Joseph Finder is the New York Times bestselling author of ten previous novels including Vanished and Buried Secrets. Finder’s international bestseller Killer Instinct won the International Thriller Writers’ Thriller Award for Best Novel of 2006. Other bestselling titles include Paranoia and High Crimes, which both became major motion pictures.
Finder’s new book, Suspicion, is a departure from the corporate thrillers Finder is best known for.
Suspicion is the story of an ordinary man put in extraordinary circumstances and if reviews tell the tale, it could be Finder’s best work ever.
The Joseph Finder Interview
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Books by Joseph Finder
Joseph Finder Transcript
Tim Knox: Hi everyone, welcome back in to Interviewing Authors. Tim Knox here, as always. Another great show for you today. Joe Finder is my guest. Joe Finder is an 11-time New York Times bestselling author. Two of his books have been made into movies, Paranoia and High Crimes.
He is back after three years with a brand new book called Suspicion and it is the story of an ordinary guy who finds himself in unordinary circumstances. It’s somewhat of a departure. Joe is known mostly for doing corporate thrillers. This is really the story of again a normal guy who finds himself in an impossible situation and how he handles that.
Aside from being a bestselling author, Joe is a wonderful advisor and mentor to writers, a lot of good advice. We talk about character development. We talk about the value of research and Joe’s advice to writers, in a nutshell is, “Just write the damn book!”
A great interview with Joe Finder, New York Times bestselling author, and the author of the brand new book, Suspicion, on this edition of Interviewing Authors.
Tim Knox: Joe Finder, welcome to the program.
Joe Finder: Great to be here, Tim.
Tim Knox: Great having you. I know you’re busy. The new book is about a week from coming out so I do appreciate your time. For those of you who are not familiar with you, give us some background.
Joe Finder: Sure I am the New York Times bestselling author of 11 novels. Suspicion is my 11th book, which is coming out on Tuesday. The novels are basically ordinary guy in trouble stories. They’re about regular people who go through extraordinary circumstances.
Tim Knox: You know what? That’s one of the things I like about your books because it’s the regular guy put in irregular circumstances. How does he handle it? What does he do? If you don’t mind let’s go back because you have been quite prolific. This is your 11th novel. I’d like to go back if you don’t mind to really earlier in time. Did you always know you were going to be a writer? Did you always have that bug?
Joe Finder: Oh no, no, no. I didn’t think you could actually get paid to do this. I wanted to write since I was a kid but I thought maybe I should go to law school, maybe I should do something serious that pays rent. Eventually I tried. I gave myself a three year deadline. I said alright if you’re going to try to make it as a novelist you got to just try it. I wrote a book and rewrote it and rewrote it and rewrote it and then I went through the procedure of getting an agent, which took me a long time. Then when I had an agent eventually it went through different publishers and I finally got a publisher. It all happened within three years so well within my deadline.
Tim Knox: So your background, you kind of have a Jack Ryan background about you. You almost went into intelligence.
Joe Finder: Almost did. I did not though but I almost did.
Tim Knox: Do you ever regret that decision?
Joe Finder: Well, you know, the truth is that being a spy, working for the CIA is it’s really a bureaucratic position. You’re an organization man and I don’t think I have the necessary political sense. I would have pissed off my bosses early on.
Tim Knox: It would have been a very short career.
Joe Finder: Exactly. I think I just sort of knew that I was really not cut out for that kind of life.
Tim Knox: Did you want to be a writer when you were younger, even before college?
Joe Finder: I did actually, when I was as young as I think eight I wanted to be a writer.
Tim Knox: Do you remember the first thing that you wrote and does your mother still have it?
Joe Finder: Yeah she does in fact. My mother found a couple years ago a thriller that I wrote at the age of around 13 which was sort of like a James Bond kind of thriller. I had found some Ian Fleming books in our house, James Bond books, and read some of them and thought oh this is cool; I could do this. So I wrote sort of a kid’s version of a James Bond story. I also used to write things for my brothers and sisters. We had a family of five and I would write things to entertain them or to scare them. So I sort of created all kinds of series of stories with each family member in mind.
