Thriller writer Jon Land started in the profession young. He was twenty-three when his first novel, The Doomsday Spiral, was published. Since then he has penned ten more stand-alone titles, and another thirty or so books in series such as the “Ben Kamal” books, featuring that Palestinian-American detective, and the “Blaine McCracken” series, about the exploits of a former government agent who has become an international troubleshooter.
With the 2009 novel, Strong Enough to Die, Land introduces fifth-generation Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong, “a tough original heroine,” according to Publishers Weekly. When we meet her, Caitlin has had a career change after being wounded in a shootout and after hearing her husband has been killed in Iraq. Now a psychological therapist, she discovers her husband is not so dead after all and further developments reveal a terrifying plot that reaches into every home and threatens the very core of the country, making Caitlin don her Ranger uniform once again. “The revelations are constant, the characters compelling and the action fast and furious,” noted Publishers Weekly. A Booklist reviewer agreed, terming this series opener “incredibly energetic and readable.” The second series installment, Strong Justice, also won critical acclaim, with Publishers Weekly calling it “intense [and] skillfully plotted.”
Jon, it is great to have you with us at Scene of the Crime. I’ve been a fan for years, especially of the Kamal books. Maybe today, however, we can focus on the Caitlin Strong books. First, could you described your connection to the setting for those books?
To be totally honest, I don’t actually have a direct connection to Texas. My desire to write the Caitlin Strong novels was based on my long-time fascination with the Texas Rangers. That said, Texas offers so many wonderful and varying settings, from the scrub brush of the deserts and prairies to the cosmopolitan nature of the cities to the unique beauty of San Antonio itself. I have made trips down there since starting to write Caitlin but I’ve also developed a nice stable of friends who are great at answering far more questions than I could have answer on my own.
What things about Texas make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Again, it’s hard for me to separate Texas from the Texas Rangers. This is especially germane because Rangers are responsible for such wide swaths of territory that in writing about them you don’t suffer the same limitations you might ordinarily encounter in writing about typical cops or investigators. There’s an old saying that a Ranger’s jurisdiction is as far as his (or in my case “her”) horse can ride. That’s a car today but the principle’s the same. There’s also a lot in Texas that remains unchanged, almost primitive. And that allows for tremendous contrast in the places where Caitlin Strong is off pursuing bad guys and fighting her latest battles.
Did you consciously set out to use Texas as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
That’s a great question and, yes, it’s exactly what I was trying to do. Kind of become for Texas what James Lee Burke is for southern Louisiana and the Bayou. The key when weaving a setting into the texture of the story so completely, is that it needs to be organic, not forced. For example, where would Caitlin buy boots for the oldest son of Cort Wesley Masters on his birthday (Allen’s Boots in Austin)? Where might Caitlin meet her captain, D.W. Tepper, for breakfast (a diner in Marble Falls that features afternoon happy hour for their famous homemade pies)?
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
Wow, I’ve never really thought of it that way myself! I think setting, or location, needs to be organic to the story. See, for me everything is about story and I don’t really pay overt attention to where I’m going to place certain scenes. Setting for me is a function of plot and characters. The story dictates where my characters need to go and thus where I’m going to set scenes. That said, my college mentor, the great Shakespeare scholar Elmer Blistein, used to read my early books and then tell me all the places I’d been and all the places I hadn’t been. He told me you can get the sights and sounds right from research but you can’t get the smells. And ever since then I’ve been cognizant of incorporating all senses into my descriptions. For instance, the scent of the air before a Texas thunderstorm or smell of mesquite as Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong is driving through the desert. But you can’t possibly see or visit everything you need in a book, which is why Google is the greatest invention ever for writers like me. If I want to know about shade trees in West Texas I Google that and inevitably find what I’m looking for.
How does Caitlin interact with her surroundings? Is she a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect Caitlin?
