Why novelist Joseph Finder spent time in a coffin

Read our interview with bestselling author Joseph Finder to learn why he ended up at a funeral home as part of his research for his latest thriller, Buried Secrets.

Bestselling author Joseph Finder is renowned for his ability to tell tales of intrigue that are so factually accurate they could be real. Finder didn't start out as a writer -- his original career choice was in international Intelligence. His deep understanding of corporate espionage fuels his ability to offer the reader a look behind the glitz and glamour of corporate money and power into the seedy depths of domineering determination.

Many TechRepublic readers will identify with Adam Cassidy, the hero in one of Finder's most popular books, Paranoia. Cassidy works at a tech firm, and unwittingly gets caught up in the higher echelon's power games. After Paranoia, Finder created Nick Heller, who first appeared in Vanished. Heller is a not-so-tough guy with a somewhat interesting past; he's a hero with whom the reader can identify and also long to be. Heller reappears in Finder's latest novel, Buried Secrets, which is available in book and e-reader form on June 21, 2011.

We were honored to get a chance to ask the author about his writing, his background, his use of social media to connect with fans, American vs. British thrillers, his tech of choice, and more.

TechRepublic: You studied for years with the intention of working for the CIA, which eventually recruited you. How did you start writing thriller novels?
Credit: Joel Benjamin
Joseph Finder: Actually, I started writing investigative journalism. My first book was a nonfiction account of powerful American businessmen who had very close but hidden connections to the Kremlin. It was called Red Carpet, and it's been long out of print. In fact, the central character in my book, the late Dr. Armand Hammer (the billionaire industrialist and CEO of Occidental Petroleum), was so furious about my book that he had his minions buy up every single copy they could find -- so it sold quite well. He was upset because I had discovered in Moscow that he once worked for the old KGB (the NKVD). Not good for his reputation. (And by the way, absolutely everything I reported was later proven true when the Soviet archives briefly opened up.)

Anyway, I decided that I could tell a whole lot more about Hammer in fiction than in nonfiction -- and avoid his threats of libel -- so that gave me the idea to try writing a thriller.  I read a lot of thrillers -- especially Robert Ludlum and Frederick Forsyth -- and I thought, Hell, I can do this! Turned out to be not so easy. But as it also turned out... I could.