Tim Knox: If your mom’s anything like mine… I’m 53. I can still go to my mom’s house and she’s pulling out things that I did when I was eight years old.
Joe Finder: Exactly right.
Tim Knox: It’s really cute now. When I was dating it wasn’t so cute.
Joe Finder: Exactly, it’s not cool but you appreciate the pride.
Tim Knox: You do. Do you remember the first thing that you wrote that you actually thought was good enough to sell?
Joe Finder: That’s an interesting question. I think… well let me admit this. I actually thought that a lot of what I wrote was good enough to sell but I was wrong. I wrote articles after college. I wrote a proposal for a book. I sort of thought the world was going to grab me up and publish me, as simple as that. I didn’t realize that the process of getting published is also the process of learning how to write a book.
Tim Knox: That’s a great point.
Joe Finder: It took me a lot of rejection.
Tim Knox: How did you handle that rejection?
Joe Finder: Well I have a theory that the most successful writers are not necessarily the most talented but the most stubborn. I actually was so determined to get published that I would get something sent back in the mail and I actually called. I got rejected by one literary agent and I actually called his office and I got him on the phone. I said, look, I’m not trying to argue with you but tell me what you didn’t like about the book. He actually was sort of I think so relieved that I wasn’t trying to argue with him that he actually got on the phone with me for like an hour and told me everything that he thought needed work, that needed to be done differently. I really thought if I can keep improving this way then eventually maybe I’ll be able to get a book published. So I rewrote the book with his suggestions in mind then I sent it to him and you know what? He turned it down.
Tim Knox: Did he really?
Joe Finder: He turned it down again. I got on the phone with him and he told me what wasn’t right about it. He said don’t send it back to me but you got to keep working on this. Then the third version I sent out and got an agent on. So I really feel like I was lucky to have gotten an agent who was willing to tell me what was wrong with my book.
Tim Knox: That’s so rare because especially nowadays it’s just a form letter.
Joe Finder: Yeah, exactly right, if that.
Tim Knox: His feedback really helped craft you as a writer I would assume.
Joe Finder: It did. I mean it’s the idea of taking criticism. Criticism has a bad reputation. I think people think of criticism as a negative thing that someone is saying you’re not good enough, your work isn’t good enough but I think that criticism, if you know how to handle it, is really terrifically useful. You can really learn. You can improve your writing by paying attention to criticism that makes sense to you. So I think that learning to take criticism, which is really hard to do; it was hard for me but it turned out to be one of the best things I did to sort of grow my career as a writer.
Tim Knox: You used to teach writing. Did you talk to your students about that, that thick skin and that determination?
Joe Finder: Not really because the writing that I taught at Harvard was sort of more writing that they were going to do for class. I assumed that none of them was actually going to write for the marketplace. A few of them have but I was sort of there to teach them skills on how to write for college.
Tim Knox: I think one of the points there that even in college, and I hear this from a lot of authors, I think it’s an ego thing where the author thinks okay I’ve written the perfect book. I’m going to get an agent tomorrow. I’m going to get a publisher the next day. I’m going to be rich by Friday. It really doesn’t work that way.
Joe Finder: No and the thing is that you need some of that delusion in order to actually keep going as a writer. I call this the cartoon law of physics when the road runner runs off the cliff and as long as he doesn’t look down he doesn’t fall. You need to have a certain amount of stubbornness and almost self-delusion to say well, you know what, I’m going to make it; I’m sure I’m going to make it. But you need to combine that with taking criticism and not being wounded by it, not sort of saying oh my God, I’m no good. My experience has been that women are the worst at this. Women take criticism very hard and tend to get discouraged very easily. In fact you have to keep getting up when you’re knocked down and sort of learning from each step of the way.
Tim Knox: Are you a believer in the fact that you should write the book for yourself first rather than trying to write something that’s going to meet the market demand or being the latest hot thing? If you just do the work and make yourself happy it will come.
