It’s with genuine pleasure that I bring you this interview. Russell Blake has the distinct honor of being one of the first Indie authors to firmly establish my faith and trust in the true potential of self-published books. I know this sounds insane coming from an Indie author, but until I stumbled onto his first book, I honestly hadn’t taken many chances on self-published titles. Russell’s books ushered me into a new era of reading, and have kept me busy…to say the least. Firebrand and agitator extraordinaire, Russell is a blast to engage on any level. Check out his blog after the interview, to go deeper into the genius mind of Russell Blake. russellblake.com
Without any further ado, I’d like to welcome Russell Blake, who has graciously emerged from hiding in Mexico to answer some burning questions.
Steve Konkoly: Russell, you’ve had quite the prolific writing year. I read your first book in July, and I’ve sort of lost track of how many I’ve read at this point. I do recall that each book has been better than the last. Can you shed some light on how you manage to produce one solid thriller after another?
Russell Blake: Well, Steven, as you know, it’s really all about balancing the powerful recreational drugs and the alcohol… Seriously, though, I’ve been blessed with an active imagination and a love of language. So I try to surpass myself with each effort. And I have a strong work ethic. I do this like a full-time job, in spades – typically, ten to twelve hours a day. I’ll have written fourteen books by year-end, twelve of which I’ve released, one of which I shelved, and one which is a work in process. That’s an exhausting workload, but it’s quickly built a hell of a backlist.
SK: If you haven’t already commented on this, what does a typical day resemble, when you are deep in the throes of writing?
RB: I wake around seven, grab a bite, chug some coffee, attend to all the social media obligations, and then start writing. I’ll break for lunch for maybe 15 minutes, then dive back in until nine at night, sometimes later. Depends on whether my vision’s blurring by then or not. I shoot for 7500 words a day, at a high quality level. I put in a solid ten hours, so I’m not all that fast. I just clock a lot of hours. I keep telling myself I will only do that through the end of 2011, but it does get a bit addicting. I tend to write for couple weeks, and then rest for a few. That avoids burn-out.
SK: Your plots are airtight, which leads me to believe you have a patented process for mapping the story out in advance. I’d love to hear more about your process for taking an idea, and turning it into a workable story line.
RB: On some of the early books, I did a crude algorithm, drawing out a kind of schematic. Then I tried winging it with just a summary paragraph or two, and single-sentence chapter summaries. That’s how I do it now, but I’ve reduced the sentences to just a few words. Not much of a process, I’ll admit. I just don’t see a lot of point spending weeks to chart out the plot. Either it’s a hell of a story and I race to get it told, or it isn’t, and it likely will feel wooden when I write it. I may change my mind at any point on this, but for now, it’s a paragraph or two, some words to guide what should come next, and then writing.
SK: I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only writer than takes a pass on the four-week long, build your plot, arts and crafts project. How about characters? You’ve created some memorable characters throughout your books, and admirably, they’re all strikingly different. I haven’t once felt that I was reading about the same character, dressed up differently and cast with a phony foreign accent. How do you create a character?
RB: Again, I have no process. I just dream up the character, and they tend to gel in my head as I begin the first few scenes. On rewrite, I’ll adjust little inconsistencies so they’re harmonious. But I hate vanilla characters, so I try to imbue mine with as much personality and humanity as possible, and rather than telling the reader about them through exposition, try to offer glimpses of their qualities and internal narratives through actions and dialog. Which is a verbose way of saying I try to show, not tell.
SK: I assume you are answering these questions from one of several safe-houses along in Mexico, since your recent thriller, King of Swords, uses the deadly drug cartel wars as its primary background. Did you have to get permission to write this book? Seriously, how has your experience living in Mexico shaped this story? Frankly, I felt like I was on the streets of Mexico while reading the book.
RB: Good. That was the goal. I wanted the reader to get a feel for the totality of the genuine Mexican experience. Living in Mexico has strong positives, and negatives. I’m fortunate to live in a safe area. But I’m still exposed via the news to the epic drug-related violence and brutality that’s the norm for Mexico. I’ve been here coming up on a decade, and I have to say that I don’t think King of Swords or Night of the Assassin would be nearly as compelling if set in Prague or Bolivia. I wanted to do something I haven’t seen done before, namely to write a novel set in modern Mexico told as it really is – not the saccharine, stereotypical Mexico of mission bells and sombreros, but rather the diverse melting pot that is the true state of the country. There’s a large, burgeoning middle class, as well as the very poor and the wildly rich. The richest man in the world is Mexican – Carlos Slim. Mexico isn’t about burros and cactus anymore. Hasn’t been for a generation or more. I wanted that to come through.