Caitlin Strong is a native Texan and as a Texas Ranger she is intimately familiar with her surroundings. The state of Texas is the perfect setting for her because she’s a big, complex, ever-evolving, conflicted, and sometimes dark hero. I think almost all those adjectives describe Texas itself in the same way that Cormac McCarthy used similar settings to cover moral ambiguity and the hopelessness of human nature in No Country for Old Men. In that book, and equally wondrous film, the dream image of Ed Tom Bell’s father riding out ahead of him is unique to Texas because how many places are there in the country left unspoiled and unchanged, where there are still open spaces and badlands left to ride. So in that respect Texas becomes a perfectly apt metaphor.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
I’ve always been very fortunate in getting tremendously positive feedback about my sense of place. Before Caitlin Strong, I wrote a series of books set mostly in the Middle East and was amazed by the compliments I got about descriptions of places I’d actually never been in. Like the great cartoonist Milton Caniff, I consider myself an armchair Marco Polo. Credibility of setting is just as important as credibility of plot and character.
Oh boy, you know me too well! Way back, in the pre-Google days, I did a book called Labyrinth, the first of ten books I did for Random House, where I had a five-page chase scene in which it took the hero twenty minutes to go from one location to another that turned out to be around the corner! Fortunately, it was caught in time for me to fix it. The bottom line is nobody gets everything right. The goal is to do just about everything right enough so you don’t lose credibility with the reader. One mistake I made that didn’t get caught in time was having a character wielding a 20mm Vulcan mini-gun. Cool scene, sure. Except a 20mm Vulcan weights 2,000 pounds and is the size of a Volkswagen! Oh well . . .
Do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
The short answer is no, not one book in particular. I think I’ve gotten better and better at setting as my books have progressed with my Caitlin Strong books being the best by far. The key for me is not to provide description and then a place a character within it. Instead, I describe everything from the viewpoint of a character so the setting unfolds gradually and organically through the scene. Not a paragraph early on and that’s it. I call that the Clancy-Cussler effect and find it lazy and uninspiring. Here’s an example from my upcoming book featuring Caitlin Strong called Strong at the Break and what I’d you to watch for is how I use a sense of place to increase the tension and suspense:
“’Not long,’ he managed, returning his gaze to what locals referred to simply as the ‘Tackle and Gun,’ a one-story bunker of a building with a flat roof plagued by broken downspouts that left water stains streaked in blotches down its beige exterior. The gravel parking lot offered only a single shady area courtesy of a grove of Bigtooth Maple trees standing alone against the otherwise sparse land. But the early afternoon sun had rose high enough to overwhelm them, the truck fast becoming a sauna.
“’That’s what you said, like, an hour ago,’ Caitlin told him, making no effort to hide her displeasure as she continued to sit with her shoulders slumped.
“’But I mean it this time.’
“Caitlin sat up all the way, into the hot swatch of sunlight streaming in through the windshield. The old truck’s interior always smelled rusty and sour when it heated up, though she wasn’t sure why. ‘This is some kind of stakeout, ain’t it?’”
“’Isn’t it,’ Jim corrected.
“’Grandpa always said ain’t.’
“’Grandpa never had the benefit of your education, Caitlin.’
“Her father turned toward her and Caitlin noticed the light sheen of perspiration coating his cheeks, a bit thicker along his forehead. The sun could’ve been to blame, she supposed, except his seat was on the truck’s still shady side.
“’I thought we were going fishing,’ Caitlin said.
“’Not sitting here in this parking lot.’”
Well, I mentioned James Lee Burke before and he’s the absolute master. But have you read Lee Child’s masterful Jack Reacher series or anything by the legendary David Morrell? Morrell once staged one of the best fight scenes ever written inside a room that’s pitch black—the complete absence of setting in which characters are denied sight and must rely on touch and sound instead. It’s masterful and exceptionally ambitious. But it’s also organic to the story. Same thing with Lee Child. His descriptions of place, inevitably from Reacher’s point of view, are pitch-perfect, so good you’re actually tempted to reread them. There are plenty of other authors who describe settings in more detail but the descriptions aren’t organic and are often coming from their eyes instead of their characters’ eyes.
I mentioned Caitlin’s return in Strong at the Break in June ’11 and I honestly feel it’s the best entry in the series yet. And I’ve started to plot out the fourth entry in the series, Blood Strong. No clear idea on where that one’s going yet but I know it’ll be the best one yet by the time I’m finished!
Jon, thanks for a great interview and some very insightful tips on the use of scene in fiction.
For more information on Jon Land, visit his homepage.