Joe Finder: To some extent, yeah but not entirely. When I started writing I was pretty much aware of the market in the sense that I knew which books I loved, which successful books that I knew that I loved. Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle I knew I loved, Frederick Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal, that sort of thing. I was aware of books that were successful and why they were successful. I actually read a bunch of thrillers and took notes as to sort of learn what their techniques were. Ultimately you cannot game the system. You can’t sort of say, well, if I do this and this and this and this it’s going to be a bestseller. The truth is you have to write a story that you personally would find really exciting.
Tim Knox: You have to do that to maintain that excitement. Just because the teen vampire books are hot you don’t need to go write another teen vampire book.
Joe Finder: Exactly right. People do that. That’s one of the biggest mistakes that beginning writers have. They look at what the hottest trend is and then do it. Well if you naturally want to read one of those kinds of books, whatever the hottest trend is, okay that’s fine but if you wouldn’t read it for yourself then don’t do it. Don’t try to write it.
Tim Knox: Exactly. You eventually got the agent. What was the first book that you sold to market?
Joe Finder: It was a novel called The Moscow Club.
Tim Knox: How exciting was that that it finally sold? It wasn’t an overnight thing. You said it took several years.
Joe Finder: It took three years of writing and rewriting and then getting an agent and then listening to the agent’s criticism and then getting an editor and listening to the editor’s criticism. The book that got published was really different from the book that I started writing three years earlier. It was really exciting because it was like my dream come true. It was what I really wanted to do. It took longer than I thought it would. It was harder than I thought it was going to be. In the end I sort of look back and I say well there’s a reason for that and the reason was it’s a learning process.
Tim Knox: Right, everything you went through made you a better writer.
Joe Finder: Yeah, whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.
Tim Knox: What’s the best moral? Don’t look down.
Joe Finder: Don’t look down.
Tim Knox: Let’s talk a little about the new book here because this is your 11th novel I think and your previous novels were thrillers, corporate type stuff. This is kind of a change of pace for you. Tell us about the new book Suspicion.
Joe Finder: Yeah, it’s again a classic just ordinary guy story. It’s a story about a guy who’s a single dad whose daughter goes to this very fancy private school in Boston which he cannot afford. So the point comes when he’s basically going to have to pull his daughter out of the school and his daughter really loves being at the school and her mother has just recently died and he wants to keep everything as good as possible for her. So he accepts a loan from a very rich fellow parent and that loan gets him in an immense amount of trouble.
Tim Knox: Do you have daughters?
Joe Finder: I do.
Tim Knox: I’ve got two daughters and when I was reading the description of the book I’m like I know how it feels to be a dad of a daughter and the pressure that can put on you, you and me both know we just want to make those little girls happy.
Joe Finder: Exactly. I don’t know what it’s like to be the father of a son; I know what it’s like to be the father of a daughter whom I just love insanely and I would do anything to make her happy, to keep her happy, to keep her safe. I realized that what worked about the plot situation in Suspicion was that Danny, the hero, doesn’t do anything I wouldn’t do. In order to make his daughter’s life great he takes this risk and it turns out to be a terrible, scary decision.
Tim Knox: And you know what, that’s a scary thing for us dads because there is very little we would not do for our kids.
Joe Finder: Right, you’re genetically encoded to be this fierce protector.
Tim Knox: Exactly, it’s what we do. That’s why we’re here. When he takes this loan from a fellow parent there I guess all hell breaks loose. The plot of the story is really about the decisions he’s faced and how he handles those decisions, right?
Joe Finder: That’s right. You take an ordinary person with whom the reader identifies with and then you put him in a situation which he makes a decision that you would make that turns out to be something scary. That’s what brings the readers along is that you identify with the main character and you identify with the main character’s actions.
At that point you strap in; you’re along for the ride. You want to keep going. One thing I’ve always wanted to point out to writers is your main character has to be relatable. It does not have to “likable”. There’s a major difference between the two. I think that beginning writers tend to thing well my character has to be likable so I’m going to make him or her really perfect and she’s going to be pretty and she’s going to be popular and she’s going to be this and that and whatever.
