My guest today is DJ Donaldson, author of the New Orleans Forensic Mysteries series featuring overweight, intellectual Medical Examiner Andy Broussard, and his sidekick, Kit Franklin. After the publisher of their original six-book series allowed them to go out of print, Donaldson teamed with new publisher Astor & Blue to re-release the series, including Louisiana Fever, which is in my spotlight today.
–Tess Gerritsen, NY Times best-selling author of the Rizzoli & Isles novels
D.J. Donaldson is superb at spinning medical fact into gripping suspense. With his in-depth knowledge of science and medicine, he is one of very few authors who can write with convincing authority.
From Publishers Weekly—The paths of two unrepentant killers are unexpectedly linked as their deadly intentions play out in steamy New Orleans. One is a pathological smuggler of rare birds. The other is a small insect, the carrier of a deadly virus and a passenger inside one of the birds. One of the first to fall victim to the virus is the smuggler’s partner, who dies just as he’s made contact with Kit Franklyn, an expert in criminal psychology, who, with her sleuthing partner, medical examiner Andy Broussard, has appeared in four previous books, most recently New Orleans Requiem. Donaldson entertains even as the gruesome death count mounts. The icy logic of Roy, the human killer, is effectively offset by rotund, good-natured Andy’s mental agility. Both he and Kit confront serious, life-threatening dangers and some life-changing realities before the predators are effectively contained. Against the humid, wild and funky Crescent City setting, Donaldson delivers some genuinely heart-stopping suspense, such as the moment the insect assassin crawls purposefully across a kitchen floor in search of an open wound and fresh blood. (Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Buy Links & Special Pricing for October:
There is a $.99 promotion e-book deal going on throughout the month of October for Louisiana Fever, Sleeping with the Crawfish, New Orleans Requiem, and Bad Karma in the Big Easy on Amazon and B&N.
- Amazon: http://amzn.to/1oUoO6T
- Barnes & Noble: http://bit.ly/1xtuqu3
- Astor + Blue Editions: http://bit.ly/1vTJlyh
DJ Donaldson joins me to answer questions about his series, as well as writing and life.
What inspired you to start writing, and when? Oddly, the thought that I wanted to become a novelist just popped into my head one day shortly after my fiftieth birthday. Part of this sudden desire was a bit of boredom with my real job. I was an anatomy professor at the U. of Tennessee and had accomplished all my major professional goals: course director, funded NIH grant, teaching awards, and many published papers on wound healing. So I guess I needed a new challenge. And boy did I pick a tough one.
So it took me about as long to become a published novelist as it did to train for medical research and teaching.
I wondered, how does a novice like me learn to write fiction? Taking a few writing courses is an obvious answer. But I had the vague feeling that there were a lot of unpublished writers teaching those courses and I worried that all I’d learn was how to fail. I’m not saying this was the best way, but I decided to just teach myself. I bought ten bestselling novels and tried to figure out what made each of them work. What tricks were the authors using to hold my attention? What made these books so popular? In a sense then, maybe I didn’t teach myself. Maybe Steven King, Robin Cook, Pat Conroy, Michael Palmer, Larry McMurtry, and James Michener did. In any event, eight years later, I sold my first book. So, it took me about as long to become a published novelist as it did to train for medical research and teaching.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing? There’s nothing easy about any of it. But titles are a particular challenge. I often can’t figure out what the title of a book should be. Oh, I know when a title is great and so do you… It’s like the dealer at a flea market who once said to me when I picked up an expensive item to look at more closely…”You have good taste.” Then, while I was secretly preening at his compliment, he added, “Of course, it’s not that hard to spot quality.” It’s the same with book titles. Here’s a test: What do you think of this title? THEY DON’T BUILD STATUES TO BUSINESSMEN.
To me, it’s awful. I’d think so even if I’d been the one to come up with it. Actually, it was the famous writer, Jacqueline Susann, who crafted that one for a book that eventually became a mega best seller as VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. Could there be anybody who likes the first title better? Okay…. there’s always someone who enjoys being a contrarian. But that still doesn’t make the first title any good.
Let’s try another. How about ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL? That’s actually not horrible. But it doesn’t sound like the sweeping saga the author wrote. I certainly think the title it was eventually given, WAR AND PEACE, is far better.
