One-on-One with Jeffery Deaver

In a one-off, Meg and author Jeffery Deaver interview each other about their thrillers Carte Blanche and The Nightmare Thief.

Meg talks to Jeffery Deaver about Carte Blanche:

Meg Gardiner: How did you manage to inhabit Bond’s British sensibility so thoroughly? Some American authors who write about Britain sound like Dick Van Dyke singing “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” But the London, and Londoners, ofCarte Blanche sound effortlessly authentic.

Jeffery Deaver: A writer’s job, of course, is to step into the shoes of his or her characters. The more real those people become, the more emotionally resonant is the story, which is the goal of fiction. To become someone of a different nationality, age and background is part of the challenge—and the pleasure—of writing fiction. For Bond, I spent a great deal of time in England, going to the places where Carte Blanche occurs (as well as the other countries), and I watched hundreds of episodes of British TV and subscribed to the BBC, as well as buying scripts of British TV programs to get the expressions right.

Gardiner: Did you ever doubt you’d set the novel in the present day? Though most of your thrillers are contemporary, Garden of Beasts—which won the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award—is set in the 1930s. Did you always plan for Carte Blanche to be a 21st century thriller?

Deaver: My one requirement for taking on the project was that the book be set in the present, with Bond as a thirty-ish agent and a veteran of recent Middle Eastern military campaigns—because my goal is to captivate readers from page one, and I feel that a period piece generally distances readers from the story and the emotional grab. As it turned out, the Ian Fleming estate had exactly the same goal, so setting the story in 2011 was not an issue.

Gardiner: The novel is fully a Deaver story, with twists and turns galore. And yet it’s completely Bond as well. Did you feel constrained by the history of such a legendary series? Or, as a lifelong Bond fan, did you feel at home?

Deaver: When I approached the novel I had two goals: First, to keep my fans happy—those who expect my fast-paced thriller, taking place over a short time period, with several surprise endings. Second, I had to make sure the legion of Bond fans were pleased. So I built my story as I would any other of mine, then added to the mix a young Bond who was modeled after the creation of Ian Fleming in the 1950s—the martinis, fast car, edgy nature, etc—suitably updated, of course. He no longer smokes, for instance.

Gardiner: What’s it like to be in James Bond’s head?

Deaver: Totally cool! I was a nerd when I was a kid, so for me to be a suave, sophisticated secret agent was a dream come true. Actually, though, I take the job of fiction pretty seriously, so I spent many hours figuring out how a secret agent would be a consummate professional today. I researched a lot about the “tradecraft” of espionage as practiced by a tactical spy like Bond. It’s a harrowing and demanding job.

Gardiner: You’ve created a constellation of deliciously warped and compelling villains. What inspired Severan Hydt, the “rag and bone man” with a twisted yen for death and decay? How about the ungainly (and efficient) killer, Niall Dunne?

Deaver: I always love creating villains (I know you do too). And I liked the idea of taking someone who on the surface is concerned about the environment (Hydt runs huge recycling operations and is angry at polluters), while having his employees commit, well, pretty bad acts. Hydt grew out of this irony. As for Dunne, every evil mastermind needs a henchman, and I was tired of the ponytailed, slavering bad guys in bad movies. Dunne is brilliant and approaches evil the way he approaches his profession—an engineer. He’s the ultimate machine.

Gardiner: You’re the Lord of Misdirection. Readers who think they know which direction a Jeffery Deaver novel is headed will inevitably be caught out. And you plot meticulously. But did you have any surprises as you wrote the book?

Deaver: No, once the outline is done—seven months of work and 140 pages long—I stick to it, and Carte Blanchewas no exception. Not all authors outline; it’s hardly necessary for a character-driven novel of psychological suspense. But for my twists and turns, I need to plan it all out ahead of time.

Gardiner: What’s the strangest thing you learned while researching the tradecraft of modern espionage? If you can reveal it, that is.

Deaver: Although my Bond is a full-on action hero, I suppose the strangest aspect of espionage is that most of it is very mundane. Sucking up cell phone calls and emails, reading public documents and newspapers in target countries, sitting for hours and observing who’s going into and coming out of suspected safe houses. While there are a few James-Bond-like spies, most of them are simply smart, hardworking craftspeople. . . . Although they can, of course, call out a drone strike, if the situation warrants!

Gardiner: Be honest: At the British launch of Carte Blanche, where you were driven through St. Pancras station in a Bentley while Royal Marines abseiled from the ceiling, did you want to grab the wheel of the car, pull a squealing handbrake turn, and race onto London’s streets with the marines and a leather-clad Bond Girl in pursuit?

Deaver: Okay, honestly? I have driven motorcycles far more recklessly than I should have (and have the scars to prove it), and I now take my sports car out onto the track and drive faster than Bond’s fastest documented speed (125 mph). So, yeah, part of me wanted a piece of that car! I think I’m past the Bond Girl stage . . . though I might make an exception for the one driving the BSA 650 at the launch!

Jeffery Deaver talks to Meg about The Nightmare Thief:

Jeffery Deaver: This is the fourth Jo Beckett novel. Fans are always curious about whether authors age their characters or not. What’s your approach to this?

