Interview: JJ Cooper

RW: JJ Cooper, author of military thrillers THE INTERROGATOR and DEADLY TRUST, is here. I always start with this question: How long have you been writing and have you been always writing in your current genre?

JJ: I've been writing for maybe three and a half years now. I'm currently working on my third manuscript - the first was published in 2009 and the second in August this year.

I write in the thriller/crime fiction genre, or some call it military thriller genre and others identify the books as commercial fiction. It's what I like to read and seemed naturally what I should write (whatever it is called). As long as I entertain the reader, I'm happy for it to be called any of the above. I'd like to give another genre a go one day, perhaps young adult to give something for my kids to read. Those who have read my books will testify that there is very little chance of me of producing something in the romance genre!

RW: That's funny about "romance" (but never say never, dude). Wow, given the short time of your career (and two books out within that period), would you say you've had really good luck? Or perhaps you just write great, commercial thrillers that sell like hotcakes? What's your secret?

JJ: Perhaps 'timing' would be more apt than 'luck' in my case. The editor I ended up with told me she'd been looking for my book for a few years (ok - maybe they mention that to all they sign). Andy McNab and Chris Ryan had the market sewn up for military thrillers written by ex-special force soldiers (*cough* ghost written *cough*); publishers were looking for an ex-military-type who wrote fiction for that certain level of authenticity. In my market we have a very sucessful writer producing commencial miltary fiction (fantasy in my opinion) with no first hand experience of the service life - and that's ok because he is a great storyteller ((*waves at Matt (although you refuse to answer my emails)).

For me, fiction is just experience and imagination! Experience doesn't mean you have to be an ex-interrogator to write about one - but it helps. I don't have a real need for research because I draw on my experiences to turn the real into a work of fiction. I want the reader to wonder if what I've written has actually happened despite the shelf they picked it up from.

I admit in publishing terms my journey has been freakishly quick. But, I was well prepared before I pitched. I had a very polished manuscript and had done a stack of research on agents and publishers before I sent my 'baby' out there. Just like an athlete before the big game, I'd trained and tested and refined before pitching the right agent - and it worked. So, I created my own luck in a sense!

RW: Yeah, I've heard writers who spent years working on their manuscripts., and they just wanted to get the query process over with, hoping to lend an agent immediately. It's refreshing, actually, to hear your story, how you worked so hard (behind the scene) until you had everything right.

Tell us more about your background and how/why you decided to become a fiction writer.

JJ: After spending seventeen adrenalin-filled years in the military I moved into a nine-to-five office job. So, you could imagine going from being an Interrogator to spending three hours on a crammed train every day and then eight hours behind a computer producing policy documents - didn't take long to do my head in! I need a creative outlet and figured I'd give writing a go. I've always enjoyed reading and the escapism it provides so I set out to write a novel. I'd never had any plans on being an author - just fell in that way.

RW: "Just fell in that way" eh? Tell us more about your books. What they are about? How did you come up with the idea, etc.? We know you used a lot of your own experiences as an interrogator... is it semi-autobiographical in any way?

JJ: Think I may get into some trouble should I refer the books in any way as 'any-autobiographical"! I use my experiences as a catalyst for the storyline. The Interrogator has the protagonist, Jay Ryan, caught up in an espionage 'sting' based on information he has obtained during an interrogation years before in Iraq. This reflects my time in the Middle East. Fortunately, I was never caught up in an espionage ring - that's the imagination kicking in.

The cataylst for the second book, Deadly Trust, is the anthrax injection I'd received before deploying. The question I ask is 'what was actually in those injections?'. 'What if I wa injected with something different?' An athrax attack nearby and a couple of attemptes on the protagonist's lifeset the wheels in motion for the rollercoaster ride!

So, life experiences are used as the 'set-up' for my series. Cretaintly makes it easier of the research front!

RW: Speaking of research, even given your background, do you find yourself doing a lot of research, and where are your sources? Do you strive to make your details as authentic as possible, either for readers' experience or to fight off would-be criticism?

