You’re the author of fourteen Joe DeMarco thrillers and three novels featuring Kay Hamilton. You’re also a nuclear engineer and former senior civilian executive for the U.S. Navy, with thirty years experience working for the Navy’s nuclear power program. Could you go into greater detail about your previous career and how it has impacted your work?
I think the biggest impact my prior career has had on my books is that it gave me firsthand experience dealing with large government organizations. I spent part of my career in Washington, D.C. but most of it at a naval shipyard in Bremerton, Washington where I had several management jobs related to overhauling nuclear-powered ships. In this job, I was interacting with high-ranking military officers, politicians, and bureaucrats of every stripe. I think this background has helped me insofar as being able to show how complex government organizations function and interact, particularly with politicians. Believe me when I say that I have great respect for our government institutions, Congress being an exception, but I’m writing fiction so I’ll often portray them in a way that isn’t flattering for the sake of the plot. When it comes to the politicians, it’s not hard these days to paint an unflattering picture.
Working side-by-side with military personnel on an active military base, managing organizations tasked with overhauling nuclear-powered submarines, cruisers, and aircraft carriers: It certainly sounds like the setting for a riveting read! Is this assessment accurate? Or am I applying a mystery lover’s overactive imagination to your time at the naval shipyard in Washington state?
I’ve only set one of my books, my second novel, The Second Perimeter, in the place where I used to work. The plot involves the Chinese stealing a couple of classified CDs related to nuclear submarines that was actually based on a real case of Chinese espionage at the Las Alamos National Laboratory as you note below. And, to tell you the truth, because of the nature of my previous job, I was leery about divulging too much in the book about the actual operation of the Navy and the shipyard because of classification concerns. So in The Second Perimeter, I had to make absolutely sure that nothing I wrote could be considered classified and that everything Navy and ship related was already in the public domain. The last thing I wanted was to get a visit from the NCIS or go through what John Bolton is currently going through right now with his book. But one of these days I may do another book related to my old job. My agent recently told me that the world of fiction needs a great submarine book, but I think it’s going to be hard to top The Hunt for Red October—which, by the way, had a few things wrong when it came to nuclear submarines.
At what point did you begin writing thrillers?
I never really set out to write thrillers—I was such a novice when I started that I didn’t even think about how my books would be classified when it came to genre—but I’ve often wished that they weren’t called political thrillers. When I decided to write fiction, the first decision I made was to write a series with recurring characters like Robert B. Parker, whose books I admired, did. The second decision was that I wanted the books set in D.C. but only because D.C. has organizations like the NSA, the CIA, and the Pentagon that are involved in headline-making events. Lastly, I had to come up with a protagonist. I didn’t want my protagonist to be a cop or private eye—there are already too many of those types of protagonists out there—so I came up with DeMarco, a fixer working for a corrupt politician. I thought that would make the character somewhat unique. But I never wanted to write about politics per se, nor did I ever want to be perceived as pushing a political agenda. I just figured that with DeMarco and Mahoney I would be able to write about the D.C.-centric events and institutions that would be entertaining. Then it turned out the books were called political thrillers when I would have really preferred just plain thrillers. Oh, well.
The latest thriller from Mike Lawson:
Your DeMarco thrillers follow Joe DeMarco, a political fixer for Congressman John Mahoney. Mahoney is corrupt. And yet, DeMarco, with his family connections to the mob, possesses his own dark past. This is one of the elements that I find so compelling about your work: morality is not black and white, the good and the bad bleed into one another. I wonder if you could explore this for us. Is ambiguity a key component to an effective thriller? How do you go about crafting compelling and troubled characters that your readers will cheer on, even if the character in question blurs the line between protagonist and antagonist?
I’ve always liked flawed—but human—characters in novels. Obviously, DeMarco and Mahoney are flawed, Mahoney significantly so. But Mahoney also has good traits: he’s a veteran who’d do anything for vets; he genuinely likes his working-class constituents; and, in spite of being a serial adulterer, he loves his wife. When it comes to the bad guys in novels, I’ve never liked the Terminator character who is pure evil, marching relentlessly, mindlessly forward to do in his enemies. I like to make the bad guys more than just bad guys, meaning that I like to give them a few good qualities and interests and desires unrelated to their criminal activities. Most important when it comes to my villains, they have to be able to rationalize, at least to themselves, why they behave the way they do. They don’t think of themselves as bad guys because nobody thinks of himself or herself as a bad guy. Sometimes I even like to make the bad guys somewhat sympathetic as I think I did in House Blood and House Arrest. I think reading Elmore Leonard’s books really helped me in this regard; Leonard created bad guys that you couldn’t help but like just a little, and I strive for the same thing while knowing I’ll never be as good as Leonard.
Humor plays a clear role in your work; DeMarco, in particular, is perpetually armed with a sharp one-liner. How do you go about integrating levity while keeping the suspense taut?
This may sound odd, but DeMarco is essentially me, which in a lot of ways makes the books easier to write. What I mean by that is that DeMarco’s attitude or his reaction toward a situation is basically the way I’d react to the situation. I don’t intentionally set out to put humor in the books. I don’t say to myself: What’s needed in this chapter is a bit of levity to lighten up the plot. What actually happens is that as I’m writing the book, I place DeMarco is some situation, and his reaction turns out to be humorous only because I find something about the situation humorous. And Joe’s sense of humor is pretty much my own, somewhat jaded and cynical, particularly when it comes to politics.
The first thriller from Mike Lawson:
The Inside Ring
The sardonic humor and moral ambiguity reminds me of the political thrillers of the seventies: The French Connection, Dog Day Afternoon, James Grady’s Six Days of the Condor. What are some of your favorite mysteries and thrillers—be it film or literature?
