Thursday, October 08, 2009

Alan Jacobson at The Poisoned Pen

Alan Jacobson is on his book tour for Crush, and the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale was one of his stops. Since he and I had exchanged emails about the Mets, and we're both fans, I went to meet this "original Mets fan."

It didn't take Alan long to capture the audience's attention with his storytelling skills. Crush is the second thriller to feature FBI profiler Karen Vail. Jacobson said he actually had another book, Hard Target, that was supposed to come out now. But, Vail was only in three chapters of that book, and the publisher wanted another Karen Vail book after The 7th Victim.

Jacobson's first two books, False Accusations, and The Hunted, are out of print. But, he could bring back Lauren Chambers from The Hunted someday. He said characters are the backbone of books. If there are engaging characters, people want to continue reading about them. Lauren could be brought back, and so could the villain from that book.

Reviews have been terrific for The Crush, but you never know. The book has received rave reviews, and Alan's starting to receive email from people who say they love it, and it's only been out eleven days. He received a note from someone in Germany who said they were in the English section of the local bookstore, and saw The 7th Victim. The person read it in two days, and is now listening to Crush. The question was, when is the next Karen Vail.

Jacobson said he has a degree in English. He was part of a forced integration program in junior high, and was bused to another school in New York. But, he learned to love English because he had a wonderful seventh grade English teacher, Louis Brill. Now, Alan's been out of middle school for a very long time, so he was surprised to receive email from Mr. Brill, who was just retiring as principal of a school. He had been so inspired by his teacher, who made English and grammar fun. He still remembers the exercise in which he wrote the sentence, "Let's go eat, grandmother," and had the kids read it. Then he erased the comma, and had them read it. A light went on. Hey, commas are important.

He had also been helped by a chiropractor when he was fourteen. He had terrible migraines in which he would go blind, and he also wore braces on his legs. Not cool at fourteen. But, he went to a chiropractor, and within three to five weeks, he wasn't wearing braces, and he's never had migraines again. So he went to school in California, and became a chiropractor. He practiced for eight years, but hurt his wrist, and had to end his career. He couldn't continue, and sold his practice.

By chance, Alan received a call from someone at the California Dept. of Justice who was doing a reference check on a person who had worked for Jacobson, who wanted to be a criminologist. By this time, he had started outlining and writing False Accusation, a novel of an orthopedic surgeon falsely accused of rape and murder. This wasn't his first attempt at a novel, but that one will never be published. Even so, he has excavated it for characters.

Jacobson answered the questions from the caller, and then said he had a couple of his own. He described a character in his book, and was told, your character isn't a criminologist. That's a criminalist, a forensic scientist. A few months later, he called his source back, saying he wanted to see a crime lab. He was told, you can't see it, because you could contaminate evidence, but you can get into a class on Blood Spatter Pattern Analysis. So, here he is in a class, taking copious notes because he was a medical legal examiner, and had a background of taking notes. But, he's the only one taking notes, since the rest of the class are people in law enforcement. At the break, two men came over and asked him what he was doing. They were FBI agents, and they then answered all of Alan's questions.

One day, the class went to shooting range, where the instructor demonstrated blood spatter pattern analysis by shooting different guns. He was teaching them to determine what kind of gun was used, and whether a shooter was left or right-handed. It was fascinating. The torsos were filled with red liquid to simulate blood, and the class measured after the instructor shot, using seven different guns. One of the FBI agents, Mark Safarik, made arrangements so Alan could shoot the guns, and get a feel for them, and learn the FBI stance. We all laughed when Alan said he didn't know what a good shot he'd be, and he keeps that torso in his den, not that he's trying to send a message to anyone.

Alan has kept in contact with Mark Safarik, who was later promoted to profiler, and his family moved to Virginia. Mark loved to talk profiling, and sent Alan articles. He gave him a tour of the FBI Academy and the profiling unit. The relationship built over time and many trips by Jacobson. Once, staying at Safarik's house, they watched the movie, Manhunter, made from the movie Red Dragon. That's the book and movie that introduced Hannibal Lector. Alan said it was interesting to watch with a profiler, who would comment, pause the movie, and say they got lots of information right, or this part is wrong. He said it was like class all over again.

When asked if he watches any of the shows involving profilers, Jacobson said he watches Criminal Minds. He said the FBI profilers don't have private jets or a cool office, but the information is correct. He said he found the information about profilers so interesting that he knew he'd write a book about one. He had Karen Vail, but didn't write the story until the character came out, and he had a vehicle for her. He couldn't write that novel, although he wanted to write a serial killer story, because his goal was to make it the ultimate serial killer novel, and he wasn't ready yet.