TechRepublic: How long after your first book published did you quit your day job and take to writing full-time? Joseph Finder: I didn't quit my day job -- teaching writing at Harvard -- until I sold my first novel. The nonfiction book paid so little that I could barely support myself for a year. But I finally found an agent, and he finally found a publisher -- and then he sold it to something like 30 foreign countries. I got the call one day from the guy who sold my foreign rights that I was going to make enough money to support myself for years. So I quit the next day. TechRepublic: Which is your favorite of all the books you've written? Joseph Finder: Ooh, that's a tough one. I think the new one, Buried Secrets, is the most intense and most smoothly crafted of all of them -- it's really a fast, intense read, and I'm proud of being able to pull that off. Yet I feel a real affection for Paranoia, because that's the one that got me on the bestseller lists and got me known. And I also feel a connection to my second novel, the one that did the worst of all of them (mostly because my publisher didn't believe in it) -- Extraordinary Powers, which is about a secret CIA program in ESP. It was probably too strange for the mainstream thriller audience -- a Boston attorney who develops the ability to read minds -- but I still think it's a cool story, and occasionally I hear from fans who say it's their favorite. TechRepublic: What is your favorite book (yours or otherwise)? Joseph Finder: I can't answer with one book, sorry. I love The Magus by John Fowles. I love Robertson Davies's Fifth Business and Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift. I love Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. Unfortunately, I can keep going, and I haven't even started on mysteries and thrillers (James M. Cain, early John Le Carre, Forsyth, Ludlum, Ken Follett...). TechRepublic: For readers new to your work, what book do you recommend they begin with? Joseph Finder: Paranoia, for most readers -- and definitely for TechRepublic readers. Then maybe Killer Instinct. Vanished, now out in paperback (and Kindle), is the first book in which I introduce my new series hero, Nick Heller. He's a private spy who's not just a tough guy but does some very cool surveillance and computer forensic stuff -- not him personally, but the people he hires. Buried Secrets is the second Nick Heller book, though it can be read entirely separately, without reading Vanished. And Buried Secrets, I have to say, has some of the most fascinating forensic stuff I've ever done -- stuff like how to trace a "burner" (throwaway) cell phone and how to locate someone who's in hiding based only on their Internet connection. TechRepublic: Do you relate to the hero, Nick Heller, on a personal level beyond the Intelligence angle (his solitary lifestyle, the manner in which he handles people)? Joseph Finder: Well, Nick is like a fantasy version of myself. But hey, I'm a novelist, I get to live in my own little fantasy world. He's great in a physical fight, which I'm not (I don't think). He's extremely intuitive, great at reading people (I do share some of this). He loves and respects strong women (as the son of one, married to another, and father of a third, I had little choice in the matter). And Nick can't stand bullies (which I definitely share). Nick always defends the little guy, hates liars, hates pomposity and affectation and pretension. Plus, he drives a cool car (a Land Rover Defender 110). TechRepublic: You have developed a strong readership among the geek community; why do you think that is? Joseph Finder: First, I'm hugely flattered to hear that. My guess is that my geek readers can see that I get things right, even things I don't need to get right. One of my abiding principles as a writer is that I want to learn all sorts of things that they don't tell us, and I want to get it right -- and I want to tell my readers, but not in so much detail that it's boring. So I have a long list of acknowledgments that include people who know about satellites, cell phones and mobile phone telephony, computer forensics, surveillance devices, etc., etc. I very rarely make stuff up. For instance, I got the idea for a flexible OLED screen from the professor at MIT who had invented it. I thought it was so amazing that I had to put it in the book. In each of my novels, readers will learn something interesting they didn't know before, and they can rely on the fact that I've made a serious effort to get it right. Sure, I make mistakes. I'm human. And sometimes I take liberties for dramatic purposes, because the main point is to make you turn the pages. But true geeks will know that I've done my research. TechRepublic: You put a lot of effort into being in contact with your readership via Facebook and Twitter. Which platform do you prefer? Joseph Finder: I find Facebook easier to use because I don't have to limit notes to 140 characters, and I can more easily link to things and have them appear in my wall posts. But Twitter is great in other ways -- as a means of instantly communicating with large groups and having something passed along much more quickly. TechRepublic: In commenting on Charles Cumming's The Trinity Six, you say that British writers are best at writing about espionage. What do you think the fundamental difference is between American and British writers of the same genre? Joseph Finder: The American thriller is quite different, and luckily, most Brits seem to prefer our style. And the British thriller writers who have adopted the American style have been hugely successful -- I'm thinking of Lee Child, for instance, who's a Brit but who writes in a clean, spare, American style with a lot of plot and action. British thrillers tend to be slower and more atmospheric, often grittier -- and, by the way, a lot more violent than American readers would put up with! But when it comes to the classic spy novel -- Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, Len Deighton, John Le Carre, etc. -- the Brits just beat us every time. I speculate that's because Brits have been doing it a lot longer than we have; spying and espionage was very present in British society for half a century longer than it was here. Also, the class system and its subtle signaling is an integral part of the British secret intelligence service, which in many ways gave rise to ours, and the English get the class system in ways we never will (thank God). TechRepublic: In a December 2009 NYT interview with Peter Wayner, you spoke to the usefulness and shortcomings of e-readers. Your books are available on a variety of e-reader platforms. Do you have a favorite (and why is it your favorite)? Joseph Finder: I have a Kindle and an iPad, and I like them both and like them differently. I find the user interface on the iPad far superior, as with all Apple products. But my Kindle is smaller and more portable and easier to read in daylight. TechRepublic: Please tell us about the new book, Buried Secrets. What do you like best about this book/ about writing this book? Joseph Finder: It's the story of a teenage girl who gets kidnapped and buried alive, and Nick Heller -- who knew her as a kid and knows her father, a rich hedge fund titan -- agrees to try to find her. Her captors have trained a video camera on her, streaming her agony live, over the Internet. But the problem is that the girl's father is hiding something big. And unless he comes clean, his daughter will die. So in the process of trying to find out what happened to her, Nick must dig up a lot of buried secrets that some very powerful people want to keep hidden. I have to say that this is the scariest novel I've ever written. Some of the scenes actually scared me while I was writing them. I forced myself to get into a coffin, in a funeral home, and had them close and lock the lid -- I talk about it here.

And I really loved the research, because I made the bad guys so clever and careful that they couldn't be found unless Nick was even more clever. Which meant I had to call in some really top-notch experts who helped me figure out things like how to trace an untraceable cell phone. But the piece of research I'm proudest of involved the streaming video of the girl and how Nick figures out where in the world she might be based on an interruption in the signal. It's really damned clever, I have to say. All credit goes to my experts on that one.

Thanks to Mr. Finder for granting us the interview. Visit his site to read an excerpt from Buried Secrets.