James McCrone.

Book Club Discussion Questions for James McCrone, author

McCrone is the author, most recently, of the suspence-thrillers, FAITHLESS ELECTOR and DARK NETWORK . He is hard at work on the third, and final book in the series, as yet untitled.


• Tell us about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards crime fiction and thriller writing?

I’m drawn to taught stories, strong characters and good writing. These are what (good) mystery-thrillers deliver. The writers I admire—Le Carre, Follett, Greene, to name a few— propel their stories relentlessly, economically. At the same time, though, they’re not afraid to pause over a question or to notice beauty. Le Carre and Greene in particular are masters of putting to work every little thing they pack into their narratives. I hope my work is as full.

• What is your background and how did you get in to writing professionally? How do you draw on your work when writing?

I’ve wanted to write professionally since I was a boy. I’ve written stories, and some of them have been published. I studied for an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Washington in Seattle, but most of my work was unpaid.

It wasn’t until 2015, when we moved abroad for a year in Oxford, that I finally made a good fist of it. My wife had a fellowship appointment at the university, and I didn’t have a work permit for the UK. I threw myself into writing, finishing and publishing Faithless Elector in March of 2016 and beginning Dark Network that same month. Since returning to the United States last year, I’ve continued writing full time. • Where do you find your inspiration? Are there any particular places or incidents you draw on when you find yourself with writer’s block?

Inspiration can come from anywhere, but I’m most interested in stories where the official version of events seems thin, naïve, or deliberately misleading. I want to know the rest of the story, the other side.

For instance, when I first learned about how the Electoral College works and that electors weren’t bound to vote as promised, I thought it was mad. It seemed ripe for mischief. The idea and the outline for Faithless Elector came quickly. The writing of it came much slower.
As to writer’s block, I’ve been fortunate. When I find myself blocked in one area, I move to another. If a scene isn’t working, I work on a different scene, or I make notes about a different story entirely.
All kinds of incidents creep into my work, sometimes unconsciously. For instance, when I was writing about Imogen’s isolation at the FBI in Dark Network, and likened it to “traveling through a country where she didn’t speak the language,” I had just returned from a pretty frustrating grocery shopping trip in Konstanz, Germany, where I didn’t speak the language. I was struck by how little interaction I had with anyone else, how isolated I felt. I had typed the sentence before I’d even thought about it.

• Do you have any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?

I’m working on on the third book—as yet untitled—which will complete this series (due out fall of ’18); and I have some sketches for a fourth Imogen Trager novel.
Before starting that fourth novel, though, I want to focus on my play, Culinati, a comedy set in a busy New York restaurant kitchen. It asks the question, “what would you serve if your life depended on it?”

• Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to coming up?

I got the new Le Carre, Legacy of Spies. I’m very excited to make a start there. I also want to check out Attica Locke’s work. She’s the author of Pleasantville and Bluebird, Bluebird. My wife raves about her writing so much I’m getting kind of jealous!

• Why did you write this book?

I thought it was a great story. Good stories have compelling characters forced into action by circumstance.
MORE: I’d say I’m a huge fan of thrillers—smart, intricate ones like those written by Le Carre, Forsyth, Ross Thomas. I wanted to contribute to the genre. I wanted a story that was intelligent, but was animated by a visceral response: characters—ordinary people—standing up and saying this is wrong, and it must be stopped.

• Why the Electoral College?

I live and breathe this stuff. My father’s a retired Political Science professor who studies American Government, and my wife is also a Political Scientist (I’m sure Freud would have a lot to say on all this!) I mean, every reasonably educated voter knows what the EC is, and how it works in a general way; but the nuts and bolts of it are a bit of a mystery, and the more you find out, the more disquieting it gets. The weaknesses are stark, and ripe for mischief. The stakes couldn’t be higher. What’s more, the prospect of neither candidate receiving the requisite majority of EC votes (270) is very real. And I don’t think a “contingent election” is something anyone wants to see—when the House votes for president and the Senate votes for vp…and the House only gets one vote per state. It was my father who first talked about the EC system, and talked me through its arcana.

• What weaknesses?

