I am very pleased to announce a new initiative, alongside a few of my fellow pen wielding brethren, to create a platform which will allow readers to interact and get to know the authors behind the pages of their favourite (or soon to be favourite) books.
With this in mind I am excited to introduce the very talented, James McCrone, author of Faithless Elector and Dark Network, the first two books in the Imogen Trager series of political thrillers. It has been a privilege to hear from him and a great opportunity to discover not only how he achieved his dream, but also learn from the successes and failures he encountered along the way.
1. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Thanks for the opportunity, Mark. I’m James McCrone, and as you’ve said, author of Faithless Elector and Dark Network, book one and two in the Imogen Trager series.
I’m writing the third book right now, working title Who Governs. I live in Philadelphia, PA, with my wife and two of our three children. I have an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle. National Book Award winner, Charles Johnson (Middle Passage) was the chair of my committee. I’ve been writing (and reading) for as long as I can remember. Telling stories is how I make sense of the world, and it wasn’t until I was 10 or 12 years old that I realized not everyone was like that.
2. What do you do when you are not writing?
I work, I read my ever-growing TBR pile. Becoming active on social media has greatly increased my scope for reading. It’s a wonderful, unintended consequence! I love to cook, too. I’ve worked in restaurants for a large part of my life, both in the front of house and behind the stove. I have a play in mind-set in a busy New York City kitchen as my next work.
3. Do you have a day job as well?
I’m the part-time business manager for the South 9th Street/Italian Market Business Association here in Philadelphia. I love the Market, and it keeps me in touch with great food, great characters and some interesting stories—many I’ll never be able to tell!
4. When did you first start writing and when did you finish your first book?
I’ve always told stories, and I really started putting them down when I was as young as 10 or 12. As I said before, it came as a bit of a surprise to find that not everyone did that.
I wrote my first novel in 1990, a coming-of-age story called The Quickest of Us. I’m afraid I wasn’t able to interest anyone in it, and it remains a manuscript on a shelf in my office. I wrote the first draft of Faithless Elector prior to the 2000 general election, but again, couldn’t interest anyone in it. After the 2000 election, when the Electoral College vote was so close, I thought maybe it was time to try again. After being unsuccessful that time, too, I put it away for many years. It wasn’t until 2015, when my wife and I were in the UK, that I decided I’d work on it again and get it out there.
5. How did you choose the genre you write in and where do you get your ideas?
This is an interesting question. It’s hard to admit, but for a long time in my twenties and early thirties (I’m 54 now) I think I was trying to be someone else in my writing, and the work suffered for it. The past 13 or 14 years have been a process of stripping away some of the artifice and mannerisms I’d allowed to infect my writing. Before, I was writing about things that didn’t matter to me because (I guess) I thought it was what others wanted to read, and my ambivalence came through on the page. There’s a hollow ring to some of the passages from that time that embarrasses and depresses me.
This is a long way around to saying that I went back to what I loved—thrillers, espionage, plausible conspiracies and whodunnits. I love the novels of John Le Carre, Frederick Forsyth, William McIlvanney and Graham Greene. I like that they combine a spare prose with engaging, intriguing ideas. Moreover, within the plot they’re not afraid to spend time on big questions or to linger over beauty. Those are the stories I’m drawn to, and those are the stories I want to write.
As to where my ideas come from, they come from real life. I’m intrigued by the other half of a story, the unspoken part of an official explanation.
6. Do you ever experience writer’s block?
Yes, and it’s brutal. Usually, it’s because I’ve lost the plot, or something I thought would be good has been exposed as unworkable.
7. Do you work with an outline, or just write?
I do both. I begin with sketches, ideas, and I just write. By the time I have about 25-30 pages written, I see what it is I want to do and how to get there. Then I outline. I find, however, that my outline usually has to be revised by about chapter four or five in the MS. Often, the plot I’ve sketched in the outline and the direction of the story begin to diverge. At that point, I have to assess whether I’m following some self-indulgent tangent, or whether the story is taking me in a new, surprising way. The outline is useful as background, but if the story and/or characters are taking the writer in new and surprising ways, it’s more likely a reader will also find it engaging and surprising.
8. Is there any particular author or book that influenced you in any way either growing up or as an adult?
I’ve mentioned Le Carre, McIlvanney, Forsyth, and Greene as early favorites; but I would say the work of George Orwell and Joseph Heller electrified me to the possibilities of language, its power and its subversive elements; of the need to see things from different perspectives.
9. Can you tell us about your challenges in getting your first book published?
When I first started shopping Faithless Elector around, I had lovely rejection letters—far better than those that came with Quickest of Us years earlier. They would praise the timeliness, the setting, or the characters, but in the end they would say things like it was “too far-fetched,” or “no one knows or cares about the Electoral College.” I think they do now!
After failing for a number of years to get a traditional agent and a publisher, I seized the opportunity in 2015 when we went to Britain. My wife was at Oxford University on a fellowship leave, and I, being a foreigner, didn’t have a work permit. My days were my own. I had wanted just this situation for years. I decided, as the English say, to really “push the boat out.” I found an editor, and we reworked the book. It was in good shape by early 2016, and I hoped that publishing it early in an election year would help it stand out. It worked pretty well.
