Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Interview with bestselling author CJ Lyons

As an author with a full-time job on the side, I sometimes find myself complaining about being busy, about how difficult it is to find the time to write. But after taking a gander at what my guest today has accomplished in her life, I promise I'll never do that again.

CJ Lyons is the New York Times bestselling author of fifteen thrillers, including four different series and two books co-written with environmental activist Erin Brockovich, as well as four non-fiction books on the subject of writing. She spent seventeen years as a practicing Pediatric Emergency Physician before giving it up to write full-time, and has done a bunch of other stuff, all of which got me so tired reading about I had to take a nap afterward.

She's a superstar in the world of thrillers, but also down-to-earth, grounded, and generous enough to take time out from trying to beat a deadline to answer my stupid pointless incredibly intelligent questions:

According to your official bio, you’ve spent seventeen years as a Pediatric Emergency Physician, worked on the Navajo reservation, spent time as a Life Flight physician, participated in an archaeological expedition in Australia, worked on an environmental impact survey in the Hell’s Gate Wilderness Preserve in Kenya, traveled extensively and hold an orange belt in Kempo. Is that it? No skydiving?

CJ: I never had the urge to skydive. After two hard landings in helicopters, it just never made sense to me to jump out of a perfectly good plane and trust your fate to a piece of silk.

Seriously, though, what possesses someone with the ability and desire to work their way through medical school to give it all up to tell stories?

CJ: I was a storyteller long before I even dreamed of being a doctor. Used to get me in tons of trouble as a kid—but all those hours in time out because I didn't know the difference between real and fantasy (or truth and lies according to my parents and teachers) just gave me more time to listen to the voices in my head.

For a small town girl from rural Pennsylvania who had to work her way through college and med school, becoming a doctor was a dream come true. But once I had a few book contracts and realized how much time and energy it would take to be a writer, I decided that if I wanted to be good at either job something had to give. I'd already had seventeen wonderful years of living the dream of being a doctor, why not try a second dream come true as a fulltime writer?

How difficult a decision was it to put aside your medical career and concentrate on being a novelist full-time? Do you miss working as an active physician? Any plans to go back someday?

CJ: It was an extremely difficult choice. When I first quit medicine I missed my patients terribly—some of them even emailed and wrote me. But I've never missed the ungodly hours or paperwork or hassles with the insurance folks.

I don't plan to return—I'd have to do some intensive retraining if I ever did. But one thing I realized after my first book was published and I began getting fan mail was that in medicine I touched one life at a time. With my books I can touch tens to hundreds of thousands of lives.

That's a pretty darn good feeling.

Marketing people say authors need to figure out how to brand themselves. You seem to have managed that perfectly by promoting your work as “Thrillers with Heart.” That seems particularly apt given your medical background, but I’m guessing it means more than that to you. Can you talk a little about what “Thrillers with Heart” means to CJ Lyons?

CJ: I created the term "Thrillers with Heart" back in 2004 when my first book was a finalist in RWA's Golden Heart contest. I quickly realized that what I wrote wasn't traditional romance (sometimes there's not a happily-ever-after and some of my books have no romance at all) but it wasn't traditional mystery, either.

My books aren't about who-did-it or winning the girl/boy or car chases and explosions, although all of those elements appear in them. They're about the people and their relationships.

The common thread that runs through all my books is that heroes are born everyday. They're about how ordinary people find the strength to stand up and risk everything to change the world.

(Which, by the way, is the same reason why I went into Pediatric Emergency Medicine, so I guess my ending up writing Thrillers with Heart makes perfect sense.)

What was it like the first time you saw your name on the New York Times bestseller list for fiction? I’m guessing you can remember every detail from that day, true?

CJ: It was surreal. I was at a conference but a friend's husband went out and bought a lot of copies of the NYT and brought them back to the conference for me to sign. I honestly didn't believe it was real until I saw it there in print!

There’s a growing trend among established, big-name authors to release some of their work through other than traditional means. You seem to have taken advantage of this with the incredible success of Snake Skin, among other titles. Yet you’re working now with Minotaur. Do you ever envision a time when you will completely bypass traditional publishing?

CJ: I actually already did! The six months before BLIND FAITH hit the NYT list I was out of contract, relying solely on my indy-self-publishing to pay the bills (which actually was so incredibly empowering! Knowing that I didn't have to rely on NYC to make a decent living).

After the success of BLIND FAITH, my agent and I were suddenly inundated with offers. We held an auction—I even debated turning them all down given the money I was making myself. But I wanted two things that I couldn't do by myself: my readers kept writing, wanting to see my books in bookstores at affordable prices, and I wanted an editor to work with to kick my writing to the next level.

I found both in the offer presented to me by Minotaur. It's a gamble, working with NYC again, but the good news is that if things go wrong, I won't be losing too much. And if things go right, my readers will be winning big time.

