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Q&A with John Katzenbach

Exclusive Interview by Karen Beishuizen
Photos courtesy of John Katzenbach

John Katzenbach’s career as a novelist began in 1982, with the publication of “In the Heat of the Summer”, an edgy crime novel that examined the cult of celebrity, fame and media ethics. This novel was filmed as “The Mean Season” with Kurt Russell and Mariel Hemingway. Since the publication of that first novel, John Katzenbach has written 12 other psychological thrillers and one acclaimed non-fiction book. His new novel “Jack’s Boys” should be out in Spring this year. Go check out his work!

KB: Did you always want to be a writer growing up or a reporter?

Well, actually yes. I grew up loving words, loving language, loving the notion that I could create people/characters that might come to life on a page. And, honestly, I wasn’t very good at math or science (no doctor career) and being a professional baseball/basketball/soccer player also seemed a bit out of reach.

KB: Who were your literary heroes as a kid and are they still your favorites now?

As a child – C.S. Lewis (the Narnian stories) and of course, J.R.R. Tolkien. “The Wind in the Willows” eventually gave way to “Great Expectations” and “Crime and Punishment”. I don’t think one ever actually gives up on their childhood literary loves. But as one gets older, those loves become more sophisticated. (The difference between high school or college crushes and someone who might qualify for marriage). So, Ambrose Bierce, Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner, the great Fyodor Dostoevsky, Stendahl and Ernest Hemingway sort of push those childhood favorites aside. Not sure that’s necessarily a good thing. It just happens.

KB: Your dad was a former US Attorney General. Did this influence you to become a crime reporter for the Miami Herald and Miami News?

My late father certainly influenced many of my choices in life. And Hart’s War was based on his WW2 experiences. He encouraged me to go into journalism when I graduated from college – but maybe that was just because he wanted me to get a job. And newspapers were the only place I could think of that would pay me to keep writing. And my time as a reporter was like a graduate school education in the terrible things people can do to each other. Being a reporter is like going to the theater every day – only instead of players on a stage, real life dramas get performed in front of you.

KB: You left the newspaper to write thrillers and your debut novel “In the Heat of The Summer” was a bestseller and won the Edgar Award. Did this success surprise you and how did you come up with the story line?

Was I surprised at the success of In the Heat of the Summer? You bet. Frankly, just getting accepted by a publisher was all that I’d hoped for. And the story for that novel came to me one evening when I was sitting around with then-girlfriend, soon-to-be wife Madeleine Blais (an author and a Pulitzer winner). I was complaining about yet another wasted afternoon, when yet another person in the Dade County Jail called me up at the newspaper to explain that they were “totally innocent.” It had taken me hours to discover that the “innocent” person in this case had been witnessed by several others pulling the trigger, picket out of a line-up by other folks, left his fingerprints all over a murder weapon… and… and… well, I could go on. Lots of work for no story, sorry Mr. City Editor. I turned to my about-to-be wife and said, “Wouldn’t it be a lot more interesting if someone called me who was about to commit a crime, rather than already having committed it?” We both looked up. Thought about that. And within days, I’d arranged for a leave of absence from the paper and wrote, “A jogger found the first body by the thirteenth green…”

KB: The novel was made into a movie: “The Mean Season” starring Kurt Russell. Did it do justice to your book?

I’ve been lucky/unlucky enough to have had four of my books adapted for the screen, three in the USA and one in France. Let me say this – in each, there are moments and scenes that I think ring true. And then there are other moments and scenes that go thud! That’s speaking from the author’s perspective. Adapting a novel is not easy, squeezing hundreds of pages into a two-hour movie. That said, I wish some screenwriters would devote more energy to recognizing what I – or any author – was seeking to accomplish on the page and find a way to capture that for the screen.

KB: What makes a great story in your eyes?

What makes a great story? Great, cosmically difficult question. It isn’t the setting, although that’s critical. I think, ultimately, it is about the dynamics of the relationships between characters. A good story makes us feel like we would do what the characters do. Both good guys and bad guys. I suppose that’s what I look for. Certainly, I hope it is what I accomplish in my books. Knock on wood.

KB: Your 7 favorite novels of all times (not your own): What do you pick and why?

My 7 favorite books? Very hard to say. Certainly, those I mentioned in question #2. Let’s add “A Tale of Two Cities”. Why? The psychological tension Dickens captures between characters and the world of Revolutionary France. All displayed in exceptional prose. Also, Saint Ernest’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” although I haven’t re-read it in years. What better example of the conflict between love and duty and sacrifice could one come up with? Another I haven’t re-read in some time: Faulkner’s “Light in August”. Again, choices and decisions expertly played out on the page. A little more contemporary: “Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurtry because he weaves the weight of history into personal saga flawlessly.

“Dog Soldiers” by Robert Stone, because he managed to encapsulate so much of the dynamics of the Vietnam era into a crime story that isn’t really a crime story. “The Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara, just because in the most simple, evocative prose he takes an iconic and critical moment in American history and brings it, and the people who made it, alive. Just prose magic. I could go on about authors and titles – but let’s put a couple of “thrillers” into this mix: my friend Scott Turow’s “Presumed Innocent”.

Just brilliant both in plot, developed characters and electric prose from the opening page. Always been jealous of that one. Jealous, too of Peter Hoeg’s “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” which I insist is one of the truly great mystery-thrillers of all time, because he takes plot, obsession and nature and blends it all together. And I’m not even mentioning “The Hound of the Baskervilles” by the immortal Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, because anyone who wants to be writer should know about Sherlock Holmes (not the Robert Downey Jr. version from the screen – although I believe Guy Ritchie is one of the world’s great directors). Sir Arthur managed to create a character that will live on the page for centuries. Now, of course, the same could be said for my friend Thomas Harris and his equally brilliant “Silence of the Lambs”. Another all-time favorite of mine.

KB: What are you currently up to? I heard a new novel is coming?

I have just finished the edits on a forthcoming novel “Jack’s Boys” which should be out early next year. It has already been published in Germany and other parts of Europe and throughout Latin America, so it has graced bestseller lists on different continents. Finishing means I will go fishing while the weather is still good. Alaskan salmon in wondrously remote areas with some psychiatrist friends of mine (who are great sounding boards for the psychological story issues that crop up from time to time). Shrinks, bears, wolves, caribou and acrobatic silver salmon who dislike being interrupted by a well-placed fly on their way to fulfilling their destiny. What could be more fun? As far as film stuff – well, yes. Rumblings about an adaptation of “Just Cause”. Other possibilities range from the small chance to maybe. But… until I see cameras, actors, director, many other folks on an expensive set and hear, “Action!” I don’t count on anything.

Check out John’s website: HERE

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