The fact is that’s not what makes us relate to people. If you think about what makes you relate to a friend it’s like you see their flaws and you’re okay with it. You see commonalities; you see aspects of the personality that are similar to yours, good and bad. You basically need to create characters that have flaws. So anyway, that’s my little riff about relatable versus likable. You want your character to be relatable.
Tim Knox: It’s such an interesting point though because we really are in the age of the anti-hero. You look at Breaking Bad, Shameless, a lot of the TV especially. The hero if you will is really not much of a hero but you find yourself rooting for Walter White to get away with the meth deal.
Joe Finder: You’re basically rooting for a meth dealer.
Tim Knox: Exactly but it’s relatable.
Joe Finder: That’s what’s brilliant about Breaking Bad, which by the way is my favorite television show. I think that aspiring writers should rent the pilot of Breaking Bad because you learn so much about how the series was setup. It’s like setting up a character in a novel. You take the character, Walter White, and you basically show what a difficult situation he’s in. He has cancer. He has a son who’s got Multiple sclerosis I believe. You see, and this is really important, there’s a scene early on in the pilot episode in which a bunch of kids start mocking Junior.
Tim Knox: In the clothing store.
Joe Finder: He comes out and he just wails on them. It’s a great moment because up until then you have assumed that Walter White is kind of a wimp. All of a sudden you realize, yeah, he’s going to stick up for his kid and it’s a great moment and it shows you that there are hidden reserves in Walter White that you really want to root for.
Tim Knox: It kind of goes back to what we were just talking about because here is this dad who his son is getting harassed by these buttholes in this store and here’s Walter White, science teacher, milk toast, and he comes out guns blazing. It goes back to the normal guy, irregular situation and what he does. You’re exactly right. After the end of Breaking Bad I went back and started watching it all over again and the Walter White in the pilot is a far cry from the Walter White by the end of the series. Just watching that character develop and the choices forced upon him and the choices he made I think are very interesting.
Joe Finder: Right, the one thing, the Walter White that ends the series is very different from the Walter White who starts out but the potential is there. You see it in the first episode. You see that Walter White has the potential for doing things, for basically being a hero however you define that, and for violence. He’s an action hero in a lot of ways.
Tim Knox: Exactly, now does Danny in the book Suspicion, does he go through this kind of metamorphosis?
Joe Finder: Yeah, he does. He’s a writer, a biographer. He’s making a living as a writer and not a very good living at it. He’s faced with this terrible situation where either he’s going to step up and defend his family or not. It’s as simple as that. He has no choice. He does it and actually turns out to be a very brave, not unrealistically brave, but a really brave here.
Tim Knox: There is a drug angle to this book and you actually spent some time with the DEA doing research. You always do a lot of research. Talk about that.
Joe Finder: I love doing the research. I probably do too much research.
Tim Knox: It’s almost gotten you killed in the past.
Joe Finder: It actually has. I came I think awfully close. I love the research. I love making my stories completely plausible. This could actually happen in reality. The reason that I interview sources is not so much to check facts but to come up with ideas. So when I have a good interview, like I had a great interview with a former DEA agent, and I said well here’s my hypothetical situation – what would happen? What do you think would happen? She started talking me through it and I came up with scene after scene after scene. I got these great scene ideas from this source.
Tim Knox: So really when you’re doing the research it comes up with a lot of ideas because in a lot of cases truth really is stranger than fiction.
Joe Finder: Yeah, there’s a lot that happens in the real world which is dramatic and which if you pay attention you can actually take from real life and create a dramatic situation.
Tim Knox: Now this book is a bit of a departure because most of your other books were the corporate espionage type stuff. What got you interested in writing about just this regular guy and what happens to him?
