Tuesday, March 27, 2018

KREMLIN STORM: Discussing Russploitation with Ian Kharitonov

I first became aware of Ian Kharitonov through an interview he did with somebody or other talking about an action/adventure renaissance taking place in the independent author community. His reasoning impressed me, which of course it would, since I've been saying the same things privately to other writer pals as we churn out the kind of he-man action stories we grew up reading while wondering if readers cared. Looking at the samples of Ian's books on Amazon, I found a writer who is high and tight with the prose, wastes no words, and really hooks you from the get-go.

His latest, Kremlin Storm, is no exception. Get ready for a rocket-paced ride with a twist you might not be expecting.

More from Ian . . .

Brian Drake: You're writing a series with a subject matter (thrilling events taking place in Russia) that we don't see very much, with Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park probably being the most well known example. What made you decide to use Russia as the stage for your thrillers? (Aside from once living there, of course.)

Ian Kharitonov: Write what you know! The old adage still holds true. And in my case, I write what others don't really know much about, to be honest. A quarter of a century after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Russia remains an enigma. Despite the growing interest in the country, many authors who want to jump on the Russia bandwagon often fall flat and get their basic facts wrong, even some of the big names. As a reader, I found it frustrating at times (and still do). So I decided to take the matter into my own hands. As an author, I turned it into an advantage, finding my niche. I've even coined the term Russploitation for the subgenre I'm writing in. There aren't many Russian protagonists in most thrillers that you see on the shelves. Only Red Sparrow has made a big splash recently. Arkady Renko is another notable exception, but Gorky Park and its sequels were police procedurals rather than action/adventure or espionage thrillers. And I believe that being Russian allows me to add an extra layer of authenticity that even Martin Cruz Smith couldn't achieve, giving my readers a real insider's look. I'm very flattered by the analogy, though, and my early sales pitch was "Jason Bourne meets Gorky Park," so if you want to sum up my thriller, it fits.

BD: Is Gene Sokolov based on anybody in particular? What about his rescue unit?

IK: I think that any protagonist is a reflection of the author's psyche in some way. It's the reason we write, to fulfill our hidden dreams and aspirations, or to banish our subconscious fears, to make anything possible on the page. I have two main protagonists in my series, the Sokolov brothers, Eugene and Constantine. Perhaps I've always wanted an older brother? I don't know! In any case, they're the only two surviving members of their family which has been ravaged by the last one hundred years of Russian history. I didn't want to create a cliché superhero who's equally skilled at brain surgery and powerlifting, and prone to quoting passages from Schopenhauer in the middle of a gunfight. So I wanted to strike a balance between my heroes. Constantine is a historian with basic self-defense training and Gene is an all-action man educated in civil defense. Constantine has been ousted from academia for his political views, while Gene continues working for a government agency. He's not a Russian Spetsnaz military type as seen in Hollywood, however. EMERCOM is roughly the real-life Russian counterpart of FEMA. Of course, I used some artistic license when fictionalizing it, making it more independent from the Kremlin's affairs. Sokolov is not a typical action thriller protagonist in the sense that he's supposed to be saving people instead of killing them, but he inevitably gets dragged into deadly missions that he has to fight his way through.

BD: Your bio says you turned down a diplomatic career to instead write fiction. What made you do that, and how did the experience that led to such an opportunity fuel your writing?

IK: Fresh out of college at twenty, I turned down a diplomatic career much in the same way as my main character turned down a military career. The nature of the Kremlin regime was quite clear and I didn't want to get involved. I was offered a job at the Russian Embassy in Sweden and I wouldn't touch it with a barge pole, especially in the wake of a recent spy scandal in Stockholm. Having lived in several different countries since a young age, I decided to move on to writing fiction, and Nordic Noir just wasn't my thing.

BD: You've released four books, two in 2013, one in 2015, and, of course, 2018. Most independent writers are grinding out titles every couple of months (sometimes one a month) to get traction, but it looks like you're approach is helping you sell books as well. What made you decide to do fewer releases, and what are your favorite marketing techniques?

IK: It's not a business strategy, it's procrastination! Seriously though, every writer wants to have written more and faster. I'm no exception. I do have an excuse of being a relatively young author finding my feet. My series required a ton of research, but now that I've laid the groundwork I hope to pick up speed and have quicker, shorter releases. I'm convinced that the ebook market is perfect for leaner novels like the men's adventure series from the 1970s. All plot, no padding.

