JJ Cooper: Author of military thrillers

image-jjcooper200JJ Cooper’s debut novel is The Interrogator. It is a military thriller made frighteningly authentic thanks to Cooper’s own experience as a Human Intelligence officer with the Australian Army. He spent 17 years in the army, during which time he did two tours of duty in East Timor and one in the Middle East.

He has scored a two book deal with Random House and will be releasing his second thriller in 2010.

Click play to listen. Running time: 22.24

The Interrogator

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie
Thanks for joining us today JJ.

JJ
Absolute pleasure.

Valerie
Now people are going to be so intrigued about your book and in particularly with your own experience in the military. How much did your experiences in the army inspire your characters in the story and what ended up being The Interrogator?

JJ
I suppose I write from experience and imagination. The military characters are both good and bad. I’ve drawn from people that I have come across in the military. So it seemed like a logical thing to do to have my main character as an interrogator, as I was. It sort of cuts down on a lot of research as well.

Valerie
Yeah, definitely. Now we have seen lots of scenes in movies and the like of people being interrogated. Is it really like that?

JJ
Oh, no, no, not at all. I think that is probably a thing that worked on our side a lot of the time because generally 95% of the information I got was talking like you and I are now. I think that the expectations when someone does get interrogated of course they have been watching too much television. They think that someone is going to come in yelling or that someone is going to hurt them but the reality is that Australians are covered by the Geneva Conventions and we do treat all of our prisoners in accordance with all of those conventions.

At no time is there ever anyone getting hurt, you know that’s for sure. I find over the past that it is just a matter of talking to people and at the end of the day if you are lost and alone and someone is going to have a chat with you, you are more than willing to chat back.

Valerie
What did you enjoy most about being an interrogator?

JJ
I suppose it is the battle of wits. It’s a total mind game really. You do your best. You are one-on-one in a room with someone and there goal is to stop you getting information and your goal is to get that information. Being bound by those conventions the only way you are going to do it is with the mind.

Valerie
And what are some of the things that people do to avoid telling you what you want?

JJ
I suppose delay is the big one. Information of value is always timely. So delaying by not speaking at all is probably the most useful tool to use against an interrogator. It’s always good when someone speaks, no matter what they say it’s always a bonus because once you get someone started talking they just can’t stop.

Valerie
Really? Now you spent 17 years in the army. At what point did you start writing?

JJ
Not until after I left. If you can imagine 17 adrenaline-filled years in the military leaving that and then landing a nine-to-five corporate type job is that sort of gap in that adrenaline rush if you like. I was going a bit batty I think and there was a suggestion that I’ve always been a fairly decent, I suppose, type of storyteller but getting it down on paper  was the obvious thing for me to do. I needed that creative outlet per se.

Valerie
Was writing a substitute for adrenaline though?

JJ
Oh, definitely. If you are that engrossed into your writing thinking of the next plot point, the sub-plots, the what comes next and what can I throw at my main characters certainly it does fill that void definitely.

Valerie
How did you get started though? You were in your corporate job. What were you doing and then how did you actually get the discipline and inspiration to write?

JJ
I was in a corporate-type/security-type role. I found I was just missing something. I think it was my wife who made the suggestion that you may as well try and write something. You’ve always been a good storyteller. Get it down on paper and see what you can come up with. And I did and hence The Interrogator was born out of that idea.

Valerie
So you hadn’t really done much writing before that?

JJ
Absolutely not. This is my first piece of writing and it certainly worked out fairly well for me.

Valerie
Did it come easily to you when you actually sat down to tell your stories?

JJ
It did. I won’t say there weren’t times of difficulty where I would stare at the computer screen for hours on end just waiting for that next plot point to come to me. But otherwise I write fairly quickly. I’ve got fairly limited time to do so and it comes out quick enough for me and it seems to have worked out all right for this one at least.

Valerie
How did you fit it all in? Did you do it after work or on weekends? When did you actually have time to write and sit and think about your plot points?

JJ
I do probably average a couple of hours a night. I’m still working full-time and I’ve got a young family and the priorities are with them. So after everyone is tucked into bed of a night-time that’s when I tuck into my books.

Valerie
So tell us is truth really stranger than fiction?

JJ
I was in the Middle East in 2003 before the Allied Ground Assault and we were all looking for those weapons of mass destruction. As far as I know they still haven’t been found. There is a popular conspiracy theory that they were moved before we got there and I suppose it is possible that the Israeli Mossad got to them before we did. It would certainly be handy if that news broke now as my book is released.

