Ep 46 Meet crime thriller author James Phelan, writer of ‘The Hunted’


In Episode 46 of So you want to be a writer: Become an enthusiastic respite in the lives of your readers, Elizabeth Gilbert to release a book on creativity, ask the HarperCollins editor part three, the basics of endings, winter weekends, Writer in Residence crime thriller author James Phelan, how you teach teach yourself to write faster, the app RescueTime and more.

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Show Notes

Thanks for writing in, Winifred!

Thanks also to Ali Millgate for making Al feel a little better about the possibility of getting braces!

Why Email Newsletters? To Become an Enthusiastic Respite in the Lives of Your Readers

Ask the HarperCollins editor: part 3

The Basics of Endings

‘Eat, Pray, Love’ Author Elizabeth Gilbert Announces New Book on Creativity

Winter Weekend

Writer in Residence

JamesPhelanJames Phelan it the bestselling author of 23 novels and one work of non-fiction. From his teens he wanted to be a novelist but then studied architecture before turning to writing. He has published five thrillers in the Lachlan Fox series, as well as the Alone trilogy of young adult post-apocolyptic novels and a 13 book series for Scholastic. His latest book is The Hunted, the second in the Jed Walker thriller series.

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RescueTime via @CountessWhite

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James, thanks for joining us today.



Thanks Val for having me.



I have The Hunted in my hands. I’m about half way through it, I haven’t quite got to the end yet because I only started it two days ago, but I’m gripped.


For people who haven’t heard of The Hunted yet can you tell people what it’s about?



Sure. It’s a thriller, it’s a sequel to a novel I had last year called The Spy. I guess it falls into the suspense realm of thrillers, which is something that is a bit different for me. I had a previous series before of five books, but this one follows a character Jed Walker, who is a CIA agent, and in The Hunted he’s spending a few days sort of kicking around the Ozarks in America, trying to find a Navy Seal who doesn’t want to be found. He needs to find him before someone else does, to unravel the mystery at the heart of the novel.



Where did the seed of this idea come from? How did this come into your brain?



The past ten years that I’ve been a novelist I’ve always been a type of reader and writer to just absorb a whole lot of material. So when I was reading about sort of the hunting down of Bin Laden and when they found him they found a couple of phone numbers sewn into his clothing and that just sort of got my mind ticking, “What were those phone numbers for? Who do they belong to?” So that’s kind of how it started.


The more I thought about it the more I looked into sort of a thrilling framework of the story. Around that I’ve come to also think, “OK, hang on, who are these guys that went in there?” “What could they have seen in that house in Pakistan? And what could possibly be worth hunting them all down for a few years later.”



I read on your website that you were interested in writing from your school days, but then you studied architecture. Can you just take us back to why you decided that before we get back into your writing again?





Yeah, sure. For me, being a writer was always a dream. I always thought to be a novelist or an author would be my absolute dream job. As a teenager when I was reading thrillers – the likes of John Macrae or Tom Clancy, or Ian Fleming… I always thought the one thing all of those guys have in common is they’re old dudes. After high school I thought, “OK, when I grow up I want to be an old dude so I can be a writer and all of my friends at school went, “Really?” I was like, “Yeah, that’s what you have to do.” I think that also came from the fact that I had never met any other writers or anything like that. But, all of these guys they had a career first and then they went off and were writing.


I said, “OK, I’m very interested in design. It’s something very creative. I’ll be an architect. I’ll do that. I’ll retire one day and then I’ll become a writer.” So that was kind of the career path I had in mind. I guess I thought about that whole retirement thing early. After high school I studied architecture and a few years into that I decided, “Hang on a second, if writing is my dream,” I had been ticking away at a novel that I had actually started in the last week of high school, “if that’s the dream why not see if I can finish writing this book now and if I enjoy the process I’ll see if I can get published and we’ll see from there.”


That whole process took about five years in the end, to sort of write the book, get the first book published and take it from there.



I understand that your first published book was actually non-fiction, is that right? Literati?



