Iâve always thought that the most fascinating job would be working for the
F.B.I. Think about it. You would be able to visit exotic places under the guise
of being just a normal Joe (or Josephine). And, of course the best part would
be packing heat under your exquisite designer gown just like Sandra Bullock
does in the movies. Imagine my surprise when moving to Maryland I happened to
meet someone who has done just that! Sorry, I canât divulge her identity or
else sheâd have to kill me!
So naturally, when the chance to read about my "favorite job" came across my
desk, I was tickled pink. I am so pleased to be bringing to you this monthâs
sparkling gem, Allison Brennan. Best known for her New York Times
Bestselling romantic suspense novels, Allison incorporates her myriad of
professional experience into what I would call a page-turning jewel. Expertly
written based upon authentic research coupled with passion and drama, Allison
has conjured up one of the best action-packed novels on the market today...PLAYING DEAD. From start
to finish, this book will keep you on the edge of your seat.
As part of this interview, Ballantine Books has graciously donated
five copies of PLAYING
DEAD for you, my readers, to win. So, donât forget to look for the trivia
question at the end. Go ahead and grab something warm to drink and get to know
the sensational Allison Brennan.
Jen: Please tell us a little bit about your educational and
professional background that helped pave the way for your career as a writer.
Allison: You start with the hard questions! To be honest, I donât
think either my education or former career had much to do with the actual
storytelling. Iâve always been an avid reader, and Iâve always written stories.
If anyone had anything to do with my love of reading, that would be my mom.
However, Iâd say that the variety of jobs I had before working in the
Legislature, and then working in a business that deals with very complex and
sometimes difficult people helped give me a depth of understanding human
beings, human nature, and human interaction. I think that most writers are
people watchers and it gives us insights that show up in our writingâwhether we
intend for them to or not!
Jen: What was the driving force that led to your decision to leave
behind a thirteen-year career in the California State Legislature to pursue
your dream of becoming an author? What has been the most rewarding part of this
journey to date?
Allison: A signed contract? Seriously, I wrote five books while
working full-time and raising five kids. I didnât quit until I had my first
signed contract in handâthen I took a huge leap of faith that I would be able
to sustain a writing career to make up for the lost income. Thatâs the
practical decision. The primary reason was because I have always wanted
to be a writerâsince I was barely old enough to write my name. But I doubted
myself for years and never took my writing seriously. I played around. It was a
hobby, something I did for fun, and nothing I tried to get published. The
decision to get serious was after my third child was born. A lot of
things happened that year. I turned 30. I had become disillusioned in my job. I
wanted to stay home with the new baby, but we couldnât afford to lose my
salary. I looked at where I was and what I wanted to do and realized that I
hadnât truly pursued my writing dream. I started reading some of the beginnings
of stories and finally told myself I would finish something and start
submitting. Five books and two years later, I sold.
Jen: With your extensive political science background, one might
assume that your forte would be political thrillers, yet you write romantic
suspense. What makes this particular genre so appealing to you? Are you a true
romantic at heart?
Allison: I love romantic suspense because itâs the best of both
worldsâ scary, page-turning suspense coupled with the hope that two deserving
people will find each other, overcome evil, and live happily ever after. In the
real world, justice and love donât always win: in my fictional world, they do.
To be honest, Iâm not really that romantic, much to my husbandâs chagrin. I
think that shows in my writingâmy characters donât give presents or say sweet
nothings, but they are there for their partner when it counts. To me,
trustworthiness, honor and dependability are required for a life-long marriage
to work. All the other things are icing.
Jen: I often equate a career in publishing to that of a high-wire
balancing act. Trying to find your equilibrium while incorporating each
necessary aspect of the process can be quite a feat. What has been the most
difficult component in relation to the overall process? How do you manage to
write, edit, and promote your work with five children and a husband under the
Allison: Crisis control. Thatâs my life.
