Please welcome New York Time's bestselling author, Joseph Finder, as he talks about what's behind his corporate thrillers!
Review and Synopsis of Finder's latest, Killer Instinct:
Jason Steadman, a top salesman for Electron, a Boston based electronics firm, is just the kind of guy you'd expect to find selling plasma screens; charming, likable, ex-frat boy, honest for the most part, and a great salesman. Add in the beautiful wife, decent house in the 'burbs, and great friends and you have the profile of a typical corporate drone. But the lackadaisical simplicity that is Jason's life becomes just a memory after he meets Carl Semko, former Special Forces operative now a tow truck driver, and offers him a job at the firm after a friendly, innocent meeting.
Semko will do anything to help a friend, with an unnatural loyalty that knows no bounds, and Jason is about to discover just how far his new friend will go to help. And while at first Jason is thrilled to have a hand up climbing the corporate ladder, watching amazed as his competition internally and externally seem to choke at all the right times, their deals falling apart as Jason's come through, he all too soon discovers the price is much more than he's willing to pay. But loyalty for some is a lifetime commitment, which if refused, will next demand a payment in blood.
Finder is the master at revealing the repulsive underbelly of the corporate world, having exposed the greed and power that essentially drives this unfeeling machine towards success in previous books. But in his latest he turns the screws yet another creative notch by asking the question of those near the bottom; if you could succeed how blind would you be willing to become to make it happen?
And in that lies the wonder of this book, just the right questions are asked and just the right buttons are pushed, familiar enough so that we all can see how easily one path might seem more enticing than the other, how easy it might be to forget the price of success, and how very dangerous "just this one last time" can be when confronted with choices of easy or honest. Readers may find themselves taking contrasting perspectives from Finder's corporate thrillers, and someone else reading this very same title may take something completely different away from it, which is another wondrous thing.
Either way, Finder doesn't need to knock us out with moral judgments and a preacher's rant, he only need tell the story of one man not unlike the rest of us, which makes the message that more clear. Throw into the mix plenty of nonstop suspense, wonderfully drawn characters, and an ending worth what's come before, and you have one hell of a fast and stimulating read that'll keep you going long into the night.
1. Looking at your varied and interesting background, your first novels seem more in tune with your experiences and education. What made you decide to take on the corporate world?
The short answer is, because I wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before.
The longer answer is that after publishing four novels that did well enough but didn’t really take off, I decided to take a huge risk and write a thriller unlike anything I’d done before, unlike anything I’d read before. I was happy with my first novels, but I wanted to write something that had my own fingerprint on it. I knew that would be a risk, because most publishers like the tried-and-true. You know – that’s why they’re all publishing Da Vinci Code knockoffs these days. But The Da Vinci Code was in many ways an original. Well, after publishing High Crimes I took some time off, wrote some uncredited stuff for Hollywood, and noodled around with an idea suggested to me by a CIA friend – a spy novel set in a contemporary corporation. When I started doing research, I realized that this was where the real story was, the real fresh stuff, the real excitement: the office, the corporation, the workplace. The place where most of us spend most of our time turns out to be a place of intrigue, ambition, friendship, backstabbing, politics – the works. I got excited. I knew I was onto something that, if only I could get a publisher behind it, would grab a lot of people.
I remember sending the manuscript to my agent with some anxiety. She called a few days later and said she loved it – it was fresh and different and utterly appealing. That was Paranoia.
And the response to that book was so strong – it was my first New York Times bestseller, and I got loads of e-mail from readers – that I knew I had to keep writing in this genre. (Now, how new is the “corporate thriller,” you might ask? Well, for one thing, it has nothing to do with the various financial thrillers out there, which deal with high-stakes finance and manipulation of currency and all that stuff that makes me yawn. It’s about ordinary people, not superheroes. Michael Crichton wrote a couple of books with a corporate setting – Disclosure and Rising Sun – but in both cases he wasn’t after the texture and the humor and the reality of the corporate world. He was making a point – an argument – about sexual harassment or about the influence of Japan. If you want to compare me with another thriller author, you could say I’m doing what John Grisham does – only not in law firms but in corporations.
