Shane: How were you approached to write In Extremis (due out in stores October 30th)?
Back in September, 2006, my literary agent, Eleanor Wood of Spectrum Literary Agency, arranged for me to talk with Pocket Books editor Ed Schlesinger about continuing a series of novels based on the TV show CSI/Las Vegas and written by Max Collins. After our initial conversation, in which I had to confess that I rarely watched the show and hadn’t read any of the Max Collins novels, Ed sent me DVD sets of the show and several of the novels, and asked me to call him when I had a proposal for a new CSI/Las Vegas novel.
September of 2006 was already a busy and interesting
month for me in that I was preparing to travel to Cozumel, Mexico, as
part of an international team tasked with developing CSI protocols to
investigate damaged coral reefs. The team consisted of 6 highly experienced marine biologists who
knew nothing about evidence, forensics or CSI, and one experienced
CSI/forensic scientist --- me --- who had just gone through a 6-week
crash course to get trained and certified as a scuba diver. My real focus was on staying alive underwater while trying to
modify CSI techniques I’d been using for 38 years so that they would
work in a marine environment.
It turned out that pretty much everything I knew how to do on land
regarding CSI didn’t work underwater, which resulted in some interesting
“work-arounds.” But I did find time to watch several of the CSI/Las Vegas
episodes and a couple of Max Collins’ novels, and managed to send Ed a
proposal for a CSI-based story in early October, before I left for
I spent my first 8 days at Cozumel learning to deal
with strong currents while keeping an eye out for the local inhabitants
that bite. In doing so, I discovered that working CSI in a strong current is much like trying to
work CSI while kneeling on an escalator that is steadily dragging you
past your scene and evidence. It was pretty exhausting work, but I did managed to stay awake
long enough in the evenings to read a couple more of the Max Collins
Four days later, just as we were starting to train our
first class of 21 young marine biologists from13 countries in the use of
our rudimentary coral reef CSI protocols, I got an e-mail from Ed saying
that my proposal had been accepted. It was time to get to work on the first draft.
I probably should add here that the main antagonist of
IN EXTREMIS is named and somewhat modeled after my Russian-American
scuba instructor, Al Mialkovsky, who made sure that my Stress & Rescue
training was --- as he put it --- “appropriately stressful.” This may explain the considerable amount of stress and tension
that the fictional Alek Mialkovsky is subjected to en route to the
novel’s fairly violent climax.
It turned out that pretty much everything I knew how to do on land regarding CSI didn’t work underwater, which resulted in some interesting “work-arounds.” But I did find time to watch several of the CSI/Las Vegas episodes and a couple of Max Collins’ novels, and managed to send Ed a proposal for a CSI-based story in early October, before I left for Cozumel.
I spent my first 8 days at Cozumel learning to deal with strong currents while keeping an eye out for the local inhabitants that bite. In doing so, I discovered that working CSI in a strong current is much like trying to work CSI while kneeling on an escalator that is steadily dragging you past your scene and evidence. It was pretty exhausting work, but I did managed to stay awake long enough in the evenings to read a couple more of the Max Collins novels.
Four days later, just as we were starting to train our first class of 21 young marine biologists from13 countries in the use of our rudimentary coral reef CSI protocols, I got an e-mail from Ed saying that my proposal had been accepted. It was time to get to work on the first draft.
I probably should add here that the main antagonist of IN EXTREMIS is named and somewhat modeled after my Russian-American scuba instructor, Al Mialkovsky, who made sure that my Stress & Rescue training was --- as he put it --- “appropriately stressful.” This may explain the considerable amount of stress and tension that the fictional Alek Mialkovsky is subjected to en route to the novel’s fairly violent climax. :)
The biggest challenge I faced in writing IN EXTREMIS was accepting the inherent limitations of a TV-series-based novel in which the characters are extremely well established and well known to the viewing and reading public.
First of all, I’m used to creating my own characters, bringing them into “three-dimensional” life as I write, modifying them to fit my plot, and sacrificing them as necessary when/if the appropriate moment in the story arrives. Starting out with fully-formed characters that had been carefully and methodically crafted over a period of six years by teams of CSI/Las Vegas scriptwriters was quite a change for me as a fiction writer. Among other things, I had to be very careful to maintain the “viewer-accepted” voice of each of the main characters in my story, which meant I had to intermittently stop and watch (or re-watch) a lot more of the TV episodes.
But there was an unexpected benefit of having the main characters so well established: it gave me a lot more time to develop the antagonists and think about the necessary evidence twists.