Yeah, that’s right. That wasn’t my title, I called it the ‘Australian Writers’ Desk’ and the publisher John Wiley, they said, “OK, we’ll call it Literati: Australia’s Contemporary Literary Figures Discuss Fear, Frustrations and Fame.” They liked the alliteration. Basically, it was an author interview book, 21 Australian writers, and I traveled around the country, sat down with them for a few hours and just had a chat about the craft of writing and the process that they go through and all of the rest of it. That’s how I got my foot in the door, initially.



When you interviewed those 21 people for the book did you then realize you didn’t have to be an old guy? What did you learn from them that helped you with your writing? Apart from getting your foot in the door?





For me, I had already written my first novel, Fox Hunt, my first thriller. And I was sort of well into the way of writing the second novel. I had been sort of shopping those around for a couple of years, obviously, to agents. So I had already been through the process of a bit myself with trying to get published. For me, I guess I saw a bit of a hole at the time in publishing for a book like that where it would be a book behind the curtain of creative process, but also for anyone who was a fan of those writers involved in the book, anyone from Sonya Hartnett, Robert Drewe, John Birmingham, Andy Griffiths, Matthew Reilly, all of these sorts of guys.


I thought it would a fascinating look sort of behind the scenes for someone who’s either a fan of their work or interested in writing. And I certainly learned a lot through that process, but only through the actual process itself of putting that book together for the very tight timeframe for publication. So it was a bit of a whirlwind to get that all happening. But also just to hear from all of those other writers that everyone’s journey has absolutely been unique, even though now I have done a masters and PhD in writing and literature, it doesn’t guarantee you’re getting published anywhere. Everyone finds their own way, everyone comes from completely different walks of life and different ages and backgrounds and all of the rest of it.



Then you went into fiction, Fox Hunt, which is the first in a series of books featuring your key characters, Lachlan Fox and Alister Gammaldi. These books are thrillers, they’re set all around the world in very exotic locations, in Nigeria and Chechnya and all sorts of places. Tell us how you get to know those locations and what you do to research. Do you go there? Do you rely on Google Street View? What do you do?



It’s different for every book. I’ve written 24 books now, each process has been different. If you can go to some places, great. You can sort of fill in the color as you’re writing. I’ve always got a notebook with me as well and I’m jotting down little tiny arcane details, I guess, that when you’re writing your scene set in Rome or Paris or New York, wherever it might be, you can put some of the sights and sounds and smells and whatever it might be. So that’s one aspect.


Definitely for my first book there are a couple of places, in Fox Hunt, that I didn’t go to and still haven’t been to like Chechnya and that sort of thing. For me, just being an avid reader and consumer of the news at the time with those Lachlan Fox books he’s an investigative journalist, so he’s always going to sort of different hot spots, what have you, around the world and he’s basically shining a light into these dark corners to uncover some truth. At the time I was thinking, “OK, why is Russia spending so much resources and lives on this tiny little state of Chechnya?” I probably spent a year, year and a half researching that, just reading as much as I could.


Then if you’re reading blogs and reading people’s personal accounts, that sort of thing, or who been to these places or have lived through these situations – at the moment all of these people who are tweeting and writing about what it’s like in the Ukraine at the moment, you can then sort of tell your story with all of those little pieces and sort of fact and thing to sort of build up your setting. But, I think for me at the end of the day it’s all driven by a character, so if you feel for the character and you believe in what they’re doing in terms of their motivations you’ll follow them on that journey, even if it’s written in the third person you’re still kind of seeing it through their worldview and their experiences.



So you’ve written books for adults now and books for young adults, and as you’ve mentioned 24 books — and you’re what, 35 years old? Is that right?



Yeah, that’s right.



When you think of your idea for a book, let’s say a book for an adult, what’s the gestation period from generally that time when you’ve thought, “OK, this is a go-er,” to the time you spend drafting a manuscript and then the time you spend editing it, let’s say.



I think at the quickest end of the scale it would be about 12 months, and at the longer end it could be up to about 10 years.


If I look at the Fox Hunt, that first novel, I had the germ of an idea for that, particularly the characters, when I was 15, it wasn’t until I was 21 that I wrote the first draft. It wasn’t until I was 25 that I then got that contracted and later published. In that ten year sort of period I did go through a lot of incarnations and the plot line changed a lot, particularly in that four years from the first draft of getting it published I really did a lot of redrafting of that novel and did a lot of work on the sequel. And I already knew that writing the sequel my writing had improved and it was a better book.


