Interview with Crime Writer Jeff Lindsay — S. 5, Ep. 15 — Debbi Mack
Debbi Mack interviews crime writer Jeff Lindsay on the Crime Cafe podcast.
Read along with the podcast or, if you’re in a rush, download a copy of the show notes here.
Debbi: Hi everyone. This is the Crime Cafe, your podcasting source of great crime, suspense and thriller writing. I’m your host Debbi Mack. Before I bring on my guest, I’ll just remind you that the Crime Cafe has two ebooks for sale: the nine book box set and the short story anthology. You can find the buy links for both on my website, debbimack.com, under the Crime Cafe link.
Debbi: Hi, everyone. I’m thrilled to have with me today, the creator of my favorite serial killer, or at least one of them, Dexter Morgan, and he now has a new book out called Just Watch Me featuring his new protagonist Riley Wolfe. I just finished it and it’s great, and my guest today is New York Times bestselling author, Jeff Lindsay. Jeff, it’s wonderful to have you on.
Jeff: Well, it’s great to be had. Thank you very much.
Debbi: Thank you very much. Tell us about Riley Wolfe and what prompted you to write this book.
Jeff: Riley Wolfe is a master thief, maybe the best in the world. And the thing about him is for Riley, it’s not about the money, it’s about the challenge. He had a sort of traumatic childhood that made him grow up with two really overwhelming compulsions. And the first is to steal things that are impossible to steal. It just can’t be done. And the second is, if possible, to steal them from the 1%. He has a real deep seated grudge, almost a hatred for the hereditary entitled people who just, in his mind, wallow in the money and sort of walk on everybody else with their ingrained privilege.
So, it came because I wanted to do a new series and quite honestly I sort of needed to. And it was what we like to call a job of work there. I had to go through a lot of different changes, a lot of evolution. And I started with a conman and I realized that it’d be more interesting to make it someone that uses being a conman as a tool rather than an end. And so Riley Wolfe has those skills and he has an incredible skill for disguises and dialects and accents, but he uses those to get inside where you would think no one could go and steal things from the 1% that can’t be taken.
Riley Wolfe is a master thief, maybe the best in the world. And the thing about him is for Riley, it’s not about the money, it’s about the challenge.
Debbi: Very interesting. I don’t know if you did this consciously or unconsciously or if there’s even a relationship, but there was part of what I saw in Riley was the Saint actually.
Jeff: What’s the what?
Debbi: The Saint, if you’re familiar with the character, the Saint.
Jeff: No, I’m not. I’m sorry.
Debbi: Oh, well that’s, you should familiarize yourself with that character.
Jeff: No, then people would say I was stealing.
Debbi: Well, we don’t want that. But it just reminds me of that, that mentality, that whole ability to transform themselves and then doing things just for whatever personal reason and having a deprived childhood also.
Jeff: Well, so far I’ve also been compared to Les Mis and a couple of other things. So I guess I’m used to it.
Debbi: Well, it’s a very interesting psychological makeup on this character, and I have to say that he’s capable of doing some really nasty things when he has to, which would make him awfully hard to like if you didn’t know his backstory. So what did you do? I mean, what sort of research did you do to get into his backstory?
Jeff: Well, I worked with a psychologist and I came up with a couple of basic things about him and ran them past her, and then she helped me refine it and bring it to a point. I don’t know, every writer who is any good at all is at least part psychologist. But for me, one of my deep seated neuroses is that I try to get it as accurate as I can. So, I’d like to work with a psychologist, and we stuck Riley Wolfe in the pencil sharpener and kept turning until it was sharp enough.
Debbi: Well, that takes some doing. I mean, that’s quite a bit of work right there.
Jeff: It was a job of work. Yes, ma’am.
Debbi: Did you devote a certain amount of time toward the research before you wrote? I mean, how much time exactly? Do you know?
Jeff: The character research and I guess physical, geographical research was a couple of years. Yeah. Hopefully that gets easier with each book. I don’t need to do the background stuff anymore, but I do need to evolve it as I go. And a lot of the locations in the book are places I’ve been. I’ll admit I hadn’t been to Tehran and that doesn’t seem likely either, but most of the other places I have been, I do know. I grew up in the South, so I know all of those places, too. And I’ve lived in New York City and most of the other places that he goes through in the book.
Debbi: Yeah. Psychologically, how does Riley compare to Dexter? They both invoke this darkness in one form or another when they do bad things, I noticed. Do you think that they are similar or different in various ways?
Jeff: They’re very different.
Debbi: Yes. Yes, they are.
