"I've always known I look at the world just a little differently than a lot of people, which probably just contributes to my "weird" factor."
Writing in the crime thriller genre is tough because hardcore readers are addicts and want more, more, more! And certainly they reward originality, but they also want a certain attention to the genre’s conventional trappings. Hey, nothing wrong with turning to books to get what you know makes you happy, especially in an unpredictable modern world. As long as the genre books are both the same… and unpredictable.
The newest writer tackling the crime thriller genre is T.K. Harris who has come out with her first book, “Phantom Dreams.” I was thrilled to interview her during her Virtual Author Tour in support of the book. I wanted to ask her about her reasons for getting involved in this genre… and how her personal life may have given her some insight into writing a crime thriller novel.
RICHARD FINNEY: Crime thrillers as a genre are pretty much at the height of popularity right now. That’s great for fans of the genre, but not so great for those who want to break in. It means you have to come up with something fresh and original so those who've read everything in the genre will end up feeling that you are a new voice. Was this daunting as you started writing your first novel?
T.K. HARRIS: I have to admit, when I looked at everything out there, all of the great writers, I was definitely a little nervous. But I was also on a mission to create an enjoyable, easy read in a genre I was familiar with so I could transition from being a short story writer to full length novels. That was it. To do that, I had to stop worrying about what had already been done and just go with what my gut (and dreams) told me. That is where the book actually started. I had a dream one night. Cliché right? But true.
RF: No, not a cliché at all. I believe many readers see things in a “dream state” because of our love for TV shows and Movies. As for being a writer, dreams certainly can be an inspiration. The dream state for a writer is your creative mind at work, potentially every night and morning there is an opportunity to get a ringside seat to a wellspring of ideas…
T.K. Harris: This is true. I'm sort of what you call a perpetual dreamer. Day dreams, night dreams, nightmares. You name it. I don't know what I'd do actually if I just stopped dreaming!
RF: There are real crime investigation procedures in your book, but also paranormal elements as well. How do you work out the day to day grind of the police working to catch the bad guys, with fingerprints and DNA, and then mix it up with a more paranormal reality that will somehow play in a convincing way to your readers?
T.K. Harris: Ha! I cheat! I watch A LOT of crime shows -- CSI Las Vegas, Medium, Law and Order, Bones. They "help" me with the police work, investigations, and lingo. Although I try to keep it simple so I don't end up saying something scientific that translates into – the cause of death was a dented knee cap or something else absurd.
As for the paranormal bit, I get most of it from dreams I have almost nightly… and just a little personal experience. I think that the combination of constantly dealing with both, make it almost natural to mix the two for me. Take that, and the fact that I'm constantly asking myself, "What would I do or think if this happened?", helps me to approach it from a more logical and, hopefully, realistic viewpoint .
RF: A key to the crime thriller genre is in making the main protagonist someone that readers will be interested in and respect, but someone they will also emotionally be invested in. At the beginning of the book, your main character, Jack Matthews, is wounded both physically and emotionally from a recent case, and his boss even doubts his capability. Why is Jack a character that readers will be excited is on the case?
T.K. Harris: Jack. I can't help but smile thinking about him and how much great feed back I've already gotten from readers about him. He is the type of character I think both men and women would be drawn to. He is charismatic, and a kick-ass FBI agent, but he is far from perfect. He has had his heart broken, takes his cases too personally, and is sort of a lost soul that refuses to give up. I think he is someone we can all relate to on some level.
RF: In one of the chapters you mention a character listening to an audio version of a John Grisham book. Later you reference a lunch the character has at a “Cracker Barrel” restaurant. Those are just a couple of allusions to the world we live in now, which I assume you find as an effective way to integrate the reader into the “reality” of your world as well. Why was the mention of modern brands, catch phrases, and euphemisms a stylistic choice you went with for your novel?
T.K. Harris: I wish I could say that I was that preemptive. Sadly I just went with "what I knew". In this case, things I myself had done. In fact, that's how I started reading Grisham. A long road trip and an audio tape!
RF: Fair enough. So it wasn't necessarily “preemptive” but have you come to believe there’s something about using common brand names in a crime drama that makes the trappings of the book more real, therefore the “threat” of violence more real as well?
T.K. Harris: Definitely! The more realistic, the more things people can relate to, the easier it is to suspend disbelief. Or that's my goal. However, I try not to use too many things specific to a particular year. Like a popular song or something. They come and go so quickly, someone might not get the reference. But John Grisham and Cracker Barrel… I figure I'm safe for a few years on those references!
RF: The female protagonist, Kathy Gilliam, is suspected of being a killer, and yet she initially maintains an essentially… boring life. What’s the trick to depicting characters that are leading boring lives, but must “come alive” for readers?
