20 December 2006

Author Answers with Brett Battles

Tuck this author away in your memory so you remember in June why the name Brett Battles seems familiar when you see his debut novel, "The Cleaner," on bookstore shelves. Battles is another member of the Killer Year, a group of suspense and thriller novelists who banded together to give each other a boost.

For more on Battles, check out Killer Year or his website.

WN: What was the inspiration for "The Cleaner?"

BATTLES: The actual inspiration is probably a mix of several things: my love of international thrillers, a four month period in 2001 when I worked in Berlin, Germany, and the image of a man who worked in the shadows. That image became my main character Jonathan Quinn. His is a professional cleaner, working mainly in the world of international espionage. He’s the one who hides the bodies, and makes things disappear so it seems as if nothing has happened. I can’t remember the first time Quinn’s image first came to me. But once he did, he wouldn’t let go.

WN: You're a part of Killer Year; how has that group helped you? What's been
fun/exciting/encouraging about being part of that group?

BATTLES: The group has been amazing. We’re all going through the same thing, each with our debut novels coming out in 2007. The interesting part is that we are all at different stages, so we can learn from each other. We do a lot of sharing of information. We encourage each other, and we congratulate each other when there’s good news. But most of all, on a personal note, I’ve made many very good friends. There are several I’m in contact with every day, even if it’s ribbing each other in emails.

Writing used to be such a solitary thing. I don’t feel like it’s that way any more. It’s almost like we all work for the same company, but our offices are just spread out all over the place.

WN: On your blog, you said your not the kind of writer who uses an outline... how do you organize your story?

BATTLES: I’ve tried it. I swear I’ve given it a shot. Many of my friends would never attempt to write without outlining, and believe me, I can see how that could make things easier. But part of the excitement of writing for me is the discovery of the story. And in my case that comes as the story unfolds through the prose.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t go in blind. I usually have an idea where I want things to end up. And I usually have an opening chapter in mind. It’s just everything in between that’s a mystery. This is when I need to trust myself, to know that I can get from point A to point Z. And most of the time I make it.

Does this mean that when I write “The End” after I finish that first draft I’m done? No. Not even close. I do multiple rewrite passes. I love rewriting. It’s probably my favorite part. That’s when the book really takes shape.

WN: What kind of research do you do for your writing?

BATTLES: I do a lot. More, I think, than I even realized until I thought about it. I use a lot of international settings in my stories. Part of THE CLEANER takes place in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and almost the whole second half is in Berlin, Germany. Both are places I’ve been. In fact, I spent four months working in Berlin back in 2001, and got to really know the city. I think that knowledge of place really shows in the story.

My next book, which also features Jonathan Quinn has several scenes in Washington D.C. It had been many years since I had been there. So a couple weeks before Thanksgiving, I flew cross-country and spent a packed weekend in the Capitol, taking pictures, walking around, riding the metro. It was invaluable.

But I also do other research besides locations. For medical stuff I often turn to my friend, and fellow author Phil Hawley. He’s a doctor and if he doesn’t know the answer, he knows who to put me in touch with. That “degree of separation” rule also applies to other things, as I’ve had friends put me in touch with any number of experts I had no idea they knew.

The Internet, too, has become essential. There are so many little things that in the past you would have had to go to the library to look up, or spent hours on the phone trying to find the answer. Now, it takes me thirty seconds to find out the ingredients of a drink or find the location of a particular restaurant or find pictures of a particular hotel. I’ve also gone to a firing range and taken gun safety courses, then done a bit of target shooting with various handguns.

So research is very important. It adds those details to a story that makes it sound real. Interestingly enough, I think that the majority of my research never actually makes it to the page. The last thing you want to do is overwhelm a reader with details. It’s the story they’ve come for, not the research. The research just gives you the confidence to write a better story.

WN: What's the best part of being a writer to you? What's the most challenging part of writing for you?

BATTLES: Let’s start with the challenging part first. That’s an easy answer. Finding time. I’m not yet at that point where writing is my only job. I still have to work full time at my day job. There’s these weird things called food and rent, and apparently I’m supposed to pay for them.

But writing is also a full time job. There are the deadline, and corrections, and PR, and other obligations writing brings. So I have to find a way to make my two lives dovetail with each other. For me, that means a lot of early mornings and a lot of dinners with my laptop sitting next to my plate.

Now the best part. Again easy. I get to write. It’s what I love to do. I love to tell stories. I love to bring characters to life. I love to entertain. There’s nothing like the feeling you get after a particularly good session. It’s a high. I feel this enormous sense of contentment.

WN: What is the best/most influential book you have ever read and why did it inspire you?

BATTLES: I don’t know if there is just one for me. Would it be one of the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators books that flamed my love of reading when I was a kid? I’d have to consider that. I’d also have to consider THE BOURNE IDENTITY by Ludlum, THE HEART OF THE MATTER or THE QUIET AMERICAN by Graham Greene, THE STAND by Stephen King.

The Three Investigators books opened the world of mystery to me. The Ludlum was just such a great international action adventure. THE STAND I’ve read probably a dozen times. No one can suck you into a story as quickly and totally as King can. And Graham Greene’s books are all so sad, so tightly written, so beautiful.

And one more, also by King. His book ON WRITING has been a constant inspiration. And heartening, too, because King doesn’t outline either.

WN: What is your favorite word and why?

BATTLES: Yet another moving target for me, and something that probably changes day to day. Today I’ll go with origami. I love the way that word sound, how it feels in your mouth. I also like the idea of it. The Japanese are of paper folding. You take a plan piece of paper, and you make it into something beautiful. Kind of like writing, I guess.

WN: What piece of advice helped you out the most as a writer?

BATTLES: How about three things?

One, kill your darlings. In other words, don’t be afraid to cut anything out. If it doesn’t work for the story, it shouldn’t be there even if it’s the best line, paragraph, chapter you’ve ever written.

Two, no good book is every written alone. Listen to people you trust. Don’t be afraid to make changes someone else has suggested if they make sense. Ego will get in the way of a good story every time.

Three, if you’re a writer, you write and you write and you write. No matter how many rejections you receive, don’t give up. You write and you improve and you submit again. Repeat as many times as necessary.


mai wen said...

Great interview!

Brett, you sound like my mentor with your three pieces of advice. I'll never forget this story we workshopped where the author had this moose pop-up randomly in the story. You could tell she Loved the moose idea and just was tickled with it, and later she admitted the whole story started with the moose idea, but it just didn't work. We could see what she was trying to do, but it just didn't fit in with what the story turned out to be. And my mentor said the exact same thing, "kill your darlings." He warned if you love something in your story too much, you have to immediately ask yourself if you need to cut it because love can make you blind sometimes.

Really enjoyed getting into Brett's head with this interview, good questions Bethany! Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Great interview Brett. I've read King's On Writing but I have to buy and re-read it. He rules.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

Wonderful interview. And I'd say that even if I didn't know the guy... :)