2. There's obviously not a whole lot of love lost in your approach to this world, why the not so subtle antagonism?
See, I don’t agree. It’s true that I poke a whole lot of fun at the corporate world – at the pomposity, the pretense, the posturing, and all those other P words. But underlying it all is an empathy. I find the corporate world quite appealing in many ways. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t set stories of ambition and success there. If I may quote this week’s Time magazine profile of myself (ahem. . .): “At their best, Finder’s books are pure wish fulfillment. Like a romance novel promising true love, Killer Instinct moves you deliciously close to the corner office.” That’s exactly how I feel – in many ways these stories are fantasies. Yeah, I write plenty of bosses-from-hell. But the hero’s always someone who works in that world and wants to get ahead there. So underneath my cynicism, my humor, I basically buy into the premise that this is a world where some really exciting, creative stuff happens.
3. You definitely seem to be on a roll with capturing the public's attention with this focus; why do you think people are so interested in a world they can't help but occupy, yet can't help but disdain (or did I just answer the question)?
Actually, I don’t think you answered your own question. In Stephen King’s great book On Writing, he remarks that “people love to read about work.” Whether it’s a lawyer or a cop or a district attorney, people enjoy reading about other people’s jobs. There’s an aspirational element to it, as well as an instructional one. It’s true that lots of people are ambivalent about their workplace. They feel resentment, experience frustration – yet most people love to go to work despite it all. It’s where you have colleagues and friends, where your talents are valued. People love to daydream about their jobs, as often as they daydream about escaping their jobs. And when they daydream about work, it usually has to do with immediate success and gratification. And I give it to them.
4. How is writing corporate thrillers different than espionage type thrillers? Which do you prefer?
They’re quite similar. My corporate thrillers (you’re going to make me use that phrase, aren’t you?) are in fact based on the classic spy novel structure, and quite deliberately so. The spy novel has been evolving for a century – there are some very sophisticated plots out there. And although I love writing espionage thrillers set around the world, I also feel that they’ve been done to death. As a result, I feel that the books I’m now writing are different enough from most other thrillers that I take much more pleasure in doing them.
5. Now tell us a bit about your latest, Killer Instinct. A bit of a David and Goliath story, and a bit of a deal with the devil; do you feel the road to success is inevitably paved with such obstacles?
It’s somewhere in between a Faust story and Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train.” Jason Steadman, my hero, lacks the killer instinct – lacks ambition – and in effect makes a deal with the devil, in the form of his new friend Kurt, to achieve immediate career advancement. I don’t think that rising to the top requires such a deal. In fact, I don’t think that most of us are ever offered such an opportunity. (Though I’ll bet most people would make a deal with Kurt . . . ) But every great success requires compromises and questionable deals – decisions that test our moral sense. So there’s a bit of Jason Steadman in all of us.
6. Your "hero" of the story seems to rediscover his integrity before he solidifies the noxious pact offered. Honestly, what do you think the odds are for such a turn about when faced with such temptation, and is it even possible to make it up the corporate ladder with one's values intact when facing such a lack thereof at every step?
Well, that’s what makes Jason a hero – after lusting after success for so long, and realizes that he can get everything he wants if he’s just willing to go along with some bad stuff – he decides to turn his back on it all, to give it up. Which comes with an enormously high price. Is it realistic that he’d give up the deal with Kurt? I don’t know. I’d like to think that I would. But I don’t know. As for whether you can make it up the corporate ladder with your values intact – yes, I sure do. I know a number of CEOs and CFOs who are highly moral, good people. It ain’t easy – but it’s possible.
7. Do you feel today's corporate goals of achieving solely short term results will only further the degradation of quality and honesty, leaving us vulnerable to some dire effects in the future?
Yes. I think that’s a good point. The obsession with short-term results, making your numbers, quarterly earnings, all that – it’s not a good thing. It causes corporate leaders to make decisions that aren’t good for the business long term; it leads them to lay people off in order to protect stock prices; and it makes some dishonest people do dishonest things with accounting – Enron is only one example.
