WRITERS TELL ALL
Jeff Abbott's Biggest Competition is Himself, and He's Blown Us Out of the Water with THE THREE BETHS--DON'T MISS OUT
Matthew Turbeville: Hey Jeff! I am so excited to talk to you on Writers Tell All, as you are one of my many mentors, writing friends, and someone who has helped me whenever you could. I was especially looking forward to The Three Beths, which extended my expectations. You’ve had a very rough year for anyone, and still managed to produce a book despite that. Do you mind discussing what it’s like to throw yourself into work and really produce a great work of fiction on a very narrow time schedule?
Jeff Abbott: Thanks for having me as a guest and for the very kind words.
I took more time than usual for a book, given that our house burned down and dealing with the aftermath and the rebuild is like having another full time job. So. . .I don’t know that I did this in a narrow time frame. I think I did throw myself into it as much as I could, because writing the book was an escape from dealing with the headaches of the fire. And frankly, this is my job, and I had to keep doing it regardless of there being a fire. I’m grateful that my editor and my publisher were so understanding, since I took more time than usual and the publication date had to be moved back a few months.
MT: Where did your idea for The Three Bethscome from, and would you mind talking about what it’s been like writing more everyday thrillers about women characters, especially starting with your last novel Blame,which was also welcomed with amazing acclaim from your peers and critics alike? What made you decide to go outside yourself and write about these women characters, and do you have a favorite?
JA: Well, first, the idea for The Three Bethscame from a couple of different places. I thought about those missing persons cases you sometimes hear about where the police are convinced that a loved one or a relative had a hand in the disappearance, but they can prove nothing. So the accused, and the rest of the family, has to go on with their lives. What would it be like to be living inside that family, to be loyal to a missing parent and yet to also be loyal to the parent who is accused of murder? What goes on behind those walls? And then the other idea came from doing a search on social media once for an old friend, and seeing exactly how many hits I got just typing in her very common first name. . .it struck me that if I wanted to find a number of Beths, or Jeffs, or Michelles, that was easy to do. And then, because I write crime fiction, I wondered what kind of crime or deceit might involve people with the same name. Sometimes my ideas are like Lego blocks that snap together into a bigger something or shape. . .that was where the two driving thoughts of the book came from. I get the idea, and then I start fleshing it out by asking myself a lot of questions of the who, why, what variety.
Re writing female characters, I don’t know that I am going outside myself. I write them as human beings. For years in writing the Sam Capra series, the character of Mila Court got such a huge response from my readers, so I felt like I could try to write a female protagonist, and there were female colleagues in the crime fiction world who encouraged me. And as writers we’re supposed to use our imaginations, our experiences, our empathy. I don’t think I have a favorite. I think Jane in Blameand Mariah in The Three Bethsare two of my strongest characters. They are damaged but brave and persistent and determined, which is what I try to be as well.
MT: This novel, The Three Beths, really feels like a natural and effortless evolution (which usually means it required a lot of effort on your part). Do you mind elaborating on how you feel your writing and actual process and methods of producing a book have changed in the past few years? What was it like publishing your very first novel compared to now?
JA: I have never used one exact process. Sometimes I think of the main character first; sometimes I think of the plot first. I try not to be overly regimented about how I start. Sometimes I outline, sometimes I just start writing a few scenes. I do think that as time has gone on I take more time to plan and plot now than I did in the past. I spend more time thinking. And when I’m in the last hundred pages, I tend to re-outline the whole book, to make sure that I’m paying off expectation, wrapping up subplots, bringing the protagonist to face their greatest threat. It helps me to finish the book with more confidence.
My first novel was published in 1994 and the business has changed so much I’m not sure a comparison to know is useful. I will say it remains as much a thrill to see my book on the shelf now as it did all those years ago. I think it is a challenge not just to get published but to stay published.
MT: The escalation of the plot of The Three Bethsfeels both rapid and casual, building and building to the epic climax in a way that feels very natural for the reader. We don’t jump from everyday domestic thriller to something outrageous with The Three Beths. It all feels so planned out and very calculated in the best way. What was it like—the journey to The Three Beths—and how much of the novel’s ending did you have planned out before you actually began writing?
JA: I really believe writing is rewriting. And this was a book that went through a lot of rewrites. I finished a draft of it right after the house burned and was very pleased with myself that I had done that in the midst of disaster but then I read through it and it wasn’t working for me. It didn’t feel like my best work. So I merged characters, slashed subplots, tightened my focus on Mariah and her father Craig, and then the book started to take on a stronger shape and drive. I pared down tremendously. So if it feels calculated in a good way, it came from a place of panic and fear that I had to get the book under control. The thought that I could fail on a big scale was a huge motivator.