For a start, they are regarded in the Constitution as independent actors. (A state supreme court judge in Washington State upheld the fine on Faithless Electors in this last cycle, the first time I’m aware of that anyone was ever fined. There’s also a lawsuit in Colorado making its way toward the Supreme Court.
Both may end up going to the supreme court, where the law’s requiring Electors to vote as “pledged” may be found unconstitutional. There is nothing in the Constitution about the current winner-take-all system. So, yes, the Electoral College is a disaster. The weaknesses have been in place for some time; and the idea that the popular vote winner could lose boggles the mind.
And there's more nuttiness! The set-up for Dark Network is what's called the "Contingent Election" (also from Article II, Sec.1). Which means that now--in the book--the House and Senate vote for the president and vice-president. (House for prez, Senate for veep).
So: 1) you could conceivably have a Prez and Veep from different parties and 2) for the House vote, each state only gets 1 (one!) vote, so all those House reps in each state have to agree on one candidate. The wheeling and dealing (and much, much worse) of the contingent election is the background for Dark Network.

• Is your father Duncan Calder? He was a PoliSci professor at UW, like Calder.

Obviously, I drew on that world and certain aspects of it. But no. I drew from multiple sources. That said, the office I describe in Faithless and DarkNet, however, is my father’s old office in Gowen Hall on the UW campus.

• What surprised you the most as you researched or wrote it?

As I wrote it, I was surprised by how the character of Imogen grew. I had always planned to give her a big “role”—she’s one of the stars—but I had assumed Calder would be the main hero. Imogen kept stealing the scenes. Somewhere around the middle of writing the first book, I had to take a step back and look at the shape and direction of the story. I’d mapped out the plot and the major events when I sat down to write it all, and I had to go back and alter some of the earlier bits to make them fit what I was writing.
I like to be surprised in my writing. If I’d stuck to my first outline, the story wouldn’t have been as rich. I think if—in the act of writing it—the author is a bit surprised by where story’s going, the reader will be, too. If it all feels like a formula you’re following…(yawn).

• What do you think will surprise readers the most?

Without giving away spoilers, it’s hard to relate those. I think finding out that it isn’t about either of the main political parties will be surprising.

• What’s the most important lesson or message readers will get from it?

I think it was Samuel Goldwyn the movie tycoon who famously said: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union,” meaning, I think, that he wanted his writers and directors to focus on stories.
But as an underlying sense, one of the key points in both books is that ordinary people are the actors in this drama—not the military, not terrorists, not some super-secret, chic, genetically-engineered Mensa-ninja assassin (by the way, I’m trademarking Mensa-ninja Assassin tomorrow!). The characters in these stories are in WAY over their heads, but they’re motivated to do the right thing.
People are cynical today, and there are a lot of good reasons to be so. But these books also point out that in cycnical times, there might just still be enough people animated to do the right thing.

• Did writing this book change your life in any way?

In a practical sense, I now spend my days writing. And that’s been glorious. • The copyright on Faithless Elector is 2000, but you didn’t publish it until 2016? Why did it take so long?

Yes, I see: why did one book take 17 years and the second only 18 months?
I’m a recovering alcoholic. I spent the key years when I should have been writing and honing my craft too drunk to be much use at anything. I tried getting Faithless Elector out there, but it went nowhere—too archaic, they said: ‘no one knows what the EC is,’ agents would say; that kind of thing. Which is what most writers go through. I tried again (a bit) in the run-up to the ’04 election cycle, but ran into the same issues—mostly, my inability to focus.
When I finally sobered up in 2004, I felt I’d wasted a good part of my life…because in many ways I had. I don’t dwell on that past, but I keep it with me. I emerged from the fog feeling that I hadn’t been the father or husband—or much of anything—I wanted to be. I focused on working and making money: I worked in community and economic development, and I loved it. I like meeting new people and being active in the life of downtowns. I particularly loved the writing aspects; writing marketing pieces, ads, press-releases, content for websites.
In 2015, my wife had a fellowship appointment at Oxford University. I resigned from the directorship of Bloomfield Center Alliance and went with her. She had a work permit, but I, as a foreigner, wasn’t allowed to work. I took the opportunity to finally really “push the boat out” as the English say. I rewrote bits of the book, got an editor and worked every day at it. I self-published it in March of 2016, having begun writing Dark Network in February of that same year. I took Dark Network home with me to Phillie and finished it up there. I started the third book in March 2017.

• Who is your model for the conspirators?