SK: It certainly came through for me. While King of Swords is a thriller like your other books, there is a level of grittiness, pacing and detail, that suggests a different style of book for you, or perhaps…your true style or “stride.” Does this statement resonate with you?
RB: It does. I think the Assassin books, as I think of them, will be the grittiest and fastest paced, because I’m aspiring to a breakneck velocity in those efforts. I wanted to write a series of books that would define that high-velocity approach to the contemporary thriller novel. I can’t immediately think of any I’ve read that move faster, or have as many unexpected shocks and disturbing scenes. I think the imagery works because it’s not just violence or blood, but rather situations that are so vivid and real they seem true. I want my readers to have problems sleeping and tell their friends about a scene or two in each book, or have them going, WTF! There are actually a few in Night of the Assassin that I second-guessed and almost cut – they’re that disturbing. On rewrite, I was disturbed. But my editor said they should stay in, as they collectively define the experience. If readers can read these books and not be affected, I failed in my job. But to answer your question, yes, I suspect KOS and Night of the Assassin solidify that “Blake” style. It’s the one I’m most comfortable writing, and that I most enjoy reading.
SK: Night of the Assassin is a prequel to King of Swords. What’s in store for readers in the prequel?
RB: Night seeks to explore the making of the monster, and explain, if explanation is possible, how the beast became what he presents as, fully formed, in King of Swords. I was fascinated with that El Rey character when I finished King, and literally started writing Night just a few days after finishing King. Readers should expect the most racing thriller they’ve ever read, on steroids, in a Ferrari at midnight with the stereo cranked, 150 MPH on black ice. If that sounds over the edge, it’s because with Night I tried to redefine what an edge even was, much less where it sat.
SK: Well, I certainly hope sales from this book and its prequel, will allow you to upgrade the armor plating on your SUV, or at least hire a bodyguard.
RB: I was thinking tequila sponge baths with twins, but hey, you may have a point. Although it does leave you feeling somewhat bulletproof and invisible…
SK: Hey, what happens in the Mexico, stays in Mexico. All of your books so far, have involved some heavy-duty, big government conspiracies. Do you start with the premise of a conspiracy, or do they grow into your stories?
RB: I start with the conspiracy. In my experience, governments all over the world lie early and often. In the states, the conceit is that we’re above that, but in the end, it’s just not so. Witness Cheney on Fox recently admitting to giving the order to shoot flight 93 out of the sky. All the news clips of “Let’s roll!” and the rest were pure invention. So I just assume that the government, any government, is lying the moment its lips move. In Mexico, it’s accepted the government lies and is corrupt. Same in Europe and South America. And I believe there’s a shift going on in the U.S. as well. I think as the 2008 financial crisis played out, and it has become obvious to even the dimmest that fraud and larceny were endemic at every level in looting the country, that people are waking up. I think I differ in that I readily see how power can corrupt and cause conspiracies to develop – one of the key techniques of any fascist state is to dismiss any differing take on reality as being treasonous, or lunacy. If you can convince the populace to dismiss things without question, you can mold what they believe. That’s the basis of all conspiracies – to portray up as down, black as white, and to build an illusion to hide the underlying reality. I like to think my books jar the endemic, comfortable complacency and afford a view of what is possible, as an alternative, fictional explanation to the status quo.
SK: Now I’m starting to think you might need more than just an up-armored SUV.
RB: Armored Jacuzzi? Kevlar sponges? I’m open.
SK: Sounds like security might continue to be an issue as long as those twins are still involved. So, what is your theory about the JFK assassination? This is optional…I think you have enough people watching you at this point.
RB: You really want them to be lining up for a bite of me, huh? Three possibilities. First is that the military/industrial complex wanted him gone. Second possibility is that the financial system wanted him gone, but that’s far-fetched given that his dad was one of the biggest scammers on Wall Street; so it’s more likely he was rubbing shoulders with the money boys than fighting them. Third is that the mob wanted him taken out. I tend to think the latter or the first are the two likeliest scenarios.