I’m a big John Sanford fan because I like the humor in his books as well as the plots. I’ll read anything by Carol O’Connell; I think her Mallory character is one of the best ever created. As I already said, I’m a huge Elmore Leonard fan and envious of the way he developed characters and settings using so few words. I admire, but could never match the literary, poetic style of Louise Penny’s crime novels. I’ve always enjoyed John Grisham’s work because the premises for his book are often unique. The Firm is an obvious example—a mafia controlled law firm—but also The Pelican Brief, where he bumps off a couple of Supreme Court Justices basically to settle a lawsuit. John le Carré’s work has always impressed me with the way he moves a plot forward by just divulging tiny bits of information at a time. As for film, anything written by Aaron Sorkin; he’s a genius and I love the way he dealt with politics in The West Wing and The Newsroom and the way he uses dialogue. My all-time favorite TV series is The Wire; no one can write life on the streets better than David Simon, Richard Price, and George Pelecanos.
Is there a literary or film genre that is especially important to you that your readers may find surprising?
I actually read a lot of non-fiction that’s influenced my writing. I love Michael Lewis’s books, particularly those like The Big Short, Liar’s Poker, and Flash Boys that have made me smarter on the denizens of Wall Street. The books written by investigative reporter Jane Mayer are a must read for anyone who wants to understand the relationship between money and power. David Ignatius’s novels and his non-fiction writing have given me a better idea of how the intelligence agencies actually function. I read a lot of historical non-fiction and just finished Eric Larsen’s The Splendid and the Vile and Grant by Ron Chernow.
Many of your DeMarco thrillers are based on real-life political events. House Justice, which draws inspiration from the Valarie Plame case, centers on a covert CIA agent being ousted by a ruthless journalist; The Second Perimeter draws inspiration from the spy breach at Los Alamos in 1999; House Divided centers on NSA wiretapping of U.S. citizens. How do you go about adapting real-life events to fictional thrillers? What are the joys, the challenges you face?
As you said, almost all my books—my first book, The Inside Ring, being an exception— were inspired by real life events. Sometimes I’m just intrigued by an article I’ll read, like one from Vanity Fair about drug testing in third world countries that inspired House Blood. The inspiration for House Rules came from an article in the Washington Post about the no-fly zone around D.C. But not all the books are based on events that make the front page. House Revenge was inspired by a photo in the Seattle Times showing a little old lady in a yellow raincoat protesting a developer evicting her from her apartment. I always start with the premise for the book—like drug testing in third world countries—and ask the question: How would DeMarco, Mahoney, or Emma become involved in some related crime or scandal? As I don’t outline the books, I just start with Chapter 1 and stumble and fumble my way through to the end. One of the most daunting things about writing novels related to real life events is that the world keeps moving forward as I’m writing. It takes me about a year to write a book and then another year passes before it’s published, and in two years a lot can happen that can adversely or perversely effect the book I’ve written. To use a simple example, say you’re writing a book about the hunt for Osama bin Laden in the caves of the Hindu Kush and before the book is published, the SEALs go get the guy in Pakistan. When I finish a book I always wish it could be instantly published so events in the real world don’t have a chance to screw it up.
Mike Lawson's third Joe DeMarco thriller:
You mention on your website that Washington, D.C. is a “target rich” environment for a writer; there’s always something happening that can be transformed into a new narrative. Yet today, there is a sense that Washington and international politics as a whole are beyond parody, and that we’ve drifted into uncharted waters. Certainly, you don’t write satire. But I wonder how you approach crafting thrillers—thrillers that engage with political corruption—in an era of extreme politics?
You’ve really hit on something with that question. As you say, politics and politicians have become so outrageous that a few years ago if I had developed a character that was based on some of today’s politicians, readers would have said: Oh, that’s unbelievable, way over the top; no real politician would actually behave that way. It’s become almost impossible to create a political villain that can surpass the antics of those you see on the news these days. The other problem is that people have become so politically rabid that they’re outraged when you write something that’s contrary to their beliefs. You wouldn’t believe the number of angry emails I’ve received because one of my fictional characters said something that offended someone’s political sensibilities. Today when I’m writing about politicians my inclination is to make them more like I’d like them to be: honest, moral, and intelligent. I enjoy watching reruns of the show The West Wing because it depicts politicians acting the way I wish they would act. Still, what I said holds true, that Washington is a target rich environment, and provides an endless number of ideas for novels yet to come.
Tell us a bit about House Privilege. What’s in store for political fixer Joe DeMarco in your latest installment? What should readers expect?
The idea for House Privilege came from an event that actually occurred in Washington State: a small plane carrying a little girl and her grandparents crashed in the Cascade Mountains; the grandparents died but the little girl survived alone for two or three days in the woods until she was rescued. I start off House Privilege with a similar scene where a plane carrying a super wealthy Boston couple and their teenage daughter crashes in the Adirondacks; the parents die but the girl lives. The girl turns out to be John Mahoney’s goddaughter, and because Mahoney’s kindly wife isn’t available, Mahoney sends DeMarco to Boston to check on her— and DeMarco discovers that the lady lawyer, who manages the girl’s multi-billion dollar trust fund, is embezzling and most likely sabotaged the plane. Eventually DeMarco finds himself up against not only the devious lawyer but a Boston mob boss and a couple of gunsels from Ireland. House Privilege is different than the previous books in the series in that it’s a bit of an international thriller because part of it is set in Montenegro. The other thing is that DeMarco isn’t operating alone or with Emma as he normally does. In House Privilege, he assembles his own A-Team to catch the villains. I think it’s a fun read and a great addition to the series that readers will enjoy.