“Crime writers are the nicest people.” So I’ve heard, time and time again, and over the weeks and months surounding the launch of Steel Fear I’ve found it to be the absolute truth. Nowhere is this more evident than in the exceptionally generous and gregarious International Thriller Writers, aka ITW, the first (and as far as I know, largest) organization of thriller authors. As part of their debut authors program, I was recently interrogated — I’m sorry, interviewed, by the delightful author Elena Hartwell Taylor in a blog post entitled “John David Mann: On Launching His First Thiller.” Here’s the text of that interview in full. (You can also read it on Elena’s blog HERE.)
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EHT: Tell us about your protagonist, Navy SEAL sniper Finn.
JDM: Finn is in many ways the opposite of the stereotypical special forces warrior. He’s not a big, strapping, imposing guy. He’s short, lean, and somewhat funny-looking. He’s not principally a fighter (though he certainly is a master at that when called to be) or sharpshooter, but an observer. A military sniper is fundamentally an intelligence asset; his skills in reconnaissance are as important as his marksmanship, maybe more so. You might take a kill shot once in twenty stalks; you observe and bring back critical intel in all twenty. Finn soaks up impressions like Memorex.
That said, he is profoundly handicapped when it comes to human interaction. He can make “friends” with virtually anyone, instantly, for purposes of intel gathering; but is nearly incapable of actual friendships. “People were, by and large, a mystery to Finn. He could read their intentions like a meteorologist tracked weather patterns, see inside them like an X-ray tech. But he didn’t really understand what went on in there.”
The most striking thing about Finn is what we don’t know about him. He’s not only a mystery to us; he is also, in some tantalizing and pivotal ways, a mystery to himself. The fact that he has no last name is part of the puzzle of his origin, which is shrouded in trauma that long predates his military career. What happened in his childhood? What happened in his last mission, just days before the story opens? And why is he even on this ship? It doesn’t seem like even he knows all the answers.
The name “Finn” is part American orphan-adventure-hero (think Huck Finn) and part lethal danger (think shark fin in the water). Which is he, boy hero or lethal predator? Is he going to solve these crimes … or could he possibly be the guilty one?
Steel Fear is co-written with Brandon Webb, a combat-decorated Navy SEAL, and someone you have worked with in the past. This is your first thriller together. How did the two of you come to work together?
We first teamed up a decade ago to write his memoir, The Red Circle, and clicked so well we kept going. I had zero military background, so learning that world was a hugely absorbing challenge.
Over a decade of writing half a dozen other nonfiction books with Brandon, I often had the task of taking actual battlefield events and bringing them to life on the page. Even though they were real, the events of, say, Among Heroes or The Killing School called for the same skill set as if I were making these scenes up from whole cloth. For that matter, finding the arc of the story in each book took a narrative approach not so different from a novel’s—in The Killing School, for example, we wove together the stories of four different military snipers (Army Ranger, Marine, Canadian infantry, and SEAL), from childhood through critical battles. That felt an awful lot like writing the storylines in a multi-character novel.
So by the time we got to writing an actual novel, we’d already done a good deal of warming up.
What was your process like to write Steel Fear?
When I write, I go back and forth like pendulum, between the sprawling impulsive and the obsessively structured. I always work with an outline, but that’s never where I start — and the writing doesn’t exactly follow the outline as much as the outline follows the writing. It’s a way of keeping track of what’s going on and helping me find my way through.
For smaller pieces, like the 24,000-word parables I write (The Go-Giver, The Latte Factor) I build a pretty simple outline. For this, I found myself working with sometimes dozens of different summary documents – a “beat sheet” with every chapter reduced to a single line (the most significant twist or revelation of that chapter), a fuller outline with a paragraph for each chapter, a separate “arc sheet” doc for each major character, to keep track of what was happening for each. A character profile for each major character. A one-page summary of the whole book. A one-paragraph summary. A one-sentence summary.
It sounds like a lot of work, but every time I reframe the story in a different format, I’ll see it from a different perspective — which helps see the whole thing more clearly.
The other half the time, it’s just sitting in a comfy chair with a blank pad of paper and a pen, headphones on, door closed, and waiting to see what springs to mind. Some days I get a page, some days a paragraph, some days just a snitch of dialogue. No day is better than any other; every day writing is a good day!
You have written a lot of nonfiction, how different was it to shift to fiction? Any big surprises?
In one sense the shift to fiction was not jarring or difficult, because the process feels very much the same. If you’re writing someone else’s memoir, or writing a purely nonfiction book on a given topic, you’re still asking the question, “What’s the story I’m telling here?” and still looking for the most compelling path you can find from first page to last.