As for the marketing techniques, the nascent digital landscape is still quite volatile and things change quickly. The tricks that work today might become useless tomorrow. My most reliable tool is probably targeted advertising. Some universal marketing principles do apply, and always will. Marketing begins before you even start creating your product, with identifying your readers' needs or tastes, or setting out to establish new ones. The market is difficult to predict, but the best thing you can do is write the sort of book you'd love to read yourself as a buyer.

BD: I'm a Cold War kid who used to think Russia was where "the enemy" was, and it didn't help that where I lived in California at the time was a Soviet "first strike target area". In recent years, mostly through research for stories, I've come to respect the people and culture. It's been disappointing to realize they've left one bad political system for another, under a regime that stays in power through dirty tricks and shenanigans, and continues to jail and malign (and maybe murder) those who oppose the system. Will Russia ever fully recover from the Soviet era, or will it take a lot of old men dying for new blood to finally make Russia great again?

IK: It was tragic, and my novels touch upon the subject. Unfortunately, the transition from dictatorship to freedom failed because it was still carried out by the same people. Communists who'd only learned about capitalism from Marxist textbooks could only build an evil caricature version of it.

As a result, Russia steered away from democracy toward a thugocracy. A Mafia state, like something out of a Mack Bolan book. La cosa di tutti cosi. As the popular saying goes: "Every country has its own mafia, but only in Russia does the mafia have its own country."

And there's no end in sight. On the contrary, Russia's become too small for these gangsters who want to spread their criminal influence around the world, from running internet troll farms to using WMDs in European countries. I'm sad to say that Russia has done everything to become the enemy once again. Are the Russian people complicit in allowing this regime to continue for at least another six years? The jury is still out.

Will Russia ever recover from the Soviet era? The very same question is posed at the end of my first novel, The Russian Renaissance. My characters were somewhat optimistic about it, but that sentiment dwindled in the following books.

BD: What's next for your books? Will you continue the Sokolov series, or try something else?

IK: Now that Cold War 2.0 is officially here (http://observer.com/2018/03/theresa-may-announces-measures-against-russia-for-sergei-skripal-case/), it's nice to have a head start in the Russploitation game. I don't see the series going away any time soon. I have big plans in store for the Sokolov brothers. Hopefully, my plot ideas won't become reality, at least not until I finish writing the stories!

Brian Drake: You can learn more about Ian at his website or at his Amazon page. Thanks, Ian!

Monday, March 12, 2018

There Be Zombies! The Post-Apocalypse According to John L. Davis

My next interview is John L. Davis, an author who admits he is outnumbered in his own house--a wife, two daughters, and a dog. Poor chap--I feel for you, John!

John's written some very good pieces of fiction you should check out if you're into the zombie / prepper genre, horror, or even Christian fiction. John dabbles in them all, and does very well indeed.

Brian Drake: When did you start writing?

John L. Davis: I started writing many years ago, around the age of 14. I had really just fallen in love with books and reading about two years before that and got to the point where I felt I had stories to tell. I’ve accumulated reams of short stories, novel starts and poems since then. I didn’t write with any serious intent until three years ago, when I first started writing my series, American Revenant.

BD: Tell us about American Revenant.

JLD: American Revenant is a zombie apocalypse survival series set in and around the town I live in, Hannibal, Missouri. The genesis of the stories stems from conversations with friends about survival during a world-changing event, such as an EMP or societal collapse. How we would handle it, what we could do to prepare ourselves and our families should anything like that ever occur. Then one day, jokingly, zombies were mentioned, (we had all been watching The Walking Dead at that point) and suddenly, that spark went off. When I mentioned the idea of a book, my friends essentially dared me to write it.

The series follows a group of preppers that never expected zombies in their survival plans. At first, they struggle to find a way out of Hannibal to a safer, more defensible location. The books aren’t far-ranging, meaning that characters are never really far from home. The idea of a wandering band of nomads was being done by everyone writing or filming zombies in any form. I wanted intelligent characters who would find a place to call their own and build it up to be a safe and habitable place.

BD: What attracted you to the zombie / prepper genre?