What is a typical day like for CJ Lyons? Do you have a set routine you use to get your writing done?

CJ: God, no. After seventeen years of being tied to a pager and trauma radio, I thrive on never knowing what time it is or even the day of the week. I have no set schedule, never keep track of word count or page count—some days I don't even write! Heresy, I know!

All I need is a deadline. That keeps me on track. And on those days I don't write, put words on the page? I'm still writing—the story is fermenting in my head so that when I do get back to it, it's like scratching an itch, letting all that out onto the page.

I'm the same way about the books—each one is written differently. I don't plot ahead of time, so if I'm surprised, I hope the reader will be as well. I write out of order, then string the scenes together in the second draft—one book, CRITICAL CONDITION, I actually wrote backwards! I knew who was alive at the end and scene by scene worked my way back to the beginning to see how they got there. It was the most fun writing a book I've had!

Do you listen to music while you write? If so, what’s some of your favorite writing music?

CJ: Yes, I love head-banging rock, zydeco, celtic, really anything with a good beat to it. Specific choices depend on the story I'm working on. For BLOOD STAINED, which is the darkest story I've ever tackled, I was playing MudVayne over and over along with Tool, Slipknot, and Godsmack.

For the book I'm working on now, it's Amergin, Whirligig (two Irish bands), Eddie Vetter, and the Drop Kick Murphies.

Can you name some of the authors who have influenced you as a writer?

CJ: Ray Bradbury had the greatest influence on me as a child. He was the first author who taught me that the words themselves can be as beautiful as the picture they create. I also love the way he can evoke emotion on a very subliminal level.

My stories have been praised as "breathtakingly fast-paced" and I owe that to a childhood spent reading EE "Doc" Smith, Harry Harrison, Leslie Charteris, Dashiel Hammett, John D MacDonald, and CS Forester.

If you could pick one book you feel best exemplifies your work, what title would it be?

CJ: BLOOD STAINED. That book took me to some very dark places and was a struggle to write because I drew on a ton of emotions from my days as an ER doc working with victims of violence.

It was a book that I could not not write. I hate when thrillers depict violence (especially violence against women) in a gratuitous, almost "titillating" manner, such as opening a novel with a rape or torture scene in the point of view of the victim to "grab" the reader. It does an injustice to the reader and to real life victims. Plus, as a writer, it's clichéd, taking the easy way out.

If I was going to depict these dark, twisted crimes, it had to be about the impact on the characters. I wanted readers to read these scenes and feel as if they were living through the experience of a professional law enforcement officer who has to deal with this every day in an empathetic fashion while not allowing their emotions derail their work.

It was a very tough balancing act. I think I pulled it off, both by using an immature character's point of view in Adam, and by using the victims' own words describing their abuse during police interviews.

I hope by going the extra mile to not use the clichéd serial killer torturing his victim scene, that I served the victims I've worked with and honored my readers, allowing them to appreciate the pain in a way that propels the story forward but also makes them empathize with what real life victims have suffered as well as challenges facing the professionals who work with them.

Hypothetical situation #1: You are marooned on a desert island, but before your ship sinks, you can grab any one book of your choosing. What book would that be, and why?

CJ: Perrault's collection of fairy tales. Makes the Grimm brothers look so very tame…

Hypothetical situation #2: You are given a choice by the Gods of Publishing. Your books can either bring you tremendous monetary wealth or they can be universally acclaimed as outstanding by the critics. Which do you choose, and why?

CJ: Neither. While I appreciate the critical acclaim my books have achieved, it's my readers who matter most to me. I want to empower and inspire as well as entertain, and from the fan mail I've gotten, I'm doing pretty good there, although I always strive to do better with each book.

And while NYC pays me very nicely, if I can earn the trust of my readers and keep delighting them with every book, the money will take care of itself.

What are you reading right now? What’s next on your “To Be Read” list?

CJ: Aside from research books on quantum mechanics and the multiverse, I'm actually on a YA reading jag (while I love to read all genres, I am constantly astounded by the fantastic YA available now—where were these books when I was a kid?). Currently I'm reading John Green's The Fault in Our Stars. Up next is Meg Rosoff's There is No Dog.

Thanks very much for taking the time to visit A Thrill a Minute. Any last words of wisdom you’d like to share with my thousands hundreds dozens handful of readers?

CJ: This is a true Renaissance for readers and writers. For the first time ever writers can make a living wage and be free to write the stories of their hearts—and readers are loving being able to find books that don't fit traditional publishing's cookie-cutter molds. Talk about your ultimate win/win! The future is bright and I'm honored that so many readers have chosen to spend their time and energy on my books.


Fascinating interview, no? Huge thanks to CJ Lyons...


Troy Lambert said...

Excellent interview. I like the reasons for going back to work with NYC. Great read!

Al Leverone said...

Thanks Troy, she's really interesting and an outstanding writer...