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Blogs, Interviews and Reviews

Interview: Q&A with Author Jay Whales

(as originally appeared on AuthorJayWhales.Wix.Com on Sept 14, 2015)

JW: Michael, with your background, do you find it difficult to write in a way that people understand what you are trying to say? (Is it hard to “dumb down” your thoughts?)

MR: No, in fact I’ve always enjoyed relaying what I do or study to others who aren’t necessarily in my field(s) of research. I think that’s why I was interested in writing textbooks early-on, and why I’ve been an adjunct professor at Penn since 2006- I just really enjoy explaining genetics and genomics to others. I think its a fascinating area of research. I don’t think of it as dumbing down though- just going to the same place I once inhabited where I lacked any sort of understanding of this field… and then building it up carefully and clearly for others, whether speaking in a lecture or describing in a novel. I enjoy it and take pains to get it right.

JW: As a fledgling writer myself, I have questions that will give away the plot, so I will really try to avoid that. Do you care for red-tailed hawks in “real life?”

MR: I don’t, but my father did when I was a teen-ager, and I helped him as a sort of an “assistant”. He was a licensed falconer and would rehabilitate red-tailed hawks that had been injured, usually by cars or by farmers with shotguns, that the local vets brought to him. When I was in high school I helped him build a mew where he kept the hawks, fed them, nursed them back to health, and taught them to fly to his fist in our backyard.
I helped him with everything, but my favorite part was flying the birds to the fist. There are few more exhilarating feelings than holding a leather gloved arm high in the air and watching those majestic birds of prey swooping down from a high tree branch towards you, talons outstretched as if to claw out your eyes, only to pull up at the last minute and gently alight onto your arm and stare you in the eyes with an intensity you really have to experience to understand.

JW: You mentioned the local FBI was helpful in writing this book, was the Behavior Sciences Unit of the FBI as helpful?

MR: The FBI field office in New York was extraordinarily helpful. Most if not all of the Special-Agents-in-Charge at the NYPD office spoke with a group of us writers during a tour sponsored by the International Thriller Writer’s annual meeting at Thrillerfest. While I was there, I had questions about the BSU and one of the agents actually took me aside and described the unit to me in as much detail as he was able to give, and even printed out some non-confidential org charts to help me understand how they report into the overall hierarchy of the FBI. So yes, I found the FBI agents in the New York office to be extremely helpful… but I never requested access to the BSU down in Quantico.

It was interesting because the FBI’s external affairs office was very open to reviewing author’s works and movie scripts for accuracy, and expressed over and over again that they hoped we’d portray them favorably! They get a bad wrap sometimes, as if they always burst onto the scene and rip the investigation out of the ‘local’s’ hands and it’s just not the case. Ninety-nine percent of the time they just come in to support an investigation. That’s why I said n my foreword that they “deserve to be main characters” in books like The Ripper Gene.

JW: Had you ever worked with law enforcement in that past? Your knowledge of crime scenes seems to be above what a “layman” is aware of?

MR: Well I’ll take that as a compliment, but no, that knowledge is just borne out of a lot- and I mean, a lot- of research! I’ll touch a bit more on all the research that I did in one of your other questions below.

JW: Will we see more of Lucas Madden and Agent Woodson?

MR: Absolutely. I’d originally begun writing a novel featuring two other NYPD detectives in order to write a biomedical thriller based a little closer to my (present) home…but the success of The Ripper Gene is really dictating that I write a sequel. Not a bad thing! And I’m all too happy to pick back up with Madden and Woodson down South. It really is like “visiting old friends”. I look forward to it, and have begun writing the next novel in the series.

JW: The book flows along rather quickly, did you find yourself contemplating writing a lot of detail in some places, which would make the book thinker, or did details get cut out in editing? I ask because as I write, I get chastised for not describing a person eating an apple over three pages, it takes me two sentences and that is one sentence to much, to me).