JLD: Zombies were on the rise again, (so to speak) with the success of The Walking Dead and Z Nation, and spending time playing in that undead world just seemed fun, like there were no real boundaries. I’ve loved the whole idea of zombies, and zombie fiction since I first watched Return of the Living Dead 2 and Night of the Living Dead (my all time favorite zombie flick) all those years ago as a teen. Dark and scary, or hilariously bloody, they always elicited a strong response from the imagination. Hacking my way into that world just seemed natural.

As for the prepper side of it, well, I’ve always had a strong interest in survival, especially wilderness survival. As a kid I would take my paperback copy of Outdoor Survival Skills by Larry Dean Olsen out to the woods behind my Dad’s house and practice. I still have that book. It’s been soaking wet and filthy, the cover’s been taped up and taped back on many times. I slipped into the prepper mindset easily over the years, and it made its way into my books, to some extent.

BD: Tell us about Fat Jack and Hollywood Burning. What are the true stories behind your version of events?

JLD: Fat Jack- Fat Jack is a brutal revenge story with a wicked Supernatural-style twist. A running theme through many of my stories is family. What would a father do to protect his family, or should he fail to protect them, how far would he go for retribution. Jack is a huge embodiment of that retribution, especially when faced with a force that might be something other than what it appears. Of all my currently published pieces, Fat Jack is the one people most often tell me they want more of. People love Jack, and because of that I’m considering doing a series of short stories to really dig deep into his character and the world he inhabits.

Hollywood Burning – This is another story about family and retribution, from a different standpoint. The premise for the piece comes from the recent headlines regarding high-profile Hollywood elites coming under scrutiny for alleged sexual abuse against numerous people. What would a father do if he lost his young actor son to suicide because of the depravity heaped upon the boy by those in powerful positions. The story takes a violent look at a father’s broken heart, with something of that “Punisher” style of justice. As a nod to two well-known victims of Hollywood’s excesses, readers should pay attention to the son’s name in the story. If they look, they can figure out where it comes from.

BD: Along with your zombie fiction and revenge tales, you've also dipped into Christian Fiction. What inspired The Old Man & The Bible and The Boy & The Miracle?

JLD: Both of these stories were written at the same time, nearly twenty years ago, (It probably shows in the writing). I can’t specifically say what inspired them, but this was at a time when I was closely examining my faith in God. I remember writing Man/Bible to make readers open their Bibles to look up a specific verse at the end of the story. Boy/Miracle was me imagining what a really big miracle might look like in an age when people no longer believe that God works miracles. I had placed them up for sale at the request of a friend and can say honestly that I’ve never sold more than a few copies of each, but I leave them up. Maybe someday, someone will read them, just when they need them most.

BD: That’s great. We need more Christ-centered fiction in this cesspool of a world. How can readers contact you?

JLD: I’m all over the internet. Twitter is @AmRevenant, same for Instagram. The easiest way would probably be on the American Revenant Facebook page. I can also be found at Americanrevenantseries.com.

BD: What are you working on next?

JLD: I’ve taken a bit of a hard right turn with my new novel, tentatively titled Average Joe. I usually stay firmly in the horror or post-apocalyptic areas, while sometimes getting into a bit of science fiction, but this new book is strictly an action thriller. We’ve all read those fantastic action heroes (i.e.; Jack Reacher, Mack Bolan, Jason Bourne) that are well trained ex-military or law-enforcement. These guys have all the skills and honed abilities to defeat the bad dudes and win the day. I wondered how an average guy, without all that training, might handle a situation that he really shouldn’t be in.
Rather than go with self-publishing this time, I intend to at least attempt securing an agent or publisher for this one. If that doesn’t happen, then I’ll definitely release it online as I’ve done with my other works.

BD: Thanks, John. Best of luck with the new book.

You can check out John's website HERE and his Amazon author page HERE.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Happy Birthday, Mickey

I didn't want the sun to go down tonight before saying anything about Mickey Spillane's 100th birthday (today, duh) but the sun has gone down, and thoughts have eluded me all afternoon. What do you say about Mickey that hasn't already been said, and what can you add to the mix? But I finally have a few thoughts:

1) Mickey left us too soon, and The Goliath Bone, his last book finished by Max Allan Collins, was tough to read, because "the end" meant "good-bye" and I wasn't ready for that yet. I've learned more from Mickey Spillane than any other writer including Ian Fleming. How can you argue with, "The first chapter sells the book; the last chapter sells the next book." Nobody else talks about writing the way Mickey Spillane did.