So, it’s easy to know a great title when you see it, but boy is it hard to come up with one, especially when you’re writing a New Orleans series that needs to have a title that reflects the locale. I usually sit for hours playing with words and rearranging them in what I hope are creative ways. No matter what title I eventually settle on for a book, I have this nagging suspicion that even if I really like the one I pick, there was a much better one I could have used. I just couldn’t find it. My WAR AND PIECE was out there, just beyond reach.
Of all my New Orleans books, I’m the most satisfied with the title for LOUISIANA FEVER. Although the title doesn’t specifically mention New Orleans, it lets readers know a lot about the locale. It also strongly suggests that the story involves some kind of contagious disease. The fever part of the title actually refers to Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, a bleeding disease similar to Ebola. Most writers would be thrilled to have written a book that could be related to unfolding world events. Normally, I’d be among them. But in this case, I’d much prefer that there be no reason for Ebola to be in the news every day. I hope this threat is contained soon.
What was the hardest part of writing LOUISIANA FEVER? Did you learn anything from writing that book and what was it? My intention in each book is to reveal more about my two main characters, Andy Broussard and Kit Franklyn by putting them in situations that cause them to change and grow. And the more books I write about them, the harder it is to develop these little character arcs. LOUISIANA FEVER was number four in the series, so my two protagonists were already fairly well fledged out when I began work on the book. At that time, I had no idea what would face them in the new story, or how they would react. But as pieces of the project took shape, opportunities appeared, as they always seem to do. In fact, those arcs for Andy and Kit turned out to be more significant than I ever expected. Strange as it sounds, in each book my characters teach me something new about themselves.
Why New Orleans? When I first started writing, I had no idea if I could produce a book good enough to find a publisher. That’s of course the big question in anyone’s mind when they think about writing a novel. But I figured I could improve my chances by setting the book in a place that provided a lot to write about and could be used to give my story a palpable atmosphere. I had lived in New Orleans for five years during graduate school, and even though that was a long time before I got the urge to write, those years remained burned into my memory. Is there any other city in the country that better served my objectives for a setting than New Orleans? I thought it was the perfect choice then, and I still do. Also, coming from a biology background, swamps and bayous hold a natural attraction for me. Whenever I see an interesting body of water, I want to get out of the car and walk the bank, looking for wildlife. Maybe one day I’ll tell you how that kind of curiosity once resulted in me heading over to pick my wife up after work with no knowledge that there was a live cottonmouth moccasin loose in the car.
What is your preferred genre? My first book was a mystery. As a beginning writer, that seemed like the best genre for me because mysteries have a classic structure that guides the behavior and direction of the main characters. In a very general way that structure provides those characters with goals and motivation: Goal: find the killer. Motivation: It’s their job. The genre also provides a structure for conflict: The killer doesn’t want to be found, so he will try to thwart the investigation. I had no idea that my first book would lead to six more with the same characters.
After six series mysteries I took a break to try my hand at writing stand-alone thrillers. (Stand-alones have a different cast of characters in each book.) Someone once asked me what the difference is between a mystery and a thriller. There can be a lot of overlap in the two, but generally thrillers put the main character in danger throughout the book. In mysteries, the danger often arises only when the protagonist begins to close in on the killer.
I have to say I like series and stand alones equally well. If you look at my list of published novels (seven forensic mysteries and five medical thrillers), it’s obvious that I’ve drawn on my academic background to write both kinds of books. They say to “write what you know”, and I have. Except that for every book, It’s taken about six months of intensive research to learn a lot of necessary material, both scientific and otherwise, that I didn’t know when I started the book. That research has been a lot of fun. For one book, I spent a week in Madison Wisconsin, visiting dairy farms… even had a milk cow poop on my shoes. (Okay, I didn’t like that part much.)
Tell us your latest news? I’ve always wanted my books to be available on audio. I’m excited to tell you that my entire New Orleans forensic mystery series is now in production with Audible books. I haven’t yet heard any of it, so I’m really looking forward to listening to what they’ve done. The narrator is Brian Troxell, who has narrated about 75 other books for Audible. I’ve listened to some of those and I think he’s going to do a great job. When he asked me for some hints about how to portray Broussard, the greatly overweight New Orleans medical examiner, I told him to think of the character actor, Wilfred Brimley. From the moment I wrote the first words about Broussard I pictured him being played in film by Brimley.