MR: That’s funny. I’m in the same camp as you on how many sentences it should take to describe a person eating an apple… although just remember, you don’t want to eat any apples in The Ripper Gene! But to answer your question- yes, I actually included a lot more detail in original drafts. I didn’t count, but this novel probably went through at least 10 full-length revisions and one of the last revisions in particular cut the novel down from 450 pages to 300 pages. You can imagine how much detail I left out, and yet, people were still able to follow it and enjoy it and ultimately compliment it for moving quickly. So that revision process is absolutely vital.

One of my favorite creative writing lecturers said that he thinks writing a novel is not so much about “relaying information along the way”, as it is “knowing how much information to withhold over the course of the novel until the end”. I really like that definition, and you definitely don’t want to over-tell your story. So I cut out a lot during revision.

JW: By now you have probably seen bad reviews, justified or not. How does receiving bad reviews affect your continued writing?

MR: I have a feeling people will roll their eyes but I’m going to tell the truth- almost not at all. I say “almost” because one of the very first reviews I received was a 1 star on Goodreads from a strange one who spliced video clips from Spongebob Squarepants into her negative review. It was especially strange because the book wasn’t out yet, so it was an impossibility that she had even read it. At the time I only had a few 5 star reviews from personal friends who’d actually read the manuscript and were getting their reviews up prior to the publication date. So, it was strange. That one bothered me because it was my first bad one and it wasn’t fair… but the way I dealt with it was to show it to my children and we all got a good laugh from it, and then I bought a Mr Crabs figurine and put it on my desk in my office as a reminder to just roll with the punches and bad reviews.

Luckily, I really haven’t noticed any since. The book is sitting at 4.9 stars on Amazon and 4.5 on Goodreads so I’m thrilled. I’m always amazed that readers across the country respond just as favorably to my book as my local friends have. Ever since that first bad review, I’ve only paid attention to the good ones. I most recently saw an excellent review from a science blog that I respect and read often- DNA Science Blog from PLoS.org. I was absolutely thrilled to see a positive review from a scientific peer who found the premise to be believable and thought that the book highlighted an important future consideration on the horizon (genetics and anti-social behavior and the ethics of genetic determinism). So, I only pay attention to the good ones anymore.

JW: Your book features geographical profiling, which is not particularly a mainstream idea, in that TV shows and movies don’t show it in all of its wonders, how did you learn about this technique?

MR: As I alluded above, I must have read forty to fifty reference books on forensics and criminal profiling during the writing and revision of The Ripper Gene. For a stretch there I devoured every reference book I could find in that area. At some point I came across the idea of a “jeopardy surface”, where based on the pattern of previous attacks, investigators could use such a tool like geographical profiling to predict where a local killer likely lives, or where he might strike next. Given its reliance on math and probability, I thought it would be the perfect kind of algorithm-based technique that a character like Terry Randall in the book would be comfortable running, given his deep expertise in algorithms, so I added that as an additional piece of the puzzle in The Ripper Gene.

JW: Lucas carries a Lugar pistol, another item not common in the mainstream, how did you learn about this weapon?

MR: I researched a lot of pistols and although the Luger is extremely outdated (goes back to WWII, I think), according to my father (a Green Beret ammunitions specialist in the Vietnam War) it is a very well-designed pistol. And agents do get to choose what type of weapon they carry. It just so happens to be the very kind of pistol that I played with most of my childhood- for whatever reason, my favorite toy gun turns out to have been a Luger. So I thought it would be cool if Lucas carried a Luger as well…even if it was an outdated choice.

I am considering currently whether I’ll 1) weave some sort of backstory about that strange choice of a gun into the sequel or 2) replace it with a more standard 9mm or Glock. Haven’t decided that one yet. But good catch! The only other person to catch this so far was my uncle- the man whose claim to fame is that he invented one of the best selling bullets of all time, the Hydra-Shok. I wasn’t able to slip my strange choice past him, either!
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