|Name: K.J. Howe
Author of: THE FREEDOM BROKER (2017)
On the web: www.kjhowe.com
On Twitter: @KJHoweAuthor
KJ Howe is the Executive Director of Thillerfest and a three-time Daphne du Maurier winner.
Thank you, Kim, for taking the time to chat with us.
The Freedom Broker is a novel firmly set in the real-world. It feels like a fact-heavy piece without ever actually slowing down the action or bogging the reader down, and yet there’s a ton of information here about the world of K & R, international oil rights, diabetes, and much more. What sort of research was involved in getting to a point where you felt confident you could write this novel?
Thanks for having me on your wonderful blog. I’m pleased to hear that the authenticity of the backdrop resonated with you. As a former medical writer, research is a passion of mine. I’ve immersed myself in the world of kidnap and ransom for over three years, and it has been a fascinating journey. I’ve had the distinct honour of getting to know Peter Moore—the longest held hostage in Iraq—as well as several kidnap negotiators, Special Forces soldiers who deliver ransoms and execute rescues, psychiatrists who specialize in the captive’s mindset, hostage reintegration experts, kidnap and ransom insurance executives, and others in this dark world. In THE FREEDOM BROKER, I wanted to write about elite kidnap negotiator Thea Paris, so it was important for me to get the facts correct. I continue to build my contacts list as write the series.
Regarding Thea’s type 1 diabetes, I wrote a great deal about this condition when I was a medical writer, and I also interviewed several active women with type 1 to capture all the physical, emotional, and daily aspects of this illness. I wanted to show that that diabetes does not define Thea, but rather motivates her to follow her dreams.
To create the action and fight scenes, I spent time in the Phoenix desert, training with a guru in hand-to-hand combat, knife fighting, and firearms. I enjoy learning new things and hope to continue my education as I research future novels.
The last step in making sure the factual basis was strong enough for release was to have relevant subject matter experts review the manuscript to make sure I had things nailed down. Only after that thorough review did the text become finalized. I deeply appreciate the kindness of these experts.
And how do you find the balance between throwing in everything that you’ve learned, and giving only enough information to keep the story going, without ever affecting the story itself?
Great question. It’s a fine line between an authentic story and an info dump, so I tried to only include the information that was pertinent in that particular scene. That said, I’m hoping by layering in these facts, I create a verisimilitude where the reader trusts what they are being told. There is a general “iceberg” rule of research stating that you only add in 10% of what you know so only the tip of the iceberg shows, but the gravitas of the remaining 90% lurks below the surface, and the reader can definitely feel it’s there.
When I read a novel, I like to be entertained as well as educated. I’m hoping readers of THE FREEDOM BROKER will feel like they’ve learned about kidnapping, and take the travel safety tips along with them while on holiday abroad. One of the reasons I chose this subject matter was to help spread the word about those hostages who are still being held, as they need help to come home.
Thea Paris is the perfect character to drive this story, given her background, her illness, her family. Where did Thea come from, and how did she evolve as the story progressed?
We have Jason Bourne, James Bond, and many other male leads. Isn’t it time for a strong female protagonist? J Still, I didn’t want to make Thea a superhero-like character. Instead, I wanted to create an intelligent, capable, real woman who has vulnerabilities—both physical and emotional. Regarding the diabetes, I tried to create a protagonist who overcomes a chronic illness to follow her dreams of becoming an elite kidnap negotiator. Also, Thea has a complicated relationship with kidnapping, as when she was only eight, her twelve-year-old brother was abducted while she watched. During THE FREEDOM BROKER, secrets are revealed, imploding the Paris family, challenging everything Thea believed in. I wanted to explore the machinations of family, how the ones closest to us wield the most power, having the ability to potentially destroy us.
It should also be noted that amongst the real elite kidnap negotiators operating in the world (there are only about 25 people at this level), one of them actually is a woman. Like Thea, she is extremely effective and well-respected by her peers.
Thea evolves in many ways over the course of THE FREEDOM BROKER, but the starkest change is her understanding her own blind spots. While the assessment of her work and the threats it posed has always been strong, her understanding of her own family and the challenges they have created has been underdeveloped. Only by having the temerity to understand her brother and father, their rivalry, and their deep emotional conflict is Thea able to survive and triumph.
Location feels like a very important part of the story, from the shores of Santorini and Athens to the fictional African country of Kanzi. Talk us through your approach to writing location, and why you think it’s important that the reader is where the action is.
I visited all the locations in THE FREEDOM BROKER, as I wanted to capture the sights, sounds, taste and feel of the various locales. If readers have been to Santorini, Athens, or Zimbabwe, I’m hoping the sensory details will evoke memories of the time spent in these exotic settings. If the locales are new to readers, I tried to create a memorable backdrop so they could feel like they were right there with Thea and her team. Settings are critical, a character in themselves, especially in an international thriller. I hope to bring the language, culture, foods and other aspects of travel to the forefront to create a milieu that feels authentic and intriguing.
The Freedom Broker, as well as being a gripping story in its own right, feels like it’s setting up these characters (especially after the scenes in the Zambezi river) for further adventures. Have you planned a return for Thea Paris and friends and, if so, can you tell us a bit about what we might expect?
Writing the scenes over the Zambezi was grand fun, the collision of worlds. I was fortunate to receive a two-book deal, so SKYJACK will be coming out next year. In this story, Thea is shepherding two African orphans from Nairobi to London when the plane they are on is hijacked. SKYJACK involves secret stay-behind armies from the Second World War, the CIA, the Mafia, and more. I hope readers enjoy stories about Thea and her team because I have many ideas for future books.
What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?
When I read David Morrell’s BROTHERHOOD OF THE ROSE, it was such a marvellous tour de force that it made me yearn to be an author. I wanted to immerse myself in the world of international intrigue, create characters, and explore the dark side of thrillers. I also loved Lisa Gardner’s THE PERFECT HUSBAND, another gripping novel. I’m honoured to be able to call these two talented authors friends today.
And as a follow-on, do you have a favourite book, something that you return to on a regular basis?
THE DAY OF THE JACKAL by Frederick Forsyth was a brilliantly crafted novel that I love re-reading. I also de-construct other brilliant thrillers to understand why they work so well. It’s like a mechanic, getting under the hood, trying to figure out what makes that car accelerate with whiplash speed.
What does a typical (writing) day in the life of KJ Howe look like?
I write in the mornings when I am fresh and the subconscious is still active after sleeping. I usually aim for 1000 words, and then I deal with email, post on social media, and do my tasks as executive director of ThrillerFest, the annual conference held every July in NYC for the International Thriller Writers. Come join us at www.thrillerfest.com if you are a thriller enthusiast—it’ll feel like coming home!
And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?
I would recommend they embrace criticism from credible sources. Writing is a journey, and it takes a village to write a book. A talented editor is your best friend for learning about what works and what doesn’t. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with some phenomenal editors, and I hope to keep learning from them as I grow as a writer.
What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?
THE FORCE by Don Winslow. This author brings such authenticity to the page, it’s truly a pleasure—and a learning experience—to read his books.
If the adventures of Thea Paris should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?
That would certainly be a dream come true. I would love for Charlize Theron to play Thea, Phillip Winchester for Rif, and Joaquim Phoenix for Nikos.
And finally, on a lighter note…
If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?
Ian Fleming. Brilliant thriller author who is a bit of a rake. I’m sure we’d meet up for champagne—or martinis—on a Caribbean island with intrigue to follow.
Thank you once again, KJ, for taking time out to share your thoughts.
Really appreciate you having me on. Phenomenal questions!