This is a work of fiction. For the eminence gris who casts a shadow over everything that happens, I had to have someone who was remote, outside the beltway, outside New York. I tried to think of an out-of-the-way location for his lair. I first thought of Omaha, but that’s where Warren Buffet lives, and so that seemed like a non-starter. I thought Kansas City, Denver, but figured those were too big. I settled on Wichita, and it was only after Faithless was in print that I tumbled to the connection with certain real people. But these books have always been about serendipitous confluences. No agent looking at Faithless now would say that no one know what or understands the EC.

• Did you always know it would be a trilogy?

No, but as I got going, I quickly suspected it was going to be bigger than one book. It’s strange to think, because a novel is such a big thing, that there might not be room in it for something. Some wise person once said that writing is not so much adding details as removing them. It’s as though you had a block of stone and were told to make it into a bust of William Shakespeare. You wouldn’t add bits on, you’d take away all the bits of the rock that weren’t the bust of Shakespeare. It’s not a perfect analogy, but as a writer, you have to ask yourself over and over “is this part of the story?” “does this serve the story?” If the answer’s no—out it goes. Without becoming too mystical, the point is that the story’s not about the author. It’s about itself, and the author is secondary, necessary only in as much as s/he is in service to the story.
As to, did I know it was a trilogy? I suspected it was the case pretty early on as I worked with my editor and rewrote Faithless. Somerset Maughm famously observed that there are “three ironclad rules for novel writing: only no one knows what they are.” I think there must be several more unknown rules for trilogies.

• What do you hope will come from others reading it?

I think it’s the same idea as with what the message is: I hope people will find it a compelling, thrilling, satisfying story, with good characters, some of whom you wish you knew in real life.
I’m a big movie fan, but my true love is the novel. As much as I may enjoy a film, I’ve never had that simultaneous need to get to the end and not wanting it to end; needing to find out what happens, coupled with dread that—when I get to the end--I’ll have to leave that world. So far as I know, no other medium delivers that experience.

• What are you working on now?

I’m working on the third book in the Imogen Trager series. The conspiracy in all three books is about a cynical thwarting of that dual nature of democracy—we are the government, the government is us; and it’s about more-or-less ordinary people making a stand. And in some cases, paying for that stance with their lives.
I’m only about a third of the way through it, but what I’ve got on the page so far is very exciting. Like the books before it, where I thought I was going and where I AM going, is evolving somewhat, so I don’t want to say too much at this point, other than that it focuses on how the conspiracy came into being and who, ultimately, is behind it all.
• Who should play Imogen/Calder in the movie?

I’d be interested to see the books as movies, though I wonder what they’d leave out. For Imogen, obviously, Jessica Chastain—red hair, self-possessed, about the right age. Or Amy Adams.
For Calder, I think someone like Dominic West (McNulty from the wire). He’s just the right age, and a fine actor.
For Amanda Vega, I’m not sure. She’s Guatemalan, mid-thirties. She needs to be earthy, tough, decidedly UNglamorous.
Trey Kelly needs to be a thirty-ish black actor who can play geeky. Donald Glover springs to mind, but he’s already kind of done that in The Martian, as the rocket scientist…
Ed Norton should be Kurtz
But I have no idea, really. And were it to happen, I’m doubtful they’d consult me. (Which is probably a good thing!) I also think about how bad I am at casting. For instance, I love the film Amadeus. I think F. Murray Abraham is perfect in the role of Salieri; and even before the film was made, I think a lot of us would have said about him, “yes, excellent choice.” But everyone else in the picture—Tom Hulce as Mozart, the principal from Ferris Beuler’s Day Off as Emporer Joseph? That’s nuts! But it works beautifully.

• Favorite Books?

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy -Le Carre
The Quiet American, Greene
Middlemarch, G. Eliot
1984, G. Orwell
Light in August, Wm. Faulkner
All the King’s Men, Robt. Penn Warren
Watership Down, Rich. Adams
Oxherding Tale, C. Johnson
Docherty, Wm. McIlvanney
Sunset Song trilogy, Lewis Grassic Gibbon

• Reading now?

Smiley’s People, Le Carre
Don’t Speak, JL Brown
Bluebird bluebird, Attica Locke
May’s Revenge, Linda Bennett Sterne
The Voice of Destruction, Hitler Speaks Hermann Rauschning
Last Days of Adolph Hitler, Hugh Trevor-Roper
Democracy in Chains, Nancy MacLean
The Power Broker, Cato
The People vs. Democracy, Yascha Mounk

• Why did you choose to write thrillers?