Early on, Mark was reluctant to show him a profile, and it was the one thing he didn't send over. But, he was at Quantico one day, in Mark's office, and a redheaded, tightly wound, sarcastic woman barged in, swearing. Mary Ellen was the second female profiler at the FBI, and Alan looked at her, and thought, there's Karen Vail. He told her, I hope this doesn't offend you, but you are my character. There's now a four-part interview with Mark on the video gallery on Alan's website, discussing his years as a profiler.

Jacobson sent his first Karen Vail novel, The 7th Victim, to his agent while he was still writing The Hunted. He sent the first seventy-five pages, and his agent said, we have a problem. You wrote it in first person, and your other two books are in third person. You can't do that early in your career, because it will jolt readers. Alan was frustrated, so he took find and replace, and replaced every "I" with "she". And, it worked! He said Karen view is third person, with a first person view. It enables him to get insider her head. Sometimes he uses first person for her thoughts. He created a new voice for himself, that puts Karen close to the reader.

Years later, he figured out why he can write Karen Vail so easily. He's from New York, where sarcasm is part of the lexicon. When he moved to California, a friend, another student from New York, told him sarcasm doesn't go over here. So, he suppressed his New York sarcasm, but it's a part of him, and it comes out in her.

The 7th Victim was a labor of love. It took Jacobson many years to write and research it. But, he loves it, and its powerful ending.

Jacobson thought Hard Target, a book with a male character with baggage, would be his next book. But, the publisher wanted another Karen Vail after The
7th Victim
. In July 2008, he was knee deep in promotion for The 7th Victim. At the beginning of August, they told him they wanted another one by January 23. He was scheduled for a two month tour at the end of September. He would have to finish the novel by December 31. He told them he never wrote one that quickly, and he didn't want his name on garbage. They said they didn't want to publish garbage either. So, he said he'd give it a shot, and if it didn't work, they could go with Hard Target, and the publisher agreed.

Alan said he never intended Karen Vail to be a series character. He doesn't want to be formulaic, and he wants to enjoy and like what he does. So, he talked to Lee Child, and asked how do you write a series character. Child said, Rule #1 is don't put everything in the first book. So, Jacobson said, he'd already struck out there. But, when he asked Michael Connelly the same question, Connelly said, put everything you want in the the book, and you'll figure it out, which was closer to Jacobson's idea. Alan said Child's Jack Reacher isn't like Karen Vail because he's a drifter. But, Connelly's character is more like the normal person Jacobson was creating.

In Crush, Jacobson removes Karen Vail from her comfort zone. He takes her to Napa Valley, a place she knows nothing about, and exposes her to the wine industry. She needed a break from her job, so she goes to Napa Valley for wine-tasting, restaurants, and romance. But, it's a thriller, and there's a serial killer there. Alan wanted Karen to grow a little, but not so much that she isn't the character readers knew. She's aware of her changes.

In The 7th Victim, Jacobson tried to do something that hadn't been done. He tried to show the evolution of a killer from childhood, and it all comes together. He shows the killer's journal entries. In Crush, he needed a killer that fits Napa Valley. He realized what would work, and where he wanted to take Karen. He called Mark and Mary Ellen (the real life Karen Vail), and consulted with them on a scenario. They said it's unusual; there's no research about it, but here's our experience. Mary Ellen brings insight, and things to the table that a male wouldn't be able to.

When asked, Jacobson said most of the vineyards in Crush are real. There's a listing of real vineyards in the book. In 1999, Jacobson asked Michale Connelly, "When you set a scene in a bar or restaurant, is it real?" He answered, yes, unless I killed someone there. Alan said there are a lot of real restaurants and wineries in Crush.

He said he loves going behind the scenes, and doing research. For one plot, he needed to get into a fertility clinic, so he said he was Dr. Jacobson (which he is). He just didn't say he wasn't a fertility specialist. He couldn't take notes while he was there, but he scribbled them down as fast as he could when he got out.

The CEO of Opus One Wineries gave him a tour, and something clicked. He ran the wine-related chapters past him, and reviewed them for Crush.

Remembering his deadline for Crush, he was asked if he made it. He said he wrote the first sixty pages quickly. The promotion stopped for The 7th Victim, and he sent off the first part. He kept going. He had 180 pages by the time of the September tour, and sent that to his editor. He wrote fifteen hours a day, every day, but he was in a rhythm. He said he outlines, and being forced to write like that is a great way to write a novel. He was focused and into the character and story. Then the book tour hit. He was writing in airports, planes, and cars.