But writing a full-blown novel, and a thriller at that? I found that enormously challenging. Like going from decades of walking nice safe garden paths to threading a high-wire tightrope: you can’t let the line of tension drop for a moment, or the story goes splat. My first draft was over 150,000 words: about 50,000 too many — and 50,000 too loose.
I did vastly more rewriting on Steel Fear than with anything else I’ve ever written. Loved every moment of it.
You started life as a concert cellist and composer. What’s your favorite cello piece to play and/or to listen to? What drew you to that particular instrument?
There’s something very human and vocal about the cello. It’s lyrical and substantial. My years of playing the cello taught me how to combine rigorous discipline with something I love. I never practiced because I “had to,” yet I practiced a lot — because the cello demanded it. I feel that way about writing. The story demands it.
It was composing, though, that really shaped how I approach writing. I’m always thinking in terms of music. Writing dialogue, for example is something you do by ear, but it’s more than that; it’s the story as a whole, the arc of the thing, the shape of it, the rhythm and pacing and tempo and texture … it all feels very symphonic to me.
For me writing usually happens with headphones on. I listen to Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt for the hypnotic majesty; Brahms for the sheer intelligence and understated emotion (I think few appreciate what a tragic figure Brahms was); Beethoven for the lyricism and exuberant audacity.
But mostly I listen to Bach, mainly The Art of Fugue (as played by the Emerson string quartet), for the elemental power and breathtaking coherence of every note. To me Bach is like listening to the creation of the universe. It makes me feel like there is a perfect storyline couched inside this thing I’m working on, and my job is to unearth it. To tell it like Bach.
What are you working on now?
The sequel! Steel Fear was set on an aircraft carrier; Cold Fear is set in Iceland, which an American foreign policy analyst once described as “an unsinkable aircraft carrier in the middle of the North Atlantic.” Another world I knew absolutely nothing about.
Speaking of a high-wire act: we decided early on to include the first few chapters of the sequel in the back of book 1. The production schedule required that we have those four or five chapters 100% complete, down to the last verb and comma — complete, as in no more changes! — back at a point where the new manuscript itself was barely in its initial outlining phase. So I had to pour an enormous amount of concentration and intuition — an insane leap of faith, really — into crafting those first five chapters, with vast amounts of the book’s eventual plot still unknown continents. Now I’m in the process of writing the book that goes with those first five chapters! 🙂
Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring writers?
We’ve all heard the adage “Write what you know.” I don’t think it’s like that. What I’d encourage writers to do is write what intrigues you, what fascinates you, what you can fall in love with in the process of learning about, which may be something you don’t know at all — but then, as you write, let yourself be open to unleashing impressions, memories, experiences, viewpoints, bits and pieces of yourself that reveal what it is you actually do know about this thing you don’t know anything about.
There is something universal about the human experience — far more that is universal than that which is particular and exclusively specific. The specifics of your story’s world and character are enormously important, but only because they are the channels that transport your reader into this world. What your reader finds there is universal, and you (you the writer, I mean) have a unique and uniquely valuable lens into that universal experience.
Sometimes when I’m writing I’ll suddenly drop in some fictionalized version of a distant memory, an event or moment that I haven’t thought about in years, maybe decades — but that moment, that situation in the story abruptly pulled it out of me. Stay open to those moments. Let your own experience color the story. It’s supposed to. You don’t necessarily write about all the things that have happened to you, all the things you’ve witnessed — but those memories and experiences and deep grooves and synapses in your neurology color whatever it is you are writing about.
That’s why it’s yours. That’s why nobody else can write it.
Nobody else can write what you write — nobody.
Don’t worry about “finding your voice.” You don’t have to find it. You already have it. Your job is to marry yourself to the story, listen to the story, honor the story, be faithful to the story. When you do, it will draw out the best in you.
Thank you so much for visiting with us today. I look forward to having you back to talk about book two! Finally, I like to include an “author pet corner” in my posts. Do you have a pet or pets?
Our poodle Phineas is named, of course, after Finn, the hero of Steel Fear. He was born on October 8, joined our household at Christmas — and then within another few months we entered COVID lockdown. For the next year and a half it was Phin, my wife, and me. A community of three.
Phin is enormously energetic, enormously affectionate, and enormously sensitive, just an all-around big personality. For months now we’ve been working with an agility instructor; Phin is blindingly fast and seems to love it. I think there may be some Navy SEAL blood in there.
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You can see the original interview (and view a few photos of Phineas while you’re at it) on Elena Hartwell Taylor’s blog here.