I can juggle family and writing fairly well. Itâs a matter of keeping my
writing time (while the kids are at school) sacred and making sure the
afternoons and evenings I focus on the family. When Iâm on deadline, I also
write at nightâusually when the kids go to bed, but sometimes I have to leave
the bedtime duties to my oldest daughter or husband (I pay my daughter) and go
The most difficult thing is when something else that must be dealt with comes
up. A sick child is not a problem, because I know that itâs a day or two and
Iâll be back to my schedule. Itâs when something urgent and time-consuming
intrudes. Most recently it was buying a new house. With the poor housing
market, the mortgage failures, and moving a house of seven people . . . it was
about four months that really impinged on my writing time and stressed me out.
Iâm not moving again. At least for 14 years when my youngest graduates from
high school . . .
Jen: Research on any level brings authenticity to the plot while
supporting a writerâs vision to convey her central theme. Approximately how
much research was required for your latest release, PLAYING DEAD? How closely
have you worked with the F.B.I. in order to have your story ring true? And what
has been the most fascinating revelation along the way?
Allison: When I was writing TEMPTING EVIL, I made a contact in the Sacramento FBI office. He
invited me to participate in the FBIâs Citizens Academy, which I did last
spring. I learned so much just listening, but I was also allowed to ask
questions and I email my guy at least once a month with additional questions.
He talks to the in-house expert and either gets back to me, or the expert. I
got to blow up stuff and shoot guns that are illegal for private citizens to
own in California. But itâs not just the FBIâI wrote about FBI agents before I
ever had an âin.â Iâm an avid reader of true crime, forensics, and criminal
psychologyâand have been since long before I became a writer.
My primary "rule" of research is to understand whatâs happening and what
should happen based on my research, but never give my readers a lesson. Any
research should be so well integrated into the story that the reader canât
separate the story from the âresearch.â My second rule is that story comes
first. While I wonât flat out write falsehoods, as long as itâs not a plot
critical point, Iâll stretch plausibility. As long as it COULD happen even if
it probably wouldnât happen, I can go with it. Story is king :-)
I canât really quantify my research because itâs a collection of research
over time, for multiple books. I also read "research" material when I donât
really have a story idea for the subject matter. Iâve had so many fascinating
revelations that I donât know how I can pick just one. I think if I had to, it
would be my tour of the morgue. Way back when, I used to want to be a forensic
pathologist, but I didnât know if I could stomach the gruesome tasksâautopsies,
moving dead bodies, weighing organs, etc. Then I observed an autopsy on a
murder victim and I had this disconnectâI could follow the procedure, ask
questions, and left with added knowledge not only about forensic pathology, but
with the knowledge that spiders creep me out a lot more than dead bodies.
Jen: Without a doubt, weaponry could very well be the third main
character in your story. How much experience do you have with handguns? Have
you fired each weapon that is included in your novels?
Allison: Iâm a gun owner and have experience with handguns, though I
havenât used every gun Iâve written about. My favorite personal handgun is a
.357, but most law enforcement have a semi-auto .45 or similar as their
sidearm. I did have a lot of fun at the gun range with the FBI instructors and
got to shoot a bunch of guns I wouldnât otherwise have had the opportunity to
use! However, Iâm not as good as I used to be (having five kids doesnât leave a
lot of time for practice!) I won the âMy Characters Shoot Better than I Doâ
award during my FBI "graduation."
I think the key to any weaponâwhether youâre using guns, knives, poison, or
handsâis to understand how the weapon will be used to kill, if the character
has experience with the weapon and why, and any research should be "unseen"â
meaning, you the author needs to understand everything that goes into the
skill, but the knowledge should be integral to the story and "disappear" on the
page so that the reader believes your character has the knowledge and skill,
without having to tell the reader. For example, by the fact that a character is
a cop a reader would assume they had firearms training. I donât have to say it.
But in KILLING FEAR, my
heroine is a night club owner. I made a point of mentioning that she went
through gun safety courses and jumped through hoops to get a CCW permit.
Otherwise, the reader wouldnât assume she knew how to use a gun.
Jen: How did you arrive at the premise for PLAYING DEAD? And, from
conception to completion, about how long does it take for you to write a novel?