Jeff: Dexter is a sociopath. He doesn’t have the empathy bump. He doesn’t feel for his victims or anything else. With Riley, he’s not a sociopath. But he’s so driven. I’m sure you’ve known people who get so involved in doing a task, they get blinders on and they don’t even notice that they’re doing collateral damage around them. And that’s more what Riley is. It goes into what he calls The Darkness when he kills someone. So that it’s not, it’s like he’s not doing it. He’s watching it being done, which is to protect, the feelings, the psychological background and so on. He’s not really doing it. Whereas with Dexter, he wanted to enjoy every minute of it.
Dexter is a sociopath. He doesn’t have the empathy bump. He doesn’t feel for his victims or anything else. With Riley, he’s not a sociopath. But he’s so driven. I’m sure you’ve known people who get so involved in doing a task, they get blinders on and they don’t even notice that they’re doing collateral damage around them. And that’s more what Riley is.
Debbi: So the darkness for Riley is more like a denial.
Jeff: Yeah. Yes.
Debbi: A way of coping with it.
Jeff: Yes. For Riley, he has a series of rules, I call them Riley’s Laws. Coincidentally, he calls them that, too. And Riley’s first law is the job comes first. And that means whatever gets in the way of doing the job has to be pushed out of the way. So he doesn’t set out to kill people. But if someone is in the way of getting the job done, he doesn’t mind arranging an accident.
Debbi: Yes. Well, so what was it like to stop writing Dexter and start writing this character?
Jeff: It was like getting a divorce or having a loved one die or something. I went through the five stages of grief before I finally retreated into my normal anxiety and neurosis. And I really didn’t want to stop because all my life I’ve wanted to be writing a series. And I felt like I was in the groove and I think the last book in the Dexter series, Dexter is Dead, available where fine books are sold, was one of the better ones of the series. I had a lot of people tell me that. And they say, “Why did you stop? You were really in the groove there.” And that’s the point. I wanted to more or less go out on top and stop before it started to get tired on me. So I did that. But if I’d realized how hard and how long it would take to move on to Riley Wolfe, I might’ve thought twice about that.
On ending the Dexter series: It was like getting a divorce or having a loved one die or something. I went through the five stages of grief before I finally retreated into my normal anxiety and neurosis. And I really didn’t want to stop because all my life I’ve wanted to be writing a series.
Debbi: Yeah, be careful what you wish for, huh? Can you give us a brief description of the story in Just Watch Me?
Jeff: Sure. Riley Wolfe, semi-spoiler alert, at the opening of the book, he’s stealing a 12-ton metal statue in plain sight in broad daylight at its dedication ceremony. And as he’s driving away with the money from his client in his bank account, he realizes it was too easy and everything has been too easy lately and he needs to do something impossible. Because otherwise he’ll get complacent and make mistakes and it’ll be over. So he finds something impossible, which is the crown jewels of Iran are coming on an exhibition tour to America. And they will be guarded by Star Trek type technology and a team of retired SEAL mercenaries and the full platoon of Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
So, it’s impossible. It absolutely cannot be done. And Riley decides to do it, to steal some of the crown jewels of Iran. Now, just as background, this is maybe the most amazing collection ever seen anywhere. The Iranian crown jewels are … it’s a cliche to say beyond price, but they are. One small piece of it, the Daria-i-Noor is the largest pink diamond in the world and it is conservatively estimated to be worth 15 billion, with a B, dollars. So Riley Wolfe decides to steal it. And anything more that I say about that would be a spoiler. So I’ll just say Forrest Gump. That’s all I have to say about that.
Debbi: Yeah, I particularly like the FBI agent in the story by the way. Delgado. He’s wonderful.
Jeff: He’s sort of a nod to my childhood. He’s Cuban-American and physically he’s based on a classmate and friend of mine, [inaudible 00:12:26]. And mentally he’s based on another classmate of mine in high school. And he just sort of combined to be this sort of sloppy looking physically, but mentally almost Riley’s equal. And I thought that added, kind of ratchets things up a bit to have the relentless pursuer.
Debbi: Absolutely. Yes. What are your plans for the series? Do you have plans in terms of the number of books you’d like to write and where you’d like it to go?
Jeff: No, not at all. I’m not that organized. I get up in the morning and put one sock on and I’m not sure what the next one’s going to be. I’m that kind of person. But if I can really get this rolling in my head, I’d like it to continue for a while. And it’s, as I said earlier, it’s what I’ve always wanted to do to write a series. Not merely because it’s easier, but just because it provides a satisfaction to me that writing solo books, one offs, really doesn’t. I don’t know if I can describe why. It’s probably my childhood trauma.
Debbi: Well, it gives you an opportunity to get into the characters a great deal and tease out what they would do in different situations. Correct?