Joe Finder: Well for one thing I don’t have a corporate background and even though my books were sold as being corporate intrigue, if you look back on each one of my standalone stories they’re all about regular guys, women or men. If you look at the novel High Crimes, for example, which was made into a movie with Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd, it’s a woman who’s a law professor whose husbands turns out to be… well we don’t know. I think that I was always writing ordinary people stories. I just decided with Suspicion to write a story that was as close to the bone as possible, that was as close to my life as I could make it so I could really identify, therefore I made him a Bostonian. He has a daughter who goes to a fancy private school as my daughter did; I didn’t have to do research there. He is a biographer and makes his living as a writer. So all of these things were things that I knew I could directly identify with and I felt that since I could identify with them, the readers would identify with him as well.
This is another point that I like to make to writers starting out. So many people think that well I’ve never done anything worthy of writing a book about. I don’t really know anything. I’m not an expert in anything. Well, that’s not what we want. A great writer is someone who can find the drama in everyday life. Take someone like John Grisham, for example, who wasn’t a terribly successful courtroom lawyer but he knew how to tell a story that sort of felt real and yet really exciting.
Tim Knox: I think that’s such a great point. You don’t have to be your character.
Joe Finder: Exactly, you don’t as long as you can identify the character, the characteristics and portray the characteristics of your heroes, of your protagonists in such a way that your readers identify.
Tim Knox: Such a great point. Let’s talk a little about character development. How real do these characters have to be for you? How much do you go into detail even in your own head as to how real are these characters?
Joe Finder: Well I like to make analogies to TV because the visual sense is sort of easier to get. You don’t have to… when I wrote Danny Goodman, the biographer, the hero of Suspicion, I didn’t go into a huge amount of detail about his career or how he makes a living. I just showed him at work. I showed him on the phone with his agent. I showed up sort of dealing with the written work, trying to write, doing research, all this kind of thing. So basically all you have to do is give a kind of slice of life. Your job is not to create a documentary. It’s to present a thin slice of someone’s life that feels recognizable.
Tim Knox: And then you let the reader make their own decisions and own vision.
Joe Finder: Right.
Tim Knox: Super. Let’s talk a little about your process if you don’t mind. What is your writing process? Are you up every day at 4 AM? You’ve got to knock out 10,000 words. How does Joe Finder write?
Joe Finder: I have a really, really regular schedule. I have an office a couple blocks from our home. I get there between 7:30 and 8:00 every morning and I sit there and write until about noon. I usually go out, take a break, workout or have lunch or something like that. In the afternoon I do a different kind of creative work. I do the plotting. I’m thinking about the next day’s writing, the next day’s scenes. I sort of assemble my notes because I really think that our brain, our unconscious works on story while we’re asleep. It solves problems. It helps you. So if I write notes for the next scene, read them before I go to sleep, almost always the next morning I’ve got it figured out. So anyway, basically I have a regular schedule. I’m as regular as a banker in terms of my hours. I always go to the office whether I feel like it or not. There are plenty of days when I don’t feel like it or when I’m not doing well; I’m not producing a good number of pages but I keep at it.
Tim Knox: Do you approach it like a business now?
Joe Finder: Yeah I do. Being a writer is being an entrepreneur. You are basically providing the product as it were, the content, and you’re also helping to get it out there into the marketplace. One other thing that I like to tell beginning writers is don’t overdo it in the entrepreneurial stuff. The most important thing you can actually do is write the book. If you keep writing books eventually someone’s going to figure you out, figure out that you can be a success and help publish you and help promote you, etcetera. I’m involved in my own social media. I answer emails. I do Twitter and Facebook and all that but I also shut it down for a stretch of time in the morning so I can just get work done.
Tim Knox: I think that’s such a good point because again a lot of these writers who are just starting out, they maybe don’t understand the entire process. It’s where you, okay, I’ve written the book. Now I’ve got to market, market, market, market. It really might be better to just keep writing.
Joe Finder: It really is and I know having gone through this you sort of think well I wrote the thing and no one else is going to sell it but me. That’s true but you know first of all let’s say you write a novel and it’s getting turned down by everyone. Maybe you need to revise it or maybe you need to actually put it away and start the next book instead. You have to say to yourself am I going to be the author of one book or am I going to be an author?
