Crimes and Criminals and the Writers Who Love Them

Crimes and Criminals and the Writers Who Love Them

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Seeing RED: An Interview with John Katzenbach

By Donna Kortes, SBF volunteer and Low Country Sisters in Crime member

If the Big Bad Wolf knocked at your door, what would you do? This is the question behind John Katzenbach’s latest thriller Red 1-2-3, a suspense filled page-turner that pits three redheaded females against a very skillful villain.

Donna Kortes: Your thrillers are known for tight timelines with escalating suspense. Red 1-2-3 is a masterful match of both. How difficult is it to juggle those two elements?

John Katzenbach: This is a really good question, as it goes to the heart of thriller writing. The balance between timelines and suspense is what makes or breaks a thriller – because a reader has to feel that the action matches the psychological state of each character. In other words, there has to be an emotional logic to each step – which is, in my opinion, the most crucial aspect of a thriller. If a character behaves in an inconsistent manner – well, readers have a way of punishing those sloppy authors, no? They close the book with a thud, and a snort, toss it to the side and decide to tune in to Downton Abbey and we’re lost, or, as my kids say DTM. As in dead to me.

DK: The reader’s emotional connection leads to my next question. Red 1-2-3 allows your audience to experience the story through the killer and victim’s point of view. Was one POV a particular challenge to write? And did you have a favorite POV character?

JK: Shifting POV – from bad guy with undeserved confidence to good guys with ricocheting doubts – was really the most fun part of writing Red 1-2-3. Each point of view from each character presented unique writing challenges, because there are changes in tone for each. How each perceives either the threat they face, or in the case of the bad guy, his desire for fame, required shifts in my thinking and writing. Obviously, a 17-year-old girl won’t see a deadly threat in the same way that a 50-year-old physician will – although the threat may be the same. Now – was any POV harder than the others – well, not exactly. There are moments in the book where putting my head in their predicament was more difficult – but that only serves to increase the tension – I hope. Now, as to the second part of your question – well, the only moment that the POV of a character exceeded the others in overall deliciousness was in the final couple of pages of the book. But giving those away would be a mistake.

DK: Cellphones, the Internet, and crime scene investigation has changed dramatically since your first novel, In the Heat of Summer, was published in 1982. Has that made plotting a mystery/thriller easier or harder?

JK: Actually, the thing that has made mystery/thriller writing harder is what I call The CSI Exaggeration. Readers get these outlandish notions of what modern technology can accomplish in the world of crime detection. On a television show – where a single hour has to present a crime, a suspect, a clever bunch of cops and Voila! Solutions! Well, this is not really reasonable, nor does it lend itself to a novel. But folks have these TV-generated expectations that all we have to do is a nifty little DNA test and there you have it. Case solved. All is right with the world. It’s not that easy in real life, nor is it on the pages of a novel. So the problem for novelists is about expectations. Of course, you need to be cautious about details. Cell phone towers can ruin a good story. One has to keep in mind current technology lest one get zapped by complaints from alert readers. Here is an example that also serves as a cautionary tale: When I got a transponder for my car so I could eagerly zip through the fast lanes at toll booths a friend of mine said, “Great. Now the government knows where you are…” He was a little on the paranoid side. I think. Regardless, no characters of mine have transponders in their cars. They pay their tolls with cash.

DK: Red 1-2-3 is your 13th novel. How has your writing process evolved over the years? Do you approach each novel differently?

JK: Leaving aside all superstition about a 13th novel, I think everyone’s writing has to evolve over time. I like to try slightly different styles, evoke characters in different ways. I hope I approach each book by asking myself the question: What is the best way to tell this story? This (I hope once again) brings some freshness to each novel. I really want to avoid writing the same thing over and over. With Red 1-2-3, I really wanted to examine failure and fear – and that absolutely required some explorations of style. As an aside, I have a dear friend – Philip Caputo, wonderful novelist, memoirist and journalist – who once said that your first book is probably your best idea – but that there ought to be a law that allows the author to go back and re-write that book after they’ve written at least 4-5 other novels – because at that point you actually know what you’re doing.

DK: As an aspiring writer, I’m not sure if that makes me feel better… or worse. What about your first novel? What inspired you to write that first book and what sparked Red 1-2-3?

JK: Inspiration for #1 – In the Heat of the Summer: a conversation with my journalist wife when we were both working in Miami back in the days when newspapers actually mattered in a major way. I was railing about calls I would get from people post-arrest. You know, the tiresome “I’m innocent. I’m being railroaded. The cops have it all wrong…” sort of calls. I turned to her and said, “You know what would be interesting… to get a call from someone who hasn’t been arrested, in the midst of a series of crimes…” She looked at me. I looked at her. Seems romantic, but was actually one of those Aha! moments for a writer. I started work on the book within a few weeks, when the paper gave me a leave. Now Red 1-2-3 came about in a different way. A friend was complaining (whining, really) about the lack of recognition for his work… and I started to think about that – and what could someone who writes and kills do about it. That became the genesis of the book.

DK: When developing a character, some authors say they end up knowing more about the character than ever ends up in the finished novel. Is there a piece of backstory or a personality quirk about a Red 1-2-3 character that your readers might find interesting?

JK: You know, this is an interesting question. I’m not sure that I fully agree with the notion that writers actually know more about their characters. This is categorically true for actors either on stage or in film. They truly do know more because it informs their performance. But I think that an author pretty much puts is all out there. And if he doesn’t, then those eagle-eyed and savvy readers, bloggers and critics tend to note the psychological holes in the character. This is a scenario one tries to avoid. Desperately. So, for me, those people you meet on my pages are who they are – if that makes sense.

DK: Have you been to Savannah before and what are you most interested in seeing and doing while you are here?

JK: Nope. Never been to Savannah before. All I want is for the temperature to be above freezing – as where I live in New England has experienced a pretty nasty series of what the forecasters like to call weather events. As if that captures the snow, ice, more snow and more ice we’ve been dealing with.

DK: I promise – no snow, no ice. What’s next for you?

JK:Next? I have a book coming out in the fall from Grove/Atlantic/The Mysterious Press called The Dead Student. It’s about deep-seated revenge and very unforeseen consequences. I’m also optimistic (probably foolishly) that two of my other books will go in front of the cameras in 2015. These would be The Analyst which is being developed by this truly cutting edge Spanish company in Barcelona, and The Madman’s Tale which is my own adaptation, with a particularly dedicated and quite brilliant Australian director and crew. Interesting how the movie world has become international.

DK: Thank you John. To read more about Red 1-2-3 and John’s other heart pounding thrillers go to and be sure to catch his presentation at the Savannah Book Festival February 14th . (Chippawa Square – First Baptist Church Fellowship Hall 11:40--12:40).
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John Katzenbach began his writing career with the Times of Trenton (N.J.) before moving on to the Miami News and subsequently the Miami Herald. He won prizes for his coverage of the criminal courts in Miami during the height of the drug trade. He then transferred to the Herald’s TROPIC Magazine, where he wrote about PTSD-suffering Viet Nam vets, grandmothers unjustly accused of first degree murder and disk jockeys on quixotic journeys. He left journalism following the publication of his third book.

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