Allison: I came up with the prison break trilogy idea after reading a
seismic report for San Quentin. Earthquake? Prison? Death Row? Great! PLAYING DEAD is the third
book in the trilogy, and I knew I wanted one of my escapees to be innocent. I
didnât really know what I was going to do with him, but as I wrote KILLING FEAR and TEMPTING EVIL, I realized
that the innocent fugitive was the father of the heroine, and the hero was the
FBI Agent tasked with finding him. That was all I knew until I started writing
the book. I had an idea that Tom OâBrien was framed, but I didnât know why . .
. and I didnât know how he could be innocent, yet his daughter was convinced of
his guilt so deeply that she testified against him. The story revealed itself
chapter by chapter.
Itâs very hard for me to quantify how long it takes me to write a novel. Some
books take longer than others. I also think my stories to deathâmy kids often
tell me to stop talking to myself in the car. Iâd say it takes me 4-6 weeks to
write the first draft and 2-4 weeks to edit. Then thereâs 2 weeks for copyedits
and a week for page proofs. But the book I just finished took me three weeks to
write the first draft and six weeks to revise and edit.
Jen: In relation to your craft, what part of a book is the most
challenging and/or nerve-wracking for you to write? The most rewarding? And, in
what aspect of your writing have you experienced the most growth?
Allison: Hands down, I always get stuck at the same place in every
book. Itâs between pages 125-165 and itâs always the beginning of the second
act. I donât consciously write in a three act structure, but I can usually get
my characters over that first threshold, and then Iâm stuck. I go back and
write and rewrite that beginning multiple times. Once I get unstuck, the story
usually flows much easier to the end. Iâve often said that it takes me twice as
long to write the first third of the book than the last two-thirds. Case in
point: in PLAYING DEAD
it took me 8 weeks to write the first 150 or so pages; the last 350 pages took
The most rewarding for me is when I first get over than hump; the second is
when I type THE END. I always feel elated and giddy when I finish a book. Even
if I know it needs major clean up, I still get a huge sense of accomplishment.
Iâve grown tremendously under the tutelage of my editors. My writing is
tighter and cleaner when I turn it in. Iâm always happy to do revisions (and
Iâve done them on every bookâa story can always be made better,) but I also
know that the story itself is at least laid out well, the characters real and
believable, and the overall structure present. Iâve also written a novella and
two short stories and those have taught me to tighten my prose. When youâre
limited in the number of words you can use, you definitely learn to edit
Jen: Your lead character, Claire OâBrien, has many crosses to bear. As
she races against the clock in hopes of clearing her fatherâs name, what is the
biggest obstacle standing in her way? What advantages does she have that help
her get the job done? What makes her so appealing to the readers?
Allison: When Claire OâBrien walked onto the page, I wasnât sure I was
going to like her. She has a chip on her shoulderâwho wouldnât? After all, her
father was convicted of murdering her mother while her mother was in bed with
another man. Claireâs life was turned upside down when she was fourteen, but
still she went on. She has a lot of friends, but she keeps them at arms length.
After a couple chapters in her head, I found myself rooting for her. Sheâs not
perfectâand I think thatâs why I like her so much. Sheâs smart, feisty, and
braveâbut sheâs also vulnerable and lonely. The biggest obstacle in her way is
internalâshe has always believed her father was guilty. She testified against
him. She saw him at the house immediately after her mother was killed. Sheâs
the one who called him, furious that her mother was having an affairâsheâd
walked into the house when they were in bed, left and c called her father. So
she blames herself, and she blames him. She has to retrace the steps of a
missing law student who may have had proof of her fatherâs innocenceâbut first
she has to learn to trust her father, and then FBI Agent Mitch Bianchi. Trust
doesnât come easy to her.
She has many advantages, including working as an insurance fraud
investigator, having her P.I. license, and a concealed carry weapons permit.
Sheâs confident in her physical and intellectual abilities and she has the
skills necessary to research the truth.
I think Claire is an appealing character because sheâs flawedâshe is
impulsive, for example. But the truth means everything to her, and when sheâs
wrong sheâs the first to admit it. Sheâs also willing to confront her own
personal demons and confront others if and when she believes theyâre being
dishonest. But mostly, I like her because she feels real to me, warts and all.
