Tj O’Connor is the author of Dying to Know, Dying for the Past, and Dying to Tell, murder mysteries with a paranormal twist set in Winchester, Virginia. Tj is an international security consultant specializing in anti-terrorism, investigations, and threat analysis—life experiences that drive his novels. With his former life as a government agent and years as a consultant, he has lived and worked around the world in places like Greece, Turkey, Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, and throughout the Americas—among others. He was raised in New York’s Hudson Valley and lives with his wife and canine companions in Virginia where they raised five children. Dying to Know is the 2015 Gold Medal Winner of the Independent Publishers Book Awards (IPPY), the 2015 Bronze Medal Winner of the Reader’s Favorite Book Awards, and a finalist for both the 2015 Silver Falchion Award and the Foreword Review’s 2014 INDIEFAB Book of the Year.
Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Dying to Tell. When did you start writing and what got you into cozy mysteries?
I first began writing when I was in the fifth grade when I was given a reading assignment, Mystery of the Witches Bridge by Barbee Oliver Carleton. I got hooked on reading and writing and began feverously doing both. Writing was also an escape from a crummy childhood and over the years, I knew I had to write as part of my life just to stay sane (I think it worked). I wrote my first novel out of high school, and to say the least, it was horrible! Over the years, I’d pen five more before I sold my first novel, Dying to Know, the first in the Gumshoe Ghost mystery series.
But Dying to Know was a fluke—never meant for publication. I was writing thrillers and hadn’t found an agent yet. I was telling my daughter, Jean, about a 20 year nightmare of being killed as an anti-terrorism operative (my former life) and I had returned to find the killers. She loved the concept and demanded I write the nightmare as a murder mystery. I did—just for her. But it came out well so I sent it out to three agents for consideration. Wham. Kimberley Cameron signed me as a client and 18 months later, it was bought by Midnight Ink as a three book deal. So, I never intended to write cozies. It just happened by chance, and now, Dying to Tell, the third in the series, is out.
What is your book about?
My series revolves around Oliver “Tuck” Tucker — a dead detective who returned in book 1, Dying to Know, to solve his own murder. Each of the books has three main components: a traditional murder mystery, ala Agatha Christie, a historical subplot that revolves around Tuck’s unknown family (he was raised in foster care), and the conclusion, in which these two plots collide into a much grander story. In Dying to Tell, Tuck is on the hunt for William Mendelson’s murderer. Mendelson was a reclusive, bizarre local banker with roots back to World War II.
Mendelson had been hiding stolen Egyptian antiquities in his bank vault since the war when he and some pals were involved in some skullduggery involving a Nazi spy caper in Cairo, Egypt. Needless to say, sleeping dogs eventually awaken. During the case, Tuck uncovers his long dead OSS grandfather, Ollie Tucker — a spirit seeking justice all the way from Cairo in 1944. Combined with some twists and turns, a few odd characters, suave, swanky bank executives, and secrets that should have stayed buried long ago, Dying to Tell challenges Tuck to solve several murders even while his life —or death— with his wife, Angel, is unraveling. Tuck must come to terms with the constant struggle to be back amongst the living but not truly one of them.
What was your inspiration for it?
My books, including Tuck’s mysteries, are all based on my experiences as a former government agent and now as a security consultant. In the first book, Dying to Know, the story was based on a 20 year nightmare and an actual case I ran as a young federal agent. That case was the discovery of a 150 year old skeleton that stopped some multi-million dollar construction on a government installation. Poof, Dying to Know was born.
In Dying to Tell, the story is based on a case I ran many years ago about a woman who embezzled money form the government, and on the eve of the crime’s discovery, she disappeared. In Dying to Tell, I also used a real Nazi spy operation during World War II in Cairo. Operation Salaam was a real operation where the Nazi Abwehr tried to infiltrate Allied-held Cairo with two German spies. These two events, along with a few people I’ve known over the years that I turned into real characters (with a few changes here and there) formed the entire basis for my novel.
What do you hope readers will get from your book?
Fun. A little taste of history. Fun. I think most people read for pure enjoyment — and to escape all the clutter of life around them. I do. Reading for many is a way to get lost in place, time, and people and just live outside your world a little without danger of getting killed. I write my stories with a traditional mystery, a historical subplot, and a grand collision of the two at the end. Along the way, Tuck’s narration is fun, humorous, and twisting and turning.
My chapters are short and move quickly and I try to give my readers a diversion from life that is still interesting and with real people. Oh, sure, Tuck’s dead, but the reader sort of forgets that after a few pages as he tells his stories. I want my readers to put it down and be looking for another soon. My favorite comments about the books are, “Tuck’s fun”, “I didn’t figure it out, but at the end, wow!” and of course, “When’s the next one coming out?”
Do you have a writing schedule? Are you disciplined?
No schedule. No discipline really. I work a lot as a security consultant. I write around my bill-paying life. So it’s early mornings, lunch, after work, and every weekend. But there’s no schedule, it’s when I can get to it. But, I always get to it, too. Discipline is not needed. I love writing and MUST do it. If I don’t write for a couple days when I’m traveling, I literally get antsy and crave it. It’s a drug. Like an addiction or a lover.
How do you define success?
Certainly not money — not yet, at least. I don’t make enough to cover my expenses. For me, as I’ve said many times, it’s two things: first, I just love to write and finishing a novel is success as much as anything. Second, and most important, it’s fans who seek me out with, “Hey, you’re Tj the author. I love your books.” I don’t get tons of these, but I do get some. There is nothing more successful to me than someone coming up, introducing themselves and telling me about my books and how much they enjoy them.
In many cases, as I did just last week, a fan came up with some friends and said, “Hey, I saw you in that magazine and I read your first book. I loved it! When is your next one coming out?” I retrieved the last book from my car and gave her a signed copy and promised the next to her as well. I made some friends — and more fans that day — and to me, that’s success. Money comes later, I hope, but if not, I’ll be happy nonetheless. I also do a lot of traveling at book events, conferences, guest speaking engagements, and keynote addresses. My travels are schedule on my web site.
George Orwell once wrote: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” What do you think?
Oh, George, you are so close and yet so far. I agree that it’s exhausting and often a struggle. But I don’t find it a painful illness. I find it something that keeps me whole, balances me against the crazy career I have. Writing to me is therapeutic. If I couldn’t write, I would be lost. Totally and completely lost. Think of it, I’ve had an adventurous life as a former government agent and now security consultant.
I miss some of those days and some of the action and adventures of my youth. I also miss some of the extraordinary people I worked with and knew. When I write, I get to relive those adventures and rekindle lost friends and foes. What a way live, right? I can be a swashbuckler in foreign lands, steal treasure or national secrets, infiltrate dangerous countries, kill terrorists and ex’s, and crash through life as I want. And people love it! They even pay me to do it! (Not much, but what the hell, right?) Now, how is that not fulfilling?
Cover art credit: Jesse Reisch/Deborah Wolfe Ltd. Both cover art and photo published with permission from the author and author’s publicist.