Thea Paris is one of twenty-five elite kidnap negotiators in the world, and she takes on her toughest case with a special client: her father. The pulse-pounding action unfolds In K.J. Howe’s new thriller, The Freedom Broker, and we’re delighted to put her in the spotlight this week at You Read It Here First.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: You’ve lead an international life with a wide variety of activities. Tell us about some of them.
A: Growing up, I lived in the Middle East, Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe because my father worked in telecommunications. Adventure and travel have been an important part of my life ever since. I’ve had the pleasure of racing camels in Jordan, ziplining in Costa Rica, diving with Great Whites in South Africa, and interacting with elephants in Botswana. I really enjoy immersing myself in other cultures and learning about them.
Q: In what ways was that lifestyle influential in prompting the urge to become a writer?
A: I had an eclectic education because of all the travel. Stories were my sanctuary, a lovely escape from the pressures of always being the new kid. I enjoyed reading so much that I wanted to create my own books. I spent years as a medical writer as I worked on my craft and storytelling skills in fiction, and I’m most grateful to have The Freedom Broker out now.
Q: If you had never left Toronto—or had grown up and stayed in a small community—would you still have started writing novels?
A: I definitely feel that I would be writing whether or not I’d had my international upbringing, as I love books, stories, and the experience novels provide. I started reading at an early age, and I always wanted to be an author. That said, I believe my choice of international thrillers is firmly rooted in the experiences I’ve had abroad. I work hard to create verisimilitude by immersing myself in the locales I’m writing about, as I love to transport readers there, bringing them the smells, tastes, and sounds of a country. Maybe if I would have stayed in Toronto, I would have written different books—but most likely in the thriller genre.
Q: What comes first for you—the characters or the plot?
A: Thea Paris came first, but in thrilleresque fashion, the story raced to close the distance. I wanted to create a strong, talented woman with humanizing vulnerabilities, including Type 1 diabetes. I enjoy books that are character based, so I’m hoping Thea might resonate with people, and perhaps encourage anyone with an illness that they can still reach for their dreams.
Given my extensive research into kidnapping the last three years, I wanted Thea to be an elite kidnap negotiator—a freedom broker—who travels to the world’s hotspots to bring captives back home. The world of hostage retrieval fascinated me, as it lurks in the shadows of society, a heartbreaking and dangerous milieu. Thea Paris became a freedom broker after she witnessed her brother’s kidnapping as a child. While her brother returned home nine months later, he was never the same. As a result, she was determined to help other hostages. There are over 40,000 reported kidnappings every year, and the number continues to grow.
Q: What attracted you to the thriller genre?
A: Thrillers appealed to me because I’ve always been a bit of an adrenaline junkie, something that was fostered by my father. He introduced me to motorcycles, scuba diving, and other adventures. I also love whiplash pacing, and the most suitable genre for that is thrillers. And maybe writing suspense novels is my way of vicariously experiencing the life of an action hero!
Q: Who are some of the authors in this genre whose work you especially admire?
A: David Morrell, also known as Rambo’s Daddy, is an exceptional writer. He has had such a rich and diverse career writing everything from spy novels to historical trilogies to papers on John Wayne. I respect David’s approach to writing as he delves deeply into whatever subject matter he is studying. He is also a guru on the craft of writing, a professor of literature. And creating a new word in the English language—Rambo—is pretty darn sensational. I also have the deepest respect for Lee Child and his creation of Jack Reacher, Lee’s character is a throwback to a Western hero, a stranger who comes into town and solves a problem, then blows back out with the wind. I love that Reacher doesn’t do laundry, that he doesn’t own a credit card, that he lives by his own rules. It’s refreshing in today’s world to have a character who stands out in the crowd—and not just by his height. And Lee’s prose is tight, smooth—he’s a brilliant author.
Q: Authors often infuse their fictional characters with aspects of their own personality. In what ways are you and your protagonist, Thea, very much alike? And in what ways are you very much different?
A: Most authors inject themselves into their characters because writing is a catharsis, a way of making sense of our world. I feel a strong collegiality with Thea Paris, as I never wanted the fact that I was a woman to stop me from pursuing any interests. Thea and I share a love for travel and adventure, but Thea is far braver than I am. I’m not big on being shot at, but she rushes into the fray. And Thea has Type 1 diabetes, which is a serious vulnerability for her, especially when she travels abroad, as insulin is her elixir—without it, she would die.
Q: In Thea Paris’ bio, we learn that her brother’s kidnapping led her to become a negotiator for kidnap situations and an advocate for the families. What in your life prompted you to choose this particular career path for your main character?
A: With over 40,000 reported kidnappings a year, this issue has become a global crisis. Kidnapping is a purgatory of sorts, as the hostage is alive, but not really living life. Every single item a hostage wants, whether it be food or privileges, he/she must obtain permission for it, a horrible existence.
