John Cunningham, my longtime client, called during the height of COVID, when many of us were either crying daily or making sourdough, to say he had dusted off an old manuscript, re-wrote much of it and was sending it to his editor. It was my cue to be prepared for a PR and marketing campaign. There was a catch. It wasn’t his usual Caribbean action adventure featuring hard on his luck protagonist Buck Reilly that I had worked on for the last eight years. This novel was historical…political…biographical…had an alternate ending…female protagonists.
John had genre jumped.
OK, I thought, I’m up for the challenge.
When I sat back and absorbed it all, this jump came as no real surprise because, a writer’s gonna write and the pandemic seemed to lead to either total paralysis or a complete overflow in creativity. Also, John having grown up in the Capital Beltway with an FBI father, a degree in International Relations with the goal of working for the Foreign Service, and a passion for travel seemed destined to write something political.
But as I always do, in my head, I thought about what it meant for his brand; what marketing communications tactics would I pursue; and could it help the sales of his Buck Reilly series?
Months passed as John went through edit, cover design and proofreading. The final edited PDF of The Last Raft sat in my Kindle waiting for me to read it on my annual end of summer trip to Maine. Through the years I read a total of eight Buck Reilly books on York Beach in a sitting. The books are fast, funny, transporting and just ever so entertaining.
It took me a full week to read The Last Raft. (Yes, I was still at the beach.)
It’s smart, detailed, contemplative, and entirely different than what I thought it to be.
And it totally stumped me.
And so I walked away from it… read Jamie Brenner’s manuscript in a sitting…watched Cobra Kai on Netflix with the kids…shopped a little too much with my daughter… and when I had finally distracted myself enough and that last kernel of doubt in my belly was gone, I picked up my laptop and fleshed out my strategy thinking about the following:
I work my campaigns in three parts for my clients—PR, advertising and social media. With indie books my goal is to maximize sales as press coverage is a harder get.
Where would I find the readers I wanted for this smart, political novel with hot button issues?
Could I bring new readers to John’s brand?
Could I market a completely different book to John’s existing fanbase?
It’s time to chat with John and learn more.
How long was The Last Raft collecting dust in your writing barn, and what made you go back to it?
I wrote The Last Raft before I ever dreamed-up Buck Reilly. I had gone to Cuba in the Summer of 2001 just a few months before 9/11 to research the story. I was able to get a license to visit there through the Department of Treasury and spent a couple weeks touring and soaking up the culture. I had lived in Key West in my late teens and early 20s, which is just 90-miles from Cuba, and several of my friends were of Cuban descent. It was in my blood. I wrote the manuscript and was very excited about it, but then a number of world events intervened that made me put it on hold.
Terrorists attacked the World Trade Center a few months after I left Cuba—which was already classified a State Sponsor of Terrorism—and not long after that, Fidel jailed 100 “dissidents” on spurious subversion charges. That being the case, it was not exactly timely to put forth a book that postulated the potential end of the now 60-year old embargo against Cuba.
For the most part, little has changed since then, aside from Fidel passing away, so I think the story is more compelling than ever.
When readers hear an author they love has jumped to a new genre, it might give them pause. Did this keep you up at night?
The Last Raft is different than the Buck Reilly series, but both take place, or have scenes in Key West, Cuba and include everyman, or everywoman protagonists who are up against tremendous odds in historical settings. Whether hunting for treasure, or negotiating with despots, or fighting for survival on a raft, all of my stories are intended to grab a reader by the heart and force them to hang on for their lives. However, yes, the different genre made me pause, but I do have the 9th Buck Reilly book underway.
Are there any differences in your writing routines and/or rituals with each genre you write?
With everything I write, which always includes overseas locations, I try to visit the majority of settings in my books. The stories also usually include some historical storyline, which is consistent with action adventure and alternate ending. I love to do research and base novels on an element of historical truth, which with The Last Raft includes having Fidel and Raul Castro as characters, which was a lot of fun to write. Writing is writing and requires dedication and persistence, but different storylines put you in different frames of mind.
Is there a different level of attachment to your work?
I started the Buck Reilly series after writing three other novels first. My agent and publisher advised me to write what you know and love, and that readers like series with repeat characters. So in the case of that series, it is set in Key West, Buck flies antique flying boats and each novel takes place on different Caribbean island—all things I love. With The Last Raft I created an alternate ending of history the storyline played out, would change the lives of the eleven million Cuban people and open the island nation up to Americans, most of whom know nothing about it. Cuba is like a black hole in the Caribbean, and if ignored may again invite in adversaries to the US, like they did with the Soviet Union, Venezuela and others just to survive. So, yeah, I guess you can say I’m attached to my work.
You have always been indie and there is a certain freedom in that. Is seems that traditionally published authors don’t have this same freedom to change genres without using a pseudonym. Did you consider that?
The first several books I wrote I spent so much time trying to get an agent, because you can’t get to a publisher without one. I succeeded in getting one agent, then another, but that is no guarantee either. Plus, once they accept a book, it can take years before it gets into stores, unless you are already writing blockbusters, but the reality is that is a very small number of authors. Being an indie is great because you control your destiny. But you also have to do everything yourself: editing, marketing, design, promotion, etc. Neither is easy, but I don’t have time to chase agents and publishers, and I don’t write because I hope to make a lot of money. I just love to do it, and fortunately, people like my books.
If a Buck Reilly reader is on the fence about purchasing The Last Raft, how could you persuade her?
People like Buck because he is human, makes mistakes, gets in over his head, gets his heart broken, and is an everyman. He was once rich and famous, lost everything and his past haunts him. That life experience gave Buck a conscience he didn’t have when he was chasing money. The predicaments that Buck finds himself in are a result of him trying to help other people, often reluctantly, but never for self-gain. Those same themes exist in The Last Raft. Whether it is Terri Turner, the Chief of Staff to President Winslow, fending off members of both political parties trying to sabotage her boss, or going toe-to-toe with Fidel Castro to try and change the future, or the people on the raft abandoning their lives to try and change the futures—each for different reasons, these are all noble efforts. In either case, my goal is to make readers see the story through their own eyes and be forced to think about how they would respond.
Do you think that breaking out of your Buck Reilly groove has been better for you as a writer?
I do believe it is good to broaden your horizons as a writer. I have several friends who write multiple series and they usually feel invigorated in a way that it improves what they are doing. Too much of anything gets monotonous, for the author, but even worse, for the reader. That is not acceptable. Plus, we need to be unpredictable. I can tell you that writing The Last Raft inspired me to dial-up some serious challenges for Buck in book nine, which I’m halfway finished writing. That being said, I do love writing the Buck Reilly series because it has great characters, settings, and as an everyman protagonist who is broke, was not a government agent or war hero, you have a central character that readers can identify with. I like to say that once you’ve seen the world through Buck Reilly’s eyes, the view will never be the same. That same sentiment applies to Terri Turner and other characters in The Last Raft. When I accomplish that, then my readers immediately write and ask when the next book is coming out. Fortunately, that has been the case with every book so far.
So, tell me, do YOU have another genre in you?