Jen: As is with any romance novel, the sexual tension between the two
lead characters is what keeps the reader turning the pages. What makes Claire
and Mitch so good together? Why does someone as sharp as Claire not realize
that heâs lying to her? What prohibits her âsixth senseâ as a private
investigator from coming into play?
Allison: I love Claire and Mitch. Theyâre actually very similarâ
impulsive truth-seekers. Claire met Mitch in the neighborhood. By the way he
dressed and acted, she didnât suspect he was anything but who he said he was.
She did call him on a couple of things, and Mitch told her the truthâup to a
point. For example she did think he acted like a cop because he always sat with
his back to the wall and tended to watch people. Mitch confessed that heâd been
in the military. He had beenâso he could talk truthfully about his experiences.
The best lies are those based on truth, and Mitch used that to his advantage.
Once they started dating, Claire was a bit blindâshe wanted to trust him and at
that point he hadnât given her any reason to doubt him. Remember, Claire is
lonelyâshe is closer to her cat and dogs than any person. Mitch is also lonely,
and they connected. So when she learns the truth itâs far more devastating
because the one time she did trust, it blows up in her face.
Jen: Without giving away too much of the storyline, which scene is
your favorite and why?
Allison: Thatâs a hard question! Thereâs several scenes that stick
out. The prologue, which sets up the back story of the villain; when Mitch and
Claire first make love is very passionate; but I think the scene that sticks
with me is when Claire first learns that Mitch lied to her. I totally felt her
pain, and his. Itâs a pivotal scene on many different levels, but the emotion
in it really hit me. It was one of those scenes that, when I re-read it, I was
surprised I wrote itâit didnât need any heavy editing.
Jen: Please take us on a tour of your website. (By the way, itâs so
user friendly. I love the graphics, too.) Do you have e-mail notification of
upcoming releases? Do you participate in author phone chats? And if so, how
would my readers go about arranging one? Do you blog?
Allison: Thank you! I love my website. I told my designer to create
someone that said âprofessionalâ and âsuspense.â I think he did a great job.
I have my bio, a Q&A, and recently I added a section about where I got my
ideas for each of my books. I have excerpts from my books, book trailers, and I
just launched a new intro page and book trailer for PLAYING DEAD.
I also have a list of my books in order, recurring characters, foreign covers
and reviews. I update the site monthly. I wish I had time to update it more
often, but itâs a chore because I always want to make major text changes.
I have a blog on my site, but itâs pretty stagnant. I try to keep it
up-to-date with at least events and news. I blog every other Thursday at Murder She Writes and
recently joined Murderati where
I blog every other Sunday.
Iâve done phone chats and online chats. Just email me! My contact form is on
my website, but my email is easy: Allison @ allisonbrennan.com.
Jen: Are you currently at work on your next novel? If so, what can you
tell us about it?
Allison: Last month I finished SUDDEN DEATH my April 09
release. This is Jack Kincaidâs bookâheâs Dillon Kincaidâs twin brother and was
introduced in FEAR NO EVIL
(4/07.) This book was the hardest to start but the easiest to write. It
took me two months to research and think about the story and write the first
hundred pagesâwhich I deleted. I had it stuck in my head and Jack and Megan
(who is a secondary character in PLAYING DEAD) had a past. But every time I put them on the page
together, they didnât know each other. It was very problematic. Once I realized
that they never met, I deleted everything but the opening chapter and wrote
parallel storylines until they meet up during the course of investigating the
brutal murders of former Special Forces soldiers. It clicked.
The story opens with FBI Agent Megan Elliott investigating the brutal murder
of a homeless veteran. The FBI was called because the M.O. matches two other
murders in different statesâthe victims were single males over forty,
hamstrung, tortured, then shot in the back of the head execution style. But
when the military police seize Meganâs evidence because the victim was AWOL and
wanted for attempted murder of his commanding officer, Megan joins forces with
Hans Vigoâa character who has been in many of my booksâto investigate the other
crime scenes, talk to witnesses, and figure out the connection between the
victims. Jack Kincaid, a mercenary, loses one of his closest friends to the
Hamstring Killer, and heâll do anything and everything to avenge his friendâs
Now, Iâm working on the second book of my 2009 FBI Trilogy. FATAL
SECRETS (6/09) has ICE Agent Sonia Knight, a naturalized citizen who
had been sold in Central America after her father, a missionary, was murdered.
