Tuesday, August 8, 2023

James Byrne

James Byrne is the pseudonym for an author who has worked for more than twenty years as a journalist and in politics. A native of the Pacific Northwest, he lives in Portland, Oregon.

His new novel is Deadlock.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

The editor of the Dez Limerick series (The Gatekeeper, Deadlock) is Keith Kahla at Minotaur Books. He’s a friend and has edited me before. He makes my books better. I met him at a World Mystery Convention and told him I was working on a single-protagonist action/adventure book.

“What’s it called?” he asked.


“What’s it going to be called?”

That’s Keith’s very subtle way of reminding me how much freight the title needs to carry!

My second choice was The Gatekeeper. My hero, Dez, worked in a foreign military as a “gatekeeper,” a breach-expert, capable of opening any door, keeping it open for as long as necessary, and controlling who does, and doesn’t, go through. I’d been looking for a unique skill set that I hadn’t read in other thriller/mystery novels, and finally settled on that one. So I suggested it to the awesome team at Minotaur, and they liked it.

They wanted a title for the second book that involved things like keys, locks, doors, gates, etc. I offered a wide array of options and they gave the greenlight to Deadlock.

What's in a name?

I call it the Rumpelstiltskin Effect: If my protagonist has the “wrong” name, the character just won’t work. I spend an inordinate amount of time working on character names.

I also didn’t want to go with the overused, like “Jack” and “Jake.” A whole lotta those guys are running through mystery/thriller novels.

I tried a lot of names in the very early drafts, before I knew Dez was from the United Kingdom. Once I knew that, I threw out every name on the possibles list. I wanted this guy to stand out, and I thought maybe a totally overwrought, ridiculous name might be fun and different. But with a light, bright, punchy nickname. One syllable. I got “Dez” first, which led me to Desmond. OK, different, old-timey. I liked it.

In my teens, I’d read a comic book by the great Denny O’Neill and Howard Chaykin called IronWolf. In it, the pirate character had a ship called the Limerick Rake, which also is an old Irish drinking song. I’m Irish-American. I thought, why not? “Limerick” is a cool word that brings to mind a silly (often ribald) rhyme, an Irish city, a comic book I liked, and an old song. A lot going on there. So I had a first and last name.

And “Aloysius” is just one of those goofy names that are always in the back of my mind, like, “Why in the world would anyone name their boy that?” Desmond Aloysius Limerick. Dez to his friends.

The moment I had that name, I knew I had my character. Rumpelstiltskin be damned, this character would do what I wanted on the page!

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

Some, but less perhaps than I think.

My dad loved action/adventure novels (Beau Geste, The Four Feathers) and shared that love with me. I was a devoted comic book reader (still am), and a lot of what I learned from writing action, I learned from Marvel Comics.

As a teen, I fell in love with a brilliant British comic strip, Modesty Blaise, about a young orphan girl who became the crime lord of Tangiers and retired to England in her mid-20s with her most faithful lieutenant, Willie Garvin. Now bored, she and Willie lend their services to British Military Intelligence and to old friends in trouble. Peter O’Donnell wrote the strip from about 1961 or so, to about 2001. I still read those today, and am inspired by his international settings, his strong female protagonist, his action sequences.

I half suspect that my teen self would have enjoyed Dez.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

It’s harder to write an Act III than an Act I. I’ve tons of clever ideas in my head for launching a rollicking good story. I just don’t know how to make all of them pay off!

Since I’m a former amateur actor, I think in the Three Act format. I go into a novel usually knowing the inciting incident (the “ratchet-up-the-danger” point) that moves us from Act I to Act II. And I often know the inciting incident (the big set piece) that moves us from Act II to Act III. But I then gotta figure out how to bring this beast in for a landing. That’s the tough part!

At age 18, I was working in food services at the Boise Airport. One night after my shift, I was walking to my car in a drenching downpour. The ceiling of clouds was quite low. I looked up for some reason just as a jetliner broke through the ceiling. It had been silent until it broke through, and then boom! the noise shook me. And it was trailing two horizontal tornadoes of rainwater caught in its thrust vortexes.

True story: I thought, standing then, tired, drenched, “That’s gonna be in my novel someday.” I was 18. My book Crashers was published when I was 50, and that’s part of the inciting incident in Act II.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I’ve never been in much physical danger. I can’t fight worth a damn. If I stumbled into a gun battle, I’d shriek and fall into the fetal position.

But I’ve worked for some powerful and successful women, some of whom have mentored me, so I like strong female protagonists, as does Dez. I’m attracted to loyalty, as is Dez. I think I’m funnier than most of the people around me (I crack myself up), a trait that Dez shares.

I’m most similar to a guy named John Broom, who appeared in a couple of Minotaur Books I wrote, Ice Cold Kill and Gun Metal Heart. My wife, Katy King, insists that John is her favorite of my characters. Who knows? I might bring him back.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I’m a print journalist, and a lot of my stories are (please forgive this cliché ) “ripped from the headlines.” I wrote The Gatekeeper mostly in 2021. It includes a small bit about political troubles brewing between Ukraine and Russia, and it includes a right-wing political insurrection. Sound familiar? I wrote early drafts of Crashers, which focuses on terrorists bringing down multiple airliners, mostly in 1999 and 2000. Then came Sept. 11, 2001, and I had to shelve that book for a decade.

The movie (and later the novel) The Andromeda Strain had a huge influence on me as a kid. It’s brilliantly put together.

The British comic strip Modesty Blaise remains a strong influence. I often tell people that Peter O’Donnell was one of the truly great storytellers of the 20th century.

As for music: When I’m writing, I often play the score of an action/adventure film (the score is the music that we, the audience, can hear but the characters cannot). If I’m not much in a mood to write one of my thrillers, I gotta tell you, I put on Michael Giacchino’s music from the TV show Alias or Mission: Impossible 3, and wow does that get my juices going. Also Brian Tyler’s music from The Fast and the Furious franchise or Bangkok Dangerous; Christopher Lennertz’ soaring, orchestral work from the TV relaunch, Lost in Space; David Arnold’s moody work for the most recent run of James Bond movies; Hans Zimmer’s big wall of sound for The Peacemaker; James Newton Howard’s work on Salt; and best of all, John Powell’s driving string sections for the Jason Bourne movies, as well as Mr. & Mrs. Smith. The list goes on.
Visit James Byrne's website.

--Marshal Zeringue