Tuesday, May 22, 2018, was the runoff election day in Texas, in which two people were competing to be the Democratic candidate to oppose the current Republican incumbent, running for re-election in the general election in November.
In that season of primary elections across America, Gorilla Girl interviewed James R. Callan, whose third book in the Crystal Moore suspense series, POLITICAL DIRTY TRICK, was released earlier this month.
Callan’s tale of a trick gone wrong could apply to any candidates for office, including the 27 human beings on the primary ballot in my home state of California and the dangers those candidates might be facing. Callan’s gripping novel covers about nine months leading up to the general election in the Lone Star State.
In its well-knit plot, each scene ratchets up the tension and dances around current day political themes such as “fake news” and the release of information that alters voters perceptions and flips polling results. Gorilla Girl asked Callan how he wove these elements into his exciting novel.
GG asks: I see you’ve authored over a dozen books, both fiction and non fiction but this third in the Crystal Moore Suspense Novel series seems to be your first to focus on a political setting–a race for governor of Texas. This is an intriguing venue to me as now we’re in the middle of a hot race for governor of California; we have 27 names listed on our primary ballot all wanting to be our next guv.
Twenty seven–got to be some mayhem somewhere among them, yes? But in your POLITICAL DIRTY TRICK, we see just two candidates running in a general election for guv of Texas, with mayhem leading to murder! You do note this fiction is entirely from your imagination and that you know of no such political dirty tricks, and no election problems in Texas. But, tell us, what was it about a gubernatorial race setting that drew you to it?
Callan responds: My first thought was to write a novel in which a basically “good” person crosses a line, and when faced with the consequences, goes all out to avoid being caught. But what venue would I use?
With the frequent questions these days about fake news, I decided to use a political campaign in which some workers (certainly not the candidate) decide a little dirty trick might swing votes from the leader to their candidate.
The elaborate plan they concoct does involve something illegal (crossing a line), but they manage to justify it, claiming that in the end, no one will get hurt, except at the polls. But something goes terribly wrong, and a man is killed. And to cover that up, another is killed. And things go downhill from there.
I wanted something more local than a national election, yet big enough to draw widespread attention from the media in the book. A race for the top spot in a state seemed to fit the bill. And Crystal Moore lives in Texas, so the gubernatorial election in Texas became the venue.
Q: A key issue in politics of our time is government servants who leak information about possible criminal activity that may influence an election, by demolishing one candidate’s lead and hiking up the opposition, not all that different from what James Comey did to Hillary Clinton with his release that more emails had been discovered. Did you have this situation in mind when you sketched out your novel?
Callan: No, I did not, at least consciously. But as the book developed, it became clear the leaking of information would play an important part. By its very nature, leaking information is powerful. The effect is similar to a person pulling you aside and whispering in your ear, “This is a secret, so don’t tell anybody.” What they tell you now has more impact. And when you pass it on, you can appear connected, knowledgeable, and important. No one calls you untrustworthy. As someone said, a secret is something you tell to one person – at a time.
Q: I notice on the back cover blurb of your book, a reference to “fake news,” which is so commonplace in our media nowadays and which can sway and flip voters. For example, the line from your book noting that “. . . the information on Ron … was slanted, given as truth when it was only conjecture.” How did the prevalence of “fake news” in our culture affect its presence in the novel?
Callan: With “fake news” you get all the advantages I mentioned above for “leaking information,” without the need to verify it. And it has been taken to the extreme so that now, it doesn’t even have to be reasonable. There was a time when news had to have two sources. Some editor or news director had to know those sources even if the names were not revealed publicly. Then we went to “a highly placed source.” Then, “a reliable source.” Then, “Someone familiar with the situation.” And now, no source at all. Just make the statement and the media will take it, IF it grabs attention. Throw out a statistic, or the results of a poll. This is the result of a study, so it must be legitimate. Of course, the study or the poll might have been conducted over a group of five people.
Q: You came up with highly unusual murder weapons in the book. Where did you get the ideas for these, without giving any spoilers.
