James McCrone is a well-traveled thriller writer from Philadelphia, whose books have been called "fast-moving" and "provocative." Originally from the American Midwest, James has lived Scotland, England, France, and even Uruguay. His Faithless Elector series of political thrillers has received rave reviews from Publisher's Weekly and Kirkus Review. James has been gracious enough to take a few moments to answer a few questions.
MB: Your first book, FAITHLESS ELECTOR, came out in 2016, and seemed to almost predict the turmoil that would come with the 2016 and 2020 elections with fake electors and election fraud allegations. So, my first question is, are you clairvoyant? Do you have a crystal ball that helps you predict the future?
JM: Alas, no. I’m not clairvoyant! All fiction, to one degree or another, is a question, a game of “what-if?” I’ve been surprised at how close to reality—though thankfully not TOO close!—my first three books were. Indeed EMERGENCY POWERS (2020), which ends the FE series, culminates with a false-flag attack on the capitol.
I think that the story elements tracked with reality because I took the bad guys’ motivations, and the means by which they would effect their plot, seriously. For those books, and for the new book, BASTARD VERDICT, I had to research Constitutional questions with an eye for loopholes and weaknesses that might be exploited; at the structure of the FBI (or MI5 for BV), including to some extent its culture, and not just its rules, but its reward-structure. As I’m doing now for my work-in-progress, WITNESS TREE, I use newspaper accounts of former bad deeds to inform my research. “How did they do that?” I ask. What follows (from one perspective) logically?
I didn’t research all that so I could put everything on the page, but I did it in order to make sure I had the facts right, the motivations right. And that I knew which power levers the bad guys might use to bring about their plot. The deep dives give you small things that could have large effects. It rings true, and tracks true, because I took the bad guys seriously, and realistically imagined what they might do and how would they do it? Maybe I should work in counter-terrorism.
MB: Your series protagonist is an FBI agent named Imogen Trager. Give me a brief introduction to Imogen and tell us about what inspired the character.
JM: Imogen Trager is a fearless (some might say, reckless) FBI/Justice Dept agent in Voting Integrity, though by the last two books, she’s been forced into a non-investigative, academic role by the Justice Departments powers-that-be for reasons that might end up being kind of a spoiler. Imogen is something of a Cassandra character, digging for, and telling, the truth. Even though her warnings aren’t taken seriously until it’s almost too late.
MB: What’s the most difficult thing for you about writing characters from the opposite sex?
JM: Rightly, authors second-guess themselves, interrogate the scenes they write, the characters they portray. You want to be certain that what you’ve written rings true. Having my main character be female adds yet another layer to those concerns. But it gives me an opportunity to broaden my imagination, to engage and think about the character in new ways. And I run even first draft scenes past my wife and daughters for input. They keep me honest—about a great many things! (My son helps, too, just not with the aspects we’re discussing here.)
MB: You have a new book that recently came out called BASTARD VERDICT. That's an interesting title. Tell me about the new book.
JM: For this book, I drew on my boyhood in Scotland. All told, I’ve lived a little over four years in the UK. I’m a huge fan of Tartan Noir novels (McIlvanney, Brookmyre, Parks; Val McDermid, Lin Anderson, Ian Rankin, and a great many others), and I wanted to write something that brought in those gritty elements, one that was set in Scotland. I wanted to (re)explore Scotland through my writing. And the passion around the Referendum on Scottish Independence felt like the right place to get to work. And, much like your question above about writing a female character, I needed to be careful that I got the mood and details right, that wasn’t overstepping bounds (I’ve lived there, but I am not Scottish)
So, I wanted a noir thriller. I started with the working title “Not Proven.” The title came from the third verdict in Scottish law. Where Anglo-American law has Guilty and Not Guilty as its only two verdicts, Scottish law allows a third, Not Proven. Which has come to mean “we, the jury [or judge in special cases] believe that the defendant is guilty, but the Crown has failed to prove its case.” So, it is an acquittal, but no one thinks it’s a vindication, or that the defendant is innocent.
Early on, I was talking about the book with a group of friends at a cafe. As I talked about the title and the main parts of the story, I happened to mention that Sir Walter Scott had regarded the Not Proven verdict as problematic. He had called it “the bastard verdict.” Everyone at the table stared at me. Finally, one said—“that’s your title!”
BASTARD VERDICT begins in the present, when a Scottish government official enlists FBI Elections Specialist, Imogen Trager (on research leave at the University of Glasgow). The official wants her to investigate irregularities back in the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum—ostensibly as a means of ensuring that a possible second referendum will be conducted fairly. He claims that he wants an outsider’s unencumbered view. Against all FBI rules, the impetuous Imogen agrees. But the government official may not be what he seems, and the trail Imogen follows becomes twisted and deadly, leading to a corrupt cabal intent on holding on to power.
