A New York Times bestseller with eight novels under his belt, Robert Dugoni knows a thing or two about writing and the publishing industry. Killer Nashville Founder Clay Stafford catches up with Dugoni, who shares his life experiences and coming to terms with the craft he loves. While Dugoni got his feet wet with a nonfiction expose, “The Cyanide Canary”, it was the the touchstone for a prolific career that would launch his popular David Sloane series and other stand alone novels.
Since an early age, you’ve wanted to be a writer. Instead, you became an attorney. Why did it take you so long to make the true leap?
I come from a family of compulsive overachievers. I have nine brothers and sisters. Growing up as the middle child I watched as they chose their career paths – doctors and pharmacists. They were science oriented. They weren’t writers. I always loved to write, but I was also strong in science. So a part of me felt pressure to also become a doctor because doctors were important. Doctors were respected. And yet, I had this continuing desire to write. When my high school basketball career fizzled I got the best advice of my life from the most unusual source. The basketball coach told me that the journalism instructor mentioned that I could really write, and maybe that would be a better path. So I became the editor-in-chief and moved toward journalism at Stanford. Again, however, my peers were all heading to professional school. I’d ruled out medicine, but I thought I could go to law school, get a degree and get on with my writing career. It didn’t work out that way, at least not right away, but the passion to write never left and when it hit me hard again in my thirties, I pursued without hesitation.
How did the success of “The Cyanide Canary” (your first book / a nonfiction book) influence you in your fiction writing?
The Cyanide Canary was the opportunity I needed to get my foot in the door. I could write, but like many writers out there, I was unknown and unskilled. This was back in the day of query letters and self-addressed stamped envelopes. A long story short, failure pushed me to get better, to study the craft, to learn storytelling. So when an EPA agent spoke to me at a party and said he had a story to tell, I was prepared to tell it because I had used failure to drive me to get better.
You have two series out with different publishers. Tell us about the process of switching publishers and getting to know a new set of characters.
Sometimes life has a way of throwing us curveballs and the writing life is no different. What I’ve learned is not to sweat the small stuff and to try to enjoy the journey. I never intended to write the David Sloane series. The Jury Master was a stand-alone. Then it hit the NY Times and the publisher wanted more Sloane novels, so I wrote Wrongful Death. I really didn’t understand what a series was, so again I started studying other writers, like John Lescroart. I studied how he carried characters and their relationships from one book to the next. I sat down and devised a three-book plan for David Sloane. Those books became Bodily Harm, Murder One and The Conviction and they all dovetail nicely on one another. When I finished The Conviction I felt like I’d finished David Sloane’s journey and I wanted to try something different. I had an idea for a female Seattle homicide detective and I wrote a proposal. My publisher wasn’t excited about it. Thomas & Mercer, however, was very excited and they had a plan on how to expand my audience. I liked what I heard and I loved the people I met. It’s been a runaway train ever since. When it was released, My Sister’s Grave became the #1 Amazon download for two months, and now it has been on the New York Times Bestseller lists for the past three weeks.
Nothing wrong with that! Congratulations! Is switching publishers a reality of the business or a calculated move on your part and what should writers take from that?
I think it can be both. Sometimes publishers tell you it’s time to move on. In this market, when you aren’t established with a publisher for multiple successful books – and sometimes even when you are, you’re only as good as your last book – or as good as your book sales to be more accurate. It’s a business. Publishers love to find good stories and exciting new voices, but they have bottom lines they can’t ignore. If a book doesn’t sell, they have to decide whether they want to take that gamble again. From a writer’s perspective, I think the most important thing to ask yourself is does your publisher treat you like they care? Are they interested in what you’re writing next? Are they enthusiastic about your work? Do they pester your agent to make sure all is well, that you’re happy? If not, it’s like any relationship. You can see the handwriting on the wall and at that point it’s time to start looking for a relationship that is more fulfilling and productive.
With the publisher change, is David Sloane finished?
I don’t know yet. I think if I find the right story for David Sloane he could easily come back. He might even make an appearance in a Tracy Crosswhite novel.