Secondly, I’ve had to accept the fact that I really can’t harm, alter or impact the main characters in any significant manner; and I certainly can’t knock one of them off to advance my plot. This was difficult for me at the onset because I tend to have a fairly high injury and/or casualty rate amongst the good and bad guys in my thriller novels. This is primarily because I try to keep the lethal technologies (and the impact of those technologies on “typical” humans) as realistic and technically accurate as possible. For example, if any of my characters were foolish enough to fire a handgun in an enclosed space without ear protection, they’d find themselves crumbling to the ground with perforated eardrums, and screaming in pain … and we won’t even get into the topic of non-incapacitating “flesh” wounds.
Knowing that the writers (and actors) of CSI/Las Vegas weren’t going to let me dramatically change any of the main characters, I had to find ways to stress and otherwise challenge them in order to come up with an edgy and enticing story. The solutions turned out to be 1) a large amount of interwoven --- and thus confusing --- evidence; and 2) a seriously lethal bad guy.
Finally, I had to adjust to the idea that my manuscripts would be reviewed by CBS-CSI/Las Vegas staff throughout the writing and editing process to make sure I hadn’t transgressed on or “sampled from” previous TV episodes. Given the reality that there are only so many basic crimes a human can commit, and only so many basic forensic protocols available for the identification and comparison of physical evidence, the task of creating a “new and unique” story for the CSI characters can be a real challenge. Fortunately, I have 38 years of real-life CSI and crime lab work to draw on, as well as the added twists involved in wildlife and coral reef CSI, so I should be able to come up with enough variations on the themes to keep Ed and the CBS folks satisfied. The trick, of course, is to keep the readers equally satisfied.
Shane: With already several CSI novels out, how did you come up with the concept for In Extremis?
My first idea for IN EXTREMIS was rejected by the CBS-CSI/Las Vegas staff reviewers because they felt I’d come too close to critical plot elements in Quentin Tarantino’s Grave Danger episodes. At this point, I had to confess to Ed that I hadn’t gotten around to watching all of the episodes, specifically including those two. Being the nice fellow that he is, Ed gave me a few days to get “caught up” with my research. Three days later, I’d seen all of the episodes at least once (including multiple viewings of the Grave Danger episodes, to make sure I understood the issues), and then prepared to argue my case. I should have known better. I still don’t think that my plot was anything like the Grave Danger episodes; but Grissom & Company are not my characters, and Ed wanted to go with something completely different from anything that had been broadcast to date. Fair enough. I had to come up with a different story.
The plot for IN EXTREMIS that the CBS-CSI/Las Vegas staff reviewers ultimately approved was based on elements from a real crime scene investigation that I worked in the San Bernardino desert many years ago, when I was a young CSI/criminalist/deputy sheriff. Without going into plot-revealing detail, the underlying events were as violent and confusing as any scene I’ve ever worked.
The technical capabilities and tools we had at our disposal back then were far more limited than the resources available to the current CSI/Las Vegas team; but that made the story all the more interesting from my viewpoint. It also gave me a nice opportunity to have Gil Grissom add to Greg Sander’s ongoing CSI education in a mildly painful but highly revealing manner. :)
Shane: You yourself have also worked in law enforcement. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
As the result of a judo accident, and a fateful ride to the hospital with my blackbelt instructor (who was also a patrol sergeant for the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department) that occurred just before I was about to graduate from the University of California with a degree in Biochemistry, I joined the RCSD immediately after graduation as a deputy sheriff/criminalist. My primary assignment, apart from learning the varying evidence-analysis procedures, was to work the desert crime scenes. I have some interesting and formative memories of those first scenes: mostly involving buried/mummified bodies dug up by coyotes and discovered by wandering miners. My job was to shovel the grave through a large sieve while the homicide detectives sat in the shade and made occasional comments about how nice it was to see a college graduate making good use of his degree.
I transferred to the larger lab (and desert) of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department a year later, where I learned to perform more complex analytical procedures … and to work far more complex crime scenes. Some were horrific and/or claustrophobic, some thoroughly depressing, and others stupidly funny in a black-humored sort of way; but all were fascinating in their scope, and frustrating in the sense of our forensic limitations. Looking back, it’s sad to realize how much more we could have accomplished --- in terms of collecting, analyzing and interpreting evidence --- if we’d possessed even a small percentage of the sophisticated instrumentation and cross-linked databases available to Grissom and his team today.
Four years later, I transferred to the Huntington Beach Police Department, where I set up a small Scientific Investigation Bureau (two criminalists, two ID techs and one photographer) … and then spent the next seven years working a wide variety of drug, burglary, rape, robbery and homicide scenes. The scenes really didn’t change much in their scope (humans have a well-defined set of foibles), but the available instrumentation, protocols and databases continued to gradually improve … and then suddenly lunged forward to an incredible degree with the onset of the personal computer era.