I write suspense-thrillers. It’s been said to a good many other writers: “If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.” (Toni Morrison) I love thrillers, I love historical fiction, so that’s what I write. I find (and I’m speaking for myself) that thrillers in particular do the best at revealing character in conflict. The danger, of course, is that the plot overwhelms the characters.

• Why thrillers?

Why thrillers and not literary fiction? Too often, literary fiction is slow. I’m aware of the shortcomings of genre fiction—that it can be entirely plot-driven, at the expense of character. But a good thriller, that takes the time to help the reader get to know the characters, can deliver that tense drama, that adrenaline rush, that identification and connection. There are stakes for success or failure; there are personal stakes and “real” people are contending with forces greater than themselves and/or more dangerous.

• How do you create your characters? I do a lot of daydreaming to begin with. I have the outlines of a story floating around in my head. I start to look at who would be involved in the story, start identifying whether that person would be a main character or a bit player. With Imogen, she began as a necessary person in the plot, but she very quickly started taking over, stealing scenes. I think it’s important to let that happen. My favorite writing professor at school was Charles Johnson. He advocated writing an obituary for your character. Not necessarily because the character would die in the story, but so you had a clear sense of who s/he was. Much of it might never make into the story you’re telling, but the knowledge of it would inform how you moved forward.

• How long have you been writing?

Since I was a teenager. I used to give stories to friends and girlfriends. When I was in 9th grade, I wrote a SciFi-Political story, and it was published in an anthology the University of Iowa put together of young writers. The kick of seeing my name in print has never worn off.

• Does writing energize or exhaust you?

Both. I remember being in a creative writing class years ago, and on the first day everyone was introducing themselves. The first 4 people said something like they “found writing cathartic, and a way to work through certain things.” I was the 5th person, and I said I didn’t think it was cathartic, and frankly, writing seemed to create more problems than it assuaged. That said, I’m energized by the need to “get it out.” • Do you find it easy to get motivated to write?

These days, it’s less about motivation, and more about just getting on with it. I don’t have to psyche myself up for it. My butt is in the chair by 9am. Social media is off, the door is closed and I’m on the job. I don’t take calls (except from my family). I take breaks for lunch, and I work until 5:30pm. This is not to say I’m writing sterling prose from morning to evening. Sometimes, there’s research, sometimes there’s editing. But I am involved in the project during working hours. I resent every intrusion.

• What is one thing you wish you knew when you started out?

That I really should treat it like a job. Inspiration comes or it doesn’t. You can trick yourself into writing by doing side projects—jump ahead and write some part you’re not stuck on; or do an in-depth character study.

• Do you write with an outline?

Yes, I use an outline. I find, however, that as a story develops, I diverge farther and farther from it. At some point, usually about 4 chapters in, I have to rewrite it. Faithless Elector and Dark Network were like that. At the moment, writing the third book, there’s a crucial thing that—in the outline—was supposed to happen in chapter two. I’m getting to the end of chapter four, and it still hasn’t happened…so while an outline is useful, I’m not ruled by it.

• Do you prefer to read traditional books or ebooks?

I love books. eBooks are interesting, but they feel ephemeral. It may simply be a generational thing, what I’m used to. But I love books, and I love having them around.

• Have you ever stopped writing or creating and how did you motivate yourself to get back into it?

So, I didn’t do much of any writing for many years (see above), but this is who I am, this is what I do. I’m thrilled to be working and creating again, and I’m pleased it’s been so well received.

• What is the hardest thing about writing?

Criticism is hard. You have all the internal checks and questions—is this compelling? Am I being truthful? Is there beauty here? Does it bog down? Etc. And you don’t put it out there until you feel good about what you’ve done; so when there’s negative criticism it wounds. I’ve learned to deal with it. In the end, you say—well, at least they read it.

• How do you balance writing and everyday demands like raising children, housework, and other’s needs?

This was a lot more difficult when the children were younger. I’d have to work late at night while everyone was asleep. Now, they’re older and much more self-contained. I knock off work at 5:30 to get dinner on the table for 7:30, and I either do the shopping very early in the morning, or over my “lunch hour.”

• What do you love most about the writing process?

I love the discovery. I have an outline, I know where I’m going, but I also leave brain (and page) space for serendipity and discovery. I feel that if the writer is surprised by a direction the story takes, the reader will be, too.

• What book has most influenced your life?