Speaking of Tracy Crosswhite, this second series is a bit different from your first. Are you making a conscious effort to get away from the legal drama and into a police procedural? In doing so, do you see yourself expanding your core audience or redirecting it?
It’s definitely different. My Sister’s Grave still had elements of a courtroom drama for legal thriller lovers out there. The sequel, Her Last Breath, which will be released September 8, 2015, is much more of a straight police procedural. It was a conscious decision to try something different. As I said, I was struck by Tracy Crosswhite, who first appeared in the David Sloane novel Murder One. I kept thinking about who she was, why she had gone from being a chemistry professor to a homicide detective, what it was like being the only woman homicide detective. Eventually I found the right story for her. My audience has expanded exponentially, more than ten times the number that had read the David Sloane novels. But the repercussion has been that many My Sister’s Grave readers have gone back and bought the David Sloane novels and it’s been fun to hear from a whole new audience. As I said, it’s been a wild ride.
Being deeply into your David Sloane series and now just starting your Tracy Crosswhite series, what “series skills” did you learn from the Sloane process that is making your work with Crosswhite easier?
Series are not really about carrying forward story lines. Series are about carrying forward the relationships between the characters. Readers of series want to know what is going to happen between characters. The emails I get are much less about “what’s next for Tracy Crosswhite” and much more about, are Tracy and Dan going to stay together? Will Johnny Nolasco continue to be a pain in her side? I tell writers to think of the Harry Potter series. Each novel wrapped up the story nicely, but the relationships between Harry and his friends and Harry and his enemies continued from one book to the next.
You published “The Academy” in digital only. It’s a short story prequel to your new series. Do you see yourself publishing more e-only books or stories? What was the thinking behind this one?
I wrote The Academy for myself. I wanted to know how Tracy went from being a professor to the Seattle Police Academy. It sounds strange, I know, but I honestly believe stories exist someplace and my job is to tap into that place and simply tell that story. That’s why it’s almost impossible for me to prepare a detailed outline. My brain just doesn’t work that way. I sent the short story to my agent and she loved it. She sent it to Thomas & Mercer and they loved it. So we thought about how we could use it – maybe as flashbacks in another novel. It really didn’t fit into My Sister’s Grave. So we came to the mutual idea of using it as a way to promote My Sister’s Grave and to thank all my loyal readers. I wanted to give it away as a gift for those people who wanted to know more about Tracy. E-Book was really the only way to do that.
Quick question: “The Academy” is listed as a “short story” and it’s “free.” What does it say about readers who complain it is a “short story” and explain that they don’t “buy” their books on installments? :o)
I’m laughing now and I was laughing when I read a few of those comments. It’s ironic, isn’t it? I don’t know what more we could have done. It says “short story” right on the Amazon page. I take it as somewhat of a compliment. To me it means the reader wanted more and was disappointed they didn’t get it. As for “buying” a “free” download on an installment, that was never the intent. Readers don’t have to read The Academy to understand and enjoy My Sister’s Grave. That novel stands on its own. Writers need to have thick skin and understand you’re never going to please everyone – even when it’s “free.” There are people out there who are looking to criticize, who are bitter about life, and who like to be contrarians. Then there are those who genuinely just don’t like the novel and that’s okay. Not every book is for everyone.
I just thought it was funny that readers download a free short story and then complained because it wasn’t a full novel. Go figure. On another note, you’ve been compared a great deal to author John Grisham. What is your take on that? Is it your solid good looks?
I think it had more to do with the fact that I’m a lawyer and came out at a time when every new legal thriller author was compared to Grisham because he and Scott Turow are the face of the genre. I’ve always admired Grisham’s ability to tell a story. He has that innate Southern writer storytelling gift that not everyone is blessed with. So to be compared to him is a compliment.
How do you think you and Grisham are similar? Are different?
People enjoy my plots and my stories. They enjoy the journeys my characters take them on. I’m strong with action scenes. I think those are qualities similar to Grisham. As for differences, I don’t write the real courtroom dramas that were the staple of many of Grisham’s early novels. My David Sloane novels were more like Sycamore Row. They have a lawyer and they have a legal element, but much of the story takes place outside of the courtroom.