I feel like generally with all of my books, with each one I’m just trying to kind of better myself in terms of storytelling and my style of prose and all of the rest of it, and that’s what keeps me interested and drives me along.



Do you feel it gets easier?



In ways it does, in other ways it doesn’t. I think definitely the second book is quite difficult and also whatever the book is, it might be the second book that you have published. For a lot of writers their first one or two or three books will never see the light of day and they’re in a bottom drawer somewhere and that’s their apprenticeship and they’ve made their mistakes and that’s great because you can sort of do that in private and when the books come out they’re a bit more polished.


I look back at my first couple of books, Fox Hunt and Patriot Act, I cringe a little bit going, “I should have done this…” “I should have done that…” That said, they were the best I could do at the time. I might be doing a tour somewhere or doing a book signing and people will come up with one of those books and say that’s their favorite. So, you never know. But, for me, as a creator, I always feel that my writing does improve.


There’s pros and cons. Some things get easier, other things remain just as hard. I think that is all about the type of person you are, if you’re still just pushing yourself and driving yourself to do better, then that’s the sort of thing you like.



You say that each book you want to better your craft, apart from experience, of course, what proactive things do you do to better your craft?



I think it all just comes down to reading and then practicing. The more you read and the better books they are I think you’re going to learn from that and you can even learn from reading some bad books as well and pulling them apart in your mind’s eye or even eventually with a pad and pen and what have you and go, “OK, what’s not working here?” “Is it the start?” “Is it the pacing?” “Is the characterization?” You certainly learn from that.


If I look back to doing my masters and PhD, did they help me get published? Maybe, maybe not. Did I learn from them, like will I ever actually use those degrees to go and teach? But, did I learn from being around books for that whole time? I certainly did.


And even things like TV and film, whether you watch or whether you’re reading the scripts you learn from that as well. I think it’s about reading very broadly.


And then there’s practicing your craft. I’m the type of writer if I sit down and write a thriller, it might be 100,000 words and I sit down and do three or four months of the first draft pretty much what’s on the page I might cut out about 5 percent and that’s it, it will go to my editors. However, I do have friends who work different ways. They might sit down and start writing, they don’t really know where the story is going, they hit 20,000 words in, or 150 pages in and they go, “I’ve hit a roadblock, I don’t know where it’s going,” or, “I’ve gone in the wrong direction, I’m going toss that out.” I mean it works differently for everyone. But, unfortunately, I’m not the sort of person who can look at that method and go, “OK, I’ve got two or three months of time wasted doing that.”


But, I think that comes down to thinking time as well. I do spend a lot of time sort of thinking with a notebook before I actually sit down and write from page one. I will spend a month at a minimum, if not three months, thinking about what that book’s going to be.



Wow, so before you actually sit down and write page one do you know what’s happening at most key stages of your plot?



Not really. For me, at any given time. Let’s say right now push came to shove I could say I’ve got about 20 story lines are worthy of being a novel and they’re sort of at the top of the pile of these ideas. I might have them in notebooks. I just kind of trust my gut at each year when I’m doing a new contract and doing a new book that the book that rises to the top of that list in my mind’s eye is the one that I will go, “OK, I’m going to spend a couple months of thinking about that and plotting and researching,” and the rest of it. I may end up with about 100 pages of notes.


But, for me it’s more just about some key story points, it’s about the characters, how I imagine them and what I imagine to be their journey. So a few sort of key touchstones for them in their journey throughout the novel.


But, for me, the one thing I do need to have sort of nailed down is what happens at the end. It’s not so much a sense of, “OK, my character Jed Walker of Lachlan Fox uncovers this and this is a revelation and a twist,” and blah, blah, blah. “And this is really who the true character of the antagonist is going to be.” It’s not so much blow by blow like that, but it’s more of a sense of how I want the reader to feel at the end. Do I want to sort of blow their mind? Do I want them to look back at the entire novel and look back to this character and see them in a different light? It’s that sort of thing.