8. While filled with a bit of doomsday messages, your novels still seem to provide a lot of hope, mainly in the form of the regular guy. Is it possible that Joe/Jane Schmoe will be the one to save us in the end from the crash and burn that seems almost inevitable when reading your novels?
I like to think so. I’m tired of reading novels whose protagonists are superheroes – CIA spies who save the world, cops who always solve cases, private investigators who can beat anybody up and yet are smarter than anyone else in the story. It’s much more fun, and more meaningful, when the hero is a regular guy or gal – someone just like us who goes through a transformation, an annealing by fire, and becomes, in the end, better and stronger than we are. I think in the end that’s the real hopeful message.
9. Of all the characters you've ever created, which is your favorite, and why?
Audrey Rhimes from Company Man. I loved her. She’s a black homicide detective in a small town in Michigan who’s highly spiritual, a regular churchgoer, facing racism and sexism in her police department, putting up with all sorts of grief with a stoicism and grace. She was originally supposed to be a minor character who’d walk on in maybe 3 or 4 scenes. But the more I wrote her, the better I liked her, and in the end she took over the book – very unusual for me.
My second favorite would be Adam Cassidy from Paranoia, who’s cynical and irreverent and mouthy. I loved his worldview and his voice. But I also liked the villain Bauman from The Zero Hour. He was a cool bad guy. Too bad more people didn’t read that book. Maybe someday they will.
10. When facing a blank page, what is your response when the words refuse to flow?
Carpenters don’t get carpenters’ block, so writers shouldn’t get writers’ block. It’s a job, and you do it. If I’m not ready to write a scene or a chapter, that just means that I need to do more prep work. The lumber has to be milled, maybe, or sanded down a bit before I build the table. In other words, if the words aren't flowing, I need to solve a plot problem, or do some more research. There’s always something I can work on.
11. And, I must ask, did the movie "High Crimes" deliver what you intended, or did you find yourself saying "Wait a minute, that's not what I meant?" Would you be open to another movie adaptation?
I liked the movie a lot. Morgan Freeman was perfect, and so was Ashley Judd. I admit I wasn’t thrilled with the script, the first time I read it, but by the time the movie began shooting, I thought it was very good. They made some changes I wouldn’t have made (like getting rid of Claire/Ashley’s daughter), but they also made some changes I wish I’d thought of (like making the Morgan Freeman/Charlie Grimes character more central). I don’t think a movie should be too faithful to a book. It should be faithful to the medium. It should be inspired by a book and its characters. But it has to succeed as a movie. Sure, I’d be open to another movie adaptation. Paranoia’s been optioned in Hollywood, and there’s a terrific script. It’s just waiting for the right studio to greenlight it.
12. And, finally, what's next?
Another thriller set in the corporate world – but not quite in it. It involves an aerospace company like, say, Boeing, a company that makes airplanes. But the setting and the story is very different from my last three. I’m enjoying the hell out of it – and I hope you do too, a year from now.
Joseph Finder has established himself as “the CEO of suspense” with three bestselling novels set in the American workplace: PARANOIA (2004), COMPANY MAN (2005) and KILLER INSTINCT (2006). He’s been writing thrillers for more than 15 years, however, and all of his books are grounded in Joe’s expertise in espionage and international politics.
Born in Chicago in 1958, Joe and his family spent much
of his early childhood in Afghanistan and the Philippines. They later moved to
Bellingham, Washington and then to Albany, New York where Joe attended high
2004 saw the publication of Paranoia, a thriller set in the corporate world that made the New York Times bestseller list in both hardcover and paperback, and is currently in development at Paramount. Joe’s most recent novel, Company Man (2005), was an immediate New York Times bestseller in both hardcover and paperback. His most recent book, Killer Instinct, is currently at #13 on the New York Times bestseller list.
Joe continues to write extensively on espionage and international affairs for a wide range of publications, including The New York Times and The Washington Post. He lives in Boston with his wife and daughter.
Learn more about Joseph Finder via his website: www.josephfinder.com