Alan Jacobson (Author - 'Hard Target')
'Unvailing The Truth'
Alan Jacobson's literary career has been marked by a number of events, but none more significant than an accidental meeting nearly 20 years ago. While researching 'False Accusations' at the Department of Justice's crime lab, he met FBI agent Mark Safarik, who was awaiting promotion to the FBI's Behavioral Analysis (profiling) Unit--the one popularized by TV's Criminal Minds.
They hit it off, stayed in touch, and Agent Safarik invited Jacobson out to Quantico to tour the FBI Academy and profiling unit. Thus began Jacobson's immersion in the world of serial killers, rapists, bombers and arsonists.
And now, after an eleven year wait, we finally get Jacobson's latest book, 'Hard Target'.
An explosion pulverizes the president-elect's helicopter on Election Night. It soon becomes clear that the group behind the assassination possesses far greater reach than anything the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force has yet encountered—and a plot so deeply interwoven in the country’s fabric that it threatens to upend America's political system.
'Hard Target' is a ticking time bomb that keeps you clinging to the edge of your seat...and turning the pages. It also features Jacobson's famed FBI Profiler, Karen Vail, in a key role affecting national security.
Chatting recently with author ALAN JACOBSON, we dicussed some of the plot points, his use of tried-and-tested characters, the title of the book, and even a new-kind-of-killer that will be appearing in his next book! But first, knowing 'Hard Target' was packed full of political know-how, of governmental procedures, I wondered how much of it he had known beforehand? "I had a “birds-eye view,” but it wasn’t until I started asking questions of the experts that I realized the complexity and depth of each issue—not to mention the players and groups who have a vested interest in the outcome. In the early going, on some of the topics, I had to work hard to cobble together the information I was looking for because it only existed in my fictional world. But over the years, certain plot points that I’d conjured up for my story actually came true."
"As you can see from the acknowledgements at the end of Hard Target, I worked with an extensive number of experts in a lot of different fields to get a handle on all the issues that come to bear during the course of the story."
And which part of 'Hard Target' was the hardest to capture on paper? Indeed, which part of it kept you up at night because it just wouldn't come out right? "Hard Target flowed beautifully from start to finish. That said, the most difficult part was the timing of everything that happens. As you know, there’s a clock running for the entire novel—down to the minute. There are no chapters; the book is divided into sections, headed by the time left before a particular “something” is due to strike."
"That meant every minute had to be accounted for, from the specific mentions of time in the prose or dialogue to determining the unstated passage of time in a scene—or even in an entire work day. The time then had to be deducted from the imminent deadline. That’s not to say it’s something the reader is always aware of—when you’re absorbed in the story, you’re not counting minutes. But I wanted it to be right, nonetheless. It was a monumental undertaking."
"Making it more difficult was that if I rewrote something, the timeline had to be reworked and the minutes counted once again. It got so unwieldy at one point that my wife took over the task. That’s a good thing, because she’s much better than I am with numbers!"
Word has it that it took you eleven (11) years to write 'Hard Target'! Having read it I have to say it was time well invested as it was completely enthralling. But just why did it take you all those years. What was always stopping you along the way? "The subject matter of Hard Target is far-reaching and encompasses many different topics that required experts in dozens of fields; some of it required me to gain access to very sensitive areas of the government. That took time. In other situations, world events changed—and key points in my story, which are based in reality and real-world happenings, had to change with them."
"When you’re talking about a meaty novel that’s tightly interwoven, those modifications can’t be made in a matter of days. It can take weeks or months, especially if that item dominoes throughout the story; often, more research needs to be done. Consider the impact 9/11 had on how we conduct terror investigations—the entire Homeland Security apparatus was nonexistent when I started writing Hard Target."
"In addition, when my Karen Vail series took off, my publisher didn’t want to interrupt it by putting out a standalone (although there are so many of my recurring characters in Hard Target that it’s more a hybrid than a pure standalone). Even though I kept hoping it would be the next book released, in essence, it resulted in Hard Target being delayed for four years. And that meant I had to rewrite it periodically to reflect changes in current world events."
"When the time finally was right for Hard Target to be released, I looked at the entire manuscript with fresh eyes. After turning it in to my editor, he had certain suggestions and changes he thought I should make."
"When I look back at all the work I put into Hard Target, I realize I could’ve written several novels. But that’s okay—I love the story and characters, so I’m so very pleased that it’s finally in the hands of my readers."
