Brett Battles lives in Los Angeles and is the author of three acclaimed novels in the Jonathan Quinn series: The Cleaner, which was nominated for a Barry Award for Best Thriller and a Shamus Award for Best First Novel, The Deceived, and the newly released Shadow of Betrayal.
Timothy Hallinan, author of the acclaimed Poke Rafferty Bangkok thrillers--the third in the series, Breathing Water, is about to be released--queried Battles about his work:
The new book, Shadow of Betrayal, is the third in the Jonathan Quinn series, which I've enjoyed to the point where I'm not sure it should be legal. What I love best about the books is that, despite their breakneck pace, you are always focused on your characters. Do you feel you have a firmer grasp on those characters and their world (including their moral and ethical world) now than you did when you wrote the first, and how did that affect the writing of this book?Learn more about the author and his books at Brett Battles' website and blog.
Absolutely. When I wrote the first book, The Cleaner, I was just meeting the characters. Sure, I knew a lot going in, but so much more has developed on the books that followed. Quinn ended up having an even stronger moral center than I had first imagined. And Orlando is the true partner: loyal, intuitive, and willing to contradict Quinn when necessary. And Nate? Well, his character has developed as much as the other two. More, if you consider the fact that in the first draft of The Cleaner I turned in, Nate didn’t live beyond the initial 100 pages.
As far as affecting the latest book, I think the development of each of them has informed and guided how they act and react, and in fact is the reason they often get deeper into trouble instead of stepping away.
Do the characters live in your imagination even when you're not writing – and, if so, how might they elbow their way into your nonwriting day?
Definitely. Sometimes they're right there with me, sometimes not. Most often it’s Quinn, though both Orlando and Nate make their appearances. It’s usually in reaction to something I see or am doing. If I walk by an interesting alley, I can feel Quinn assessing for potential points of danger. If I’m driving and see the same car ahead of me for a while, I can hear him talking about the best ways to follow, instructing me how to keep them in sight without being spotted. Or if I’m reading a news story on line about, say, a shooting or a robbery or something like that, I hear them all telling me what I would have done differently.
I know exactly how that feels – my own continuing characters pop up all the time, too. Beyond the main characters, though, one of the side benefits of writing a series is that you gradually accumulate an offscreen cast of characters who appeared in (and survived) earlier books. Were any of them clamoring for attention when you wrote Shadow of Betrayal? Did any of them make it into the book, if you can talk about that without committing a spoiler?
I love that aspect of series writing. I especially like the fact that someone might appear in one book, then not show up for several more down the line. There are characters that have appeared before who I have future plans for. In Shadow, there was a particular character from The Cleaner who kind of forced his way back in. I hadn’t planned on him being involved, but once it was, it opened a whole lot of interesting angles.
Do you feel you've grown as a writer since you finished the first book, and if so, how? Are there things in Shadow of Betrayal that you might not have attempted in either The Cleaner or The Deceived?
I definitely feel like I’ve grown. I hope I will feel that way with each new book I write. I think it is part of our job as writers to continually try to do better, to improve our craft. It’s hard for me to know exactly where the growth has occurred, but I guess I would say one area is when I do my rewrites. I don’t hesitate anymore removing something I think is good but not moving the story forward. Before, I’d be very reluctant.
I think the larger political side of things that appears in Shadow is something I would have been resistant to trying before, just because I’d have been scared I’d screw it up. It’s not that I don’t think I will screw that kind of thing up now. I just have more confidence in myself in being about to fix it before the manuscript is final.
I went through the same thing with my new book, Breathing Water – it's got lots and lots of politics in it, but I decided that the only way to deal with it was through characters' actions. Was your solution something along those lines, or did you approach it differently?
We’re in sync on this one. I think it’s always best to bring out things like politics through the actions of the characters. If you just put it in as exposition you run the very serious risk of losing the reader to boredom.
What aspects of writing a novel come most easily to you? Which are most difficult? Any idea why?
If there were one thing you could do better with a snap of the fingers, what would it be?
I don’t know if I could call anything easy, but I would say the parts I enjoy most are writing dialogue and then rewriting. I enjoy creating those conversations, and often find myself almost eavesdropping on my characters exchanges. What they say sometimes even surprises me.
Difficult parts: everything else, and dialogue, and rewriting. Yeah…the easiest parts are sometimes also the hardest. Writing a 400 plus page manuscript is a huge task no matter what, so you’re always going to have problems, no matter what, on every aspect of the story. The key is to keep moving forward no matter what.
What could I do better? Well, that’s actually an easy one. I wish I was better at plotting out of the gate. It usually takes me a little while to figure things out, which could include writing a good portion of the novel.
Why thrillers? Why the specific kind of thrillers you write?
I guess thrillers have always been in my blood. They’re the books I loved to read growing up (both straight thrillers, and sci-fi adventures), and the books I continue to enjoy. The reason the Quinn thrillers have appealed to me is that they combine two things that I love, thrillers with an international flavor, and traveling. Though, I should say, that in the future I’m sure I’ll also write some thrillers that fall out of this specific area.
What aspects of you do you think your books reflect? Or, another way to look at it, if a highly skilled psychoanalyst were to read all your books, what do you think he or she would learn about you?
Ha! Great question, but I’m not sure I know the answer. I’m sure I’m reflected in them to some extent or another, but where and what is tough to pinpoint. Perhaps they would at least learn that I know how to write a sentence.
Who's your ideal reader? How do you imagine him/her, or do you? Do you consciously “tell” the story to that reader? When I'm writing, I often imagine someone sitting opposite me, maybe over a campfire, while I tell the story to her. Do you do anything of the kind, and if so, what impact do you think it has on your writing?
I actually don’t think that way. When I’m writing, I approach it like I’m the reader. So it’s as if I’m enjoying (or not) the story on my laptop screen. If I’m not being entertained, I know I’ll need to go back and fix that part. And if I am, I hope that others will be, too.
How much of your story do you already know when you start to write a book? How do you develop the story – through outlining or taking it as it comes, or a combination of the two? What's your working routine, and why is it best for you? What do you do when you get stuck?
I know more about my stories now that I’m under contract than I did before I was published. That’s because my publisher requires a synopsis before I start writing the new book. I try to keep these as generic as possible because I like the story to work out organically. So I usually start with this very loose outline, and anywhere from one to maybe four scenes in mind. I might have an idea where everything is going to end up, and I might not. Even with that idea, I might not end up using it. If a story wants to go in a different direction, I let it. Within reason, of course.
My routine is pretty straightforward. I get my best work done if I start the day writing. And being an early riser, this means I can get a lot done. I’m usually at my computer around 7 a.m. and work until 1 or 2 in the afternoon. Sometimes I’ll even work longer if things are really flowing. I’ll save PR stuff, answering emails, and other things like that for later in the day.
To answer your stuck question, I’ll work at the problem for a little while, then set it aside if I’m not coming up with something and then work on something else. Often, I’ll go for a walk later and think the problem through. But, usually, I’m never stuck that long. Thankfully.
If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring writers, what would it be?
Persistence is your friend. In writing steadily, in a desire to improve your craft, and in your journey to become published. You will always hit obstacles and roadblocks. You just need to go over them or around them, and keep moving forward.
The Page 69 Test: The Cleaner.
The Page 69 Test: The Deceived.