Flashback: Jason Starr interviews Joseph Finder
Crimespree Issue 7, July 2005
A Conversation with Joseph Finder
By Jason Starr
Jason Starr interviewed Joseph Finder by e-mail during May, 2005.
JS: Over your past couple of books, PARANOIA and now COMPANY MAN, you’ve established yourself as the master of the corporate thriller. Are you happy with that label?
JF: No, actually, I hate it. It sounds boring and off-putting to me. Because in effect I’m telling the same sort of story that, say, John Grisham or Harlan Coben are writing —stories about regular people caught up in extraordinary things —only I’m focusing on stuff that happens in the workplace as well as at home. I wish I could think of a better label. But I’m not the marketing guy —I just write them. The one I’m writing now is in the same vein as PARANOIA and COMPANY MAN —call it what you will —and so are the ones I’m planning afterward. I feel as if I’ve discovered a patch of land where no one else is standing.
JS: Can you see yourself writing a novel outside of the thriller genre?
JF: I don’t think so. I may stretch the boundaries a bit as I did in COMPANY MAN —focus more on characters, for instance —but I love suspense, love keeping readers on the edge of their seats and turning the pages and all that, so anything I write will have a suspense plot at its center.
JS: It’s obvious when reading your books that you’ve really immersed yourself in your subject matter. How do you go about researching your books? How much research did you do for PARANOIA?
JF: I did a lot of research, going into corporations and immersing myself in everyday corporate life to make sure it felt real to people who work in corporations. That in addition to my research into various spy-versus-spy techniques of corporate espionage. My usual pattern is to start with a story idea and central character at the same time —then figure out the setting. Only then do I start talking to people, reading, fleshing out the background. I always seem to do far more research than I need, and I sure hope it never gets in the way of telling the story.
JS: In PARANOIA, why did you choose to write about PDA’s as opposed to some other type of technology?
JF: Because I wanted the technology that my company was developing to be something everyone understood —cutting-edge and cool yet familiar. Most of us either use PDA’s or refuse to use them —but we’re all aware of what they are.
JS: The term “the big book” is tossed around the publishing world. PARANOIA was certainly a big book. COMPANY MAN is, in some ways, even bigger—not only because of its length, but because its scale and plotting. Were you consciously setting out to try to top PARANOIA? Do you feel pressure each time to come up with “the big book?”
JF: Well, I didn’t want to disappoint all the new readers who discovered me with PARANOIA. But my concern was not writing a “bigger” book or even a better book but doing something new. PARANOIA was all about high-tech, so COMPANY MAN was about an old-fashioned industry that made stuff, “bent metal.” The hero of PARANOIA was a 26 yr old guy at the bottom of the company totem pole, so the hero of COMPANY MAN was the guy who runs the company. I never want my readers to feel when they read one of my novels that they’ve already read it, that I’m repeating myself or coasting. I want each novel to be unique.
JS: So you couldn’t see writing a series? The reason I ask is that you seem to have a character in COMPANY MAN, Audrey Rhimes, who could go on to another book, if you wanted to go in that direction.
JF: Well, actually, I could see myself writing a series — a novel with a continuing character — so long as each novel wasn’t a copy of the one before. I do have an idea for a series, and in fact Audrey is a strong possibility. I loved writing her, and a lot of readers seemed to like her too.
JS: Your books are extremely well plotted. Do you know where your stories are headed when you start writing? Or do you adapt as you go along?
JF: I always have the whole story figured out before I start writing, in a macro sense, but I usually leave a lot of blank spots as I go along — how I’m going from point C to D — which I fill in as I’m writing. That way there’s an organic sense of story evolution within a predetermined story line.
JS: Do you use your own publicist, or do you rely solely on your publishers for publicity?
JF: In the past I’ve hired outside publicists, but fiction is really hard to publicize. I think my in-house publicist at St. Martin’s does an excellent job.
JS: I think I read somewhere that your brother edits for you. How does that process work?