Although the book can get weighed down in procedures and such, I found what you did to be an interesting approach re: whenever government acronyms came up you would have a character explain them (for another character or, more importantly for the reader). When that's done in a TV show it can come across as false, annoying even, but you dodged that. Was that a conscious decision to make it as informative, and yet as unobtrusive as possible? Indeed, did you think you would lose the reader if you didn't? "Yes, it absolutely was a conscious decision. You’re right. It’s tough to do so that it’s unobtrusive and natural, yet still serves its purpose of keeping the reader in stride with the characters and story. Our government is rife with acronyms, and a book like Hard Target is full of different agencies working the investigation. I attempted to be as accurate as possible and reasonable in conveying how the attempted assassination of the president-elect would be conducted. But I had to make sure I took the reader along with me, and didn’t leave him/her behind in a morass of alphabet soup."
"The Karen Vail novel I’m currently writing is set in London, and I have a scene where Vail makes a joke about these acronyms with two Scotland Yard inspectors—because in England, she has no idea what their acronyms mean. So I had a little fun with it."
The partnership of Uzi and DeSantos was wonderful, very funny (at times), always seriously-toned, but never wavering on the friendship levels. Were these two based on any one in your life, perhaps? "These guys had a chemistry that gelled the moment I put them together. While neither is based on a specific person I’ve known, everything that authors experience, from people to places, gets mashed into an amalgam and inserted into our creative visions while we’re writing. So the Uzi-DeSantos relationship is based on multiple interactions I’ve had with people—particularly that chemistry, the way we related to one another."
"DeSantos was actually “born” in my second novel, The Hunted. He was a semi-main character who experiences a traumatic event perpetrated by the novel’s antagonist, Anthony Scarponi; I brought DeSantos back in Velocity, the third Karen Vail novel, wherein he teams with Vail—an odd pairing if there ever was one. His personality, and what he does professionally—he’s a black operative who “legally” kills people—gave me a lot of juicy stuff to work with, especially within the framework of the Velocity storyline. And partnering him with Vail, who’s on a “mission of revenge,” put them both in a position of behaving completely opposite to the way they’re accustomed to. It resulted in tremendous conflict and some very exciting storytelling."
"When I put Uzi and DeSantos together in Hard Target, the chemistry was immediate—it honestly was not planned. That’s the kind of thing I look for, when I know I’ve got something special. This happened in Crush (the second Vail novel) when Vail meets Investigator Roxxann Dixon. The chemistry was palpable, and my editor picked up on it immediately. After reading the first fifty pages, he asked me, “Who’s this Roxxann Dixon chick? Whatever you’re doing with her, keep it up! She and Vail are fantastic together!” I totally agreed, and I brought Dixon back in both Velocity and Inmate 1577. I still have readers asking me to pair up Vail and Dixon again."
With the elections upcoming, 'Hard Target' is perfectly timed for the book shelves this year. Planned from the start or a happy coincidence? "A happy coincidence. I’ve been working on this novel, on and off, for eleven years, so there’s no way I could’ve timed it to hit at a major US election. While that was my goal four years ago, the Vail series was taking off and my publisher said no. Since we released Inmate 1577 (the fourth Vail novel) at this time last year, Hard Target was calendared to keep me on a book-a-year timetable. It just so happened to fall in a presidential election year—what I’d hoped for all along."
Also, given the upcoming election, it is a cautious tale to behold, for sure, but is it one that could actually unfold as your pages have "predicted"? I know every novel has a certain amount of fantasy element embedded within it (ala Jason Bourne), but is the underlying threat still a valid one, in your personal opinion? "It is. This world is a very scary place—not only because of the threats we know about but because of the ones we don’t know about."
"I was at a briefing last week given by a group of former Special Forces operators who have been intimately involved in global intelligence and counterterrorism. The information they provided was astounding. I knew some of it because of my research for Velocity and Hard Target, but because their focus branched off into a slightly different realm, there were connections I was unaware of. It’s not unlike the connections I drew in Hard Target."
"These experts presented information (which I’ve since independently confirmed) that unrelated enemies of the US have found common ground toward achieving a particular purpose. And a key part of their plan is establishing a network of sleeper cells on US soil, poised to strike when their needs arise. It’s disturbing to say the least. So, yes, there’s a lot of stuff going on under the sheets that the public is not aware of.
One thing I’ve learned is that if you’ve got a common enemy, and a common goal, when you mix in power and money…strange bedfellows emerge. Another thing is that truth is stranger than fiction…so if you grow a plausible scenario out of factual information, there’s a high probability it will come to fruition in time. This is what has happened with certain elements of Hard Target."
