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Carol Fitzgerald, Joe Hartlaub and Wiley Saichek interviewed John Ramsey Miller about his impressive feat of releasing three books --- INSIDE OUT, UPSIDE DOWN and SIDE BY SIDE --- in the span of just four months. Miller also shares tales of his less-than-smooth journey to having his work published, explains the personal attachments he has to his novels' settings, and discusses future possibilities for main protagonist Winter Massey and company.
Bookreporter.com: You published your first novel, THE LAST FAMILY, in 1996 to popular and critical acclaim. Almost nine years passed before your second book INSIDE OUT was published this year, and two more books --- the just-published UPSIDE DOWN and the forthcoming SIDE BY SIDE --- are due out before year's end. What have you been doing in the interim period between THE LAST FAMILY and INSIDE OUT?
John Ramsey Miller: It doesn't seem that long. How much space do I have? After THE LAST FAMILY was published (my fourth fiction effort in three years, which garnered a combined 163 rejection letters), I tried to write a fast sequel, but I couldn't seem to make the characters come to life or make the story work to anyone's satisfaction --- including my own. After several runs at a couple of drafts, it was obvious that I needed to find a story that I wanted to tell that worked as well as THE LAST FAMILY. One day I was interviewing a US marshal named David Crews (I wanted to see the inside of a federal law enforcement office), and after the tour of the federal building we were sitting on his deck at his house and he started telling me stories about his career. After a couple of hours listening, I started seeing a character who was not just good at what he did, but obviously would have been good at whatever he tried. David was athletic, highly educated, intelligent, street smart, had a great sense of humor, was a dedicated husband, and he was about to become a father. Winter Massey grew out of that meeting, and I worked on him for several months.
It so happened that Kate Miciak at Bantam Dell (who hadn't seen the book) liked it and told my agent that she would take it on if I would write an outline for a second book to go with it. I did that and she liked what she saw and told me she wanted to work with me to make it a great book. We began what has proved to be a great working relationship and a friendship.
That was in 2001; for the next two years I worked on my craft and re-wrote what was by then "Blindside" several times, with Kate and my agent offering guidance and gentle criticism. I was learning the discipline to think things through before I committed anything to paper, the crucial element I was lacking. After another suspense title with the name "Blindside" was slated to come out, we changed the title to INSIDE OUT. I'm glad we did.
BRC: What was your impetus to publish three novels in one year, after an extended layoff?
JRM: After INSIDE OUT was finally accepted for publication in 2003, I went to work on UPSIDE DOWN and Kate slotted INSIDE OUT for publication. INSIDE OUT went on and off the schedule several times due to a lot of factors, mostly having to do with finding the right slot for the book. In 2004 advance reading copies finally went out for a November 2004 release; the marketing department received a lot more orders than anyone expected, and they needed more time to plan the release, as well as design a cover that would work with the series. After UPSIDE DOWN was accepted, Bantam decided it should be slotted to come out in close proximity, so that's the story in a nutshell.
I only hope the wait was worth it for the readers who enjoyed THE LAST FAMILY. After Kate passed SIDE BY SIDE up (to Irvyn Appelbaum and Nita Taublib) they decided to add that book to the line-up because they saw it as a continuation of Winter Massey's growth as a main character. That was a decision that wasn't an easy one because doing it that way had its own set of dangers. I agreed it was a solid call, and I knew they were 100% behind promoting the books because they believed in them. The novels aren't so much a trilogy as an evolution or chronicle of Winter's life over a three-year period. I especially liked the fact that the books were coming out in mass-market paperback originals in Super Release, which insured they would be on shelves everywhere overnight, and that all three are available for what a hardcover would cost. Immediacy meets economy seemed to all to be a good thing for everybody.
BRC: We've read that you spent several years developing Winter Massey. Can you share with us how you approached bringing this character to life? Did you focus solely on building the character or did you also have the stories in mind that eventually became INSIDE OUT and UPSIDE DOWN?
JRM: I developed Winter Massey over the course of several months and had a good handle on him before I wrote the first draft of INSIDE OUT. Once I knew him and how he would act and react to situations, all I had to do was figure out what he would do when certain things happened around him and to him. I wrote the most thorough outline for SIDE BY SIDE over the course of months (the outline was half as long as the manuscript) and the first draft was accepted "as written" for publication. I can't tell you how great that felt. I celebrated by starting on TOO FAR GONE, which I am working on now.