SK: Safe answers for the most part. I see you have a Trilogy in the chute. The Delphi Chronicle. Can you give us a brief rundown of this Trilogy, and when it will be available?
RB: Book one is already out. Just released. Book Two and Three will break around Xmas. It’s the editor holding things up, but in all fairness, I sort of buried him with KOS, Night and Delphi. Between all of them it’s probably close to 300K+ words to edit from end of November to Xmas. That’s a lotta words. It’s serial trilogy like Zero Sum, meaning that the story’s told across the three books. Delphi is my most shocking conspiracy yet, positing a NY literary agent getting an anonymous manuscript that contains the most damaging allegations ever leveled at the U.S. government – drug running, murder-for-hire, extortion, all going to the highest levels. It’s a big set of books, in the sense that it’s an epic, disturbing story that spans decades and countries. I’d say the conspiracy in Delphi is the most troubling I’ve ever conjured up – even I was scared to write about it. Let’s just say it smacks a little too closely of the truth, to my ear, as I researched its plausibility. The writing’s more lyrical than KOS and Night, in the sense of the pacing, but it scares the crap out of me to read because of the content. I’m sure I’ll get a lot of flack for it, and be condemned for being anti-American or whatever, but in the end, I tend to say, hey, if it is that plausible, don’t blame me for inventing a story that rings true. Look inward.
SK: Just released? Son of a @#&%$! I like troubling conspiracies, and as for Anti-American? As long as your book doesn’t threaten my way of life, I’m good. Are you going to take a break from writing soon? It’s not in the readers’ best interest for you to stop, but I know you’ve been working hard over the past few months.
RB: I keep swearing I will, but I get bored really easily, and I have multiple story ideas knocking around my noodle at any given time. Right now I’m writing The Voynich Cipher, which is a Da Vinci Code-esque sequel to Zero Sum, and features Dr. Steven Cross in a multi-faceted treasure hunt. It’s a complete departure from my other work, which keeps it interesting to me. But very research intensive. Then after that, I want to do Revenge of the Assassin, about a rematch of the protag and villain from King. Then another prequel, this time focusing on the making of Cruz, the protag in King. And I’ve got three more concepts, two sequels to Delphi and yet another sequel to King I want to get out…so the answer is, you might see seven to eight more novels out of me next year. Although a few months ago I swore I’d only do three or four. So who the F knows? I figure that while the muse is dancing the tango, you’d be stupid to stop.
SK: If you did take a break, I assume you’d do a little pleasure reading. Who are your “go to” authors nowadays?
RB: Besides you? Note the subtle lotion job there. Hopefully that will work and you’ll continue to read my stuff. I like David Lender’s work I’m currently reading Vaccine Nation. I usually, when I have a chance to read, will go back to old favorites – Grisham, King, Forsyth, and lots of David Foster Wallace. I recently re-read The Magic Mountain, and it still holds up as vital. And I read a book by a first time author, Gae-Lynn Woods, I enjoyed a lot – very well written debut. But the sad truth is that with the schedule I keep I rarely have time to read other than at the gym, so it takes me weeks to plod through a book.
SK: Very subtle. I’m glad you’re not sitting next to me. Any parting words of wisdom?
RB: For writers, there’s no substitution for practice. I’ve clocked my ten thousand hours of writing, and gotten better because of it. If you expect to get good, expect to write a lot. They go hand in hand. Practice a lot, early and often. And demand the most out of yourself. If a little inner voice is telling you it’s crap, it probably is, and you’ll do everyone a huge favor by shelving it and writing something better. For readers, give indie authors a shot, but demand the same level of skill as the big names. Life is too short to read dross, and you shouldn’t have to. If you start groaning during a book, lose it and find something worth reading. And never trust clowns. They’re generally alcoholic pedophile cannibals – not to generalize, of course.
SK: Russell, thanks for sharing some of the magic behind the curtain. If you like thrillers, and haven’t read on of Russell’s books, I implore you to try any of his books. You won’t be disapointed.
Take a spin through Russell’s world, at his award-winning blog: russellblake.com
And check out my reviews of his books: King of Swords review, Zero Sum review, Geronimo Breach review and Fatal Exchange review.
Breaking News! Rare photo of Russell Blake unearthed! I still think this is part of his plan to stay incognito, but then again, I’m also into conspiracy theories.