A native of Fort Worth, Texas, Cody McFadyen is the author of the international bestsellers Shadow Man and The Face of Death. A third book, The Darker Side, is coming out this October. In this in-depth, candid interview, McFadyen talks about his books, inspiration, his writing habits, the difficult aspects of writing, negative criticism, and his experience in finding an agent, among other things.
Thanks for this interview, Cody. Why don’t you begin by telling us a little about yourself?
I was born in Fort Worth, Texas in February of 1968. My Mom and Dad were both 20 years old and as poor as you’d expect 20-year olds to be. I grew up reading, largely because we were too poor to do anything else, and with the dictate to choose my own life. The ‘choose’ part took a while longer than it should, but here I am.
When did you decide you wanted to become an author?
I’ve wanted to write since I was ten. I didn’t really start writing until I was 35.
Were you an avid reader as a child? What type of books did you enjoy reading?
Very much an avid reader. I read across the spectrum. My mother would let me read anything as long as I could prove comprehension. She didn’t censor my choices. I grew up reading everything from the Lord of the Rings to Mark Twain to Mad Magazine to Michener. If a book really gripped me, I’d lock myself away and read all weekend and after school. I read Shogun by James Clavell, for example, over a weekend, and enjoyed it so much I read it again the next weekend. My grandfather had a bound collection of classics in literature and philosophy, and one summer when I was visiting them I read the Iliad and The Odyssey over a two week period, followed right after by Heinlein’s Time Enough For Love.
Tell us a bit about your latest book, and what inspired you to write such a story.
I’ll tell you about two – The Face of Death, which just came out in paperback, and The Darker Side, which is due out in Hardback 1 October.
The Face of Death: The idea of the book is simple. What if a serial killer, instead of killing many victims of the same physical type, left his primary victim alive? What if he followed her throughout her life, killing anyone and everyone that she ever loved? And what if no one believed her when she told them this was happening?
The Darker Side: A woman who is not what she seems is murdered on a plane at 30,000 feet. She leads Smoky Barrett (The FBI heroine of my series) to a monster who is obsessed with secrets. Not the itty-bitty secrets, but the deep, dark ones, the kind we’d rather die than reveal. He finds out your secret, and then he kills you for it, and then he reveals it to the world.
Inspiration comes from someplace, but I’m not sure of the source. What’s imagination? Mental illness or focused thinking? Maybe, in my genre, focused thinking about the mental illness of others?
How would you describe your creative process while writing this book? Was it stream-of-consciousness writing, or did you first write an outline?
The Face of Death was much more stream-of-consciousness. Pick up the laptop and let fly. For The Darker Side, I sketched out the general idea before writing.
Did your book require a lot of research?
Each book tends to require a certain amount of research. I build my books around the villains, and they each have their ‘niche’, which is to say, their obsession. I have to understand that obsession as much as they do, as does the hero.
What was your goal when writing this book?
My goal is to entertain and to move. To make the reader feel as though he or she has experienced something, and not passively. I want immersion and involvement, and for the reader to feel a little bit shook up by the end. When portraying violence, I don’t want to glamorize it by sugar-coating it. Nothing I’ve ever written is as violent as reality.
Who is your target audience?
Thriller readers, both men and women.
What will the reader learn after reading your book?
To quote the heroine of my books:
"However bad things may become, evil men only triumph in the most important ways when we let them."
What type of writer are you—the one who experiences before writing, like Hemingway, or the one who mostly daydreams and fantasizes?
Mostly the one who daydreams or fantasizes. But there is some experience there as well. Heh – not in the ‘killing people’ arena, but I think every writer, as he or she creates characters, draws on people from his or her own life. We observe as we live and that will find its way into books, intentionally or not.
Agatha Christie got her best ideas while eating green apples in the bathtub. Steven Spielberg says he gets his best ideas while driving on the highway. When do you get your best ideas and why do you think this is?
I get my best ideas in my own home, while reading or watching TV or staring at the ceiling. I can write anywhere, but I like to write at home the best, and I always prefer to start a book at home. I think it is because starting a book is such an uncertain act for me, I need the comfort and support and stability of ‘home’.
Do you get along with your muse? What do you do to placate her when she refuses to inspire you?
My muse and I mostly get along fine. She’s rarely uncooperative, but when she is, I just write anyway until she’s ready to get on board again. Inspiration/perspiration, for me, is a true proverb when it comes to writing.
From the moment you conceived the idea for the story, to the published book, how long did it take?
Writing a book generally takes me about 3 months. I spend quite a bit of time letting the idea percolate around, letting it settle into me. Once I begin writing, I write every day without exception, rain or shine or on the road, till the book is done.
Describe your working environment.
I write in my office mostly, which is its own environment. I have music, I have a TV, and I have pictures on the walls of ocean scenes. I have an easy chair that I write in. So I put on some music, or turn on the TV and then I sit down, lean back and write on my laptop.
What type of scenes give you the most trouble to write?
The connective tissue of the book. In other words, scenes of transition, movement from one place to the next. They’re necessary, but not always that exciting to write.