Well before the halfway point of this book we, as the reader are rooting for Uzi to win every battle, to look over his shoulder on every dangerous mission, to never succumb to tragedy. In my mind's eye I saw, for all my sins, Tom Cruise in this role! Cruise, as you know, has just filmed the role of "book cop" Jack Reacher. Which had everyone up in arms as he is far from tall, dark and ruggedly handsome! But if not Cruise who did you yourself see when you were writing the character? "I never think of an actor when I’m writing a novel or conceiving of a character. That creation must come from within me. My character has to be based on my vision of who that person is, because I have to know how he/she would react in any situation. I have to know his/her core. Picturing an actor takes me out of that process and would invariably give me a wooden character—or just as bad, conjure a character based on roles that actor has played in the past—so I’d be parroting that screenwriter’s character rather than creating my own. It would not result in quality writing."
"That said, after a book’s been published, I’m often asked what actor I see in that role. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked who I want playing my series character, FBI Profiler Karen Vail. In fact, when we were a couple of months away from filming the first Vail novel, The 7th Victim (the project fell through in the eleventh hour), the executive producer and I started to discuss a short list of actors to play Vail. That’s truly the only time to consider such a question!"
"But, even then, it doesn’t play out the way one would think. There are a number of considerations that have nothing to do with who is a good fit for the character. A studio considers a host of things, including who has the power to “open” a film; who the studio prefers to work with (or not); the targeted actors’ committed schedules for other films; who’s already under contract to the studio—that is, if they have an actor signed to a deal, they’re looking to find a project for her. So if my project comes along and they need a woman, they try to use the actress they have under contract. This explains why sometimes miscastings occur. Remember Morgan Freeman as Alex Cross, or Matt Damon as Jason Bourne? Fine actors, but the wrong actors for those characters."
As we read into the final third of the book, the red herrings come thick and fast. As a writer, you know you have to slot these in, but as a reader can you spot a red herring a mile off when reading someone else's thriller?! "In my view, red herrings have to be organic, plausible, and not forced. If they’re forced, they lose their power, and thus their effectiveness. My wife spots them in the novels she reads, but, honestly, I read differently. I’m not trying to figure things out; I’m letting the writer take me on the journey. If it’s well written, I’ll note the writer’s craft in terms of how he/she tells the story, constructs the scenes, etc. I may think back after the fact to see how I may’ve done things differently, and how red herrings were used, but I’m not keeping a scorecard. Since I’m not reading to identify them, the only time they pop out at me while I’m reading is when they’re poorly done—and so blatantly obvious that it takes me out of the story."
The title of your book, 'Hard Target' has been used many, oh so many times for books, so why did you plum for it now? Being an under-the-radar writer myself, I have always put great stock in having a great title to bounce off of, to feed from in those hours of quietness. "Hard Target was my “invention.” Friends of mine have had titles changed by their publishers, but fortunately that’s never happened to me. While I did have two other titles for Hard Target, one was very similar to Velocity, so I didn’t want to use that out of fear of confusing readers. The other one was good, but it sounded a bit too much like a title for a legal thriller."
"I completely agree with you that the title is important in the early going, for reasons I’ve never been able to identify—but it has to work for me as a writer while I’m composing the story. For some reason, the right title helps me construct my vision for the novel. As to Hard Target having been used before, compared to the number of books that are published, there are relatively few original titles. I’ve accepted that there are going to be duplications. In fact, there was another novel titled Hard Target that came out a few months before mine. I had no idea until it was too late—the hardcover jackets were already in production. That said, there’s a 1950s movie titled The 7th Victim—should I have changed the title of my (third) novel because of that? I didn’t think so, and neither did my publisher."
"In fact, in the year after The 7th Victim launched, there was a rash of similarly titled books: The 3rd Victim, Victim #7, etc. Generally speaking—because there are always exceptions—I’d rather go with a title that’s biting, that works with the story on more than one level, and that fits my canon. The new Vail novel that I’m writing now shares a title with a 1982 movie. I know people will bring that up after it’s released, but the title works well with the storyline, and it plays off the fact that it’s set in England, so unless something changes, I’m sticking with it."
"For Crush (which followed The 7th Victim), I had a list of over 200 titles. For some reason, I couldn’t find the right one that fit all my criteria—and it made me crazy because I like to have the title settled early on in the process. Many of those on the list were variations on Crush—Crush of Death was the working title. Finally, my wife said, “Why not just ‘Crush’?” It was “slap myself upside the head” time. I was astounded that the best answer was right in front of me the whole time. Crush worked on multiple levels for the story, from the way the offender killed to the region in which it was set (Napa Valley), to the time constraint Karen Vail is under. After that experience, I’m grateful when I hit on the perfect title early on—because I don’t want to go through that “Crush experience” again."