For me, I liken that to sort of buying the plane ticket. I know I’m going to Sydney or New York or wherever I might be going. So I kind of know my destination and hopefully from page one to page 400 or 500, three or four months later I will get to that destination. But what happens in that journey, even though I have an idea of what’s going to happen, as I have done it before, it still surprises me everyday.



What particular thing are you good when it comes to writing? What’s your writing superpower?



Drinking coffee, that could be a superpower.


What am I good at? You’re asking what is my superpower? Ah, man. That’s a tough one I guess.


I think it’s keeping my writing fresh and evolving in my writing, and I think that’s a healthy thing, to not be afraid of doing that. I think one of my favorite and one of the best thriller writers around at the moment John Macrae, obviously has been around a long time, he’s in his 80s, and I think he’s writing as well as he ever has. If I look at his books and his career he has a evolved his writing style throughout time, whereas a lot of writers they have their style, they stick to it and for better or worse they won’t sort of change that for the times. I think that’s a good thing to have.


Something else which I think is pretty handy and I’ve learned this from… maybe it’s an innate thing, this is how I work, but the writers that I interviewed in Literati and some of my friends today who are writers who I think are quite successful can do this as well, you can write kind of anywhere, any time, it’s not that you can only write with this pen or when the sun is just so, or with a particular brand of gin in your martini or something. And there are a lot of writers who are like that and they’re very superstitious or this and that.


And I can kind of understand that. I think maybe a certain degree of that might come sometimes with the territory. But, I think it’s very handy if you’re working writer and you’re doing it full time and you’re going on book tours and you’re traveling and giving talks and all of the rest of it you have to be able to work in airport lounges and hotels and cafés and wherever it might be.



You’re obviously very adaptable, but you do like coffee, it sounds like when you’re writing. Even though you need to be able to write in a whole range of different places do you have any kind of routine or system when you’re actually drafting the manuscript?



Not particularly. I mean I do start my morning in a local café and I do a couple of hours there. I usually write to music, so I’ll have my headphones in. While I don’t mind having people around me, I do prefer to sort of be charge of the noise level or what have you than hearing whatever the café might be playing. I do think music helps me as well with sort of setting a scene of whatever I’m writing at the moment, it’s sort of putting a background to it.



Do you choose your music to suit the scene or the book?



I do, yes. So for whatever I’m doing that day. Everyday the way I’ll approach it is I’ll particularly find a café doesn’t have wi-fi and I’ll turn the wi-fi off so I’m not tempted to look at emails or anything like that. So I’m basically pulling from I guess it’s an ideal world of an ideal morning that I fall from sleep straight into writing.


I’ll usually start pretty early, 7:00 or 7:30. I’ll type away for a couple of hours, but usually in a really good writing time it will come quite easily. I always begin by reading over what I’ve written the previous day. So it will be two or three or four chapters, whatever it might be. And I will do a little polish of that work. So that’s sort of my first edit, but it also gets me back into the story and where I was at and also the voice and the tone of that particular part of the novel and pace and all of the rest of it. Then I begin that day’s work.


So that’s sort of my morning block, I’ll come back doing hours of things and meetings, whatever I’ve got to do. I do another chunk, sort of through the day and the afternoon, I’ll have another break and then depending on where I’m at with deadlines and things I’ll do some more work in the evening, if I need to.



That’s pretty much a routine.


You’ve also written a YA series, Alone. What do you need to do to change gears when you’re writing for a different audience? Obviously, a much younger audience. Is there anything you need to do? Do you play different music or what do you do?



Well, there’s a few things, actually. What have I got there eight thrillers, so number seven is The Hunted, I’m just sort of working on number eight at the moment. The Alone trilogy is for young adults, so I guess the biggest change for me in writing that trilogy was that it was written in the first person rather than a sort of third person sort of omniscient, god-like narrator. That, for me, was probably the biggest change.


Now obviously there’s a bit of a change in language and that sort of thing, but that’s very easy to do in terms of perhaps you’re not going to swear or not have a sex scene or whatever it might be. For me, it was just going, “OK, this is something I’m going to write in the first person.” That automatically made it a very different process for me, just being that one particular sixteen year old character’s head for three novels. That was a lot of fun.


