Best selling writer and New York Times best seller Chris Kuzneski, took time out of his busy schedule to talk to me recently about his books, specifically the latest one available in paperback on 30 September 2010 - The Secret Crown.
Chris grew up in Indiana, PA, where as a fourth-grader, he wrote my first book, The Monster Cookbook; a work of fiction that detailed the culinary and nutritional needs of a dozen creatures that he had created. During his time at Indiana High School he anchored the offensive line on a team that won back-to-back CENPAC championships and continued his football career at the University of Pittsburgh, whilst studying journalism, playing with future NFL stars Tony Siragusa, Jeff Christy, Mark Stepnoski, Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, and many others. Unfortunately, a freak foot injury ended his athletic career although this is rather fortunate for us readers.
Chris wrote for The Pitt News, the Indiana Gazette, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, eventually earning a B.A. in writing and a M.A. in teaching. From 1992 until 1998, he taught English and coached football in two western Pennsylvania school districts and was selected to Who's Who Among America's Teachers. However, he wasn’t doing what he wanted to do – writing – so he quit, taking a leap of faith and hasn’t looked back since.
Chris self published his first novel The Plantation, which tells the first story about his main characters, Payne & Jones; two ex military officers from MANIACS (an elite special forces unit). His second novel Sign of the Cross was picked up for publication and he has not looked back.
The Secret Crown is the 6th book in the Payne and Jones series. Are you finding it easier or harder to come up with new adventures for them?
Adventure is the easy part. The world is a big place, and it’s filled with picturesque cities and colourful history that I’m eager to use in future novels. The hard part is figuring out a way to make each book seem fresh and new while using the same main characters. Thankfully, Payne & Jones are such likeable guys. I have a lot of fun describing their exploits.
Your research is always excellent, actual historical facts seamlessly blended with fiction. You’ve said this (research) takes a long time and you’re very dedicated to it – but where do you start and do you find it interesting, i.e. is it something you’re interested in personally?
I majored in journalism at the University of Pittsburgh, so I learned the importance of research at an early age. I also learned how boring it was to write a feature story on a topic that I didn’t care about. And feature stories take a few days to write, not months. When I moved to fiction, I promised myself that I would only tackle topics that I was passionate about. Otherwise, I would dread going to work.
Where did the idea for this story come from? Was it because you had an interest in King Ludwig II of Bavaria already?
As soon as I learned about Ludwig’s life—and his mysterious death—I knew I should write a novel about him. There was so much to work with I actually had trouble picking which rumours to exclude. Of course, this isn’t the first time I’ve had this problem. If you think about my books, I generally choose historical figures who seem like fictional characters. The Lost Throne featured Heinrich Schliemann, a part-time archaeologist and full-time conman. The Prophecy focused on Nostradamus, a prophet who wrote in codes in order to survive the Inquisition. Then there’s Tiberius, a Roman emperor who lived his final years in exile because he was clinically insane. His erratic behaviour played a major part in Sign of the Cross. In my mind, Ludwig fit in perfectly with this group.
The descriptions of the settings are very vivid and unlike many stories fit the action going on, for example the cable car being available to get down the hills. You’ve clearly been to these places to be able to describe them so well but did you have the story and action set/written before you saw them yourself or after or a combination?
Thanks for the compliment! (smiles). But to be perfectly honest, I’ve never been to the city in the book. The cable cars do exist in the mountains of southern Bavaria, but all of my descriptions are based on research, not travel. Of course, that doesn’t mean I haven’t seen the cable cars before, because I have. But in this case, I downloaded several photos and videos from the Internet, then described what I saw. In the long run, it’s a lot cheaper than getting a plane ticket to Germany.
(smiles)I can’t believe you haven’t been there! Next time you get invited to UK you’ll have to do a Europe trip too.
As for your second question, I tend to focus on my story, letting the plot dictate where my characters go. Whenever trouble pops up—and it always does—I’ll examine the terrain like a real operative. I try to figure what I would do if I was stuck in the same situation. Then my characters do the exact opposite.
