Jeff Abbott is an author who consistently proves you don’t have to pander to the audience to please it. His latest book in the Sam Capra series, Inside Man, is full of action and intrigue that would put any Hollywood product to shame, yet it is also a serious look at family and the power struggles that define it. Jeff was kind enough to take a few questions from us about the new novel and offer a few reading recommendations.
Catch Jeff here at BookPeople this Tuesday, July 8 at 7pm.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: As the title suggests, you have Sam Capra going under cover for a large portion of the novel. What does a writer have to keep in mind for this scenario?
JEFF ABBOTT: First, being an inside man means playing a role, selling a story about who he’s pretending to be. Sam is weaving his story about his false identity while I’m writing the story about him, so he and I are being storytellers, together. A character like Sam who is living a lie just has this incredible dramatic tension around him, the danger of discovery is constant, a sort of simmering suspense, so it’s great fun to write. It’s also the kind of story where you can throw in a lot of twists and turns, where the slightest accident can have big repercussions. I love stories where someone has to play a role where they could be caught and lose everything like Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar or Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley books.
MP: Family is a major theme that runs through the story. Sam poses as an employee with a powerful family to avenge the death of someone who protected his family when he was young, and he is constantly reminded of his brother. What did you want to explore about family?
JA: My books are often an unusual mix of family drama and international intrigue. And I really think that family aspect surprises readers sometimes; I think that may have been why Inside Man was an O Magazine pick for their summer reading list. In this case, Sam’s gone undercover into this family, the Varelas, but he¹s not sure if they’re actually responsible for his friend’s death. He is surprised when he begins to care for them, and that sets up quite a challenge for him: what does he do if they are responsible? And then he’s caught up in a bigger question: what exactly is this family’s secret, what has made them so dangerous? King Lear, which I think is Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy about family, was a big inspiration to me in writing this book. Readers will see some parallels, although my story is very different in how it plays out. It was an inspiration, not a template. I wanted to explore how a family might try to stay together under pressures that could destroy them. Whether they succeed or not. . .that’s the story. Like Lear, it starts off being about revenge and ends up being about love and death.
MP: This time the setting is Miami. What inspired you to use that locale?
JA: Miami’s a fascinating place. I’d been there many times before, but this time I really got to explore the city. Miami is glamorous and seductive and full of interesting characters and I thought it would be a compelling setting. I love that, in the Sam series, since he owns bars all around the world, I can set the books wherever I please, which means I got to explore a wide range of Miami bars. Books & Books, one of America’s great indie stores, has a cameo in the book. So clearly, if Sam’s ever in Austin, I’ll have to do the same for BookPeople.
MP: You write some of the best action passages around and you have a master craftsman’s sense of structure and a pace that is cinematic. Are you as influenced by film as you are by literature?
JA: Wow, thank you. This is now my favorite interview question ever! I think it’s nearly impossible not to be influenced by TV or film as a writer today, because – guess what – your audience already is. That doesn’t mean everything has to read like a movie. It’s a book; it should be totally true to being a book. I actually try to be kind of sparing of the action scenes, not have too many, and make sure that they happen because of the character’s choices, not because it’s just time for an action scene. We have seen so many well done ones in film – from John Woo to Kathryn Bigelow to the Bourne films – that I really do try and choreograph it carefully in mind, and not repeat myself. There’s a chase scene in Inside Man that is actually very slow. Not fast, like you’d expect. Yet the tension I felt when writing it was huge. In the opening of Inside Man, with Sam in a car plummeting off a cliff, that’s not pure action, there are some subtle hints in that scene about what is to come in the book. People don’t believe this, and reviewers are sometimes dismissive of books that include them, but the action sequences are very hard to write. Like writing a sex scene, it’s easy to do badly. Re-pacing and structure; I really try to keep the story moving at a pace that interests me and recognizes that the reader has a thousand other demands on their time and could put the book down and go do something else. It’s a balance between action and revelation and emotion and trying to forge connections with the characters for the reader. I just want to keep you turning pages. I hope that makes sense and doesn’t sound pretentious. It takes a lot of work, but I love it.
One influence of films: I love to write while listening to film soundtracks. Some of my favorite film scores are The Hours, Inception, Henry V, Oblivion, The Fountain, the Bourne films, and the music to the TV show LOST.
MP: To me, Sam Capra lives in a heightened reality, yet I completely buy everything that happens in it. How do you keep a story grounded that could easily be over the top?
JA: Thrillers reflect the world we live in, but they’re escapism, too. I try to keep Sam emotionally grounded. He’s a young father. He’s a young man who doesn’t have a girlfriend. He’s trying to run a bunch of bars. So, on one side, he has very normal stresses that any reader can relate to: family, loneliness, work. On the other hand, he’s ex-CIA, and he gets pulled into very dangerous situations, with a set of stresses that are definitely the stuff of thrillers. He has this skill set that sets him apart from ordinary people. So I go for a balance, and I hope it works.
MP: I know you’re a big reader. After folks zip through your book, what else should they pick up for reading this summer?
JA: This is a fantastic summer for books. I am very much looking forward to Megan Abbott’s The Fever, Michael Koryta’s Those Who Wish Me Dead, Tom Rob Smith’s The Farm, Taylor Stevens’s The Catch, Meg Gardiner’s Phantom Instinct, and Adam Brookes’s Night Heron.
Jeff Abbott speaks about and signs Inside Man here at BookPeople on Tuesday, July 8th at 7pm. The event is free and open to the public. If you’d like a signed copy of one of Jeff’s books but can’t make it to the event, you can order signed, personalized books via our website, bookpeople.com.