More recently, about three years ago I would say, I’ve also written a 13-book series for Scholastic. I keep they would call that middle-grade so it’s probably for ages 8 to probably about 14 or something. That was written in the third person, but that was different yet again, just being an even younger audience. Particularly with that age group there are a lot of gatekeepers, whether it’s librarians or teachers or parents, so you are even more aware of content and language and that sort of thing.


At the end of the day what I think all of my novels have in common is characters that hopefully we can root for and draw in and follow their journey throughout a book and a series and all of that sort of thing, but also they’re hopefully
fast-paced and entertaining and they’re keeping you turning the pages along the way.



Tackling the YA series and also the middle grade series, is that something that you consciously decided, “I’m going to try something different,” or did someone like your agent suggest it to you?



With the young adult that’s how it came about. It was 2008 when I wrote the first one and it was published in 2010. I wrote that uncontracted. It came about because — where was I then? I was on my third and fourth book deal for my thrillers, I had just written my third novel, Blood Oil. It took me six months to write, so all of a sudden I’m just working at home and I’ve finished a book in six months and that’s from sort of whoa to go with the editing and everything. So I thought, “What am I going to do with the other six months of the year?”


I had an idea that I had been kicking around for a while for a young adult novel, it was in the back of my mind. I thought, “You know what, I think now’s the time, why not just sort of give it a shot and see how that goes?” When I suggested that to my agent she said, “Look, that’s great…” blah, blah, blah. “Why don’t you have a few meetings just to see what publishers are looking for, because it kind of makes sense to have a contract and then write a book,” and blah, blah, blah. I said, “OK.”


And I had heaps of meetings with publishers. I think it’s one of those things, once you’re in and if you’re books are selling and stuff people will want to work with you. They all wanted me to write similar to Lachlan Fox, to that series, but for a younger audience. So thrillers, but geared towards boys. And a lot of them wanted something like a young teenage spy type character. For me that just seemed like it would be cliché. It wasn’t something that I could bring myself to do, it was getting quite prescriptive, so in the end I sat down wrote the first draft of the Alone trilogy, which is a post-apocalyptic trilogy and at the time it also formed part of my PhD. And for me it was all about sort of working symbolism and allegory sorts of stuff into it, a tale for young adults, similar to some of the stuff that I loved as a kid. And that’s how it came to be.


That was well-received, which was really lovely. I think initially I thought it might just sort of sink without a trace because at the time young adult was growing in popularity but it wasn’t sort of what it is today, a really sort of hot publishing area. And then Scholastic came along and said, “Look, we read that and we loved it, would you do a 13-book serialized adventure series for us? And the rest is up to you to write whatever you want to write about.”


And I had to kind of think long and hard about that, because I knew it was going to be a lot of work, it ended up being about three to four years of full time work. When I say ‘full time’ I did also write two thrillers in that time as well. Literally, I would say 70 hours a week through that time I just worked on that series.





To be on the other side of it, I mean it’s been fantastic. It’s been very big here and overseas. I’m glad I did it and it does contain the story that I had wanted to write probably since 2002, about the dream world.

For me way back to when I read the BFG a few other books as a kid. I always thought ‘Okay, it would be cool one day to write a series about the dream world,” that here I am rambling on about.



Let’s come back to The Hunted, this is a book that’s out now, what was the hardest thing about writing it?



As I said, it is a thriller, it’s the second in this character, but it can be read a standalone, that’s the same with all of my thrillers. I knew the character, but as I approached this book, like with all of the other thrillers, I’m keenly aware that this could be the first book that a reader picks up so I have to make it accessible for someone who have never met Jed Walker or any of the other characters. I guess that’s always a bit of a challenge.


But otherwise I was keenly aware for this series I’m doing a bit of a shift away from my previous five book thriller series, Lachlan Fox, where I did a bit more sort of in a Jason Bourne type thriller territory, or James Bond and all the rest of it, sort of where you’re following someone and the stakes are very high and the tension is mounting and all of the rest of it. Where with the Walker books they’re more of a slow burn, it’s more suspense. You’re really trying to unravel what’s going on throughout the series.


