When and why did you begin writing?
After high school, several friends attended colleges far away. I began typing six to twelve-page notes, trying to amuse them with letters like I’d want to get myself. It was a lot of fun, a feeling I try to put into my writing.
What have you written so far?
Three non-fiction books, four magazine articles, five novels, 17 stage plays, 50 short stories, 100+ poems, one song.
Do you work to an outline or plot sketch, or do you prefer to let a general idea guide your writing?
It varies. Longer works require an outline and an explicit theme. Short plays can be sort of strung together from bits and pieces. Screenplays definitely need at least one form of structural guide, usually a step outline, plus 3 x 5 cards, a timeline, a detailed synopsis, or a storyboard. Writing the last scene first is often helpful. Knowing my characters is mandatory for any project. I often interview my characters in writing.
Can you share with readers a little bit about your latest book?
In the Mouth of the Lion opens in June of 1942. Hitler’s blitzkrieg war has stalled against Russian resolve, and his behavior has become increasingly erratic, making the German High Command (the OKW) suspect he’s insane. They contact Carl Jung, a leading Swiss psychiatrist, and ask him to come to Nazi-occupied Austria to evaluate Der Fuehrer. The OKW doesn’t know that Jung’s American friend, Mary Bancroft, works as an Intelligence Analyst for Allen Dulles at the Bern OSS station. Dulles asks Jung to accept the OKW’s offer and bring back Hitler’s deepest, darkest secrets to win the war for the Allies.
What made you decide to sit down and actually start writing this book?
I had some extra time one day and spent it thinking up 26 what-if ideas for short plays. (The list is now up to 85 plots.) One was: “What if a psychiatrist discovers his patient is a murderer and is carrying a gun?” A few weeks later, I developed that scenario as a one-act play, using Carl Jung as my psychiatrist and Hitler as the patient.
The murder scene and the “summation” relied on flashbacks, requiring either excess set changes or multimedia, so I chose to adapt it from the stage to film. The film then had a Russian doll plot–a murder mystery, within the story of why the psychiatrist was there, all wrapped inside WWII. This was too complex for a film, so I turned the 20,000-word screenplay into a 60,000-word novel. It was a lot harder than I expected.
What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
Solving a real-life locked-room murder that happened 85 years ago this September. I stumbled onto a vital clue on the Internet one night about 1 a.m., then was too excited to get to sleep until 3 a.m. (I believe the victim’s death is still listed as a suicide in Munich Police records.) Writing this story involved the synthesis of puzzle-solving, research, psychology, logical analysis, writing, and imagination.
If you couldn’t be an author, what would your ideal career be?
I love puzzles, so I’d be a psychiatrist, exploring the greatest puzzle of all.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Write every day. Take courses. Join workshops. Learn that criticism is about the writing, not about you. Stretch yourself; write harder things. Do research. Read current literature of all kinds. Label your research notes and sources religiously.
What is one great lesson you have learned as a writer?
Leave your hero in trouble at the end of a chapter. There is always a way to write your hero out of any situation. Never have the villain stumble and drop his gun. (People who stumble and fall automatically grip whatever they’re holding tighter. They never drop their guns.)
How can you discover more about J’s work?