Valerie
Yes, now Jay Ryan is your main character. How similar is Jay to other intelligence officers that you have worked with or even yourself?

JJ
Yeah I suppose that I have taken the character’s idiosyncrasies from all of those people that I have worked with, some fantastic interrogators over the years. He got the good and the bad and I suppose the bad guys also fit. I won’t say that they fit a certain type of character but I did draw on all of my experiences to come up with my main character in particular.

I think apart from him liking milky strong coffee, no sugar, that is pretty much me. But I don’t drive a ‘57 Chevy. I’d like to but it just hasn’t happened yet.

Valerie
Jay Ryan could potentially be part of a series because you have scored a two-book deal with Random House. Are you planning more Jay Ryan adventures or have you already started on your second book?

JJ
It’s almost done. It is another Jay Ryan book and it’s about a year after The Interrogator ends. He’s back into the fray although he has left the military in this book but some things are hard to let go of. I’ve already a book idea for book three and I’m definitely going to keep Jay going on in a series as long as the publishers are happy with it and same with the public who are going to fork out their hard earned for it.

Valerie
If you could pick somebody to play Jay Ryan in a movie say if your book became a screenplay who might that be?

JJ
I think that all authors really even though they don’t say they do but I think that we all have a picture of a certain actor along the way. Unfortunately I’ve thought Heath Ledger would have been perfect for it. So I suppose there are a few really good Australian actors who are coming up through the ranks thanks to some of our more popular series at the moment.

We’ve also got some great Aussie actors overseas who are scoring really nice roles and big. But ultimately I think in the book the main character is described as Colin Farrell with broader shoulders so if he could pump up and he could put on an Aussie accent I’m sure I’ll be happy for him to come on board.

Valerie
And maybe be a tiny bit taller?

JJ
Tall, yes he does need or maybe get the camera angle at a lower angle for him.

Valerie
That’s right. Now a lot of people are going to be listening to this and go, “Oh, my goodness, he hasn’t written before and now he has scored this fantastic deal and this brilliant book has come out.”

Tell us about the journey to publication. How did you get a publisher interested and what happened there?

JJ
I’m the first one to admit that it happened freakishly quick for me. And I really do understand how difficult it is to get your book published by a traditional publisher, in particular in Australia. I did do a lot of research and I was fully prepared before I queried my agent. I’d spent considerable amount of time researching the right agents, the type of books they represent and the market.

I did pitch Sophie Hamley from Cameron Creswell Agency and she happened to like the book and she offered to represent me. Working with Sophie was fantastic. We pitched three publishers in Australia including Random House and I think within three weeks they offered a two-book deal. So it was remarkably quick but I was well prepared for it.

Valerie
Did you have the book completed at that stage?

JJ
Definitely. It was sparkling. It was polished and there’s a tip for anyone who wants to get published. You really need to have a (in particular fiction that is) you do need to have a completed book and it does need to be as best as you can get it before you start pitching.

Valerie
Tell us how you got it to that state. What did you do because obviously you wrote your first draft and that’s not necessarily what ended up in the final product. How did you get it to sparkle?

JJ
It pretty much was the first draft but what I do is I write ten chapters, which is about 15,000 words. Then I go back and edit. And I continue along that line. I probably had about three edit runs after I completed the novel and I thought it was okay. I did have what we call a better reader in America and she’s fantastic. She’s an aspiring editor and she looked it over and gave me some great tips as well.

Although we worked hard with the Random House editors after the book was accepted I think that it was in good shape. It was pretty well polished as best as I could get it anyway.

Valerie
Sure. Are some people going to read this, and perhaps even some of your former colleagues, and might they say, “Oh, my God, is that me?” or “Wow, is that when we went to such and such a place?” do you think that some people are going to resonate with that?

JJ
Yeah, I think that people won’t be able to help it. If we are in a particular place and we do read about it in a book I suppose we like to put ourselves in there and that’s what the readers in fiction I find are all about. They have an idea of reading to escape reality for me anyway. So if you are reading to escape reality and you can picture yourself perhaps standing next to a certain place or evening being a certain person I can’t stop that.

But it is fiction. There is nothing in there that will identify as secrets. I’m still covered by the Secrecy Act so there is no secrets in the book.

Valerie
Tell us what you like about Jay Ryan.

JJ
I think that he’s got that never give up attitude and I think that Australian readers will certainly recognize that in Jay. That’s probably my favourite part. He doesn’t give up. He gives it a go and even when the chips are down he’s cool under pressure and of course he’s a good guy. He comes out on top.

Valerie
You have almost written the second book. You are already thinking about the third. How is Jay developing in your head, in your reality over time?