For me, writing suspense, I guess what comes with that territory a lot of fear on my part as a creator. I’m exploring the story as I’m going along as well. I’m sure I know the ending, I guess I’m posing a question at the start who is after these Seals, why do they want to kill them all — and by ‘Seals’ I mean Navy Seals for anyone who’s forgotten that at the start of our conversation. These are the guys who went in and got Bin Laden, who would want to do that? Is it a reprisal? Is it because of something they saw there in the house and at that event. We’re kind of unraveling all of that with our character as we’re going along.


If you listen to the Lee Child series with Jack Reacher and his character, it’s that type of a slow burn, even though it might span a day or two, the story line, and even though you might pick it up and read it in a few hours or a day or two, you are just compelled to just keep tearing those pages and go, “Hang on, what is this?” “What is this?” “What is this?”


Yeah, for me, building that suspense I think is very easy to do badly, but to do well takes a lot of work. And that would definitely would be the challenge, which I think I’ve done pretty well in The Hunted. If I look back, even if I say like I did before that my book is improving, I think this is a strong book, even compared to last year’s book The Spy.



What was the most fun thing about writing it or enjoyable thing about writing it?



I think for me always typing ‘the end’ is a lot of fun, because it really is like doing a marathon.




You get to that point and you go, “You know what? I got there.” I even think as I’m doing that ‘we got there’ because I’ve taken those characters on that journey, or they’ve taken me, I don’t know how it is, it’s some kind of symbiotic kind of relationship.






But somehow we got there and it worked. That’s always really satisfying to get to that moment.


The other thing is, as I’ve said about my working method and writing each day at the café and that sort of thing, when I’m in that first draft zone of working, and I do work everyday during that period, the mind is always tipping over into the storyline, everyday that I sit down and write, even though I kind of have an idea of where the story will be going that day when I sit down a couple of little things, two or three or four things will happen that I could have never have had imagine, never plotted out or preplanned, like a character will tell a lie instead of telling the truth, or whatever it might be in the sort of heat of that moment, I guess. To me, that’s the magic of being a writer and a storyteller. They’re the moments I know as a reader when you’re reading books those little moments will happen and say, “Oh, that’s great, I didn’t see that coming.” That gives the character so much more depth and color and interest.


For me, that’s the day to day joys of writing. At the end of the day it is an arduous process, it is a job like any other job. It is grueling, like I’m thinking already — I’m off to America in about ten days for a full month on book tour, which you think, “Oh, that’s glamorous and wonderful, you get flown around everywhere and looked after,” sure, that’s all good. But, it is through the Midwest this time. I’ll go to the coasts later in the year, but I think it’s like -10 to 0 degrees pretty much everywhere I’m going. I’ve literally got two or three events everyday. So, it’s going to be a lot of work. Then I’ve got to get back and get cracking on writing book three in the series.



But you love it anyway?



I do love it. It’s one of those things. I think I have to sometimes remind myself, OK, literally it will be ten years this year since my first book, Literati, came out, 2006 was my first novel, so nine years of being a full time novelist. This is my dream job, and I’m very fortunate that I get to work full time. It is a lot of hard work, but it’s hard work only because I choose it to be. I’m the sucker that signs all of these contracts — who would sign a 13-book contract? Some kind of idiot.


It’s a lot of fun. You just have to kind of sit back sometimes and look at that and go, “OK, well, hang on, it’s really lovely to get fan mail.” I know that looking ahead now at this month of running around America it’s going to be a lot of hard work and I guess I’m going into it as well coming off the back of September last year I finished pretty much a year-long tour, mainly through Australia, but overseas as well, for that Scholastic series. By the end of that I was just ready to fall in a heap and go, “I’m done with touring.” But, it’s something that you have to do, you know? It’s not only built into your contract, it just goes with the territory. If you want readers you have to be out there and meet them and be prepared to give a bit of yourself as well.



And fortunately you didn’t have to wait until you were old to make it all happen.



I don’t know, I’m feeling pretty old about now.



Well, on that note than you so much for your time today, James. That was great. Everyone who’s listening, The Hunted by James Phelan, awesome book. Thanks for your time today.



No worries. Thanks for having me.

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