of the Month
Combine intelligence, charm, quick wit and good looks, and you have just described new author Chris Kuzneski, suspense novelist of The Plantation (1999), Sign of the Cross (2006), and Sword of God (2007). Add those traits to the physical and mental prowess of covert operatives, and you'd meet Kuzneski's formidable main characters, Jonathon Payne and David Jones. Kuzneski's self-described "leap of faith" into a writing career is off to a phenomenal start with rave reviews and Sign of the Cross becoming an international bestseller. I met Mr. Kuzneski at his book signing for Sign of the Cross. I was impressed with his work, which nails the best points of any great story: rounded characters, believable storyline, humor, multiple plots, fast pacing and intense themes. Mr. Kuzneski generously answered questions for MyShelf in a telephone interview.
Chris Kuzneski: When I originally wrote my novel, The Plantation, I wasn't anticipating franchise characters necessary. I was just looking to have two characters who were the best of friends and who would give me the avenue to inject humor in my book. I wanted them to have that ability to tease each other … in the most serious of situations in order to lighten the mood of the book. The way the story was set up in my head, I needed to have somebody who had a special skill set in order to take on a large criminal organization. I didn't want it to be a police officer or anyone on active duty who had to worry about laws. I wanted it to be someone with a past … I thought the military background would be the easiest to use … and the logical choice.
Jen: It's obvious in all your work that you do a great deal of research. How hard is it to research all the [military] procedures and intelligence?
Chris: In some ways, it's tough just from a standpoint that I'm describing things that I've never experienced myself. I don't have a military background, so it's pretty much starting from square one. So, I had to talk to people who had experienced those things … people in Tampa, where there's a strong military presence because of the MacDill Base. There were a few opportunities to talk to soldiers who had been overseas, who had been behind the lines, and who could shed some light on the subject. After that, you allow your creativity to take over. You put your characters in situations you hope are exciting for the readers … and allow them to do their thing. Hopefully it worked well for this new book.
Jen: It's not only the research on military procedures, but also the information on countries and culture you include. I presume you haven't been to all these countries in your books. How do you make readers feel they've been to these countries?
Chris: My travel experiences have been limited as far as the places I'm describing… in Sword of God, a lot of that action takes place in Saudi Arabia, in the city of Mecca. I'm not Muslim, so I can't visit that city. So even if I wanted to go … I couldn't. I researched a lot of books, where people visited the city of Mecca … and used their impressions, things that scared them, things that were different than America, smells, and sights. Sometimes, all it takes is touching on the senses, like something they touched and it was a different texture than they expected. I don't have the travel budget, unfortunately, to hop in a private jet and go to all these different places. I let me characters do that.
Jen: You write strong, secondary female characters. They're not waiting to be rescued, though they may be in situations where they need to be rescued. They're not just sitting there. They're strong and smart, and complementary to Payne and Jones. My favorite character is Shari Shasmeen, in Sword of God. Can you describe some of the challenges of writing from a female POV?
Chris: I get asked this a lot. Obviously, I take it as a compliment because I do want the characters to come off as strong and not the so-called damsel in distress. I view this as writing a military character… I've never been a woman and I don't plan on ever being one. So I talk to women and read things they've written. In this character Shari Shasmeen, you referred to, there was a lot of source material about American women who became Muslims and went to the city of Mecca to fulfill their pilgrimage obligation and how it differed from a man's perspective because women are viewed as secondary citizen. In some ways, they'll hold back on their American feminist pride … they had to curtail that; it wouldn't fly in the city of Mecca. She's [Shari] a very American person in a way; she respects the religion and she's demure at times, so she doesn't bring attention to herself. But inside, you know that's not her.
Jen: You also get many compliments on your intense pacing. From page one, word one, you take readers on an adventure with twists to the very last page. Your pacing is great for the readers, but as the writer, how do you keep track of all of this?
Chris: First of all, thank you for the compliment. I don't know really … I try to write books that I would want to read. I read all the time for my profession, a lot of research goes into it. [I read] books my competition has written or writer friends have written. If a book doesn't hook me right off the bat, I struggle with it because I know I have ten other ones sitting on my nightstand that I can't wait to read. For me, what I try to do is I don't give a reader an excuse to put the book down. Someone once told me that whenever they're writing a mystery, they try to build up to this climatic moment 25 or 30 pages into the story to hook the reader and they'll go from there. And I'm thinking, 'If I have to wait 25 pages before something important happens, I'm putting that book down.' So I decided to cut the first 25 pages out and start my book with a chase or someone being crucified … somewhere, where the reader is like 'Wow, let's not put this one down.'
Jen: You're good with all the twists … there's always something else before I get to the end and I think, where did that come from? Do you know your ending, or some parts of it, when you start writing?