JJ
It’s an interesting question because you can’t go 100 mph with a character over a series and have him fully developed by book two. I think that we have got to keep throwing flaws at him as well. We dive a little bit deeper into his past and into his relationship with his father in particular during book two. He does develop as a person because he does leave the military. But he still does go back and I think that you will find in book three that he will cut ties altogether.

Valerie
You are obviously still in your full-time job but it is very consuming when you write a book. Do you find that you are able to switch off when you are wearing different hats or are you always thinking about what is going to happen next in my story and that kind of thing?

JJ
I think that I’m far too busy to be able to continually think about it. I think that’s great because when I do go to continue writing of a night I will read back over a little bit what I did beforehand and it comes back fairly quickly to me. I pick up the ball and roll with it.

However being an ex-human intelligence operator you study people, places and faces a fair bit. That’s a given even to this day for myself. So I  do pick up bits and pieces along the way through my journeys and even if I don’t use them that night while I’m writing they are tucked away in a dark place in the back of my mind to be pulled out if I need it.

Valerie
What’s been a highlight or highlights of your military career?

JJ
I would have to say the highlight would be the deployment to the Middle East in 2003 although my wife may disagree because I missed the birth of my first boy. That’s the reason why I left the military. They were sending me to Afghanistan during the birth of my second boy so it is with regret that I left but it certainly worked out well for me. But definitely a highlight was the deployment to the Middle East.

Valerie
Because why?

JJ
You train for so long to do certain things and when you can put it into fruition it’s certainly does drain you and it changes you, that experience. But I think that you do definitely grow from it.

Valerie
Why did you join the military in the first place?

JJ
I suppose as an honest answer as a 19-year old would be money. But I did develop a love for it very quickly. The discipline was great. The different people, places and faces, it’s a huge industry, if you like, where if you get bored with one job you can jump into another.

But I don’t regret a day that I spent in the military. It was a fantastic time for me. It was where I met my wife as well. I’ve moved on now. I’m onto a different career. But just the people, the camaraderie, it’s something that you can’t get outside I think.

Valerie
So you have told us about a highlight. What has been a low point in your military career?

JJ
I’d say definitely missing the birth of my oldest boy. That’s both the highlight and the lowlight in my mind. It’s an amazing to be over there, but jeez I was in tears when I missed it.

I only had one five minute phone call because we were under a certain type of non-communications with family at that stage. So one five minute phone call just after the birth and then that was it pretty much. The rest was communicated over through friends, through email system, etc.

Valerie
I’m sure that you are making up for it now. But now you have moved on to a new career. What’s the grand master plan? Would you like to be writing full-time or perhaps even exploring another career? What’s the future hold?

JJ
I would love to write full-time. There is no doubt about it. But I’m also a realist. It is so difficult to make a living just from writing especially a first-time author of fiction. To break into the market is great but the reality is that there is probably not that much money in it until Russell Crowe picks up the film rights and I’ll be all right.

But if we sell it overseas that may be better but the plan for me is to continue working and my full-time job is my primary career. Writing, I love it and I have a passion for it but it doesn’t put food on the table as yet for the family so until I start earning more than what I am now I think writing will be just a passion that I will have to do in my couple hours a night.

Valerie
I’m sure that day will come. So finally what your advice be to aspiring authors who may be in a similar situation to you and who are thinking that I’d love to tell stories and I’d love to get a book out there one day.

JJ
Yeah, give it a go. That’s what you have got to do. How else but start with a goal. You have got to start with a goal and that one goal may be writing a chapter. Another goal might be finishing the book and then editing and then trying to get an agent and so on and so on.

Stay determined all the way through the process but I think my biggest tip would be money always flows to the writer. You don’t have to spend a penny to get published. I haven’t and if you want to learn about writing I certainly respect the how-to books. I don’t own one but you can do it.

If you have Internet access join an online writers’ forum. That’s what I did. I learned everything that I needed to know about writing, editing, how to get published, agents and the business. I pretty much did on one online writers’ group. The key I suppose is to stay determined.

Valerie
So stop dreaming and start doing. Very practical.

JJ
Absolutely.

Valerie
Wonderful. So thank you very much for your time today, JJ.

JJ
My pleasure. It’s been great joining you here and I suppose if anyone has got any dramas at all or to ask me any questions, just pop me an email. Go to the website and I will be more than happy to help out.

Valerie
And tell us what your website is.

JJ
Oh, now that’s tricky I’ve got to remember this one. It is www.jjcooperbooks.com.

Valerie
Wonderful, thanks, JJ.

JJ
Thank you.


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