But they didn’t count on Imogen, a feisty, conflicted and driven investigator who goes strictly by the numbers, if rarely by the book. To find the truth, Imogen will risk everything—her reputation, career, and possibly her life. None but a very few know that truth. And those few need it to stay hidden. At any cost.
MB: Let's talk about the craft of writing for a moment. Some writers plot out all the elements before putting a single word to paper. Others, on the other hand, allow the story to grow organically as they write. Tell me about your writing process.
JM: There’s no hard and fast way for me. Generally, though, I have an idea for a story, and it will kick around in my head. Some ideas fade quickly, others gather momentum, become insistent, and I’ll begin to see and think about characters, about how the story would advance. And I make lots of notes. At some point, I’ll see at least one of the characters clearly, and I’ll begin writing.
Often, I’ll get 25-30 pages in before I know where to begin and what the key story elements are. But once I “see” it clearly, I’ll make a new start. Then I’ll lay out the plot and the important points and scenes. I end up taping the outline to the wall in front of my computer monitor, and I add things as they occur to me. (That wall, by the way, looks like a suspect- or conspiracy board by the time I’m in full writing mode, with pictures, typed and scribbled notes.) After the book is done, I ceremoniously, poignantly, take down the pages and notes and put them in a folder.
The notes are important because even though I outline pretty thoroughly, I find that when it’s going well, the story takes on a life of its own. My outline becomes less and less relevant. I feel that following what the story wants gives me a better story. I need to have an idea of where I’m going, but I also need to be open to where the story and characters want to go.
MB: What would be your biggest tip on how to be a better writer?
JM: Read more, and work more. There’s no substitute for reading everything you can. Read for pleasure and for craft. Interrogate what you’re reading, try to examine what’s working, what’s not, and why. Not only is it pleasurable, it will send you back to your own work with fresh eyes. For instance, while I was writing my first book, FAITHLESS ELECTOR, I was re-reading Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. My editor was urging me to cut and pare back certain elements. The advice was good, but I found that as I reread certain passages of my, then, work-in-progress it sometimes felt a little thin. Reading Le Carre’s book, I realized that I was cutting too much; that I hadn’t left much room for beauty. I realized that, yes, it’s a thriller, and it needs to be moving quickly, but some of the elements that make reading something rewarding were missing—brief, vivid descriptions, tonal aspects. Moments. I needed to put beauty back into the book (albeit pared down from what it had been before I started cutting it to the bone).
MB: Let's shift gears and talk for a moment about reading. Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
JM: The number of writers whose work I admire and enjoy is vast, so I’ll try to keep it short. I’m a huge fan of Tartan Noir, and I’ve been reading William McIlvanney (and a great many others) since I was 19 or 20. And John Le Carre really grabs and holds me, as does Graham Greene and Philip Kerr. I enjoy and admire the pure thrillers of Len Deighton, Ken Follet and others, but each of the first three know how to weave in that little bit more, whether it be politics, writ large and small; or their deep, well-rounded characters. I try to emulate that aspect, to keep the story moving and deliver what thriller readers expect, but to do so thoughtfully, to give the reader just that little bit more, without bogging down the story. If you look at some of the best Tartain Noir, they find beautiful (sometimes ugly) moments, that are expressed gorgeously. And maybe a thriller writer shouldn’t say so, but I have an intense admiration for George Eliot and Jane Austen. The precision of their observations, their use of irony, the economical use of description leaves me in awe. My first novel, a coming-of-age, thinly veiled autobiography that no one (fortunately for them!) will ever see, even took its title from Middlemarch, by George Eliot. My novel was called The Quickest of Us, after Eliot’s observation that, “perhaps our frames could hardly bear it. If we had a keen sense of normal life about us, it would be like seeing the grass grow, or hearing the squirrel’s heart beat; and we should die of that roar that lies at the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well-wadded with stupidity.”
MB: What can we expect from you in the future? Are you working on any new projects?
JM: Yes, my work-in-progress is called WITNESS TREE. While I’m getting ready for the launch of BASTARD VERDICT, I’ve slowed down the writing of the second full draft. But I remain excited by it, and eager to bring it over the finish line. I started it as a short story, but it just wouldn’t conform to being a short story. You asked about my process earlier, and that story started with an ancient pine tree on the hill above my parents’ vineyard in Oregon. It’s a witness tree, a State of Oregon survey point. It can’t be cut down because it’s part of the way parcels of land are marked. I started with that as my title.
The name WITNESS TREE was pregnant with meaning for me, so I started there. I thought, “okay, someone sees something (witnesses it) that they shouldn’t. A murder? OK,” I thought, “but how”—and here I looked toward the real witness tree, high on the hill, visible from every direction—“how would you see something you shouldn’t, but not be seen seeing it?”
And I carried on from there, interrogating and developing the story as I went along…
I also have some new adventures for Imogen, and two other stand-alones in various draft stages.
MB: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today. Good luck with BASTARD VERDICT.
You can purchase BASTARD VERDICT at these retailers.