T.K. Harris: Oh. Now that is a story in a story. Initially, I sort of just "picked" a person. Someone who's life wasn't so complicated by work, etc, that I could move her through the story without too many hurdles, but enough to make it challenging. And then I put the book in front of my beta readers. Ouch. They were heartless. Kathy is boring. She is too "flat". And on and on. So I had a dilemma. I didn't want some kick ass woman to play this role. I wanted someone who was "normal". But how do you put a normal person into a story without making her seem boring by today's standards where just about everyone seems exceptional? So I did a lot of free writing where I tried to understand who she really was. How she wasn't really boring, but just trying to survive the mess of her life. And I put myself in her shoes. What would I think? What would I do? It took awhile, but eventually Kathy began to find her own voice. And, as you said, began to "come alive" both to herself and to readers.
RF: In other words your secret is that even though Kathy was leading a somewhat exterior boring life, her “voice,” her interior life was very much alive!
T.K. Harris: Exactly. Kathy sees what she is doing – taking care of her father, aspiring for a career – far from boring. In her own way, she is very brave I think. But perhaps a little romance wouldn't hurt!
RF: According to your press bio, you grew up a “military brat,” a “gypsy” that travelled with your family all over. I believe those who constantly encounter a new environment growing up end up falling into two categories if they are to avoid being an emotional and/or physical punching bag with every new zip code – try and understand each of the different faces entering into your universe as fast as you can so one can interact with each different person in a way that doesn’t end up with you on the bottom of the pile; Or… one realizes I can’t figure out everyone I encounter, so I’m just going to be “me.” Either strategy, if you end up being a writer, you learn a lot about other people… yourself, and how people react to you. How did travelling around the country growing up affect you?
T.K. Harris: I sort of straddle that line actually. I don't know if it’s because of my life, the fact I'm a Gemini, or both. I learned how to make what I call "5 minute friends". You get to know them quickly but don't form attachments. I really did - and do - meet lots of interesting people with amazing stories. But I'm also sort of a recluse and I used to have a very bad attitude. School can be very harsh and when you're always moving, you never "fit in". You can talk to anybody, but not everybody wants to talk to you because you don't "belong" anywhere. You're not "cool" or a "hood" or a "nerd" or... anything. You're this strange mix no one can put a definition to so they either shun you or pick on you (and I had a real issue with bullies and my temper). But the relationships you do get to have with the few kids brave enough to reach out to you are very shallow and short lived. I think that's one of the many reasons I became a voracious reader! And, of course, writer.
RF: So in a weird way, that kind of upbringing often helps make the best type of genre writers, it breeds an “outsider” approach to the way you can see things.
T.K. Harris: I think so. I mean, I've always known I look at the world just a little differently than a lot of people, which probably just contributes to my "weird" factor. I can find more excitement from an unusual sunset or strange insect than I can from watching popular shows like American Idol or The Voice. And I automatically find myself making up stories or asking "What ifs" about the things I see or hear.
RF: “Senior Solutions Architect” is one of your jobs when you’re not writing. My imagination is running wild with what that could mean! Okay, I’m going to dispense with the possibility that you've been hired by a fringe group in the United States interested in getting rid of all the seniors, i.e. the final “gray” solution.
T.K. Harris: Ha! I like that!
RF: I’m going with what I see in my own area, Encino, California, where many of the apartment buildings going up are for senior living. Assuming I’m close to being right, tell me, how do you work that kind of job into your writing?
T.K. Harris: Actually, think more "geek"! I'm in IT and have been for 20 years. First as a software engineer and later as a project manager and then as a solutions architect, which is just a fancy way of saying I design systems to develop and support applications. Mostly from the application side of things. I have even spent 4 years in the RFID world which basically made me feel like I was part of the "Big Brother" conspiracy! The book 1984 kept coming to mind…
RF: But what you’re pointing out, about your job experience, is so fantastic for a writer. Often times what you get with many writers is that they've done nothing but go to school, then upon graduation, turn to writing. It’s having experience in the real world that adds so much to the “voice,” of the writer, don’t you agree?
T.K. HARRIS: Oh, yes. I actually had 27 different jobs in college before getting into IT. Everything from data entry to working construction. I was even an un-loader at UPS, which didn’t last long. I have a lot of experience to relate to! And I've used my experiences to jot down a number of ideas for other books. You can ask and research all you want but there is definitely nothing like real world experience to help bring realism to your books. And the next "job" I'm looking to doing full-time… Writing!
I want to thank Kitty Bullard at GMTA Publishing for making
T.K. Harris available for this interview!!!
For more great authors that GMTA represents check out their website at GMTA PUBLISHING