I spent a lot of time in countries with high threat levels, so there was always a shadow hovering over me—and being abducted was a realistic fear. When I met former hostage Peter Moore, the longest held hostage in Iraq (for almost 1000 days), I had such respect for the courage he showed under enormous duress. Peter was taken hostage along with four British military gentlemen, and sadly, he was the only one to come home alive. What made Peter able to cope? I explore issues like this in my book. I wanted to create a character who would help bring hostages home, a strong female who would do anything to assist others. And Thea is personally motivated to be a kidnap negotiator because of her brother’s experience. It’s more of a calling than a job.
Q: The theme of The Freedom Broker had to have involved extensive research in the arena of covert operations. How did you go about identifying expert resources so that your suspenseful plot would ring true?
A: I attended a kidnap and ransom conference, and I met some fabulous experts who were willing to share their knowledge. From there, I kept building relationships with a variety of people in the milieu, including kidnap negotiators, former hostages, K&R insurance executives, reintegration experts, and the Special Forces soldiers who deliver ransoms and execute rescues. I plan to continue my education on this compelling topic as I write the series.
Q: What was the most intriguing thing you learned from your body of research?
A: The kidnappers usually settle for around 10-15 percent of the original ransom demand—and haggling is an important part of the process to avoid the kidnappers thinking they have a cash cow on their hands. If the hostage’s family doesn’t stretch out the negotiations (which is hard to do when your loved one is in captivity), then the kidnappers might accept the ransom as a first payment and demand more. Also, it’s important to cry poor because if you pay too much, too quickly, then you are seen as a soft target, and the kidnappers might come after you or your family member again.
Q: Did you envision Thea Paris’ journey to become a series when you started writing your debut novel?
A: Yes, I wanted to create a series character, and I felt a freedom broker had endless story potential. There are many facets of kidnapping, from kidnap for ransom to virtual kidnappings to tiger kidnappings. I could also explore extortion and piracy in the series because Thea works in those areas. And there are endless hotspots in the world, so there are countless settings for future novels.
Q: Let’s talk about the advantages—and the challenges—in creating and sustaining a series with an overall story arc.
A: The advantages are many in a series. Readers tend to connect with recurring characters, as they become real to them. It’s incredible to see the fan loyalty with some major fictional characters. I definitely considered the overall story arc, but I also left wiggle room for being impulsive. Like any seasoned operative, Thea left me egress routes all planned out.
Q: Do you work from an outline or do you let your characters “talk” to you as you work from chapter to chapter? Why does this approach work well for you?
A: When people ask if I’m a plotter or a pantser, I answer, “pants on fire.” I’m definitely an organic writer. I do think about the story all the time, but I don’t plot out my novels. Instead, I feel that if I’m surprised, my readers will hopefully be as well. I don’t think there is one right way to write, it’s more a personal decision based on the way you work best. I love creating as I go.
Q: If Hollywood came calling, who would comprise your dream cast?
A: Charlize Theron or Mila Jovovich for Thea Paris—I’d like to see a strong, fit woman play her. Phillip Winchester for Rif Asker, as I loved him in Strike Back. And Thea’s brother Nikos, maybe Robert Downey Junior or Lieb Shreiver.
Q: Do you allow anyone to read your work in progress or do you make them wait until THE END?
A: I’m happy to have help along the way. It’s good to talk to trusted readers, get feedback.
Q: When and where do you feel you do your best writing?
A: I do my best writing on my laptop alone at home on a comfortable couch. Because I travel a lot, I write on planes and in hotel rooms, but my first choice would be home sweet home.
Q: What do you think readers would be the most surprised to learn about you?
A: That I’m an introvert at heart. Because I had to integrate into new environments, I’ve had to come out of my shell and become more extroverted, but I truly am introverted and a little shy.
Q: What’s next on Thea’s (and your own) plate?
A: I’m doing edits on the second book in the series now, Skyjack. Thea is shepherding two African orphans from Nairobi to London where they are being adopted when the plane they are on is hijacked. The adventures kick off from there. The CIA, the Vatican, secret stay-behind armies from WWII all collide when Thea has a huge challenge in the not-so-friendly skies.
Q: When you’re not at your keyboard, what do you do for fun?
A: I love sports, especially tennis and swimming. Being out in nature is also very restorative. Travel, adventure, thrills. I love learning new things.
Q: You’re the executive director of ThrillerFest. Can you tell us more about this conference for thriller enthusiasts?
A: ThrillerFest is the annual conference for the International Thriller Writers held every July in NYC. It’s a wonderful gathering of over 1000 authors, and we celebrate the genre. We have something for everyone, whether you’re an aspiring author, a fan, or an industry professional. You can learn more via www.thrillerfest.com
Q: Best advice for aspiring authors?
A: Be passionate about your subject matter. You will spend so much time working on your books, take your time and choose the genre and topic carefully. And embrace constructive criticism. Writing is a journey of a thousand steps—or more like a million words—so enjoy the process of learning and be kind to yourself. Like any skill, you need practice.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: I love hearing from readers, so if you’re reading this, please drop me a line anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’d like to thank you for taking the time to interview me. It has been a real pleasure.