JJ: Very little research for the first two books. I'm fortunate to be able to draw on my experiences and the places I've been for my witing. When I move out of that comfort zone, then there will be more research required. I heard Harlen Coben mention his thoughts on this recently - basically, the more time spent researching means less time writing. Book three will require some research on the setting though as I'm sending the protagonist overseas to places I've never been. In fact, I'm doing that research now.

RW: Cool. Let's talk about the other kind of research. You said you did your work and research (on agents, etc.) before you even submitted. I think that's one of the things most writers are not familiar with, or good at doing. How did you go about that? Did you know certain writers with agents who represent similar works, or did you use the regular route (such as agent guides), or did you target agents of authors/works you know?

JJ: Definitely the most important research to do prior to submitting anywhere. There is so much information on the internet regarding agents, good and bad. It's about 'sifting' through the information out there and narrowing down the search.

Firstly, I started with my genre and who was representing it in the USA. Although I would later target my eventual agent in Australia, I thought a good training ground for my pitches would be the USA. This way I could learn and refine as necessary. I knew my work would be more suited to an Australian audience to commence with, but, you never know. I did get a couple of requests for partials and fulls, but ultimately continued to refine my pitch for an Australian agent.

I knew of the Australian agent I wanted to represent me through feedback I had received from other authors through writer's centres and online forums. After I had 'trialled' my pitches on overseas agents, I studied the submission guidelines and followed them to the letter - then sat back and waited.

My tip here is to be patient! Publishing is a long, slow path at every step of the business. There is no need to rush! Know as much as possible about the agent you are going to pitch and practise the pitches on agents you don't neceesarily want to represent you.

At ThrillerFest in New York in July this year, I watched writers from around the globe pitching US agents at AgentFest. Great concept with rooms stacked with nervous energy. The thing is they had about three hours to pitch as many as possible and most went straight to their preferred agent as soon as the bell rung - then the moans of 'nerves got the better of me' commenced not long after. It's like hitting the 'send' button on email or pushing the envelope through a post box - the more you rehearse the more 'ready' you will be for the agent you want!

RW: Wow, I've never heard of the "practice on agents you don't necessarily want to represent you." Interesting. Now what if they DO want to represent you? Do you just say "no thanks" and wait for the big gun you DO want? Yes, that's a serious question. But I appreciate your experience and advice on the virtue of "patience" and "practice until it's perfect." Again, a lot of writers would spend 3 years perfecting their manuscript but then rush out to pitch without knowing what they're doing.

Speaking of conferences, do you recommend them? And do you recommend going to the "big" ones or the smaller ones (if money is an issue)?

JJ: I know agents are not going to like me recommending that approach, but writers seeking representation will usually narrow their list down to 20 odd agents who could do the job! Start at the bottom of the list and work up. Those who know how hard it is to break into the business will find it a pleasant surprise to be picked up on the 'practice' agent - and no doubt would accept the offer. You never know, they may turn out to be your dream agent after all. If they don't place your work within say a year, start again.

I think it is good to go to selected conferences early on in your writing career. The buzz and being inspired by the stories of authors and their journey is a good feeling. Because of the expense involved, I think you should target the conferences specific to your genre and attend sessions that will advance your knowledge of breaking into the publishing business or on the art of writing. Remeber though that most of the information you will receive will already be readily available somewhere on the internet.

Cost will always be a factor for the type of conference you attend. I'd prioritise by the most cost-effective conference offering agent pitching sessions. If you are going to attend these though make sure your MS is polished and ready to send to an agent in case you do get a 'yes'. No point pitching an idea (fiction).

RW: That's great advice. Now, back to your books. You have two books out now, and you're working on your third. Are they all part of the Jay Ryan series? How far are you going to take this or are you planning on doing something else (you spoke of YA novel, too)?

JJ: I'll continue the Jay Ryan thriller series for as long as I can (ie they continue to sell). I'm moving in a slightly different direction setting-wise as the protagonist continues to grow and explores new horizons. While writing the third book, I'm also working on a couple of short stories for anthologies and I'm at the conceptual stage of a short-to-novella size story that I'd like to release online free. I'm hoping this would coincide with the release of book 3.

I have plenty of writing years left in me and recognise there is plenty of time to explore different projects whether the sell or not. Writing is like reading for me - escapism. So, while being published was, and still is, a pleasant surprise; I'm happy with what I have achieved to date and can tick 'that' box in life.