10. If you had to go back and do it all over, is there any aspect of your novel or getting it published that you would change?
I have no regrets, and I try not to second-guess my choices—particularly since with both books I’ve spent a year or more going over it again and again. At a certain point, I think, you have to let it go and move to the next project.
11. How do you market your work? What avenues have you found to work best for your genre?
Learning how to market my work effectively has been a long, painful process. I have limited funds, so I send to Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Midwest Book Review, book-bloggers and other writer friends looking for (good) reviews that can go into my marketing materials. For both books, I’ve done a Goodreads giveaway, which was somewhat effective, and I use Facebook and Twitter liberally. I have found that personal appearances are the best: book launches, readings, book fairs and the like. I also go around to local bookstores with my sell-sheets and collateral material. Independent bookstores are fantastic. It’s the rare bookstore that won’t agree to carry at least two copies of the book.
12. Have you written a book you love that you have not been able to get published?
I love Quickest, but frankly I’m glad it’s not out there. I might one day be able to rework it, but for now, the shelf is the best place for it.
13. Can you tell us about your upcoming or recently published book?
Dark Network (2017) is the most recently published novel in the Imogen Trager series. (Who Governs will be out next year.)
In Dark Network, Imogen Trager, the determined heroine of the “highly suspenseful” thriller, Faithless Elector, returns. Pushed to the edges of the investigation for her conduct during the Faithless Elector plot, she starts digging where no else thinks to look.
She enlists the help of a computer analyst, Trey Kelly. Together, by scrutinizing gaps in the FBI’s data, they find the backdoor no one thought to lock, uncovering the trail of a vast, coordinated group of criminal cells woven into a sinister dark network, with threads leading everywhere.
She’ll have to fight against time, the network, and even her own colleagues to stop a conspiracy bent on stealing the presidency. In the process, she’ll have to confront her own views on what the Constitution is meant to protect and who she’s becoming. Even if she and Trey are successful, what kind of America will remain?
14. Is anything in your book based on real life experiences or purely all imagination?
Both books in the Imogen Trager series have their genesis in the quirky laws of United States, particularly as they pertain to election of the president. They are a trilogy, but they’re also written to stand alone (no homework required!).
15. What project are you working on now?
I’m finishing the first draft of the final book in the Imogen Trager series, working title Who Governs. Imogen and her team will reveal who the conspirators are, but will the revelation be in time to stop them?
16. Will you have a new book coming out soon?
Who Governs should be out in the Spring of 2019. The first two books, Faithless Elector and Dark Network are available now.
17. Are there certain characters you would like to go back to, or is there a theme or idea you’d love to work with?
Imogen Trager is one character I keep coming back to. And I have an idea for a fourth book involving her. Earlier, you asked about outline vs. just writing, and Imogen is the product of the divergence of which I spoke. Pretty early on in the re-writing of Faithless, I realized it would be a trilogy, and at about the same time, I realized Imogen was the driving force. She had started out as something of a “bit player” in the outline, but she kept stealing scenes. Without getting too mystical about the process, I think it’s important, as a writer, to “listen” to what the story is telling you to do. I did, and I reworked the stories with her playing a much larger role.
As to themes, my work deals with issues of personal and social responsibility and political accountability. I’m also fascinated by the notion of path-dependence; that how you start something has an outsized effect on how you go forward. I’m not entirely sure what I’ll do with that idea, but it’s intriguing to think about how what we do might have been shaped by earlier choices. We think we’re acting, but in reality we’re following a well-worn path…
18. What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author? What has been the best compliment?
My editor gives some of the most unvarnished, paint-stripper lethal criticism I have encountered. But frankly, I’d rather deal with it from him in the work-in-progress stage than when the book is out in the world. To be fair to my editor (and he’s not only negative), there’s no doubt in my mind he makes the books better, so I swallow my pride and work on whatever it is that’s put him in such high dudgeon. I’ve been fortunate that both books have been well received.
As to the best compliment, I’ll give you one of my favorites: it was when I was still at university, and a short-story of mine came out in a special fiction section of the school paper, the UW Daily. The short story was a comic love story, and a friend told me that two fellow students—a young woman and a young man—were sitting in the back of her class, not listening to the lecture, but reading different parts of my story back and forth to each other and genuinely enjoying it, laughing at all the good bits.
19. Do you have any advice to give to aspiring writers?
I have done so much wrong that I’m not sure I can give advice, so I’ll say what I’ve found to be true: the writer is in service to the story and its characters.
That statement is in many ways a platitude, a cliché, but I’ve spent years trying to live up to it. Stripping away my self to get at what’s necessary to the story has been the hardest thing I’ve done, and the most rewarding. It’s also a continuous process, every time you sit down.
20. Is there anything that you would like to say to your readers and fans?
Thank you for taking these stories and these characters to heart.
Please join me in thanking James for his candid and open replies. If you would like to ask any further questions, please either use the facilities available below or contact James via the following links.
Please show your appreciation by checking out James’ work on Amazon:
Amazon Author page: https://amzn.to/2Hlp12h
Facebook Author page: https://www.facebook.com/FaithlessElector/