Do you write non-stop until you have a first draft, or do you edit as you move along?
I will generally write half of a novel, then I go back and revise up to that point. Why? Because I’m usually convinced, half-way in, that the book is crap. I have to go back and fix it before I can go on with the rest. I then write the last half, and revise that. Then I return to the beginning and re-edit it all again.
They say authors have immensely fragile egos… How would you handle negative criticism or a negative review?
I think that’s a mis-statement… I think anyone who creates something, who puts something out there that is a part of them, is vulnerable to criticism, whether they’re a painter, a singer, an actor, or a writer. Having said that, I do think you have to develop an acceptance of the basic truth: not everyone is going to like what you create, and many are going to hate it. And that’s okay. I really don’t mind if someone doesn’t like a book I write. That’s what subjectivity and opinion is all about. I do have a problem with someone being too snarky or acerbic, or when someone proclaims themselves as the guardian of ‘what is good’ – the old ‘brutally honest’ trick, wherein honesty is used as an excuse to be cruel.
As a writer, what scares you the most?
The next book.
When writing, what themes do you feel passionate about?
Love. Surviving and overcoming suffering. The truth that most things don’t come easy. Exploration of morality in all its forms. I also feel strongly that underdoing violence can be as damaging as overdoing it, and that I need to work in each book to find the right balance between them both.
Are you a disciplined writer?
Yes. When I am writing, I write every day, and I try and set a word goal and meet it. When I don’t, I feel guilty and like I’m loafing.
How do you divide your time between taking care of a home and children, and writing? Do you plan your writing sessions in advance?
I generally write in the morning (which answers the next question), and try and finish up by lunch time. Then I deal with correspondence and the other aspects of writing. However… I can get obsessed when I’m writing, particularly towards the end of a book, and can become a bit inaccessible to my family at those times. I find it hard to get the book out of my mind in those instances, and will be thinking about it at dinner, or even while out with the family.
When it comes to writing, are you an early bird, or a night owl?
I used to be a terrible night owl. I’ve changed my ways, and now I write in the morning, mostly.
Do you have an agent? How was your experience in searching for one?
I have a great agent, Liza Dawson. Searching for an agent was the biggest part of getting published, for me. I tell people that it took me about three months to write my first book, about three years to find an agent, and then six weeks for my agent to sell the book. Finding the agent was definitely the hardest part.
Do you have any unusual writing quirks?
Sometimes I write with the music or TV blaring. As in, really loud.
What is your opinion about critique groups? What words of advice would you offer a novice writer who is joining one? Do you think the wrong critique group can ‘crush’ a fledgling writer?
I personally can’t be in a critique group. I’m too superstitious about my writing. I’m afraid if I did that it would, as you say, ‘crush’ my writing. I really can’t say it wouldn’t work for others, but I don’t know… I’m leery of anyone who says they’re an expert on the subject of writing. I might go to a critique group run by Hemingway, but beyond that, I’d be suspicious.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? What seems to work for unleashing your creativity?
Oh sure. Everyone gets writer’s block. My solution is to step away for a bit. Go watch a movie, work in the yard, hit the gym. Take your mind off the writing and refuel.
Technically speaking, what do you have to struggle the most with when writing? How do you tackle it?
Finishing what I start. Seriously. It sounds inane, but the first failure in writing, as in anything, is follow-through. Writing is a perilous activity for me, fraught with self-doubts and uncertainty. I’m always sure, half-way in, that a book is worthless. When I hit those moments, I just keep on writing and hope for the best. The fact of writing eventually pushes through those doubts. Besides, revision is where the book gets good anyway.
How was your experience in looking for a publisher? What words of advice would you offer those novice authors who are in search of one?
I was lucky to have a lot of interest from various publishers in my first novel. My advice is to get yourself a good agent. This is a great industry filled with great people who love books, but you need an agent that is in there fighting for you.
What type of book promotion seems to work the best for you?
Still finding out…
Who are your favorite authors?
This changes every time I get asked this question… I’m currently going through a Tess Gerritsen and Karin Slaughter phase. I just finished reading John Connolly, who is amazing. Meg Gardiner is great. I am working my way through the books of some authors I was on panels with or met recently, and two of note have been Tim Maleeny and Kathryn Fox. Good stuff.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Always use the active voice versus the passive. Avoid adverbs wherever possible.
Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?
Do you have another book in the works? Would you like to tell readers about your current or future projects?
I’m currently working on the fourth installment of my series featuring FBI agent Smoky Barrett.
As an author, what is your greatest reward?
Hearing from a satisfied reader. That sounds trite on the surface, but it is the truth: most of us write to be read. I’m satisfied that I’m not writing the next great American novel. I want to entertain people within my genre. So when I hear that someone couldn’t put the book down or wept on the subway or couldn’t sleep with the lights off because of one of my books, I really am tickled pink. I grew up loving reading, and loving that experience myself. To be able to deliver it to others is an honor.
Anything else you’d like to say about yourself or your work?
Read my books!
Thanks, Cody, and good luck with your books!