Turning now to the characters of Payne and Jones. Having read all the previous novels, for me they are coming more and more to life on the page. I’ve always ‘got’ them – the laconic killing edge mixed with the fun and humour of two best friends – and their friendship has always shone through. Are you finding it easier and easier to get into their heads? Or are they more and more in yours?
There’s a lot of me in Payne and Jones. Maybe not the heroism, but definitely the sense of humour. The way they banter with each other, including the merciless teasing, is the way I interact with my friends. Which might explain why I don’t have a lot of friends! (grins).
In all seriousness, I’ve always had fun writing their dialogue, but it has become easier over the past few years. Not only because the characters are so established in my head, but because I’m much more confident as a writer.
That definitely comes across. Do you empathise with one more than the other or share any characteristics?
Physically speaking, I’m similar to Payne in many ways. He’s a little bit taller, a little bit stronger, and a slightly better fighter than I am. But we’re roughly the same age, and both of us grew up in western Pennsylvania. As for Jones, I share his love of technology and his hatred of cold weather—which is why I moved to Florida. There’s nothing better than spending winter on the Gulf of Mexico.
Yes I can agree about winter on the Gulf of Mexico as opposed to here!
It always gives me a chill when Jon shifts from the easy guy into the killer or to the soldier — it’s done so quickly and swiftly. How easy do you find it writing that and how did you get to understand that characteristic?
Trust me, it’s easier than you’d think. Now ask me something else before I lose my patience…. See what I mean? Easy!
I always enjoy Petr Ulster’s input as well and Heidi was an interesting insertion — we’ll see Petr again I know, but what about Heidi since the ‘ladies’ don’t last more than one book!!
There’s actually a reason for that. In my first novel, The Plantation, Payne had a girlfriend named Ariane Walker. I planned on making her a series character, but when I wrote my second book, Sign of the Cross, it was way too long. I had to chop something from the story, so my agent and editor told me to eliminate Ariane. They loved the formula (i.e. Payne being single), so I’ve stuck with it ever since. At some point, I’m sure Payne or Jones will find a love interest that makes it to another book. Or maybe someone from a previous book will resurface.
There is a certain scene that made me cringe (and will certainly not look at curried sausage in the same way again). How did you felt writing it – am sure you didn’t do any research there!
That scene was a lot of fun to write—mostly because I knew people would cringe when they read it. In a lot of ways, it takes me back to my first thriller, The Plantation. That book was filled with scenes that made people cringe.
I know you have a film agent, but so far no plans made. If someone did decide to make a film, how much involvement would you ideally want?
I guess it would depend on who acquired the film rights. If it was someone who valued my opinion, I would love to work on the screenplay. I mean, who knows more about the books than I do? On the other hand, I’ve never worked on a movie set before, so I would understand if the director didn’t want me hovering around. In the long run, I’d be willing to do either if they paid me enough money!
(smiles) That’s a healthy attitude! Sometimes the film has to divert from the book so its makes sense and yet it’s not until you see it that becomes clear. Anyway, I have my own thoughts of who could play Payne and Jones – but who would be your top choices?
I get asked this all of the time, but I honestly don’t have an answer. Of the two, I think Payne would be harder to cast because he’s 6’4”, 240 pounds. There aren’t a lot of actors in Hollywood who come close to that size. Who do you have in mind? I’d love to know.
You now know – but think I’ll keep that a secret for a while as people invariably have their own thoughts and don’t want to start a massive debate! But back to you and a couple of slightly more personal questions to finish.
What are you reading right now?
An advanced copy of Lee Child’s Worth Dying For. That’s one of the perks of being an author. Publishers send me free books before they’re even released.
Are you someone who listens to music whilst writing, and if so what?
Most authors I know listen to music while they write, but not me. I actually prefer white noise. I usually turn on a fan in my office—which blocks out the sound of dogs and kids running for their lives from the alligators—and get to work.
(smiles). Thanks for your time Chris and look forward to the next book, THE DEATH RELIC released in the UK on September 30 2011 in hardback.The Secret Crown, released by Penguin UK on 30 September 2010 Click Here to buy from Amazon