2) Mickey once did a TV interview to promote The Killing Man on a talk show hosted by Bob Costas, "Later", I believe it was called, because Costas used to open by saying, "Thanks for staying up Later." I was fortunate to videotape the show, but now the tape is gone. I must have watched that interview a thousand times. Mickey was funny and engaging and he looked like my grandfather. I'd love to see it again. Mickey gave other interviews and recycled all the answers, but they weren't the same.

3) Anybody who wants to write about anything needs to read the first chapter of The Killing Man and memorize it. That first chapter is without flaw and shows you everything you need to know about setting a scene and building tension to the breaking point. It's brilliant. The rest of the book ain't bad, either. The last line? "Now I killed you, you shit." Terrific! Nobody writes last lines the way Mickey Spillane did.

4) I wrote him a letter once to tell him how much I admired his work and had the audacity to email Max Allan Collins to ask for the best address, because I knew he'd understand. Collins provided a "general delivery" post office location and said, "Don't worry, he'll get it." I sent the letter. I don't know if Mickey ever got it. But I hope he did.

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Thrillers of Ethan Jones

I have a treat for you this time. Ethan Jones has written a terrific series of spy thrillers featuring such thrilling protagonists as Justin Hall, Carrie O'Connor, Jennifer Morgan, and, now, Javin Pierce, aka The Corrector.

You can check out Ethan's Amazon author page here, which lists his impressive body of work.

I invited Ethan by to tell us more about his books and his approach to writing, and why brain surgery is easier than writing a book.

Brian Drake: Tell us about your new book. Is this the start of a new series?

Ethan Jones: The Corrector is the start of a new series. When covert operations go wrong, the Canadian Intelligence Service sends in . . . The Corrector.

Enter Javin Pierce.

Javin comes in when no one else can. With his calm, well-thought manner he’s able to pull off jobs where others have failed. Javin is always two steps ahead, which is essential.

In The Corrector, he’s sent to Istanbul, Turkey, to retrieve a flash drive containing scandals that could topple world governments and plunge Europe into absolute chaos if they do not retrieve it in time. But, before even getting started, Javin and his less-than-trusted partner, Claudia, must deal with a devious terrorist plot and its aftermath, all without leaving a trace . . .

BD: After so many books under your belt, what have you learned about yourself as a writer?

EJ: I’ve learned to trust my gut on how and where the story is going. I’ve also learned to let the characters and their personality guide me and the plot lines. The characters can tell us, writers, so much if we can only listen.

BD: Tell us about Justin Hall. What has reader reaction been like?

EJ: Most readers love Justin. He comes across as firm, determined, but also has a kind side. I wanted to make him human, not superman. He has doubts, fears, he loves and hates like all of us. There are some readers who dislike Justin and my style of writing, but I’m okay with that. The majority of my readers still love him, and that’s all that matters.

BD: Are you able to find a balance between writing and marketing?  If so, how? If not, how are you trying to do that?

EJ: If I can only do one thing a day, that’s writing. I aim for 1000 words, which is a bit over three pages, and on most days, I can hit that target. Once I’ve done that, I switch to marketing. Many people are scared by the word “marketing,” but as long as I’m doing something to get the word out about my book, that’s marketing. I usually do that in the afternoon or in the evening, depending on the day.

BD: What is something, other than reading great books, that fuels your imagination for your own stories?

EJ: I like to read the news, especially from controversial media, which have some pretty far-fetched stories that are great for my spy fiction genre. I also like to watch documentaries, again mostly from local media of the areas where I’m setting my stories, so that I can get that authentic feel for the culture, the geo-politics, and a good sense of what’s going on in that part of the world.

BD: After being in the business for so long, do you find your level of enthusiasm has increased, or remained the same, from when you started? Did you ever consider an easier line of work, such as brain surgery?

EJ: You’re right, brain surgery is easier. You work on two models that never change . . . Joking aside, my level of enthusiasm has increased. Now that I have written 21 books and published 18, well, 19 if you include The Corrector, I know I can do this and give my readers books they love.

BD: What else would you like to add?

EJ: Thanks for the opportunity. Readers can check out my books for free if they join my exclusive readers club at http://eepurl.com/IpOm5