Ethan Cross is the international best-selling author of THE SHEPHERD, THE CAGE, and CALLSIGN: KNIGHT
Circalit: So, you are well-known as a thriller writer. Where did it all begin?
Ethan: Telling stories on a grand scale has been my dream for as long as I can remember. When a fireman or a policeman would come visit my school, most of my classmates’ heads would swim with aspirations of growing up and catching bad guys or saving someone from a blazing inferno. When these moments came for me, however, my dreams weren’t to someday be a cop or put out fires; I just wanted to make a movie or write a book about it.
It started as early as I can remember. I wasn’t an only child, but since my three sisters are so much older than I am, it felt that way growing up. I’ve always been an introvert and my favorite pastime as a young boy was playing pretend with my action figures and my imaginary friends (as my parents called them). But I’m not sure if they were truly the imaginary friends that we traditionally think of. I say this because they were more like characters in my own little movies. At the time, it was a boy playing with his imaginary friends, but I still do basically the same thing as an adult, only my imaginary friends find life on the pages of my books.
Circalit: The Shepherd was originally a short story that you had written at university. Was it easy adapting it to a novel? Is there any particular advice that you’d give to writers who are thinking of adapting a short story into a novel?
Ethan: I initially thought that writing a novel from what was already a forty to fifty page short story would save me time. Ultimately, it probably took more time and almost none of the original story is still present. Some people like to write without knowing where the story's going and just fix it later. I'm the opposite. I need a very detailed outline and a clear direction. This is something that I didn't have when I started writing The Shepherd (at least not to the extent required), and it cost me in time and re-writes. My advice (unless you know for certain that you're one of those seat-of-the-pants writers) is to outline exactly what's going to happen in the story before you actually start writing it. Every scene, every piece of backstory, interaction, clue, even some dialogue should be mapped out. I consider this my first draft. Then I can focus on the actual writing and save myself months of meandering with no purpose over painstakingly crafted pages that will never find their way to print.
Circalit: When writing The Shepherd, did you feel like you were really getting inside the mind of a serial killer? Did you have to do a lot of research on serial killers in general?
Ethan: I feel that The Shepherd definitely puts you into the mind of a killer, and Ackerman plays just as important of a role as Marcus (my protagonist). While writing the book, I did a great deal of research into serial killers, including their stories, motivations, and backgrounds. This was especially necessary since my killer believes that he is essentially playing a role that fate has assigned to him. His deranged father forced him to endure many of the traumatic events that had befallen the world's worst murderers, the events that shaped them into monsters. His goal was to discover what it truly took to create a perfect killing machine. This forced his son to constantly try to live up to the father's expectations in order to avoid the man's wrath. So now instead of merely being himself, Ackerman tries to live up to the expectations of what society and popular culture think that a killer should be.
Circalit: What are the great thrillers that have really influenced you?
Ethan: Wow, I'm an avid reader, and there are so many that it's hard to select just a few or define my favorites. So I'll just mention the first that come to mind and why I loved them. The Taking by Dean Koontz - for being the scariest book I've ever read (and he has a lot of great ones); Red Dragon by Thomas Harris - one of the best serial killer novels ever written (and I do prefer it to Silence of the Lambs, but it's close); Ice Hunt by James Rollins and Ice Station by Matthew Reilly - for showing me just how intense a thriller can be; Creepers by David Morrell - tight prose by a master storyteller, great twists, fascinating subject and atmosphere; The Tomb by F Paul Wilson - great action, cool monsters, one of my all-time favorite protagonists (Repairman Jack)… And many others that I'll kick myself for not mentioning.
Circalit: According to legend, Bret Easton Ellis became so consumed by dark thoughts when writing American Psycho that he began to lose his sense of compassion. Are you affected at all by your books? Do you ever find it difficult to write them?
Ethan: No, it's a lot of fun to get into the head of a killer and imagine the world through a different set of eyes, but it's like an actor playing a role. I don't become a killer or let dark thoughts consume me. I think that we all have a darker side (myself apparently more than others), and I just tap into that part of my brain. But that's the cool (and therapeutic) thing about writing…I get to be all of the characters, good and bad, hero and villain.
In fact, I'd go as far as to say that my sense of compassion for both the killers and victims has grown since writing this type of book. A lot of situations within The Shepherd stem from imagining the scariest possible scenarios for me on a personal level, from both an internal and external viewpoint. It's not what I'd like to do to someone else; it's what I would never want to happen to me. And I think that's why it resonates.
Circalit: Your books touch on some fairly intense stuff. At what age will your two daughters need to be before they are allowed to read them?
