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Interview on MSNBC News

I was interviewed by MSNBC News this morning based on the article I wrote for on the CIA and interrogation techniques. Watch the interview.

Writing for The Daily Beast

I am now a Contributor to!

Read my first article: Hands Off the CIA.

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Looking for a great writer!

A friend of mine, a legendary Harvard Law School professor, is defending a college student in a fascinating, landmark legal case against the copyright industry and the music industry. This is a story that, in the right hands, can become a book (and a movie) along the lines of A CIVIL ACTION (meets BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE/”21″). He needs a writer, preferably in the Boston area (or who visits Boston often), with the skills of a journalist, who can be a fly on the wall in the courtroom and in the dorm, who has a sense of humor and a narrative flair and the ability to explain complicated internet technology in simple accessible language — but most of all, who knows how to tell a story. Ideally, this project would start as a blog, then turn into a work of narrative nonfiction (a book for a wide readership) and then perhaps a movie. If you think you have this skill set and you’re interested, please email me at [email protected], pointing to what you’ve done. Thanks,

April Writing Tips – Books to Be Influenced By

The text of my April Writing Tips newsletter — if you’d like to subscribe, you can sign up here.

It never ceases to amaze me. I’ll meet someone at an event who says, “I always wanted to be a writer,” and I’ll ask, “What do you like to read?” – and that person will say something like, “I’m really not much of a reader.”

Why would anyone want to be a writer who doesn’t like to read? And how does anyone figure out how to write without reading everything they can, first?

It’s basic primate behavior: monkey see, monkey do. We learn to speak by imitating adults who speak to us, and we learn to write by imitating what we read.

Here’s a secret for first-time novelists, in particular: it’s okay to be derivative. It’s okay to imitate what you think is good. As long as you’re not plagiarizing – as long as you’re using your own words and telling your own story – it’s not only fine, it’s helpful to try to write in the style of authors you admire.

We all do it, and it’s one of the most frequently-asked question any author gets: “Who are your influences?” It takes a long time to find one’s own voice, and even then, we’re all products of every other book we’ve ever read, and every person we’ve ever spoken to.

It’s not just writing; all artists do this, whatever the medium. Picasso’s early work, for example, borrows heavily from the old masters – and then, when he felt he’d learned as much as he could from them, he used what he learned to create his own unique style. How many times have you heard a band described as “Beatlesque,” or “the new Dylan”? Brian De Palma’s movies started out as faithful homages to Alfred Hitchcock, and Peter Bogdanovich acknowledges the heavy influence of Orson Welles on his early work.

It’s tricky, of course. Harold Bloom looked at this phenomenon in The Anxiety of Influence, a book about modern poetry. Bloom looked at the work of modern poets such as Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery, and argued that their work evolved first as a product of, then as a reaction to, their influences. Creating lasting work, Bloom argued, requires a poet to create his own voice, fighting against influences while still drawing knowledge and skills from them.

You can see this for yourself in the works of several top-level mystery authors. Robert Crais’ first novel, The Monkey’s Raincoat, is a wisecracking homage to the great hard-boiled novelists, somewhere between Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane. The tone of his books took a major change in L.A. Requiem, and the voice of Crais’ protagonist, Elvis Cole, in his most recent novel, Chasing Darkness, is very different from the way Cole sounded in The Monkey’s Raincoat.

Lee Child talks openly about the influence of John D. Macdonald on his Jack Reacher novels – like Travis McGee, he says, Reacher is rooted in the ancient tales of knights-errant traveling the countryside, correcting injustices. I’ve heard Harlan Coben talk about the influence of William Goldman’s Marathon Man on his own work, and you can see it – the protagonist caught up in events beyond his understanding or influence, a premise I’ve used once or twice myself (Paranoia, Company Man, Killer Instinct…).

So the key is, if you’re writing, to read good stuff – and then to trust your own instincts. Many authors I know can’t read within their genre while they’re writing, and I’ve become that way myself; if I’m writing something, I need to know that it’s come out of my own imagination, and that I haven’t borrowed some cool plot twist from Harlan Coben or Lee Child.

But when I’m not actively writing, I’m reading everything I can in the genre. A couple of years ago, I had the privilege – and responsibility – of serving as Chief Judge for ITW’s Best Novel Award, and had to read all or part of about 300 thrillers within the span of about six months. It left me in a daze, but it also was a phenomenal master class in thriller writing. At the end of all that reading, I knew exactly what worked and what didn’t, and had learned a lot that I could use in my own writing.