Have you ever met Grisham?
No. He’s one of the few I’ve never met who I’d like to someday. It would be an honor. My mother is 82 and been a big fan of his for many years. I always try to get her signed books when I meet authors she enjoys. She has quite the collection, but Grisham is not among them.
You have come a long way since “The Jury Master” (and even since your appearance as a Killer Nashville Guest of Honor). How do you see that you have grown as a writer? What lesson(s) could you impart to the up-and-coming writers reading this?
Killer Nashville was such a great experience. I still tell people about the surprise gift I received and they are floored, as was I. As an artist you are always trying to improve your craft and get better. My writing has improved. My storytelling has improved. What I really think has improved is my character development. It’s a fine line when you’re writing mysteries and thrillers. Not all readers of that genre want to get bogged down in intimate character details. They buy the books to try to solve the mystery or to go on an adventure and they want the story to move. At the same time, I think I’ve learned how to better incorporate character details into the action – what the character is feeling and why at certain moments without slowing the story down. I believe that is the reason for the runaway success of My Sister’s Grave. Readers really identify with Tracy and with her relationship to her sister, Sarah. As a result, they feel Tracy’s loss intimately and they want to find out whether or not she’s going to be okay.
You do a lot of workshops and classes. You are an incredible teacher. How do you justify the time it takes away from your writing to do these seminars?
I’m doing less teaching. It’s inevitable. I have kids heading off to college and I’m trying to be a part of every moment of their lives. I try to help with their academics and their athletics, to support them at every game. That’s not easy when you’re on the road. At the same time, I love to teach and I feel like I’m qualified to teach writing because I had so many failures early in my career. I can identify with that writer sitting at a conference screaming inside, “I can do this! Just tell me what mistakes not to make so I can get a chance to be read!”
Readers: If you ever get a chance to take a writing course with Robert Dugoni, don’t hesitate for a minute. I’ve seen him at work. He’s a master. Read more about Robert Dugoni at http://www.robertdugoni.com/ and connect with him at https://www.facebook.com/AuthorRobertDugoni, https://twitter.com/robertdugoni, https://www.pinterest.com/RobertDugoni/, https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/63650.Robert_Dugoni, and http://www.robertdugoni.blogspot.com/.
See you next month!
Until then, read like someone is burning the books!
Clay Stafford is an author / filmmaker (www.ClayStafford.com), founder of Killer Nashville (www.killernashville.com) and publisher of Killer Nashville Magazine (www.killernashvillemagazine.com). In addition to selling over 1.5 million copies of his own books, Stafford’s latest projects are the documentary “One of the Miracles” (www.oneofthemiracles.com) and writing the music CD “XO” with Kathryn Dance / Lincoln Rhymes author Jeffery Deaver (www.jefferdeaverxomusic.com). He is currently writing a film script based on Peter Straub’s “Pork Pie Hat” for American Blackguard Entertainment (www.americanblackguard.com).
Robert Dugoni is the #1 Amazon and New York Times Bestselling Author of eight novels. His latest, My Sister’s Grave, was the #1 Amazon bestseller for two months and Amazon, Library Journal, and Suspense Magazine all chose it as a 2014 Best Book of the Year. Dugoni is also the author of the best-selling David Sloane series, The Jury Master, Wrongful Death, Bodily Harm, Murder One and The Conviction, as well as the stand-alone novel Damage Control. His books have twice been recognized by the Los Angeles Times as a top five thriller of the year. Murder One was a finalist for the prestigious Harper Lee Award for literary excellence. Dugoni’s first book, the nonfiction expose, The Cyanide Canary, was a Washington Post 2004 Best Book of the year. Dugoni’s books have been likened to Scott Turow and Nelson DeMille, and the Providence Rhode Island Journal has called him the “the undisputed king of the legal thriller” and the “heir to Grisham’s literary throne.” Visit his website at www.robertdugoni.com, email him at email@example.com, and follow him on twitter @robertdugoni and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/AuthorRobertDugoni