1984, Of Human Bondage and Catch-22. Most recently, as a writer, The Spy Who Came in from The Cold. 1984 is part essay, part novel, and it works. Both inform and augment the other. Of Human Bondage was breathtakingly stark and beautiful, and changed my way of seeing—specifically the scene where a group of painters are discussing seeing Monet’s haystack series. One of the student-painters notes that there’s a blue shadow in one. He says that prior to that painting being exhibited, there had never been a blue shadow. He asserts that now we see blue shades in shadow, where no one ever had before: that is, Monet had forced his vision on the world.
I’d say that Joseph Heller forced his vision on the world, too. There’s an entire upside down way of looking at the world that didn’t exist prior to Catch-22. M*A*S*H is based on it, and basically nothing written about the insanity of war can not engage with it. “Yossarian gazed with pride at the officers club he had not helped build. There were other officers’ clubs in the European theater he had not helped to build, but he was proudest of the one on Pianosa.”
Lastly, most recently, Le Carre’s Spy/Cold showed that prose can be spare, lean and beautiful. As I was editing Faithless, I began rereading Spy/Cold, and it occurred to me I wasn’t taking enough time to set scenes, to make them vivid and beautiful and it sent me back to my manuscript.

• Over the years, what would you say has improved significantly in your writing?

I’ve learned to stop editorializing, and I’ve developed confidence and a greater deal of control.

• Who designs your book covers?

Daniela Medina, whose company is called Strugglista. I’ve been very pleased with her work, and she’s a pleasure to work with.

• What is your take on the importance of a good cover and title?

Both are vital. I would also include the first four pages, too. There are so many books out there, you need to stand out for the right reasons. The cover and title are the reader’s first connection with the work. We’ve all had the experience—“Dark Network? What’s that? Hmmm, interesting cover…I wonder what the lines mean?” Then, if you haven’t put it back on the shelf, you’re looking at the advance praise—or if it has none, you’re thinking about putting it back. But let’s say you crack the spine, now you’re reading. Are you quickly in that world? If you’ve read to page four, it’s a good bet you’ll like the book.

• Do you attend literary lunches or events?

I go to book fairs, launches, readings. I’m fascinated to hear other writers talk.

• What is something you do to get the creative juices flowing?

It’s more a matter of getting them to stop. I mean that seriously. My most difficult task is focus. • What is your favorite writing resource? I use the library for deep dives, but to check information, or get a quick spelling, I use google. In fact, for locations I often use Streetview to get distances and locations right. I wrote a whole post about it on my Chosen Words blog. • Do you use a special program or app to write with? I use MS Word. I don’t keep multiple copies, but rather one “working copy” that I update daily. • What do you think about writing groups or critique groups? I think they can be excellent ways to hear and see your work. They also help you to realize it isn’t yours really. You’ve given it away. I wrote some one-act plays years ago, and working with actors was tremendous and humbling. A good actor will find who your character is through the text and decide on a way to play that character. I’ve heard actors speak a character with a voice I never intended. They did a better job of realizing the characters than I had. As I write now, and particularly, as I edit, I try to think a bit like an actor.

• Where do you see publishing going in the future? In order to answer that question, I think I’d have to know where it is in the present … style="font-family: Arial Unicode MS;" />

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The Imogen Trager series offers a sharp critique of US politics and its dependence on a Constitution that did not anticipate the ruthlessness of the modern criminal-business complex.  Illuminating how fragile our protocols are, James McCrone shows how easily power can be stolen by a hidden network with a criminal agenda, and what one intense, committed woman can do about it.

McCrone is also at work on a play set in a busy New York kitchen, called Culinati, and a historical piece, exploring the friendship between Andrew Marvel and John Milton, as yet untitled.

He is a member of the International Association of Crime Writers, the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime.

McCrone's work both on an off the page deals with politics and issues of social responsibility, accountability and justice. He has worked in community development and affordable housing for more than fifteen years and has been writing and cooking for longer than that.

McCrone graduated in 1990 from the University of Washington in Seattle, with a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing. National Book Award Winner (Middle Passage) Charles Johnson, was the chair of his committee.

McCrone lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children.  He is also the Business Manager for the 9th Street/Italian Market business association.

He is formerly the Executive Director of Bloomfield Center Alliance and Main Street Highland Park, both in New Jersey.

Follow James on Twitter @JamesMcCrone4, and on Facebook, Faithless Elector by James McCrone