Before I started writing novels, I set out to teach myself how – and I did that by reading and rereading the best of the genre, picking apart the books to see how writers introduced characters, what information they revealed when, how they wove subplots together, and so on. Every writer has to find his or her own inspiration, but if you want to learn from the best, here are some books that helped me:

Frederick Forsyth, The Day of the Jackal. The book I still go back to, a masterpiece of plotting (and atmospheric detail, too; see my main April newsletter for a discussion of how Forsyth’s attention to food continues to inspire me). The Odessa File is also fantastic.

Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely. Chandler used to write on short slips of paper, inserted horizontally into his typewriter, and the end of every sheet was a cliffhanger. His long essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” includes some of the best advice any writer could want, including the immortal wisdom, “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”

Nelson DeMille, The Gold Coast. Any early Nelson DeMille novel is a master class in plotting, but this was the book that showed me the importance of a character’s voice, and how important humor can be in thrillers.

William Goldman, Marathon Man. I’m with Harlan on this one. One of the keys to any thriller is how you balance what the reader knows with what the protagonist knows, and one of the key tools for achieving that balance is point of view. Marathon Man is a virtuoso work for so many reasons – pacing, surprises – but Goldman’s treatment of points of view is unmatched here.

John Grisham, The Firm. The novel that showed me – and every thriller writer working today – that thrillers don’t need to be set in exotic places or the inner circles of government, and that a creative writer can find villains and heroes everywhere.

John Le Carre, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and the Smiley books. Le Carre’s characters often do terrible things, but we keep reading because he makes us understand why they do them.

Robert Ludlum, The Matarese Circle. Everyone recommends the Bourne books, and while those are great, I love the dynamics of this one, which goes from cat-and-mouse to global conspiracy. And talk about a page-turner; don’t start this unless you have time to finish it.

David Morrell, The Brotherhood of the Rose. The International Thrillers Writers have just announced that David Morrell is the 2009 ThrillerMaster of the Year, and I’d give him the award for this book alone. The attention to detail here is astonishing, but it’s the structure that makes this book required reading for anyone writing a thriller; everything pays off, nothing is wasted, and it’s all put together like a Swiss watch. Take notes.

That’s good advice in general, in fact. When you read something that impresses you, take a few minutes to figure out what impressed you – and write it down. Keep a notebook or a clipping file of ideas and inspirations, to remind yourself of what you’re trying to achieve (and, not incidentally, to make sure you’re not plagiarizing).

And remember that no matter how many people came before you, every author who sits down to write a book is writing that book – or that chapter, or that line — for the first time. We’re all figuring this out as we go.

Out on the town… with Kevin Spacey

Late Friday night in a Boston bar: left to right, Dana Brunetti (who runs Trigger Street, Kevin Spacey’s production company; me; Kevin Spacey; author Ben Mezrich.

“When is PARANOIA going to be a movie?”

Soon, I hope!

From VARIETY, 4/7/09:

Gaumont finds Finder’s ‘Paranoia’
Barry Levy to adapt bestselling novel
Gaumont has acquired the bestselling Joseph Finder novel “Paranoia” and set Barry Levy to script an adaptation.

Alexandra Milchan will produce.

Story centers on a young man who funds a lavish retirement party for a co-worker with company funds and is caught by his boss. Accused of embezzlement, he agrees to spy for the boss to avoid prosecution. He is forced to infiltrate a rival company and steal information on a top-secret project.

Levy scripted the Columbia Pictures drama “Vantage Point,” and just adapted “Button Man” for DreamWorks and producer Michael De Luca. Finder’s novels include “High Crimes,” which became a 2002 Fox film that starred Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd.

For Milchan, the deal is the second recent project with Gaumont, where she is also teamed with director Alexandre Aja to develop “The Contractor,” a drama being scripted by Ian Jeffers.

Read the full article at:

“PROS & CONversation,” a fundraiser for WriteBoston

I was honored to be a guest at “PROS & CONversation,” a fundraiser for WriteBoston, last Thursday night. WriteBoston is a citywide initiative created by Mayor Tom Menino to boost writing proficiency among the city’s high school students. It’s a public/private partnership that I have supported since its inception, and PEN New England is one of several nonprofit organizations that participate in WriteBoston programs.

With Alice Hoffman and Dennis Lehane

Left to right: Betty Southwick, executive director of WriteBoston; Sam Cornish (Boston’s first Poet Laureate), Anita Shreve, Joe Finder, Alice Hoffman, Dennis Lehane, Peter Canellos

Dennis and I were dressed almost identically — no, we didn’t plan that in advance — so he removed his boutonniere for the photos. I say, real men wear flowers.

Why I Write (and eat)

I admit it: the lifestyle was one of the things that first attracted me to thrillers, particularly to spy novels. Who wouldn’t want to drive an Aston Martin and drink Meursault, like James Bond? Vicariously, at least?