JF: He’s my editor of first resort —he reads everything I write before I send it in to my editor. That way, my terrific editor at St .Martin’s, Keith Kahla, doesn’t have to waste his time editing my really bad first drafts. It makes his job easier, and it enables him to fine tune a lot of my writing, so the end product comes out better. Plus, my brother is a great brainstormer —I bounce ideas off him to see which work and which don’t. Every writer needs someone like that.
JS: You’ve had a hefty touring schedule. Can you/ do you write while on the road?
JF: No way. I’ve tried, without success, in the past. This time I didn’t even bother. When I’m not doing readings/talks or signings or interviews, I’m either sleeping or working out or reading for fun —recharging my batteries.
JS: So then do you budget a certain amount of time for writing each book?
JF: Generally, between research and writing, I can turn out a book in about eight or nine months. That means that I need every available day that I’m not spending on book tour or other promotional stuff.
JS: Have all your books been optioned for film?
JF: No. EXTRAORDINARY POWERS was, but the option expired. THE ZERO HOUR was bought outright by 20th C. Fox but may never get made. PARANOIA is in active development at Paramount. And we’ll see about COMPANY MAN . . .
JS: Did you have any input into the film of HIGH CRIMES?
JF: No, none. I got to be a featured extra in the movie, though, which was fun.
JS: I don’t remember seeing you–which scene were you in?
JF: Actually, I was in five scenes — all the courtroom scenes. I’m sitting at the prosecution table next to the chief prosecutor. I didn’t have any lines, but I got to open the door for the prosecutor and glare at Morgan Freeman. Didn’t even need acting lessons.
JS: Ah, I think I remember now, but I’ll have to TIVO it—slo-mo the glare…. Some writers, like Andrew Klavan, are very active in their film projects. Others want to cash the option checks and divorce themselves from the whole scene. How’s your relationship with Hollywood been?
JF: My relationship with Hollywood has been great —they give me a check, and I cash it.
JS: Are you interested in screenwriting?
JF: I don’t do screenplays or get involved in producing. That seems to work well for me. My job is writing books, not movies. I don’t think I can do both.
JS: So you don’t want to be attached to adapt your own stuff?
JF: No, I don’t want to. I used to want to do the screenplay, until I saw, on the set of HIGH CRIMES, how time-consuming it can be. So now I don’t even ask.
JS: In COMPANY MAN there are some great set pieces that you can’t help but envision as a film. Do you think about the films of your books as you’re plotting/writing them? Is it in the back of your mind at least that you want to have scenes and story lines that a studio will find appealing?
JF: I think we’re all influenced by movies and TV these days, and I do think visually or cinematically. But I learned on the set of HIGH CRIMES that if Hollywood does buy one of my books to turn into a movie, it’s going to make all kinds of changes — take the basic plot line and shed all sorts of characters and scenes. Ultimately I found it liberating to realize that some of my best characters and scenes will never make it into any movie that’s made from one of my books. After all, books and movies are very different forms. And when it comes to my own books, at least, I’m the boss, and I like that.
JS: Do you work at home?
JF: Sometimes, in the very early morning. But I do most of my work in an office a few blocks from our apartment.
JS: What kind of stuff do you read?
JF: A range of things —I’ll read anything written by Dan Silva or Nelson DeMille or Harlan Coben or Lee Child, among others. But usually not when I’m writing my own thrillers. Times like that I’ll read literary fiction like Sue Miller or Ann Patchett or Andre Dubus III (or his father). It has to be very different from what I write.
JS: Now, finally, a rhetorical question because the Yankees are winning the World Series this year, but can the Sox repeat?
JF: If it’s not Baltimore, it could be the Sox again if we add another pitcher mid-season. You Yankee fans are so hubristic, but I sure wouldn’t be if I were a Yankee supporter, not given the way they’ve been playing. And, oh, that game on Saturday—you know, Sox 17, Yankees 1—well, that doesn’t bode well, does it?
JS: Touché, but I think the Yanks 10 game winning streak was a pretty good sign. And, hey, hubristic has to be the nicest thing a Red Sox fan ever said about me!…Thanks, Joe!