She was rescued when she was smuggled into America and adopted by a cop. She is
obsessed with proving that uber-rich businessman Xavier Jones is the ringleader
of a human trafficking/prostitution ring, but every time she gets close, Jones
stymies the investigation. FBI Agent Dean Hooper, the head of the white collar
crimes unit in Sacramento, has been investigating Jones for money laundering
and tax evasion. The two investigations collide in a big way, and Dean and
Sonia are forced to work together.
Jen: Looking back, what has surprised you most about the publishing
business? And, knowing what you do now, would you have done anything
differently in respect to your career?
Allison: My biggest surprise was that it doesnât get easier. I thought
that once Iâd written a half dozen books that each story would come much
easier, smoother, and I wouldnât struggle! Surprise, surprise . . . while my
stories are cleaner and tighter, itâs not easier and, in fact, each story is
harder than the last because Iâm constantly trying to do better. I donât know
if I would have done anything differently . . . I donât like looking behind me.
Itâs like the choice I had when I graduated from high schoolâwhich college to
attend. Iâd been accepted at two of the three I applied at. I ended up going to
UC Santa Cruz, and dropped out two years later to take a job in the Capitol. I
could wonder if Iâd have graduated if I went to the University of Redlands . .
. but then what other changes would have happened, good and bad? Would I have
met my husband and had my kids? Would I have started writing? I donât know. I
donât like to play the wonder-if-Iâd-done-that games. If I make a mistake, I
try to learn from it and move on.
Jen: Once again, I have taken a step out of my comfort zone and have
hit the jackpot. I truly enjoyed your novel and look forward to reading your
next release. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with my readers. Itâs
been such a pleasure having you here. Best of luck in the future!
Allison: Iâm so glad you enjoyed it, Jen, and thank you so much for
having me here! Great, thought-provoking questions that made me think.
I hope you have enjoyed my interview with Allison. Please stop by your
favorite bookstore or local library and pick up a copy of PLAYING DEAD today.
Better yet, how would you like to win one instead? Answer the following
trivia contest and be one of five lucky winners.
the title of Allisonâs April 2009 release.
Next month, I will be bringing to you my interview with Katherine Neville,
author on the International Bestseller EIGHT. You wonât want to miss it.
Until next timeâŚJen
When a twist of fate landed Jennifer at the "Reading with Ripa"
roundtable discussion with Kelly Ripa and Meg Cabot, she knew that her career as
a French teacher would essentially be over. Instead, she figured out a clever
way to combine her love for reading and writing and "voilĂ " She became a book
reviewer and columnist with www.freshfiction.com. On the sidelines, her parents
secretly hoped that her French degree from Vanderbilt would one day come in
handy and Jennifer is happy to report that the phrases âJe ne sais pas' and
âC'est incroyable!' have been quite useful when reviewing certain selections! As
is typical in her whirlwind life, one thing led to another and soon she found
herself facilitating a popular moms' book club and writing a column she cleverly
named Jen's Jewels. (Jewelry is one of her many addictions, as is the color pink
and Lilly Pulitzer, which when you think about it, would probably make for a
good story! Hint! Hint! ) To keep herself away from her favorite retailer, Ann
Taylor, she serves on the Board of Trustees of the Harford County Public Library
in Maryland. As a national trainer for The Arthritis Foundation's Aquatic and
Land Exercise Classes, she is an advocate for those like herself who suffer from
arthritis, the nation's #1 cause of disability. When asked how she manages to do
all of these things and actually get some sleep at night, she simply replied,
"It's just Par for the Course." Hmm! Now where have we heard that before?
1 comment posted.
Allison and Jennifer, thanks for such an interesting interview! I am already a fan of Allison's books, but if not, I would have picked one after reading the interview.
(Julia Blanco 3:34pm October 23, 2008)