Authors who bring professional experience to their writing have long been a captivating breed. Michael Crichton wrote medical thrillers; John Grisham managed to make the law exciting; Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornwell do forensic pathology. To this group, it is time to add Steven Gore, a San Francisco Bay Area based private investigator turned creator of international thrillers. Gore has investigated international crime and corruption throughout Europe, Asia and Latin America. According to his bio, he has been featured on 60 Minutes, received honors for excellence. And, he’s just a genuinely nice guy.
After a false start involving electricity-related phone failure, Steven Gore and I sat down for a long, detailed, and philosophical discussion about his new thriller Final Target, his former career as an investigator, his approach to writing, and the unexpected details of the business of writing.
One of my favorite parts of Final Target appears in the prologue. I loved the line “more surprising even than the sheet metal buckling around her, was that she was dying in English.” Did you have a favorite scene while writing the book – something that stood out as a “that’s it!” moment?
Can I tell you how that line came about? It was about eight years ago; I was working on a smuggling case in China. I was with an American interpreter, a native Mandarin speaker. We were in Northeastern China, standing on the sidewalk, waiting for the company owner. The interpreter was translating. Suddenly, he couldn’t think of a word in his native language; it was just a basic word. I watched as he panicked. It was as if his world fell away. He was disconnected.
That started me thinking about people with a second language, that they learn to think and dream in. What happens [to the language] when something terrible happens?
Back to a favorite part of the book – I think it would be the prologue. I had written two thirds of the book. I had an idea of how it was going; when I had the idea of meeting Katie’s parents…I realized it was her story. After writing the prologue I thought, ‘maybe I’m catching on to how to write these things.’
Investigation is about finding people and seeing what they have to say. I don’t want to be in the reports that I write; I want it to be about them. When I started writing, I was the author. Then I realized it was the same thing. I had to disappear into the background. In writing the prologue, I’m not important; what’s happening to her is important.
This may not be true for every writer, but I’ve developed a rule for myself that everything has to be from some character’s experience. If I stick to that rule, my writing is better.
As a debut novelist yourself, do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Set some rules. Figure out talents for yourself, and set some rules and stick to them. I think there’s a lot to be said for writing what you know. Obviously we write about murders and none of us have committed murder, but if you write from a framework you know, you know relationships among people, you know scenes, you know the moral and ethical conflicts.
Just write and write and write. You don’t know what the market is going to want, what readers are going to want. Anybody who can write one book has a dozen. Don’t look at the first book as ‘that’s it.’ New writers have more confidence if they think about it as a career, not as the first make or break book. It takes the pressure off.
How did your career as a novelist come about? Have you always enjoyed writing, or did you simply decide one day to sit down and write?
I had originally thought to write a non-fiction book of material from old cases, particularly from the 80’s at the height of the crack-cocaine years. But there were two problems. Problem One: The most interesting and tragic parts were the most confidential. Problem Two: It didn’t seem fair to make people relive that tragedy. Once you start changing names and facts, you’re already into fiction. So, I put it aside.
One morning I got in early for a conference call. [Due to the involvement of multiple time zones] I finished at 5:30 am. There I was at my desk, and I said ‘maybe I should write a novel.’ That morning I drafted two outlines. One became Final Target and one was called White Ghost. I started White Ghost first. It was about a PI late in life looking back at his career. I got to the end and realized I had written the last book in a series first. I set it aside and started Final Target. I didn’t put much thought into the idea of writing the novel until I was pretty far in.
If you go to the bookstore, you see all of these great people, and so you write toward it. Thousands of hours into writing it, you go to the bookstore and realize of the 500 or so linear feet, you get about one inch of it. I didn’t think about this stuff. I was focused on getting the story told.
How has the transition from field investigator to novelist gone?
I was ready. The last year that I worked full time as an investigator, I was out of the country for six months, and I spent another month or two traveling around the U.S. You get to the point where you want to sleep in your own bed. The time was right.
You end up on these convoluted trips. [Steven went on to describe a trip that I couldn’t possibly transcribe fast enough. Suffice it to say that stops included, but were not limited to London, Amsterdam, the Ukraine, and India with considerable backtracking in a single trip.] My wife is an investigator too. The only way we were able to see each other during those months was to meet in Hong Kong. Another time we met in London for a week. Another time, the same thing in Bangkok. It got to the point where that wasn’t the way I wanted to live.