But the availability of computers didn’t seem to have much effect on the idiocy or maliciousness of the local burglars, rapists, robbers and murderers. Ultimately tired of seeing dead kids the same age as my daughter on morgue slabs, I joined the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in 1979 to establish the first --- and, sadly, still the only --- crime lab in the world devoted to wildlife law enforcement. But the Service hadn’t managed to accumulate the funds necessary to build a lab facility yet; so while waiting for that to happen, I spent seven interesting years out in the field with badge, gun and CSI kit, helping our special agents work raids, warrant searches and crime scenes. Same old thing: linking suspect victim and crime scene together with physical evidence. The only difference: our victim was a non-human animal, and its species identity made a big difference as to whether or not a crime had been committed.
Today, our lab --- the National Fish & Wildlife Forensics Laboratory, in Ashland, OR --- is the official crime lab for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (a treaty signed by 172+ countries agreeing to enforce their endangered species laws) as well as the Wildlife subgroup of Interpol.
As you might imagine, all of this makes for some interesting evidence and some fascinating variations on the theme of CSI!
Shane: On that topic, cath4gil would like to know, Out of the different jobs within the police department, which did you most enjoy?
In terms of challenging situations, edginess, pure excitement and the ever-addictive adrenaline-rush, I have to admit that I enjoyed the investigative work --- which is to say, tracking down and engaging with the suspects and witnesses --- and the subsequent raids and warrant searches much more than working the crime scenes or analyzing & comparing physical evidence. At one point, I had it in my mind that the job I wanted to work toward was that of homicide sergeant, hunting down the serious bad guys.
But that was before I became fully aware of the trade-offs: the shocked faces of the victims and their families, the long stretches of time away from your own family, and the inevitable emotional toll on your own sense of ethics, morality and fair play. Frantz Nietzsche said it best: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he doesn't become a monster.” They also shouldn’t end up in bars, drunk, depressed and lonely, having lost track of the things in life they really cared about.
Ultimately, I realized that I wasn’t willing to give up my family or my hard-earned scientific education to become a monster-hunting cop, no matter how exciting and satisfying that job might appear on the surface. Once I came to that realization, I think I took a lot greater satisfaction in successfully working those difficult and confusing crime scenes.
Shane: Bev would like to know what aspect of writing you enjoy best.
The creative process, definitely … the sense of accomplishment in bringing a set of interesting and contrasting characters to three-dimensional life, and then turning them loose in a story arc of conflict and suspense that ends with an emotionally satisfying solution.
I should add here that this is somewhat akin to saying that I really enjoy digging ditches on our ranch, or repairing our irrigation system, because it feels so good when I finally stop. I’ve met a lot of authors and other writer-types in the course of my life, and I’ve yet to meet one who didn’t think that writing was hard work.
The hard part, from my perspective, is to force myself to sit down in front of the computer, open up that latest-manuscript file, and start writing. In truth, most days I’d rather be digging that ditch or working on yet another broken irrigation pipe than sitting down to write. Yet within minutes of actually starting to write, I can easily be lost in the story.
Another confession: like many of my writer buddies, I use gimmicks to force myself to sit down at the computer and start the writing process. The latest one that’s worked great for the last two manuscripts: a pair of external-sound-deadening headphones and a random mix of approximately 20 Pink Floyd songs played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. I figure this works because it soothes the whiny part of my brain that really doesn’t like to work all that hard. :)
Shane: Before writing novels, were you a fan of the show?
No, I wasn’t. I’ve been a William Petersen fan since 1986 when he played the all-too-memorable Will Graham character in Manhunter; so I watched the first couple of CSI episodes and really enjoyed his portrayal of Gil Grissom. But, ultimately, and like the vast majority of real CSIs and forensic scientists I know, it took too much effort to “suspend disbelief” in terms of how the CSI/Las Vegas team characters interacted with suspects at the scene or at the station, and basically acted like detectives (not real life as we know it). It was fun to watch the technologies being applied in varying situations, and see each crime scene puzzle gradually unfold; but I couldn’t help wincing every time one of the CSIs interrogated a suspect or got emotionally involved in the investigation. Nice entertainment, but lousy forensics.
However, in taking on the project of writing novels based on the TV show, I’ve had to get an in-depth sense of the other CSI team characters. And in doing so, I discovered something that I’m sure the vast majority of your readers have known for a long time: the other supporting actors do a wonderful job of maintaining the “voice” of their characters, and weaving that voice into the underlying fabric of each episode. So now I watch the new episodes carefully to see what adjustments the writers have made in each of the characters, freely enjoy being entertained by a team of very talented actors, and hardly wince at all anymore.