Chris: In some ways, yes. And in some ways, no. Generally, I have the beginning in mind, and I have an ultimate ending in mind. All the pages in between, I'm completely clueless on. So the story evolves. Clive Cussler, … when I was growing up, I read his Dirk Pitt novels, I read an interview about him where he said that's where he gets the greatest joy with writing because he pulls out these very different plot lines, and he has the most fun in trying to connect these together. So, he'll take a shipwreck from 200 years ago, a plane wreck from 5 years ago, and someone trying to kill the president today and throw it all together and see how it turns out. It's writing without a net. You can find yourself painted into a nasty corner. It hasn't happened to me, but I'm still young. I hope it won't. I don't want to jinx it.
Jen: You effortlessly blend fact and fiction where readers don't know where they stop and start in your book. When you're plotting, do you think you start from a factual perspective or a fictional one?
Chris: Generally, as I'm writing the story … say Payne and Jones show up in South Korea, as happens in Sword of God. As I'm researching South Korea, there'll be three or four things that will really pop out ... And I'll want to include that fact in my story. Then the fiction side of my brain says, 'Take this bit of history and tweak it so it does this for your story'. That's when the two worlds start to blend. You know I'm taking something very factual that did occur and then asking what can Payne and Jones do with it. How can that affect their actions? These things let me write without a net. I'll bring the characters to some place, and I'm researching this place. Before you know it, there are ten things that are real and ten things that are fiction, and then you throw them together, and paste them all together so that no one can see the scotch tape that's holding it all together.
Jen: Sword of God is scary in that the world is dealing with terrorism and with your skill in blending fact and fiction, this book is very believable. Besides the believability, you use controversial themes. Do you worry about readers' reactions?
Chris: All three of my books have been hot button issues. The Plantation dealt with race and racism. Sign of the Cross dealt with foundation of the church and Catholicism. Sword of God deals with the terrorists and Islam. I don't want to insult people when I write. My goal is certainly not to bad-mouth a religion. I'm not trying to upset anyone. A lot of times, if you're writing about things that are safe, then you're missing an opportunity to entertain in a different way. A lot of the things I wrote about could happen. I think that adds to the whole fact, fiction, and blend of the two.
Jen: I can't see how any reader would read your books and not have some reaction. What are you most passionate about in Sword of God ? Maybe where you found a certain scene or something you needed to make it all come together?
Chris: It's tough for me to pinpoint particular scenes in my stories that I like or don't like. Unfortunately, I look at things with a hypercritical eye. When I finish a chapter or book, there's a little bit of my brain that's hoping and praying the reader likes it because I can always find flaws … like, I don't like the pacing here or this fact would've worked better there. I'm like the actor, who doesn't like watching their own movie because they're so critical of themselves. A lot of times, when I'm re-reading, I like when I read a joke between Payne and Jones when they're teasing each other. I laugh out loud and think hey, I need to say that to my best friend. Sometimes, I like that the best because I've forgotten I've written it and think it's funny. Humor is the best part for me, but the scary parts of the story don't necessary scare me because I've created them. I know where the monsters are hiding.
Jen: You may be critical of yourself, but you've received great reviews on all your work. Your second novel, Sign of the Cross, is an international best seller. You said you took a leap of faith from a teacher to become a novelist. How do you feel about this now?
Chris: Obviously, I'm thrilled by my success that I've had so far. Sign of the Cross did exceptionally well, not only here in America but overseas. But it's stunning to me in some ways. I'm always getting emails from fans from all over the world, and a lot of times, English is a second language. They've read a translation of my book. My book is a best seller in Bulgaria … I've done interviews in Bulgarian media. It's surreal. Three or four years ago, I was teaching. I was in the classroom. I feel very fortunate that things have worked out so far.
Jen: You're very generous with your fans. Your website gives book information, special events, photos and email contact. I've read Payne and Jones have received their own fan mail. Who receives more fan mail: you or Payne and Jones?
Chris: It's funny because … obviously, Payne and Jones are fictional characters, but I like to joke around like they're real people. I'll make jokes in the author's page or on the website that Payne won't tell me some information. I think it feeds into the whole Payne and Jones idea that maybe they are real. Maybe Chris is talking to someone and basing these stories on those experiences or whatever. … I get letters from people who'd love to meet Jonathon because they have such a huge crush on him. And once again, fact and fiction, the blurred lines between the two. I think, 'Wait a second, I created Jonathon, have a crush on me!' I really have fun with the website. I'm not at a point in my career, where I've got 10,000 people writing to me every day. Some writers are so successful that there's no way they could respond to everyone. At this point in my career, I need all the fans I can get, so I'll happily respond.
Jen: Before we end the interview, is there any else you'd like to add?
Chris: No, you asked some wonderful questions. I think you covered everything.
Jen: Thanks, Chris. I really appreciate your time. Good luck with Sword of God.
2007's Honorary List