Re the ending, I thought a lot about it before I wrote it or even committed to it, and how these characters reach that moment of twisted fate, and I finally embraced it. I won’t say more than that.
MT: You told me some of our mutual favorite female writers encouraged you to write from the point-of-view of a female protagonist, or rather two female protagonists inBlame. What was the conception of The Three Bethslike and did you have any women cheering you on in particular here?
JA: Well, I think I answered how the book was conceived before, but as to writing a female protagonist, it was something I discussed briefly with some other writers, mostly women, but also men, and they all gave me a vote of confidence that I could handle it. Writers such as Laura Lippman, Alison Gaylin, JT Ellison, Meg Gardiner, and Megan Abbott, were all encouraging when I would express concern or doubt. That was more at the beginning of the process; I was fine once I really started writing.
MT: While we’re talking about great female writers, who are your favorites in and out of the genre—the authors who really move you and change the way you think about writing? What are some books you turn to again and again if you get stuck, or need some inspiration?
JA: Well, all the amazing writers just listed above. I also enjoy Alafair Burke, Lisa Scottoline, Laura Benedict, Karin Slaughter, Kate Atkinson, J. K. Rowling, Celeste Ng, N. K. Jemisin, Margaret Atwood, Lori Roy, Terry Shames, Ursula Le Guin, Madeleine L’Engle, Patricia Highsmith, Agatha Christie, Sue Grafton, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, Ruth Rendell, Helen MacInnes…and I’m sure I’m forgetting several more. I think at different points they’ve all inspired me.
MT: What was the hardest part about writing The Three Beths? There are a lot of characters you juggle around, and you do it well but when I imagine taking on such a broad cast of characters, all of them hiding their secrets and with their unsaid motives—I can’t imagine trying to do what you did with this book. What would you say was the hardest part of writing this book, and what is the hardest part of writing any book?
JA: The rewrite I alluded to earlier was the hardest part. I was savage in the cutting and reordering and rewriting. Asking myself on every page, does this scene work? How can I make it stronger? How can I make the story tighter? How can I make this character more compelling? How can I build more suspense? How can I avoid making this confusing to the reader? I wondered if I would have a book left at certain points. And I hate throwing away scenes, but you have to. You must. That’s also for me the hardest part of writing any book. Ideas are easy, the execution is hard.
MT: What do you think are the key aspects of suspense and mystery to keep a plot going? What are your own little secrets, if you don’t mind sharing? What do you feel is the most important piece of writing advice you’ve ever gotten—from another writer, a mentor, a friend, etc?
JA: Well, the key aspect is emotional involvement. No one will turn the pages if they don’t care about the characters. So even with a character like Mariah, who is damaged and difficult and a reader could turn away from her. . .she wants her mom. She wants her family back. She wants to be loved and understood. So every reader can hopefully relate to that. And beyond that empathy, you have to put the characters in a dire situation that threatens what they want most from their lives. As far as secrets, I only have one. . .I often finish a day’s writing in the middle of a sentence. For me, it’s easier to get started again the next say if I finish that sentence and then write the next one. As far as good advice, an artist friend—who makes his living as a painter—once told me to be prolific. I think he is right. I’m happy when I’m producing work.
MT: What is your next book like? Do you already have a work in progress, and would you mind hinting at what it might be about with our readers? You are pretty good about putting out books often and prolifically, and you never settle for less than the best quality. What do you think is the best motto or piece of advice you can take or give when writing so constantly, so regularly?
JA: The next book I’m writing is another suburban suspense novel set in Lakehaven, same as Blameand The Three Beths. It’s a drama about a family starting to come apart at the seams after a member of the family discovers a body. I don’t want to say more than that. I also really need to start on the next Sam Capra project, as I’m asked about it regularly by readers. I don’t know if I have special advice about be prolific. I mean, this is my job. I do it on a very regular basis, as we all do our jobs. If I don’t have an idea, I look at my mortgage payment or my son’s college tuition and boom, an idea! Boom, I feel like writing. I’m not very precious about the writing part of this work. You have to sit down and type the words and fix the words and make them stronger.
MT: Jeff, I am so excited to see what comes next for you. As an avid reader of your books, I’m excited to see how you’re never afraid of change and trying new things. I am more than excited to see where writing takes you from here on out. Feel free to leave us with any comments or suggestions, and know that you’re always welcome here at Writers Tell All.
JA: Thank you Matthew, for your interest in my work and for your kind encouragement and support.