He does fully outline his books, blow-by-blow for the flow of the story. It's flexible as to additions and changes, but the ending is the same. He's structured that way. With Crush, Jacobson was writing cleaner copy. It didn't need as much line editing. It was a cleaner manuscript.

At 280 pages, Jacobson sent the manuscript to Mark, while on his Arizona tour for The 7th Victim. He was in the car, while being driven from Tucson and Phoenix, and he spent it on conference call with Mark, working on his laptop, and changing Crush while he talked to him. It was done by the time he got to Phoenix. He sent it to his editor on December 31. By January 5, the editor had notes for him. Alan hadn't yet read his own book. He did some needed tweaks to it. And, they handed it in on January 26 because January 23 was a Friday, and they knew the publisher wouldn't do anything with it on Friday.

If you read Alan's blog, he takes you through the production process, with the steps along the way. In April, he handed in the final changes. But, as he was finalizing the galleys, he received email from a reporter friend in San Francisco who said there was going to be a news conference, and someone might be revealed as the Zodiac killer. There he was with galleys, and the Zodiac killer was mentioned, so he wanted to change the galleys. The reporter was in San Francisco, talking to the detectives, and sending Alan the information. A woman said her father was the killer, and she had glasses from a victim to prove it. Here was a case, open all those years, and at the last minute, there might be a solution. But, it was going to take a while for the DNA tests, so Jacobson just changed his reference in the book.

There is another Karen Vail scheduled. The sequel to Crush is Velocity. He outlined part of it while working on Crush because there is some carryover.

Alan said he had started writing Velocity earlier, so he wouldn't have a hurried deadline. He was still writing fifteen hours a day, but not seven days a week. He hit a brick wall when it came time for Crush promotion, though. He was 3/4 finished with Velocity, but had to fly places for research. Velocity will be the third Karen Vail thriller, and there will be more.

Jacobson does want Hard Target to be published, though. The movie rights have been sold, and it already has a screenwriter and director. The 7th Victim has been sold, and it has a screenwriter. Alan said he needs Hard Target to come out because he has more material with that character.

When asked, he said he doesn't have control of the movie. With Hard Target, he was kept in the loop by the producers. There's an A-list producer, the one who produced the Tom Cruise movie, Valkyrie. He said he wants the movie to be true to the book, but understands they can't make all of a 400 page book into a movie. A good screenwriter can combine characters, though.

It was mentioned that if you go to Alan's webpage,, and subscribe to his newsletter, you can get a free copy of Personal Safety Brochure that he and Mark wrote together.

Jacobson was asked about the need for accuracy when it comes to guns, and other facts, when he is writing fiction. He answered that readers who are in law enforcement, doctors, nurses, people who care about facts, are reading the books. He does research. He feels he'll lose readership if he doesn't have the facts right. It's respect for your reader.

Alan said he was very lucky to have found friends in the FBI. They give him an enormous amount of time. And, they're become friends.

The last comments were a perfect ending. What an arc from chiropracter to writer. He said yes, people always said, what are you going to do with an English degree, but he knew he was going to be a chiropracter. Then, he had to deal with the loss of his profession. His father said, "It might be a good thing."

Alan Jacobson's website is

Crush by Alan Jacobson. Vanguard Press, ©2009. ISBN 9781593155483 (hardcover), 352p.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Great picture! And a wonderful post. "Crush" sounds really interesting and I'm impressed by the amount of research that goes into Alan's books. Befriending FBI agents would be incredibly useful!

I like the idea of his previous book, too--following a killer from his childhood and getting insight from his journal. Interesting stuff.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Lesa said...

I'm very impressed by the amount of research that goes into Alan's boks as well, Elizabeth. I think he knows how fortunate he was to be in a class with the right FBI agent.

Kay said...

Thanks for adding another author to my list, Lesa! I'll enjoy reading these books I'm sure. Very interesting life he's led.

queeniehoffman said...


What a wonderful and informative post! I thoroughly enjoyed it -- I''ll be adding Alan's book to my TBR list.

Thanks so much,
Beth Hoffman

Lesa said...

Oh, you're welcome, Kay! Anything to add to your TBR pile. (grin)

Lesa said...

You're welcome, Beth. I'd read The 7th Victim first so you can meet Karen Vail.

queeniehoffman said...

Great. I'll do that, Lesa.

Thanks - Beth

Lesa said...

You're welcome, Beth. Enjoy!