BRC: There are significant changes that occur in Massey's life between these two books. Do you plan to keep Massey's life in flux as the series unfolds?
JRM: Winter's life, because of the way he sees things and the way the world comes at him, stays in flux. His family, which he is devoted to, anchors him so he can do what he has to do to make the world a better and safer place for them and people like them. Massey is a complex character who understands that justice and what is right are sometimes different, and that they don't always work hand in hand. Winter loves and respects the law, but when the law gets between what's right or wrong, he bends the law to the breaking point. Winter loves peace, but he understands that there is a cost to be paid to maintain peace, and he pays it.
BRC: INSIDE OUT and UPSIDE DOWN both featured extremely interesting, extremely dangerous assassins. Do you plan to make such characters mainstays in your Massey novels?
JRM: Opposites attract. Massey, through no design of his own, can play on a level where monsters roam freely. Unfortunately for him, he is very often the equal and opposite force for good in that world. In INSIDE OUT he is a US marshal. In UPSIDE DOWN he is in the process of retiring from the service to seek a safer occupation so he will live to raise his son and devote himself to his family, which (without giving anything away) is growing. In SIDE BY SIDE he has left the service and is without official standing in law enforcement, which in disarming him of official color and that support adds to the degree of danger and difficulty he faces. Massey never looks for trouble, but he never hides from it, preferring to face it head on.
BRC: Will we see more of Faith Ann Porter?
JRM: After her performance in UPSIDE DOWN how could I dare not show more of her? I fell in love with her character, and I think we underestimate the depth of character a person that young can have, or how deep within themselves they can reach to accomplish a goal they believe in. Faith Ann Porter will keep playing a large and important role in the series. How could it be any other way?
BRC: Are you planning to extend the Massey series indefinitely, or is it a trilogy?
JRM: I've never intended to write only about Winter Massey. I plan to keep writing about Winter Massey because he's so much fun to write. Every book of his gives me characters who deserve books of their own. In SIDE BY SIDE I introduce a character who is the protagonist in the book that I'm writing now. Winter isn't in the new book except in a verbal cameo, but his shadow is very long. I will probably keep running characters from the Massey books through the others I write, even if it's only in cameos. So while I may not write about Winter, some of the characters he comes in contact with will be there --- familiar to my readers --- good guys and "surviving" villains alike. Presently I am contracted to write a sequel to THE LAST FAMILY called ONE LAST RUN, in which I am returning to the lives of Paul, Laura, Erin and Reb Masterson five years after Martin Fletcher's attempt to kill that family were thwarted. A force of evil like Martin Fletcher isn't easy to defeat. I doubt I will do that without allowing the incursion of other characters from the Massey books. I know and am very fond of them all, after all.
BRC: Talk to us about the titles of the books. Did you have the titles before you started, or did they evolve as you wrote?
JRM: The title INSIDE OUT evolved out of necessity. My agent Anne Hawkins, my editor Kate Burke Miciak, and I discussed a list of titles I compiled (my years in advertising with Nathan Hoffman, who is married to author Erica Spindler, helps) and we all liked INSIDE OUT. The Massey titles work as a trio, and I may or may not continue with others along the same vein. It's a limited group of options, but I know of several that would work. But for me a title has to do more than follow a fashion. A title has to work with what's inside the book, not just be similar and snappy. The next Massey book is at the moment entitled COLD WIND, but I am considering others --- including THROUGH AND THROUGH, which I could use if it feels right for the story.
BRC: While INSIDE OUT took place at a number of locales, including in and around New Orleans, UPSIDE DOWN occurred primarily in New Orleans. Will future novels also be set in New Orleans, or will any be set in Massey's home base of Charlotte, North Carolina?
JRM: I lived in New Orleans for almost 10 years and I love the city and the area. I still go to New Orleans several times a year to do research and visit friends and favorite restaurants. I went to south Louisiana to fish for Speckled Trout and Redfish with friends twice last year without stopping in New Orleans. As a suspense writer, New Orleans has everything and more. In fact New Orleans is a character as much as a location. I live in North Carolina, and Charlotte is a great city and a rich setting to write a story around. SIDE BY SIDE takes place in and around Charlotte, Concord, and in rural South Carolina.