Jeff: Yeah. Yeah. You’re right. And I’ve always been more about character than plot or anything else. That’s another reason I worked so hard and worked with psychologists to develop the characters. That’s what interests me. Even minor characters in my books, I find myself fretting a little bit and thinking about habits they might have and things like that. It’s a tick. I know that, but it’s what I got.
I’ve always been more about character than plot or anything else. That’s another reason I worked so hard and worked with psychologists to develop the characters. That’s what interests me. Even minor characters in my books.
Debbi: Well, it’s a sign of a good writer, too.
Jeff: Thank you.
Debbi: I think. What advice would you give to someone who would like to write fiction for a living?
Jeff: Do something else. That would be my first piece of advice. The other piece I give, which I’m dead serious about, is learn arc welding. Now this is like one of Riley’s laws is never argue with a truck. It doesn’t mean literally stand and argue with a truck. It means metaphorically. And mine-learn arc welding-is also metaphorical. What I mean is learn a basic skill that can pay the rent while you’re trying to write. Because sometimes lightning hits and sometimes it doesn’t. And writing is not really a job. It’s a vocation. The word vocation is, it’s based on the same root word as voice, vocal, vox. And what it means is you’re called to do it. You can’t stop. You have to do it.
[W]riting is not really a job. It’s a vocation. The word vocation is, it’s based on the same root word as voice, vocal, vox. And what it means is you’re called to do it. You can’t stop. You have to do it.
And if you find that you don’t have to do it, that it is a job instead of a vocation, stop, go full time on arc welding. But for me, for a lot of writers I know I can’t even take a vacation. I’ll say to myself, “I’m going to sit in the sun and do nothing for a week.” And by the middle of the second day, I’m writing on cocktail napkins. So, that’s what it’s got to be. And if it isn’t that do something else.
Debbi: Yes, that is so absolutely true. Do you have any particular favorite writers that you look to for inspiration?
Jeff: Not for inspiration, for enjoyment. Patrick O’Brien who wrote probably the greatest series and certainly the greatest historical series ever, and I’ve re-read the series many times and I learned something new each time. It enlightens me as a person and a writer. Writing currently, boy, I love Naomi Novik. She’s a fantasy writer, but like Patrick O’Brien, she’s so good, she kind of transcends the genre, and she’s just wonderful and brilliant and I can’t say enough good things about her.
Science fiction is another thing I like and the best sci-fi writer going right now that I know of is John Scalzi. But there’s a lot of good stuff out there. And I like biographies too. And believe it or not, I was teaching a college course this year and I saw a copy of War and Peace lying around and I felt guilty because I’m teaching college. I’d never read it. And so I stole it and I’ve been … I’m almost finished with it now and I will return it, I swear. But I just thought, “I’ve never read it and I really should.” And it was worth it, oddly enough.
Debbi: I’ve read it, actually. I agree with you. It is worth it. Oddly enough.
Jeff: Yeah. Because you look at it and it’s 94,000 pages long. And you go, “Please.” It’s like I’ll get to page 64 and go, “Okay, that’s enough.” But I didn’t and I’m really enjoying it.
Debbi: I was surprisingly entertained by it. And of course informed as well. I mean, it was just a remarkable book.
Jeff: Yeah, truly. And it had me sitting with my iPad so that I could look things up, “Did that really happen? Or how long is a verst anyway?” Which is the Russian measure of distance. And on and on, things like that. So yeah, I had a great time with it.
Debbi: Fascinating, isn’t it?
Debbi: Is there anything else that I haven’t asked you about that you would like to mention?
Jeff: Well, when you add “that I’d like to mention”, no. I would like to encourage everyone to go out and buy several copies of this book. It will make wonderful Christmas presents and if all else fails and you have an uneven table leg, there’s always that I guess.
Debbi: Well, books always make great gifts as far as I’m concerned.
Jeff: Amen. Preaching to the choir.
Debbi: There you go. So, thank you so much for being here today, Jeff. I really, really appreciate it.
Jeff: Thank you. It’s been a great pleasure. I really did enjoy it. Thank you.
Debbi: Thank you. I had a great time. It’s all my pleasure. I’ll just remind everybody out there who’s listening to please check out The Crime Cafe 9 Book Set and Crime Cafe Short Story Anthology, which is on sale on my website, debbimack.com through various retailers. All wonderful, where all great books are sold or whatever that is. And also my Patreon page is there. So while you’re there, check that out. And while you’re at it, please leave a review for this podcast. It helps a lot. And on that note, our next guest will be Cathi Stoler. So I will see you in two weeks. And in the meantime, happy reading.
PS: This news just in! You have until the end of the year to check these out! 🙂