Tim Knox: I was talking to Hugh Howie; he’s a really successful self-published author and, very interesting, his goal was to write two books a year for 10 years whether anyone bought a copy or not. He figured at the end of 10 years he would have 20 books and if one of them caught fire he would have a catalog. Is that how you feel about it?
Joe Finder: Well I wish starting out I was that smart about it.
Tim Knox: He’s a very smart guy.
Joe Finder: Yeah, sounds like it. I sort of stuck with one book at a time and I would revise each one in this very stubborn way until it was the best that it could be until I got it sold. That’s the other thing. You cannot be a perfectionist in this line of work. You’ve got to write the best book you can write at that point in your life given that amount of time, etcetera. You can’t say I’m going to revise this and revise this and revise this until it’s perfect because there’s no such thing as a perfect novel.
Tim Knox: Right, if you wait until it’s perfect it will never be published.
Joe Finder: You’ll never write another book. You’ll probably never write the first book.
Tim Knox: Who’s your publisher on Suspicion?
Joe Finder: Dutton.
Tim Knox: What are your thoughts on the indie movement as it’s called, the indie publishing movement? Not everyone can go the traditional route. What are your thoughts?
Joe Finder: Well I’m biased toward the traditional route because I don’t want to actually do the publishing. There’s a reason that we give a percentage of our income to publishers so they can do all this marketing and publicity and all the stuff they’re good at doing.
Tim Knox: Right, they do the work.
Joe Finder: Yeah they do the work. When writers say well forget it; no one else can take my money from me. I sort of think no, no, no this is a business. You’re going into a partnership and your business partner is the publisher and you want them to have a stake in your career. You want them to have a stake in your success. I’m not self-published but I have done it. I’ve self-published stories before using Amazon’s platform. I think basically the thing about the indie movement is that it’s yet another path. If publishers don’t get you and you’ve really given it a try that’s alright, self-publish. That’s how I think Brad Thor made it. A number of other writers basically self-published and then a publisher picked them up and made them big. If you really want to have a big success you pretty much need to have a mainstream publisher but in order to break in one route is to self-publish.
Tim Knox: I think that is the best point there to break in. There’s a young man named Andy Weir who self-published a book called The Martian and that’s what happened to him. He was picked up by Crown I believe and now he’s traditionally published. If he hadn’t had that inlet he probably would have never been picked up.
Joe Finder: Publishers really are looking for fresh talent. You sort of imagine that you’re trying to break in, you’re trying to scale the walls but in fact publishers really want to find new talent. They are looking. If you are achieving some kind of success by self-publishing eventually a publisher’s going to hear about you and sort of catapult you.
Tim Knox: Don’t you think that’s important for authors? It’s not us versus them; it’s not traditional versus self. We’re all in this together. Let’s get the work out there.
Joe Finder: Exactly and the great thing about the independent movement is that it just gives one more route to writers to success.
Tim Knox: Well Joe, I don’t want to keep you here. Just one more question as far as your best advice. I love your blog. You do a lot of writing and advice there. I think one of the things that you talk about is just write the damn book already. Just get it out there and remember that this is a profession. You don’t have to be licensed, any of that stuff. Just write the book.
Joe Finder: Exactly and it’s advice that I need to tell myself all the time. I find myself obsessing over some aspect of the book, some editorial thing and I have to remind myself if you don’t actually have a pile of pages to give your publisher you’re not going to have a book.
Tim Knox: Right, so just keep your head down and write the damn book. I love that. Joe Finder, you are the author of 11 bestselling books, a couple turned into movies. By the way I loved Paranoia. The new book, Suspicion, is coming out in a few days. Joe, where can we get more information about you and the book?
Joe Finder: JosephFinder.com.
Tim Knox: Very good. Joseph Finder, we appreciate your time. Good luck to you sir.
Joe Finder: Good talking with you. Take care.