I'd love to continue the journey, but although publishing is a very tough business to break into, it is even tougher to stay published!

RW: That's good to know. Yeah, staying published could be tougher, but right now, people just want to break in. I wish you much success. Have you done much promotion? And when you do, do you travel for it and how do you find the time to do everything (job, write, travel, promotion, family, etc.)?

JJ: Keeping the balance is hard! Most of the promotions around the books are generally just before, or at, launch time. It can get a little hectic with interviews etc. When I do get some spare time I like to keep the information flowing about the books through my website, facebook etc. I have participated in a few conferences, one in New York and a couple in my home state.

Time is valuable and I take the view that attending conferences and all promotion activities must be able to 'value add' somehow to my writing. This may involve including get-togethers with editors, agents and/or other authors at conferences and limiting time on Facebook and forums.

RW: Sounds like fun. How did you get in touch with Lee Child and his endorsement? I know there's an interesting story behind this...

JJ: After I signed a two-book deal with Random House Australia, I blogged about it. At the end of the blog I wrote 'The next challenge is getting Lee Child to read Interrogated (The Interrogator) and to write a blurb that we can stick on the cover. Anyone have Lee's number?'

The next morning I checked the blog and there was a message from Lee with his congrats and inviting me to email him. My heart skipped a beat at first and then, of course, I assumed it was a message from a friend pretending to be Lee Child. So, I emailed Lee and asked if he had left the comment - and he had. A few emails later I asked if he would be interested in reading my debut thriller and commenting on it - which he did.

I guess Lee is a lot like the rest of us and has Google Alerts set up. This chance exchange then led to me becomming a member of International Thriller Writers Debut Authors for the year and I eventually ended up in New York at ThrillerFest with my first book.

RW: That's funny... I guess he did have a Google Alert set up. But that's an awesome story (one of these days I'm going to blog about my writing hero and see if he/she will reply).

I know you read thrillers and you're planning on writing a YA novel. What other genres do you read, and do you think you may write those genres as well?

JJ: Most authors I know have Google alerts set up for themselves and thier books :)

There is so much variety to thrillers / crime fiction that it keeps me firmly 'implanted' within this genre. I suppose the biggest leap for me would be what may be descbribed as 'literary thrillers' by the wonderful Lisa Unger. Her narrative reads very poetic while still managing to be page-turners. I am a huge fan.

There has been a little 'push' of late for me to write some non-fiction stories regarding my time in the military, but it's just not for me at this stage. I have a stack of unread non-fiction military books piled high!

Thanks to some great local second-hand bookstores, I've recently managed to pick up 'A Christmas Carol' and 'The Wind in the Willows' for my oldest Son to read. He is straight into the Dickens classic so I guess I'll wait my turn for that one! I'm not sure how to classify these types of books - I think we'd all love to have written those two though.

RW: Those would be mainstream classics, literature, as opposed to "literary" which is really a different genre. To wrap up our interview, I'd like to ask you a few random questions:

a. How would you describe your writing style?
b. What is the coolest place you've never been to?
c. What word comes to your mind right NOW?
d. WarZone or Farmville?
e. What's in your wallet?
f. If you could do it all over again, what would be the one thing you'd change?
g. How do you get to New Orleans?
h. What makes JJ Cooper tick?
i. What ticks off JJ Cooper?
j. What is your favorite stuff toy? [I have to ask this one!]

A. Concise.
B. Italy.
C. Beer!
D. Are they Facebook apps? If so, neither - not enough time in the day!
E. Like Jay Ryan, I don't carry a wallet (as per my books - credit card in the boot :))
F. Travel the world young - would provide more options for book settings.
G. I'd say a day and a half in flights from my current location!
H. The love of my kids.
I. People who are dishonest to me - come on, I used to be an Interrogator - I know!
J. Winnie The Pooh!

Thank you Ray - much appreciated mate!

RW: No, thank you, JJ. What a great interview.


June Kramin said…
Loved it! Great job - both of you!! I have the Interrogator by my bed! Will be starting it soon! Squee!

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