MysteryPeople Q&A: KJ Howe, Director of ThrillerFest, Makes Her Fiction Debut

  • 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 kimberleyhowe@thrillerwriters.org.

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.

2016 Preview: Back to Back Events!

  • Post by Molly Odintz

As we wait patiently for the wild mood swings of a Texas winter to die down, we’ve got plenty of events coming up to strike a mystery lover’s fancy – no matter the weather outside. Jeff Abbott ushered in our 2016 events this past Tuesday, speaking and signing his latest thriller, The First Order.

Coming up at the end of the month, Reed Farrel Coleman, a long-time favorite, comes to visit with two new books: Robert B. Parker’s The Devil Wins,  a Jesse Stone novel, and Where It Hurtsthe first in a new series and our Pick of the Month for January. He’ll be here to speak and sign his latest on Saturday, January 30th, at 5 PM.

Read More »

MysteryPeople Q&A with Jeff Abbott

  • Interview and Review by Scott Butki

 


In The First Order, Jeff Abbott has written yet another great thriller about his protagonist hero, Sam Capra, and his continuing adventures and mishaps.

This is Abbott’s fifth novel in the Sam Capra series and I keep thinking one of these is going to be a dud – no offense, Jeff – but he keeps pulling it off. Each has enough excitement that it should come with a warning: Don’t read before going to bed… because there’s enough adrenaline to keep you awake.

“Usually when an idea with this many facets comes to me, I know it’s one good enough for a book.”

Read More »

The MysteryPeople Top 100 Crime and Suspense Novels, Revealed At Last

Today, MysteryPeople celebrates its fifth anniversary with a panel discussion, party, and the official unveiling of the MysteryPeople Top 100 Crime and Suspense novels. Meg Gardiner, Jesse Sublett, Janice Hamrick, Mark Pryor, and reviewer and radio host Hopeton Hay join bookseller Molly Odintz and Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery for a discussion of “Our Life in Crime.” Come by the store at 3 PM for the discussion and stay for the party afterwards!

The MysteryPeople Top 100 Crime & Suspense Novels

Read More »

Texas Book Festival Wrap-up!

~post by Molly and Scott

MysteryPeople’s Molly Odintz and Scott Montgomery were invited to be moderators at the 19th Annual Texas Festival Of Books held at the state capitol last weekend. It was Scott’s fourth time moderating at the festival and Molly’s first time ever. They both survived to tell the tale to report back.


SCOTT

Crime fiction had its strongest presence yet at the festival with six panels and three one-on-one interviews with the likes of Walter Mosely and James Ellroy. Even before the actual festival got underway, I got to sped some time with the authors. Timothy Hallinan, author of the Junior Bender and Poke Rafferty series, shared some BBQ as we talked books and his time working with Katherine Hepburn. I also got to spend some time with friends Harry Hunsicker, Mark Pryor, and the three authors who make up the pseudonym Miles Arceneaux before they went to their panels. Then I had my own.

First up was an interview with Craig Johnson, who’s latest book, Wait For Signs, is a collection of all the short stories featuring his Wyoming sheriff hero, Walt Longmire. He told the audience that Walt’s last name came from James Longmire who opened up the trail near Washington’s Mount Rainer and had the area named after him. He felt the combination of the words “long” and “mire” expressed what his character had been through. He added it also passed the test for a western hero name in that it could easily be followed by the word “Steakhouse.”

My panel discussion, Risky Business, had Jeff Abbott and debut author Patrick Hoffman looking at the art of thriller writing. The discussion got interesting when when it got into the topic of being categorized in a genre. Jeff said he wanted to get pigeon holed, “That way I know I’m selling.” He added it has never interfered with the type of book he wanted to write. We also got into an interesting talk about use of location. Patrick Hoffman talked about how he would often use his company car to drive to the location of his San Fransisco centric, The White Van, and write there on his lunch hour. Jeff and I also had fun drawing as much attention we could to our friend, author Meg Gardiner, who was in the audience and should have known better.

By the time the festival was over my body dehydrated, my voice was shot, and my blood alcohol content was questionable. Can’t wait til’ next year.


MOLLY

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of moderating two mystery panels at the Texas Book Festival. This was my first try at moderating panels and I am so thankful to MysteryPeople and the Texas Book Festival for giving me the opportunity to channel an NPR interviewer.The first, a panel on International Crime, featured authors Kwei Quartey, on tour with his latest Darko Dawson novel, Murder at Cape Three Points, and Ed Lin, with his new novel Ghost Month. Kwei Quartey’s novels take place in Ghana and increasingly focus on the economic and social imbalances of modern day Ghanaian life. Ed Lin has previously written novels depicting the Asian-American experience, including his Detective Robert Chow trilogy, set in New York City, and Ghost Month is his first to take place outside of the country.

We talked about what it means to write international crime fiction, the place of food in the detective novel, fiction as a method of dealing with historical and current societal trauma, and how to escape from a crashing helicopter. Both authors are published by SoHo and you can find their books on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

The second panel, looking at crime noir, brought together authors Rod Davis, with his latest, South, America, and Harry Hunsicker, with his new novel The Contractors. South, America follows a Dallas native living in New Orleans as he finds a dead body, gets tangled up with the dead man’s sister, and must go on the run from mobsters. The novel reaches deep into the twisted Louisiana web of racism and poverty to write a lyrical portrait of two desperate people.

Harry Hunsicker is the author of many previous novels, and his latest, The Contractors, explores the blurred lines between public and private when it comes to law enforcement. His two protagonists are private sector contractors working for the DEA and paid a percentage of the value of any recovered substances. They get more than they bargained for when they agree to escort a state’s witness from Dallas to Marfa with two cartels, a rogue DEA agent, and a corrupt ex-cop following them.

We talked about the meaning of noir, the craft of writing mysteries, the purpose of violence in fiction, and stand-alones versus series. South, America and The Contractors  are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

MysteryPeople Q&A with Jeff Abbott: INSIDE MAN

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