We’re kicking off 2008 with a series of interviews with some of the hottest names in the thriller genre. And no one in the business writes higher octane novels than Joseph Finder. Hare-lean prose, dizzying plot twists, conflicted characters, Finder’s explorations of the dark side of corporations and their CEO’s are potato-chip reading at their best—books impossible to put down. POWERPLAY, Finder’s latest release, hit the bestseller lists immediately. KILLER INSTINCT, his 2006 release, received a 2007 Thriller Award for Best Novel.
With eight novels under his belt, it’s hard to believe that writing fiction wasn’t his first choice of career. But a foray into the seamy world of Russian politics led to a controversial book, Red Carpet: The Connection Between the Kremlin and America’s Most Powerful Businessmen, which explored multi-millionaire Armand Hammer’s ties to Soviet intelligence. The suppression of that book prompted Finder to write THE MOSCOW CLUB, a thriller, in 1991. He’s been writing novels ever since.
We are pleased to present the first part of our interview with Joseph Finder.
Q: You trained as an academic in Russian studies at both Yale and Harvard and wrote a highly-regarded (and at the time, controversial) non-fiction book. What lured you into writing fiction?
JF: I’d always wanted to write fiction but never had the courage to try it. But after I wrote my first book, I decided to take the plunge. I didn’t have another idea for a nonfiction book, and there were things I wasn’t able to put in my nonfiction book — fascinating, even explosive information. I’ve always loved thrillers, and every time I’d finish one I’d say to my (then) girlfriend, “I could do better than that!” One day she said, “Oh yeah? So why don’t you try it already?” That was sort of like a kick in the butt, or maybe a wake-up call — and the next day I started outlining a novel. It only took me three years . . . but that was because I had to teach myself how.
Q: Your novels are adrenaline-stoked thrillers set in the last place people would find exciting: hidebound, some say soul-sucking, corporations. Did you consciously decide to write “corporate thrillers” or your niche discover you?
JF: I was raised on the “paranoid” thriller movies of the 1970s like “The Parallax View” and “The Conversation,” and one of the novels that inspired me to write thrillers myself was Robert Ludlum’s The Matarese Circle. The fact is, there’s a fairly long tradition of thrillers, whether movies or books, involving corporations — usually Evil Corporations, of course. Remember “The China Syndrome” or “Silkwood” or “The Manchurian Candidate” — or, more recently, Michael Mann’s “The Insider”? Or the Michael Crichton novels Rising Sun and Disclosure, both of which also became movies? In each one of these stories, it’s the corporate background that creates the delicious sense of paranoia.
The fact is, corporations make great material for thrillers for a number of reasons. They can be paranoid, Big Brother kind of places if you want, where you have no privacy, where your every move is monitored, your every e-mail read. They can be malevolent forces. On the other hand, they can also be the vibrant workplaces where most of us spend most of our times, with colleagues and friends — communities. Any time you get a gathering of human beings, you’re going to get conflict, drama, sexual relationships. So I guess I realized that, even though most of my fellow novelists had ignored the workplace as a setting for novels of suspense, this was in fact a full-blooded, richly textured place. What I did new, I supposed, was to flesh out the office, make it less one-dimensional, show the good as well as the bad.
And the truth is, I stumbled into it, really. PARANOIA started out as a spy novel, only set in the corporate world. As soon as I started doing research for it, in companies like Apple Computer and Hewlett Packard and Cisco Systems, I realized I’d found a rich new landscape, one that most other writers had been ignoring — except maybe for Crichton, but he really used corporate settings as staging zones for tendentious, political arguments. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — but I’m trying to do something different: to take a snapshot of modern corporate culture at the beginning of the 21st century, in all its facets: the sense of community and belonging versus the feeling of distrust and isolation, the meaning of ambition and success, the disappearance of privacy. But most of all, I’m trying to tell fast-moving and gripping suspense stories.
Q: Your latest novel POWER PLAY is set in the world of corporate aviation and touches a topic that’s resonating among corporate executives: K&R or Kidnapping and Ransom. Do you find tension in stories where the situations could possibly happen in real life?
JF: Yes, always — I love the “what if?” that might really happen. Each one of my novels has taken off from such a premise. PARANOIA, for instance, sprung from the idea, What if a corporation decided to infiltrate a competitor using the classic Cold War notion of the “mole” — the penetration agent? With Power Play, it was: What if an entire corporate leadership were taken hostage? Has it ever happened? No. But it could, theoretically . . . and if it did, then what? How would it play out? I love exploring questions like that. It’s a great way to learn about how things really happen behind the scenes.
Q: You’re known for deep research methods, going to corporations, CIA, FBI, etc., and interviewing dozens of people. At what point do you say to yourself, “enough research, time to write?”
JF: That’s something I wrestle with every time I write a book. I have writer friends who do no research at all, and some who do their research only at the end, to fill in details and correct points here and there. But I’m in love with the research. I love finding out things no one else knows. I love hearing the expressions people use, hearing anecdotes, observing details — all these things make the stories feel real. And part of it is that I need to become just expert enough in the area I’m writing about that I can tell a story in such a world plausibly and with realistic offhandedness. But more and more I simply have to tell myself: OK, if you don’t stop researching now, you’ll never meet your deadline. You know enough. Just stop. So I guess the short answer is: it’s the yearly deadline that tells me when I’ve done enough research.
Q: In POWER PLAY, your protagonist is an everyman with a dark past, and your antagonist is a likeable guy. Does embedding character contrasts make a stronger character? What makes a successful villain?
JF: Well, I just like my characters to be a little different. I like them to have flaws, to have things they struggle with, battles they need to fight. It gives them a dimensionality that I find appealing. And it’s one of the oldest rules of drama that you should always give your villain the strongest argument, which I interpret to mean, make him (or her) charismatic. It makes for a stronger battle with the hero.
Next week, Finder talks about his writing process and reveals what it was like to work with Jeffery Deaver and Jim Fusilli on the CHOPIN MANUSCRIPT, the International Thriller Writer’s serial thriller now available at Audible.com.
Click HERE for Part Two of Joseph Finder’s interview.