Ethan: That's an interesting question that potentially opens a big debate. I say that because my books don't have any sexual content or language to speak of but are very violent. It would be interesting to see how the MPAA or similar ratings systems would classify them. On a personal level, I wouldn't have a problem with my thirteen-year-old reading my books. Although, she refuses to do so. She's too scared.
Circalit: Tell us a bit about your latest thriller novel, The Prophet, which is being released in October of this year?
Ethan: I'm very excited to share The Prophet with all of my wonderful readers and hear what they have to say about it. I feel that it's the best thing I've written to date (as it should be, since I hope to become a better writer with every book). It stands alone but brings back all of the characters from The Shepherd (those that survived anyway). It also introduces a lot of new characters including a female FBI agent who is a new potential love interest and comes between Marcus and Maggie. And, of course, Ackerman is back to his old tricks, and there is a new group of killers that Marcus is hunting: The Anarchist and The Prophet. The Anarchist is an especially interesting character because he's not the kind of evil monster you'd expect based upon the deeds he perpetrates. He's a loving husband and father and the kind of guy that you may see across the stands at your kid's sporting event. But I think this makes him even scarier and creepier.
Here's a brief description from the back of the book:
Francis Ackerman Jr. is one of America’s most prolific serial killers. Having kept a low profile for the past year, he is ready to return to work – and he’s more brutal, cunning, and dangerous than ever.
Scarred from their past battles, Special Agent Marcus Williams cannot shake Ackerman from his mind. But now fully integrated into The Shepherd Organization, an underground law enforcement agency, Marcus has to focus on catching the Anarchist, a new killer who drugs and kidnaps women before burning them alive.
Marcus knows the Anarchist will strike again soon. And Ackerman is still free. But worse than this is a mysterious figure, unknown to the authorities, who controls the actions of the Anarchist and many like him. He is the Prophet – and his plans are more terrible than even his own disciples can imagine.
With attacks coming from every side, Marcus faces a race against time to save the lives of a group of innocent people chosen as sacrifices in the Prophet’s final dark ritual.
Circalit: You’ve said you have an “undying love” for movies, as well as books. Are there any plans for The Shepherd or The Cage to go into production?
Ethan: I used to force my parents to take me to the movies every weekend, and now I do the same thing to my wife. In fact, I told her before we were married that my two requirements are movies and Chinese food. If she had a problem with that, we should just call it off, because neither of us would ever be happy. That being said, I would love to see any of my work on the big screen someday. And there has been some discussion with a major Hollywood producer about bringing The Shepherd to theaters, but nothing is in writing yet.
Circalit: What advice can you give to budding thriller writers in the Circalit community? What is it that really makes a good thriller?
Ethan: The two biggest ways that come to mind to keep a reader turning pages are tension and lingering questions.
Tension can be the obvious external kind (a gun fight), something more personal and relational (an argument between lovers or family members, circumstances pulling people apart), or entirely internal (the struggle of making a morally correct choice that has dire consequences). This tension or micro-tension should be prevalent in small or large doses in every chapter and page of your book.
The second way is too resist the urge to give the reader all the info. Let it come to them naturally in due time. You can allude to these past mistakes, larger conspiracies, etc (and you definitely want to), but ultimately, the quest to find out what's really going on or what really happened can make a reader flip pages well into the night.
Circalit: Ethan Cross is your pen name. What made you choose a new authorial identity?
Ethan: Why use a pen name? Well, the easiest answer is that my agent told me to. But in truth, I always knew that I would have to use pen names. This is because the publishing industry wants authors to be established as a brand just like any other product. They want people to be able to pick up any Ethan Cross novel and know what to expect. It's a sound business principle. It's kind of like the concept of Pepsi versus Mountain Dew. If you opened up a Pepsi and it tasted like Mountain Dew, you would probably be shocked and disappointed. You may even like Mountain Dew, but you sat down expecting a Pepsi since that's what you bought. It's the same idea with an author. I want readers to pick up an Ethan Cross novel and be able to count on a breathless, fast-paced suspense thriller. I do plan, however, on writing books in several different genres including action/adventure, science fiction, literary fiction, horror, fantasy, or whatever good idea comes along. I love all types of books and stories and have ideas that don't fit into one type of box. But those ideas will fit into a box because they will be under different names. So nobody will buy an Ethan Cross book and get a bad taste in their mouth expecting Pepsi but receiving Mountain Dew instead.
Circalit: Are you busy working on any new projects at the moment?
Ethan: I do have a new series in development that I'm really excited about. It will involve an investigator with the Defense Criminal Investigative Service who specializes in handling especially sensitive and embarassing criminal cases for the Department of Defense..and he's also blind.