The following Q&A was prepared for the Penguin Australia website. The questions were posed by Anna Esposito.
Tell us a little about your new book, The Race.
In The Race, Jack Rogers and Stella Sartori can’t believe their luck when a juicy consulting assignment takes them to Italy at the height of summer. Even better, the job requires an insider’s look at the glamorous world of Formula 1 racing. Despite the many distractions, they focus their minds on doing a good job for their client. But their peculiar knack for digging out the truth drags them into the climax of a deadly conspiracy that has been unfolding for months. At its heart is an aristocratic family dynasty surrounded by a swirl of money, politics, religion and tradition. Before they understand what they’ve uncovered, Jack and Stella find themselves targeted by the conspirators. Their only choice is to unravel the layers of deceit and misdirection that have so far fooled everyone else, including the European police, to expose the real mastermind behind the plot.
Your main characters, Jack and Stella, were first introduced in The Contract. How has their relationship changed?
Stella and Jack came together under intense circumstances in The Contract. That intensity simplified their feelings for each other and, for a moment, the future seemed clear. But a year later, in The Race, the realities of life back in New York City have proved that relationships between a man and a woman can be more complicated than either party would like. Add to that a new business partnership and it’s safe to assume they still have a few issues to work out. However, one fact about their relationship remains constant – they are much more effective working as a team than they would be on their own.
Why did you decide to set the book in Monaco, France, Malta and Italy?
The backdrop to The Race is the Formula 1 championship. The spectacle of grand prix racing seemed like the ideal set for Jack and Stella’s drama to play out in. The Monaco race is the most spectacular on the calendar and the island airport at nearby Nice, in France, was a perfect location for the opening scene. From that point on the story determined the locations, though I will admit that my choice of Milan as home base for Stella and Jack’s adventure is probably best explained by the fact that I love Italy and have good friends there.
Have you travelled to any of the places Jack and Stella visit?
Virtually every location in The Race and The Contract is very real and I have visited most of them personally. That includes apartments, hotel rooms, villas, restaurants and marinas, as well as street and cityscapes. To a large extent, knowing those locations had as much impact on the direction of the story as anything else. Making it real also explains why I set my stories a few years in the past. To the extent that it’s relevant and possible, Jack and Stella’s adventures unfold in the real world and in real time.
What research did you do?
My corporate, travel and life experience, together with a general love of learning new stuff, provide the basic foundation blocks for each new Jack and Stella story. As the plot evolves in my imagination, I undertake additional research on particular subjects that are key to the drama and where gaps exist in my knowledge. For example, in writing The Race, there were a number of elements that called for detailed research, from Formula 1, European aristocracy and Italian politics to Maltese history, religious orders and local law enforcement roles. All the principal locations in the book were also researched thoroughly, from picking the building where Jack and Stella’s client has offices in Milan to knowing which airlines fly to Malta from what airports in Italy and how long it takes. Stella and Jack move around a lot, so there are plenty of details to try and get right. Fortunately, I love doing the research.
Are you working on a next instalment for Jack and Stella?
Yes. I am currently writing The Cure and hope it will be released next year. Jack and Stella are in for another dangerous ride that will take them from the US to Ecuador, India and the Maldives. I think it’s a great story and can’t wait to share it with readers.
What is your professional career? How has this impacted or influenced your writing?
I completed degrees in law and arts but I’ve always been a generalist and in my professional career I was constantly looking for new opportunities to expand the variety and challenge in my work. I joined the public service after law school then moved to a global consulting firm, where I got the chance to work with the largest and most dynamic companies in the world while surrounded and supported by some of the smartest people I’d ever met. It was like being paid to learn, and learn I did. Without that experience, and the travel that went with it, Jack and Stella would not exist. I’ve left that career behind me now because, fun though it was, it can’t compare with the satisfaction and freedom that comes from sharing my life with my characters and their stories.
Do you think the action thriller genre gets a bad rap? What are your thoughts on this?
I would be disappointed if someone dismissed one of my books on the assumption that because it is a crime thriller it’s unlikely to be well written and thoroughly researched. The quality of the writing in the thriller genre can be patchy, certainly, but that is true of all genres. Perhaps the difference is that, if a story catches the public’s imagination, a badly written thriller can still be published and might even turn out to be a bestseller. Such are the vagaries of the market.
I also reject the notion that an author looking to write ‘commercial’ or ‘popular’ books is not properly motivated. You can learn a lot from a quality thriller, and be entertained along the way. And what writer doesn’t want to reach the widest audience possible? At the end of the day, thrillers are plot-driven and, to get the most out of them, readers need to engage with the story. If they find it too violent, too contrived, too fast or too slow, the story won’t work for them. But if it transports their imagination and makes them want to keep reading, that’s enough for me.
Stella is a strong, intelligent and independent female character, which you don’t often see in this genre of writing. Was this intentional?
I didn’t set out to fill a perceived gap in the genre, but I always knew that a strong, smart woman would be at the centre of my stories. In both my work and private life, I’ve always been happy in the company of independent, intelligent women and I’ve been able to observe first hand the realities of life in the business world for such women. The extra layer of complexity that comes from being female in what remains a very male culture makes for a more interesting character. Add to that Stella’s courage, tenacity and looks and you have a perfect player in the world of big bucks and big crime.
The fact that both Stella and Jack possess no particular crime fighting skills was certainly intentional. Stella has to be smart and resourceful to survive, given that she is no ex-marine or spy trained in weapons and martial arts. Considering the dark and dangerous men she encounters, her most useful quality is probably her fearlessness.
What sort of books do you enjoy reading?
My taste in fiction is very heavily in the crime and thriller camp, although I did enjoy the Harry Potter books! I have a particular soft spot for well-written historic crime stories, such as Caleb Carr’s The Alienist or Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost, but my bookshelves are mostly filled with the series by authors such as Kellerman, Child, Connelly and Patterson. I also like to collect and read a wide range of non-fiction, covering subjects as diverse as history, architecture, science and the occasional light-hearted biography.
How do you write? Do you have a set time structure and specific writing space or is it whenever the mood takes you?
For me, writing is an almost constant activity. Sitting at the keyboard to put words on the page is just the end part of the process. Whether walking the dogs, lying in bed or sweating in the gym, I am almost always working and reworking plots, scenes or dialogue in my head. Developing a plausible, complex storyline for Jack and Stella is like solving a puzzle, and I like to have most of pieces in place before I start writing. For their third book, The Cure, I have completed a detailed, ten thousand word synopsis of the entire story before beginning chapter one.
When it comes time to actually write, I try to get all chores, appointments or distractions out of the way by lunchtime. I will then write throughout the afternoon and into the evening and night, if necessary. When the story is clear in my head I can produce four thousand words a day but my target is to complete a chapter at each sitting, where possible. I start each session by editing the last completed chapter, which gets me in the flow of the language and plot before moving straight into the next one. My output improves dramatically if I have a deadline, particularly one set by my publisher. All those years of corporate consulting taught me to deliver a project on time, even if it means pulling a few all-nighters.
My two favourite and most productive places to write are my study, which has an inspiring view of the Melbourne city skyline, or my bed, which not only has the view but also a big screen TV pumping out documentaries or 24 hour news.
Describe yourself in 3 words.
Open-minded, curious, self-contained.
If I said Brett dislikes…how would you finish the sentence?
… theories with no solid grounding in fact.
Ditto if I said Brett likes…
… learning something new.