate of birth, if you will.
In the case of the US and U.K., both countries have strong policies of not negotiating with terrorists and not paying ransoms. In the US, things have softened slightly, in that if it can be proven that intelligence can result from a ransom payment that could lead to prosecution, the payment may be permissible. But it’s definitely a touchy subject, a hot bed of controversy about funding terrorism. That leaves rescue as an option, but only one in five missions are successful. Challenging odds. And the UK will not pay ransoms or negotiate with terrorists, but they will make payments to captors. For example, British yachting couple Rachel and Paul Chandler were captured by Somali pirates, and a ransom was paid for their freedom.
Contrast this with nations like Germany, France, Italy, and Spain who have directly paid ransoms to hostage takers. This creates world controversy, as there is a lot of finger pointing, accusing these countries of funding terrorism. Al-Qa’ida alone made 125 million dollars from global ransom transactions of this indirect funding since 2008.
Take the unique example of Israel. They will strike deals and offer concessions for the release of their citizens, even for the remains of their soldiers killed in battle, but Israel has a policy of killing anyone who abducts its citizens and has re-arrested prisoners it has released as part of an exchange.
If you’re taken hostage, your country of origin can profoundly affect your release, your treatment, your future.
Thanks so much for your excellent questions.
You can find copies of The Freedom Broker on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. K. J. Howe comes to BookPeople on Wednesday, February 15, at 7 PM. She’ll be appearing in conversation with local author and renowned thrillerist Jeff Abbott.
Scott Butki reads at least 35 books a year and has been interviewing at least 25 authors a year for more than 10 years.You can see an index of those interviews here.