How did you become a writer?
Not an easy question to answer. In one sense I decided to become a writer when I was eight years old and discovered a book in the Albany Public Library called The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, by Eleanor Cameron. I fell in love with the book — an adventure story about a couple of boys who build a rocket ship and discover a planet — and wrote the author a letter. Eventually she replied, and we corresponded over the course of several years. That was my realization that behind stories and novels are human beings who make all these narrative decisions, and I thought, what a cool job!
But I really became a writer during grad school, right after college. I was at the Harvard Russian Research Center and came to the realization that I didn’t want to be an academic. Or work for the CIA, as some of my classmates did. In my free time I read Robert Ludlum and Ken Follett and Stephen King and some of the older suspense fiction novelists like Eric Ambler and Graham Greene when he was slumming. I really wanted to write a thriller, but couldn't summon the courage to try it. So I had an idea for a nonfiction book, about the most powerful American businessmen and their personal connections to the Kremlin. I submitted it to an agent and got a publisher . . . and I was a writer. I was twenty-two.
But I still wanted to write fiction. I read a novel by Frederick Forsyth with scenes that took place in the Politburo, in the Kremlin, and I thought, now I’m an expert in this stuff and I could try my hand . . .
I took a job teaching writing, and in the meantime I wrote and rewrote and rewrote a political thriller. I gave myself a deadline of three years — if you can sell a novel and be able to support at least yourself on the advance, I told myself, you can quit teaching and write full time. Just days before my deadline I managed to sell the twenty-third draft of my first novel for a lot of money, and the next day I went in to work and quit.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.)
Everything I read influences me in some way — I learn from every book I read, good or bad, literary to “popular” — but the authors who come to mind, in no particular order, are John le Carré, Ira Levin, Eric Ambler, Robert Ludlum, William Goldman (Marathon Man), Ken Follett, Stephen King, Thomas Harris, John Grisham, Lee Child, James M. Cain, Ring Lardner. I had a great and terrifying history teacher in college who gave me my first D and made me work on the writing until I got it right. I’m also influenced by good TV (and there’s lots of it these days) and a well-made thriller movie. The classic noir film The Sweet Smell of Success was a major inspiration for my book Guilty Minds.
When and where do you write?
Writing is my job, and I treat it that way. I have an office in a townhouse in Boston a few blocks from where I live, where I keep more or less regular business hours, except toward the end of the writing of a book, when the writing takes over my life. I also have a writing shed at my home on Cape Cod.
What are you working on now?
My next novel, Judgment, will be out in January 2019, so I’m working on some advance publicity for that. But mainly I’m writing the fourth Nick Heller novel.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I used to, for sure. But I learned to approach it diagnostically: do you need to think about the scene more, do you need to do more research, do you need to leave the office and work out? What I always say is that plumbers don’t get plumber’s block, so I don’t let myself get writer’s block. I don’t get it any more.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Just write it. The Russian proverb says, “The first pancake is always a lump.” The first draft is always going to be lousy, but you have to write it so you can fix it. You can’t fix something that’s not on the page.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Whatever you’re working on, finish it. Commit the time. Ideas are actually the easy part of writing, and it happens to all of us — we get 10,000 or 20,000 words into a book and then have a great idea for something else. It’s happened to me (and on at least one occasion, it turned out to be a good thing, but do as I say, not as I do). Almost every idea can wait. What matters is that you finish the story or novel you’re writing now.
Joseph Finder is the New York Times bestselling author of fifteen suspense novels, including JUDGMENT, a stand-alone thriller (available on January 29), and GUILTY MINDS, the third to feature “private spy” Nick Heller. He lives and works in Boston.