Callan: Getting weapons can often be difficult. In James Bond books, Ian Fleming always had exotic weapons and ways to kill or inflict injury. But, he was dealing with government agents and villains who had unlimited resources. Often, I have people with very limited resources. And in some cases, the person wants to kill or harm, but has no ready weapon at hand and no way to get one. In Political Dirty Trick, the villain has just stepped over the line to the dark side, if you will. She must use what she can get her hands on, preferably without leaving a trail back to her. So, I sit and think about how this can be done. How about a can of tomatoes? Doesn’t sound like a good thing to be thinking about, but that’s the life of a novelist. Maybe I should just take up writing romances – think up new ways to say “I love you.”
Q: So much of your wonderful dialog, music and food details convey a country western tone and keep readers “in Texas.” For example, I loved the way you had “Willie and Waylon … warning mamas not to let their babies grow up to be cowboys” and so many characters drinking Dr. Pepper and eating fried pies. Where do you get these authentic details?
Callan: I grew up in Texas. I’ve lived in east Texas for the last thirty years. (I do spend a lot of time in Mexico, which came in very handy when I was writing the second Crystal Moore Suspense, A Silver Medallion. It takes place in east Texas and in Mexico.) Willie is a staple in Texas. And so are Dr Peppers and fried pies. In fact, everything can be fried in Texas, whether it’s corn on the cob, or ice-cream. And please note, officially it is Dr Pepper – no period after the Dr in the name.
Q: The book offers a range of fascinating characters, especially Crystal herself, her childhood tree house, the mystery of her leaving Stanford and her romance with her boss which she works hard to keep secret. What are some of the ways you create characters in your novels?
Callan: For this book, Crystal was easy. This is the third Crystal Moore suspense book so she has developed over the series. The mystery of her leaving Stanford was explored in books 1 and 2, and will be revisited in book 4.
But how do I create a character? I have a rough idea about the character, why the book needs her, what qualities she needs to accomplish her role. That’s the start. Then, I spend a good amount of time visiting with the character. Just the character and me. Sit quietly and visit. Ask questions. Let her tell me what is going on in her life right now. I will spend time over many days, possibly weeks, getting to know the character.
The same thing is true of other major characters. After awhile, I really know these people. I know what they like and don’t like. I know what they think, not just what they say. Some people argue this is a lot of time wasted, time I could be writing. But for me, this time spent just visiting with the characters actually makes the writing go faster. I know how they will react. I know what they will think. And I know what they will say. Often when I get to a response from Eula (Crystal’s no-nonsense grandmother), I hear her. I just copy down what she tells me. The same is true for Brandi, Crystal’s best friend, and Bill Glothe, the sheriff. So the writing becomes easier and the characters real.
Q: This novel stays right on its overall plotline and I wonder how you stay focused in your writing? Do you outline the story ahead, what we call “Plotters”? Or does the story come to you as you go along, like a “Pantser,” writing by the seat of your pants, so to speak.
Callan: Ah, pantser or plotter? I’m a hybrid. I need to know how the book will end before I start. That is, I know how it could end. That gives me impetus to get writing. But as the story progresses, often the characters tell me to shift directions. And usually, the end of the story is not what I envisioned when I started. So, I’m a plotter to get started. And I’m a pantser as the story moves on.
My feeling is this. The characters live in the story. If they demand a shift, they’re probably right. If I know the characters well enough that I can hear them complaining or suggesting things, then I have created good characters. And if that’s the case, I should listen to them. The truth of the matter is, most of the time, the ending is not what I thought it would be when I started the book. And in each case, it’s better.
Q: What else would you like people to know about your books and you as a writer?
Callan: I write books I believe are fun to read. The suspense/thriller is not too brutal. I don’t believe the reader must be immersed in the gory details. I expect the reader’s imagination is good enough. I lay the ground work; the reader can imagine as much detail or reality as he or she wishes. I don’t believe I must rub their nose in the gore.
I like a little humor, even in a murder mystery. I work at making the character true to his or her background, whether that is Dallas, small town rural east Texas, or Mexico.
Most of all, I want the reader to enjoy the book. I do not try to promote a message; I do not try to educate the reader; I do not have a hidden agenda. Plain and simple, I want the reader to have an enjoyable experience. I love when the reader says, “I’m glad I read that book.”
For more on James R. Callan, see jamesrcallan.com.