Are any of your characters based on real-life friends or acquaintances? I’m sure my characters contain parts of many people I know. At first I was worried that they might recognize themselves and not like what they read. But I soon discovered that no one sees themselves as others see them, so any similarity goes completely unnoticed even when it’s there.
Do you plot or write by the seat of your pants? I do a lot of planning and thinking before I start writing. In my mysteries I always know who the killer is and why he did it. Knowing who he/she is establishes a lot of the story and tells me who some of the other characters should be. If I didn’t know who did it when I started writing, it would be impossible to scatter the appropriate red herrings and real clues throughout the book. Even my medical thrillers all have a surprise reveal at the end. Those revelations have to be carefully set up. Having done all that planning, I then have to be sure I don’t make it all too obvious. Many of my readers who write Amazon reviews say they were surprised at the end. Occasionally though, a reader will think the story was too predictable. I’m never sure exactly how to take that. If they mean all the loose ends were tied up and everybody got what they deserved, fair enough. Because that’s exactly my intent. Our real lives are full of unresolved conflict and irritation, including hearing about killers and rapists who get off on technicalities. I think people read to escape that world. I want my readers to smile with satisfaction at the end of my books.
Do you have any advice for other writers? Don’t write for wealth or fame because most writers in the world, even those who have sold books to major publishers, can’t claim either of those status symbols. There’s an old quote that says, “You can get rich in this country by being a writer, but you can’t make a living.” Write because you love it. If you don’t love doing it then you can be crushed by the difficulties inherent in the pursuit.
Ok, now some fun questions….
Coffee or Tea? Coffee, unless we’re talking about mango or blackberry-flavored iced tea. Ever notice that when you put cream in your coffee it doesn’t stain the cup as much as black coffee does? Why is that?
White Chocolate, Dark Chocolate or Milk Chocolate? Dark… preferably surrounding a big fat almond. For some reason, I can never remember if it’s Mounds that has the whole almond in it, or if it’s Almond Joy. I keep thinking the mound in Mounds is an almond (which it isn’t). Can’t tell you how many times I’ve bought the wrong one. (I know, you’re saying to yourself, how hard can it be to remember? The one with the almond has almond in the name.) The problem for me comes when I see Mounds without the other one around so I can compare the names. I’m sure now that I’ve written about it I’ll never make that mistake again. (We’ll see.)
What is your favorite color? For a shirt… white…. Crisp and white. To me it shows you respect yourself and wherever you’re going that day.
Winter or Summer? Summer when it’s winter, and winter when it’s summer. Yes, I’m a malcontent.
If you could have one superpower what would it be? I’d like to be Captain First Draft, where the words come out exactly right the first time I write anything. (I even had to revise this sentence twice.)
If you could be somebody else for a day who would you choose and why? I really wouldn’t want to be anyone else. Everybody has difficult things to deal with. We usually just don’t know what they are for someone else. Better to learn how to deal with your problems than spend time wishing them away.
Are you a technology buff (i.e have every electronic gadget known to man)? I’m definitely a technophobe. I love my computer, but hate to upgrade anything on it because I know it’s just gonna create problems somewhere. About a year ago, I replaced my eight-year old computer. Now I can’t open any of the files I created in FINAL DRAFT, the screenwriting software. One of my favorite lines in a TV show was from Homicide: Life on the Street, where Yaphet Kotto, the head of homicide looks around at all the drop cloths, ladders, and painters in the squad room, scowls, and says, “I hate change.” Amen, to that.
What is a movie or TV show that you watched just recently and enjoyed? For recent TV, I’m hooked on Game of Thrones. …. Loved the scene where… No, I better not say, because I might ruin that episode for anyone who hasn’t seen it. (Here’s a hint: It involved fossilized dragon eggs.)
In honor of DJ Donaldson’s visit, Click HERE for a recipe for Game of Thrones Chocolate (Dark, of course) Dragon Eggs.