When I first started reading thrillers, I remember being particularly captivated by the sophisticated lifestyle implied by all those descriptions of meals. Obviously James Bond knew how to live. Maybe if I read enough Ian Fleming, I too would learn how.

Of course, readers and writers don’t always have the same motivations. As a reader, I wanted vicarious experience. As a writer, I’m interested in characterization and setting. But I won’t deny I enjoy the research.

On my first research trip to Europe, in fact, I squired a glamorous brunette in the footsteps of Frederick Forsyth’s Jackal, going where the Jackal went and ordering what he ordered –- at various points, in case you’re wondering, the Jackal dines on cold chicken and Moselle, pot roast and noodles, and a “magnificent” speckled river trout grilled over charcoal, among other things. It became a joke between the glamorous brunette and me: “The Jackal dined excellently,” my wife would say, and we’d order the tartine beurree or the sandwiches or the fish. (I did, however, draw the line at buying a melon to use for target practice.)

Years later, on book tour in Madrid, I ordered baby eels for the first time because I remembered reading about them in another thriller –- and then I had Baumann, the villain of my novel THE ZERO HOUR, dine excellently on them when he’s in Madrid. Repellent as they may sound, tiny freshwater baby eels, or angulas, harvested in the rivers of northern Spain, are delicious. They’re no thicker than a strand of linguine, only they have eyes. It’s a Basque dish, served sizzling in an earthenware casserole in olive oil with garlic and chili peppers. I liked the idea of my bad guy dining on baby eels, for some reason. I felt it did narrative work.

Writers high and low, lit and pop, often use food as one of their storytelling tools (along with clothing and cars and domicile and physiognomy). In his novel SATURDAY, Ian McEwan’s protagonist, Henry Perowne, makes an elaborate-sounding fish stew while watching the news about 9/11; McEwan even posted the recipe on his website. The great Len Deighton (who just turned 80, by the way), is a major foodie and was once better known for his food writing than for his thrillers. (If you’re interested, read more here.) Bob Parker’s Spenser loves to cook, which sometimes may seem at odds with his laconic, tough-guy style. But as someone who dines excellently with Bob and Joan Parker from time to time in Boston, I can tell you that Spenser’s creator takes his culinary research seriously.

It’s not always that way, though. Not all writers whose narrators or protagonists dote on food are into it themselves. Ian Fleming once wrote, “My contribution to the art of thriller-writing has been to attempt the total stimulation of the reader all the way through, even to his taste buds.” So he gave us stone crabs in melted butter with Pommery pink champagne. But Noel Coward observed cattily after staying at Fleming’s house in Jamaica, “Ian Fleming’s cooking always tasted to me like armpits.” Fleming’s favorite meal was a plate of scrambled eggs.

Me, I’m more in the Bob Parker camp. I like to do firsthand research. I like food. So on a recent trip to Barcelona to research a sequence in the next Nick Heller book and do book publicity, I ate and ate. I fell in love not only with Barcelona’s amazing architecture, but also with the food.

In fact, I’m a little embarrassed by how much I ate, and when the airline threatened to charge me for exceeding the weight limit on the return trip, they weren’t talking about my luggage. I blame my friends, who gave me too many restaurant recommendations -– especially the author David Hewson, who made the mistake of telling me to try churros dipped in hot chocolate. I don’t know how I got to my current age without having churros, but I made up for it in Barcelona; they are fried pastry sticks, but to say that is like saying that Dom Perignon is a fizzy wine. The best I had in Barcelona (and I take pride in being a diligent researcher) were at the Café de l’Opera.

A look at my Twitter posts from Barcelona tells the whole story about my priorities: the herbal liqueur at Salamanca; Jamón ibérico (cured ham made from black Iberian pigs, which eat only acorns); the best paella I’ve ever had; arroz negro; chipirones (fried baby squid); and did I mention the churros?

Call it rationalization, but I think that food can often convey a sense of character as well as place. Think of how much we learn about characters by seeing what they eat: Nora Ephron’s main character in HEARTBURN, a food writer, channels her emotions through cooking, while the main characters in Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate and Joanne Harris’s Chocolat literally work magic through food. Cooking mysteries are their own subgenre, with books by Diane Mott Davidson, Joanne Fluke, Katherine Hall Page, Michael Bond, Philip Craig (well, his detective likes to cook), Anthony Bourdain, and even The Washington Post’s longtime restaurant critic, Phyllis Richman. We all eat, and we all like to read about food. At least, I do.

Which is why it’s a little ironic that I chose not to make my new series character, Nick Heller, a foodie. Nick doesn’t care about food. He likes his coffee strong and black, but he can’t tell Blue Mountain from Kona from Taster’s Choice. But that doesn’t mean the people around him can’t be into food.

I do need a pretext to keep doing research.

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