Shane: Now before switching over to CSI, you were writing a series of novels based on a character Henry Lighthouse. Is this series finished or will we be seeing more of Henry?
I didn’t intend for Henry Lightstone to become a “series” character; but after running him and his team of covert US Fish & Wildlife special agents through their paces in PREY, I decided that I wanted to stick with these characters for a while longer (probably good training for my CSI/Las Vegas gig). So I continued their undercover confrontations with the wildlife-law-violating bad guys in WILDFIRE and DOUBLE BLIND.
I was starting in on a fourth book in the series when I found myself being interviewed on the late night ART BELL Radio Talk Show --- because he thought our lab might be the local place where “non-human” evidence might be taken for analysis --- and then had the occasion to wonder, at four AM, just exactly what would be evidence of extraterrestrial contact?
So I set Henry Lightstone and his team aside and started in on a new CSI-oriented novel titled FIRST EVIDENCE that involved a very stubborn and skeptical crime scene investigator by the name of Collin Cellars, and some evidence that was, quite literally, out of this world. It was a fun book to write [my wife says she heard me chuckling to myself several times during the process; good thing she’s open-minded], but I didn’t see myself as a sci-fi writer, so I’d planned on going back to Henry Lightstone. However, my editor at Bantam had other ideas as to how I should spend my writing time, and my wife & daughter like to go shopping with the royalty checks; so I agreeably set Henry Lightstone aside again and proceeded to give Colin Cellars a few more mental problems, and probably a couple of nightmares, in OUTER PERIMETER.
There was supposed to be a third book in the series titled FINAL DISPOSITIO, but my literary agent, editor and I have been haggling over some of the more “religiously sensitive” elements I’d planned for the story, in the meantime, I wrote a separate novel “on spec” (no contract) titled THE CHIMERA EXECUTION that deals with the only-slightly-futuristic theme of DNA manipulations to create some very interesting and/or dangerous trophy animals for a group of corrupt CEO-type poachers to hunt … added an exotic Thai Captain out to avenge the death of her game warden brother … and had Henry Lightstone and his team make a cameo appearance in the ending chapters. And yes, I probably did chuckle to myself a lot during the writing process.
I’m still trying to sell THE CHIMERA EXECUTION, and I’m finally back to work on the FINAL DISPOSITION, but I’m certain that I’ll get around to writing about Henry Lightstone and his team again someday.
Shane: Is Henry Lighthouse (the character in his novels) based on a person you know in real life?
Henry (Lightstone) is a composite of at least two or three memorable cops and special agents that I’ve worked with over the years; but there’s one specific element of his character that I added for very personal reasons. I’d spent twelve years in “police” law enforcement as a sworn deputy sheriff and armed civilian CSI before joining the US Fish & Wildlife Service. And as such, I was very accustomed to the routine of wearing a Kevlar vest on raids, and being at least moderately alert for aggressive or violent activity on the part of suspects who might be at or near the scenes. All of this in spite of knowing full well that the average police suspect 1) is frequently drunk or under the influence when committing a crime; 2) rarely has a well-thought-out plan; 3) usually starts working on a plan a few seconds after things have gone to s***; 4) knows that his barely-trustworthy partner will “snitch him out” at the first opportunity; 5) doesn’t know much about firearms, and rarely cleans or practices with them; and 6) tends to be a lousy shot.
You can imagine my surprise when I started going out on raid and warrant searches with our FWS special agents, and discovered that the average wildlife suspect 1) takes his hunting/poaching seriously enough to make very specific plans; 2) typically only drinks or indulges in drugs after the hunt; 3) routinely hunts with one or more trusted partners; 4) spends a great deal of money on weapons that he cleans and practices with on a weekly --- if not daily --- basis; and 5) is perfectly capable of taking a game warden or special agent out with a head shot at two-to-three hundred yards if he chose to do so. So much for the Kevlar vest.
There are other interesting comparisons between police and wildlife law enforcement work, such as the fact that the game warden’s ‘victim’ may be of more danger to him while (on the loose) than the suspect, and the even more chilling fact that game wardens are injured more frequently on the job (statistically) than police officers.
So having a San Diego police homicide detective like Henry Lightstone fly up to Alaska to hunt down the outlaw biker assailants of his partner --- and then having him be recruited by a team of covert USFWS special agents as their “wild card” --- enabled me to explain the differences between police and wildlife law enforcement through Henry’s constantly-amazed eyes. There are a lot of differences still to be told, so I need to keep Henry and his team going for a few more books.