Meg Gardiner: Time in my novels is flexible. Jo’s life does pass, because over the course of the books she changes and grows, and that takes time. But she doesn’t age according to the calendar on my wall. From The Dirty Secrets Club to The Nightmare Thief, about a year has gone by in her world. At heart, these books are about a young professional in San Francisco in the early years of the 21st century. And that won’t change.

Deaver: Jo’s specialty, of course, is psychology, which she practices in The Nightmare Thief both on the living and on at least one fellow who ended up in an abandoned mine—not a pleasant excursion, I should add. Your insight into the mind is quite riveting; do you have a background in the subject?

Gardiner: What’s truly riveting is the mind itself. That’s why I love writing these books. But my background, like yours, is in law. Any deep insights into psychology come thanks to my sister, who’s a psychiatrist. She’s my go-to expert. And she’s put me in contact with forensic psychiatrists—the physicians who, like Jo, perform psychological autopsies to determine whether a victim’s death is suicide, accident, or murder.

Deaver: There is certainly violence in the book, but it never crosses the line into gratuitous gore and sensationalism. Indeed, there’s an emotional tug in the novel when a life is lost or someone we care about is injured—you don’t rely on bloody imagery or the stupid quips we see in bad movie thrillers. How do you achieve that?

Gardiner: Violence isn’t glamorous. It’s ugly and painful and leaves scars. I try always to remember that. While my novels depict the physical and emotional consequences of violent crime, over the years I’ve become more sparing when describing the violence itself. And you know why? I heard you talk about the “Theater of the Mind.” You pointed out that what readers can imagine is far worse than what a writer can portray. (Talk about a riveting insight.) It’s true: Leave most of the details in the shadows, and readers’ imaginations will fill the darkness with monsters from their own worst nightmares.

Deaver: The title—and the core plot—reflect long-held phobias. Fess up: did this come from something in your childhood that scared the bejesus out of you? Or was it product of your imagination. (Oh, and thanks by the way for the snakes, one of my own fears!)

Gardiner: So you won’t be visiting the Reptile House with us? What a shame. I didn’t suffer any terrifying childhood traumas, unless you count getting scared by a park ranger who was dressed as a huge pink bunny—but let’s not speak of that Easter egg hunt. The story forces the characters to face their phobias, under life-and-death conditions. Everybody has some fear that lurks down in the basement. Jo is severely claustrophobic. I hate heights. Let’s change the subject.

Deaver: Jo and Gabe find themselves in the California wilderness, struggling to survive. The brilliant description of not only the geography but how one copes with the terrain suggests that you’ve had first-hand experience with the challenges our protagonists faced (minus the bad guys, I hope). Is that true?

Gardiner: Luckily, no. I grew up in California and love the Sierras. And I know how rugged the California wilderness can be. It’s frighteningly easy to get in trouble in the mountains. Survival situations can arise only a few bends away from lattes and wifi. The wilderness survival tactics in the book draw on the U.S. Air Force Survival Manual and the work of the 129th Rescue Wing of the California Air National Guard. Gabe’s a PJ—a pararescueman—with the Wing. The real life PJs put themselves on the line when disaster strikes. Rescuing passengers from a bus wreck in the Sierras is actually one of their training scenarios. I can’t say enough about how selfless and dedicated these guys are. Be glad they’re around. Hope you never need them.

Deaver: The book is very tightly plotted, taking place in only a few days, with several subplots moving forward quickly and simultaneously—Jo and Gabe, the police, several possible victims, a clutch of baddies. How did you so successfully accomplish the juggling?

Gardiner: Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Tighten the screws, ratchet up the tension. Thrillers should thrill—they should give readers a real emotional experience. So the characters must need to get to safety now. Figure out how to escape yesterday. Move faster, because something’s coming, and it’s gaining on them.

Deaver: The main plot device is a live-action role-playing game. Is it true that these really exist? Could you describe a bit about how they work? And, by the way, remind me never to sign up for one.

Gardiner: These games do exist. One French company offers designer kidnappings, plus helicopter chases, a night in a morgue, and even the chance to be buried alive. These games are “designer thrills” for adrenaline junkies—customized scenarios that force players to face their worst fears. And they’re perfectly legal, though the police want to be informed ahead of time so they can ignore emergency calls and screams for help. That’s what startled me. It sounded like an open invitation for real crooks to hijack an adventure and kidnap people playing the game. And that became the starting point for the novel.

Deaver: Like Shakespeare, even in the drama of the story, there are bits of humor. For instance, I loved Pepito the dog, described as “the attack mop.” Is humor something that comes naturally to you?

Gardiner: Maybe I’m twisted. Okay, strike the “maybe.” But I can’t write more than 50 pages without inserting humor into a book. Besides, thrillers shouldn’t be wall-to-wall action. Reading a novel that’s nothing but car chases and explosions feels like listening to feedback from an amplifier. Good novels contain changes of pace, and let readers catch their breath before being plunged into more life-or-death suspense. Humor can invigorate a story. In a thriller, it can be a refreshing surprise. And I’m glad you liked Pepito. Pop his little sheriff’s hat on his head, and maybe he can take on those snakes for you.

(Jeffery Deaver’s interview with Meg about The Nightmare Thief originally appeared on