I write about Concord in all three of these Massey books. It's been my hometown for the past ten years and I know it intimately. It's a rich place in every way --- visually and it's filled with novel characters --- as in characters that beg to be fit into a novel. Winter could relax here like I do.
BRC: Joe's favorite passages in UPSIDE DOWN are the ones describing the pursuit through Canal Place in New Orleans. He said he'll never walk past it again without thinking of UPSIDE DOWN. He was particularly impressed that you eschewed more likely, more familiar locales, such as the French Quarter or the River Walk, and injected an element of seat-of-the-pants excitement into what is otherwise a fairly non-descript shopping area. Why did you concentrate on Canal Place as a focal point for UPSIDE DOWN?
JRM: It's hard to write about New Orleans without writing about the French Quarter because, to most people, it is the heart of the city. It's filled with striking architecture, characters of all kinds, and anything goes --- and often anything goes unnoticed. If you are a resident of the city, you don't have to go into the Quarter unless there's a specific reason for the inconvenience. Truthfully there are equal-value shopping, drinking and eating opportunities without the inconvenience and congestion of the French Quarter. I think being chased through a place where things are more normal, even mundane, is more frightening than the Quarter or one of the graveyards where New Orleans action tends to be set. You can imagine that the people in Canal Place are so absorbed in shopping that they don't notice a child in jeopardy fleeing past them. Any place can be a scary location. I remember standing in front of the Aquarium of the Americas near Canal Place and starting to walk the setting while imagining Faith Ann's panicked flight from killers, knowing she couldn't trust anybody to help her escape her pursuers without, in effect, helping her to death.
BRC: What can we expect in SIDE BY SIDE?
JRM: Besides the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat? More humor for sure, but dark humor. A Winter Massey who's become more human, with a lot more to lose than before, and he's facing a betrayal that is more painful than anything he ever imagined was possible. Let's see… there are twists and turns, scary bad people and swept-up innocents who are unprepared to deal with what happens to them. Again, Winter Massey is up against seemingly impossible odds, and there's no shortage of people bent on doing him in who have the power to do so. SIDE BY SIDE was a thrill to write, and hopefully it will deliver a new level of excitement to the reader. I hope readers will be emotionally involved with the characters, get their money's worth, and that the book will leave them wanting more. I have been getting a lot of emails from readers who want to tell me how much they love Winter Massey and most want to know more about his future. I can only say it's bright and he's young and healthy.
BRC: Your website (johnramseymiller.com) mentions that you wrote five books from 1998 to 2004, and that three of these works were the Winter Massey thrillers. Can readers look forward to reading the remaining two books as well? Are these manuscripts thrillers?
JRM: Maybe and maybe not. Unfortunately not everything you write is worthy of readers. I have a stack of work that may or may not have parts recycled, but not much in them should or will be dragged out. I hope I've grown as a writer, and I don't want to look back on what was hardly more than practice. My first three novels before THE LAST FAMILY are best left in a box in the basement. Trust me.
BRC: Who are your favorite authors? And what authors have influenced your work to date?
JRM: Man, that's a big question. My life has always been filled with books, and I listen to audio books when I travel. As far as influences, that's hard to say because there have been so many. I grew up on Walker Percy, Truman Capote, William Styron, John Cheever, Robert Penn-Warren, William Faulkner, John le CarrÈ, Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, Phillip Roth, Eudora Welty, Ellen Gilchrist, Ellen Douglas, Harry Crews, Shelby Foote, and Larry McMurtry. I enjoy suspense authors who are writing at the top of their form and are (above all else) talented storytellers. Let's see… Jeffery Deaver, James Lee Burke, David Baldacci, Cormac McCarthy, Erica Spindler, John Sandford, Lee Child, Dennis Lehane, Tess Gerritsen, Robert Crais, Michael Palmer, Martin Cruz-Smith, Kent Haruf, Patricia Cornwell, William Kowalski, Greg Iles, John Grisham, David Gutterson, Kathy Reichs, Nevada Barr, and lots of others I can't name off the top of my head. John Gilstrap's NATHAN'S RUN is one of my all-time favorites and best friends and I can't wait for his new series.