'Hard Target' also features your famed FBI Profiler, Karen Vail, in a guest role. Was it always your intention to give her a moment to shine in this book? And when will her TV series begin filming, now that it has been officially optioned? "Karen Vail was in the original draft of Hard Target—which was not an accident because after spending several years working with two profilers at the Behavioral Analysis Unit while writing The 7th Victim, I had Karen Vail on the brain! I love Vail; she’s a terrific character, and because of the nature of Hard Target, it was a natural fit for her to be a part of the investigation. As time evolved, and as I wrote four Karen Vail novels in the intervening years, I had to revise some of her scenes in Hard Target because she now had a history with Hector DeSantos (from Velocity, the third Vail novel)."
"I made sure to incorporate that background so that their relationship, which had developed nicely in Velocity, figured into how they related to one another in Hard Target. While Vail has serious scenes in Hard Target, she also has some very funny exchanges with DeSantos and Uzi."
"It’s been a real kick creating this family of characters. I (and my readers) enjoy visiting with them, which is one of the advantages of writing a series; you eventually have a cast of characters that become like old friends. When they enter a scene for the first time, you get a warm feeling because they have such different personalities and you’ve missed them. We actually have memories of times we’ve spent with them. It’s very powerful for me, as the writer, and for my readers."
Also, in a perfect world, who have you always seen as the Karen Vail actor/muse when writing her series? "Karen Vail comes from deep inside me. There’s a lot of Alan Jacobson in her—particularly the dry wit/sarcasm, which I had to bottle when I moved from New York to California. She’s also made up of a number of strong female influences in my life, including my wife. Writing a series is a challenge because we’ve all read series that get stale—the author gets bored writing his main character and the stories suffer as a result. They become retreads that retell the same stories with a slightly different plot and a few new characters. I’ve worked hard to avoid that. I approach each novel from a fresh perspective, and I tell each story differently, from the style of the prose to the structure of the novel. This is not by accident."
"I also use setting to keep things new and different. For me, if I can stress my main character by putting her in a place or situation she hasn’t experienced before, we’ll see new sides to her personality—and she “learns about herself” in the process. She thus stays fresh to me—and to the reader. Velocity, the third Vail novel, is such an example. When I conceived of the Crush/Velocity storyline (it’s essentially one plot divided into two novels), I actually wrote a “vision statement” for Vail that dealt with the emotions Vail would be experiencing in Velocity, how she would react to certain situations, and how her demeanor was going to be different from how we’d previously seen her—as well as how she’d seen herself."
"Readers, and law enforcement officers in particular, responded strongly. One commented that Vail was the kind of cop he’d “want to go through a door with”—meaning that she was the kind of cop he’d trust his back to when they bust down a door together."
What's next for you as a writer? And will we have to wait another eleven (11) years to read it?! "I write a book a year, so Hard Target was an unusual case. I’m working on the fifth Vail novel, which is set primarily in England (it opens with a few scenes in Spain, and then moves to the UK). This has been quite a challenge because it’s a foreign country and a foreign culture. Many people think the UK is a lot like the US. It’s not—even the language is different and contains nuances that you have to know to make it authentic."
"I went to England and spent time scouring the cities and countryside so I knew where to set my scenes, to immerse myself in the culture, and to mingle with the people so I could learn about the challenges they face. As a result, it’s been a much slower writing process because I have to think differently than I normally do. It’s added a new dimension that I’ve never experienced—which is a good thing."
Having written for years now, and immersed yourself in the world of serial killers, rapists, bombers and arsonists (both for research and fictional worlds thereafter), what's left to discover, buried deep within your dark side?! "As my FBI Profiler buddy said recently, “Just when I thought I’d seen it all, a new case comes across my desk and redefines what I’d previously known as the truth.” The bottom line is that we/I have not seen everything there is to see. Human nature is such that we’re always changing, so there are always new challenges to take on. I actually have the broad strokes of an outline for the sixth Karen Vail novel, which introduces a totally different type of killer. In fact, I’ve already done a fair amount of research for the novel because no one has seen a killer quite like this one. I’ve consulted my profiler friends and world renowned psychiatrists. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to writing that one!"
"The bottom line, though, is that I’m always trying to tell a compelling story with characters we love to visit with, and spend time with. That’s my goal. If I do that, the darkness will emerge where it needs to. And my characters will be there to confront it."
And finally, and throwing you a journalistic curve ball, we here at Exclusive Magazine LOVE penguins (the birds) ... what's your opinion on them?! "I love penguins. I find them totally fascinating. In fact, on the flight back from England, I had my laptop open and I was trying to write. But there was a movie on that featured penguins. And I couldn’t stop watching the damn thing! I was so drawn to them that I had a very hard time focusing on my work. Ironically, my agent was one of the film’s producers, which I didn’t know until the credits rolled at the end."
Interviewed by: Russell A. Trunk
'HARD TARGET' is now available at www.Amazon.com.
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