I was ready. I had ideas for stories. My wife is a really good reader. She’s the one who taught me how to get the story on the page. That made a tremendous difference. You need someone you trust that is insightful.
Can you discuss the path that led you toward private investigation?
It didn’t cross my mind to do it until a couple of months before I did it. I was with the Alameda County Public Defenders’ Department. I liked working there. But, I had done what there was to do there. The time was right to go.
There was a case I wanted to pursue on my own. It had to do with police corruption, so it had to be done outside of the Public Defenders’ Department. After ten years in the criminal justice system, it wasn’t hard to get work. I decided to only work for lawyers. I wanted someone’s Bar card and professional reputation on the line.
College – I was in graduate school in political theory at UC Berkeley. I had intended to be an academic. But I decided that the world didn’t need another book about Thomas Hobbes.
So that’s where the philosophy came in for Gage…
Yes, I gave him that background because I knew it. I wanted to give him an opportunity to think about things a little more deeply. It was the same with Faith [Gage’s wife]. I made her an anthropologist, because I wanted to give the reader a character with cross-cultural insight.
I needed characters to start with a high intelligence to give them an opportunity to think sophisticated thoughts. At least, that was my thinking; who knows if it works!
I like people who are outsiders, like Gage…and Spike…and Burch. By making people outsiders, you give them an opportunity to be more self-critical and critical of their environment. I wanted to create opportunities for the characters.
According to your bio, your work has taken you to multiple countries. How did cultural and language differences impact your investigations, and do you speak any other languages?
No, no other languages…I did make it a point to learn a few words in the language of any country I was travelling to; it shows interest in the language and the culture. I did lots of reading about the places I was going.
The cultural things are really significant. You need to figure out what offends people, and then don’t do it…Sometimes the best thing you can do is nothing.
But, there’s a lot less cultural relativity in the world than you would think. For instance, the practicality of commerce. International crime is possible for the same reasons that international soccer is possible. People know what the rules are and how to break them.
One aspect of the thriller genre that always seems to push the boundaries of credibility is the prevalence of the convoluted criminal plot/international intrigue. The plot of Final Target certainly isn’t simplistic. In your experience as a private investigator, how true to life is that sort of complicated conspiracy?
I think in the real world, cases are much more complicated than they will ever be in fiction. That’s just the way it is. If you tried to describe the actual process, where the money actually goes, you’d never get out of the chapter.
Every case that I work, I have to use a flow chart. You can never reproduce that in a book; in real life you have lines circling around and back and forth. It looks chaotic.
Along the lines of plot complexity, as a fan of thrillers and mysteries, I often find myself experiencing difficulty keeping plot points straight. Final Target ties together very neatly; did you have any trouble keeping track of the pieces while writing?
No, but I had trouble getting it on the page. That’s where Liz [Gore’s wife] came in. She said, “people don’t know everything you do.” In a conversation with someone, you can tell if they aren’t following you. When you’re writing, you don’t get that questioning look.
I didn’t get confused about what was happening; in my mind, the flow charts were simple. In the real world with stock fraud, there are multiple companies, each with dozens of bank accounts. But, I want the readers to understand; if they don’t, then I goofed.
What can we expect from Graham Gage in the future?
The next book moves back and forth between Gage – in New York, then in Marseilles – and Faith in China where a massive earthquake triggers an uprising. She’s there with her students. [Gore explained that the first part of this book was written prior to the most recent severe quake in China, but had been inspired by previous incidents.]
The two parts connect. Gage is looking into the death of a former FBI agent in Marseilles.
More of Gage’s character gets developed in the second book than in the first.
I loved some of the “secondary” characters in Final Target particularly Professor Blanchard, Ninchenko, and Alex Z. Will we see more of these people in the subsequent Graham Gage books?
Alex Z. will continue. In real life, no investigator can know everything he needs to know. I’ve always had an Alex Z. in my office.
Some people like Ninchenko are based on the people responsible for my security detail on trips to the Ukraine – that outlook on life, the weariness, living in a society where nothing is true for very long.
In real life, investigators are not lone eagles. They depend on people, sometimes good, sometimes not so good.
Is there anything I haven’t asked that you would like to put out there?
[Laugh.] I’ve probably said more than I know.Powered by Sidelines