Our conversation this week is with John Altman, the best-selling author of False Flag, the spy thriller that’s reviewed in Mysterious Book Report No. 322. Thanks for speaking with us today. I know you’re busy so let’s get to it. Our first question is:
How did your first book get published? How long did it take?
It took thirteen years of effort —and thirteen novels written but unpublished—before I managed to get published. During that time I had multiple literary agents, and some interest from publishers, but nothing ever clicked. The book that finally sold was inspired by Ken Follett’s ‘The Eye of the Needle’—and, interestingly, was bought by the very same editor who had published ‘The Eye of the Needle’ almost a quarter-century before!
Wow! That’s grace under fire, courage, according to Mr. Hemmingway, because dealing with rejection is one of the most difficult things a writer has to face. Many can’t.
Does your style make use of adjectives and adverbs?
Yes, I use some adjective and adverbs. I think of Stephen King’s advice —‘The road to hell is paved with adverbs’. And while I see his point, in terms of clean prose, I also find his earlier work, which was more liberal with adverbs and adjectives, to be more vivid and readable than some of his more recent ‘better’ stuff. Adverbs and adjectives are kind to the reader, and do some of the heavy lifting in terms of helping him/her picture the story. Of course, all things in moderation.
What’s your advice for aspiring writers?
Don’t give up. And don’t wait for inspiration. Inspiration can’t strike if your butt is not in the chair ready to write. And your manuscript can’t cross the desk of the perfect editor at the perfect time if you don’t keep putting yourself out there.
Do you read your reviews? How do you deal with a negative review?
I wish I didn’t read my reviews, because a bad one can throw me into a spin. But I do. I can’t resist. Writing is such a solitary thing that after a year or more spent wrestling with the same book, chained to my desk by myself, I’m hungry to get the reactions of other people.
Are any of your characters autobiographical?
I think all of my characters are autobiographical, the same way every character in a dream represents an aspect of the dreamer – these stories all come from one mind, and so one mind is supplying all the details. Even if we think they are someone else, they are our perception of someone else, built from what we understand about ourselves. Of course, these characters represent only aspects, not wholes.
Do you plot-outline or wing it?
A combination. I start with a character or group of characters in a situation and then watch them react. But I have some major plot beats in mind to aim for—usually a big one in each act of a three-act structure.
Who’s your favorite literary character?
I don’t have one favorite. Gus and Call from Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove come to mind as amazing characters—taken together, they illustrate so much about the human condition. I’ve recently been reading the original James Bond books and am surprised at how much character, and how much character arc, one finds there, as compared to the movies. Speaking of movies and character arc, I recently rewatched Raiders of the Lost Ark and was struck by Indiana’s character arc, which I missed the first few times I saw the movie. (I know, this is a cinematic character and not literary, but bear with me.) Early in the movie, he expressed disdain for supernatural talk, and displays a willingness to give up anything in pursuit of his goals. By the end he has learned humility before the divine and wants to save Marion instead of gaining the Ark. It’s fairly subtle . . .
Geez . . . altruism in Gollywood . . . who knew! Thanks again for speaking with us today. Your answers have been insightful, honest and thought-provoking and we appreciate you sharing them with the Mysterious Book Report and our readers. Please let us know when your next project is ready to launch.