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The Road to Healthy Eating: “Healing Your Hungry Heart” Author Joanna Poppink

(First of a three-part interview series)

When Joanna Poppink was 40, she faced a pivotal, critical decision – do I continue to feed bulimia, or do I make a choice in how I eat?HHH

The crossroads to which the author of the wonderful book Healing Your Hungry Heart came is familiar. The National Eating Disorders Association estimates that 20 million women and 10 million men will have dealt with one of hree eating disorders – anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating – at some point in their lives.

In a culture where up to 60% of elementary school girls are concerned with their weight, the seeds are planted deeply. They are fertilized to alarming and sometimes fatal levels by media messages and concepts of attractiveness that openly espouse the super-thin.

Joanna made major changes in her life during her 30s. When she entered her 40s, she dealt with her bulimia head-on. “So much of my energy and thinking and behaviors went into maintaining my eating disorder,” she says. “If it were free for something else I could do vast things in the world.  That thought gave me real hope and incentive for the first time.”

Today, Joanna works with people struggling with eating disorders as a therapist. She also has written Healing Your Hungry Heart, part-memoir, part-prescriptive and part-self help and exercise, which gets right to her point about the origin of eating disorders – at the heart level. Learning to love and trust ourselves, she says, is a most critical step for coming to grips with any eating issue.

On this holiday season, when food consumption is higher than normal, we present a very special and exclusive three-part interview with Joanna. Once read, if you know someone who is in a difficult situation with their eating, please pass along this link or provide information on Healing the Hungry Heart.

Healing Your Hungry Heart author Joanna Poppink

Healing Your Hungry Heart author Joanna Poppink

WORDJOURNEYS.COM: Joanna, tell us briefly about your professional background, and when you started working with people with eating disorders.

JOANNA POPPINK: I was a returning student in the 70’s. I finished my B.A. at UCLA and Masters at Antioc, majoring in psychology. Then years of internships. I passed the licensing exam, and the State of California gave me my MFT license. Partly because of my age, partly because of my interests and partly because of luck as I advanced in my studies, I befriended senior clinicians at UCLA and at psychoanalytic institutions.

Bulimia was in the process of being discovered.  I had suffered with bulimia since I was 13 and was new in the mental health profession.  My friends had decades of experience in the mental health profession but knew nothing really about bulimia.

WJ.COM: Yet, because of being in a crowd of senior clinicians, you started talking with each other about it.

JP: Because we cared about each other as friends and respected each others’ minds we talked openly and in depth about the symptoms and experience of bulimia – my part, and how that could relate developmentally and psychologically to what was known about normal and abnormal human development (their part). I had no idea just how rich and powerful these conversations would be in furthering our knowledge about the illness and what it takes to recover.  They benefited us and the people we would work with for years to come.

My working with eating disorder patients developed gradually as my own recovery progressed and people who had children with eating disorders and then adult women with eating disorders began to find me.  It was years later that I decided to specialize in the field.

WJ.COM: When you were 40, you came face to face with your own bulimia. How did that happen?

JP: No one knew I was bulimic.  I ask myself the question you are asking and many people have asked.  My answer changes over the years as my awareness grows. I thought the change came, when, after cleaning myself up after a purge, I thought, “What could I do with all this energy I use for my eating disorder if I used it for something else?”

My answer staggered me.  So much of my energy and thinking and behaviors went into maintaining my eating disorder. If it were free for something else I could do vast things in the world.  That thought gave me real hope and incentive for the first time.  That’s when I told a few trusted people in my life I was bulimic and got love and support instead of my expected rejection. That’s when my healing work started in earnest.

WJ.COM: Yet, the seeds for this recognition and healing started a few years before, when you were 32.

JP: Yes they did. Starting at 32, I began to earn my own trust.  I went back to school and got degrees. I made rich friendships with quality people in my profession. I discovered I could learn and that people respected me and what I had to say. I gave talks at conferences and led seminars. People were glad to come and listen.  Colleagues invited me to do more. I made enough money to support myself and my child. I was building a belief in myself that I was valuable, competent and strong.

WJ.COM: How do you look back on that now?

JP: I believe I was creating value, competence and strength in myself. When it was solid enough, I could ask myself the eating disorder question that set me on my path to recovery and freedom. When the pain of early recovery work unleashed itself, I had wonderful friends to hold me with Sunday brunches and walks in nature, and even a recovering alcoholic psychiatrist who shared his story and the power of 12-step.

All that had to be in place before I was ready to begin.  Even my therapist was in place.  She was my supervisor and agreed to become my therapist when I told her I was bulimic.

I suppose the quick answer to your question is that I created the healing and recovery environment I would need to go through recovery.  When that environment was complete my inner dams burst and the healing environment held.

WJ.COM: Since bulimia was barely on the medical recognition map, it took a lot of self-discovery, fortuitous events and people dropping into your life to set out on your recovery path. It’s far easier today.

JP: Today, with so much more known about eating disorders, people don’t have to wait as long as I did to find a healing environment that can hold them as they work for recovery.  Clinicians and treatment centers abound and are ready to work with eating disorder clients.

WJ.COM: You cover far more ground in Healing Your Hungry Heart than any other book on eating disorders I’ve ever seen. Why do you feel it’s so vital to approach this situation with 360-degree vision versus symptomatically?

JP: When a person’s eating disorder begins, a good chunk of normal development stops. The eating disorder behavior moves her mind away from stressful situations that develop in normal life.  She learns to deal with stress by using her eating disorder to go numb rather than feel, assess, communicate and learn, as her life grows more complex over the years.

Often a person with an eating disorder feels very young and acts with teen-ager and even infantile responses. She’s not trying to be cute. That’s her immature response.

Real and lasting recovery involves picking up development where it left off and supporting healthy development as it occurs for the first time.  When she gives up her symptoms, she’s given up her coping style.  This is a frightening and vulnerable place to be.  Yet it’s essential that she get to this psychological place so that she can learn anew what it means to be a mature woman.

Through the exercises at the end of each chapter and the chronological development of the chapters in Healing Your Hungry Heart, I did my best to give the reader a graduated pathway to develop her own personhood.  Once that is well on its way, she has no need for an eating disorder. She has much more effective ways of dealing with the complexities of an adult life.

(Part 2 of the Joanna Poppink interview will post on Friday, Dec. 13)

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The Sleuthsayers: Six Crime, Mystery & Action Thriller Novelists Discuss Their Work

CHECK OUT THE 366 WRITING BLOG:

40 GREAT BOOKS FOR EVERY WRITER

(First of a 2-blog series)

THEY PRESS ON WITH THEIR DAILY LIVES, watching everything. Stories percolate constantly in their minds. They sit for hours, days, weeks and months, cooking up good characters and bad, and plots with more twists and turns than a mountain switchback road.

Frank Ritter

Frank Ritter

Meet The Sleuthsayers. These crime fiction, mystery and action thriller authors specialize in compelling page-turner books that exemplify solid storytelling and characters that jump off the page. They kill people, injure others, fall in and out of love, and solve one tantalizing mystery after another. In many cases, they carry the same lead character from one book to another.

Recently, I put a few questions to authors Jenny Hilborne, Frank Ritter (also an award-winning playwright), Gayle Carline, William Thompson Ong, Claudia Whitsitt, and Wes Albers, who is also the director of the Southern California Writers Conference.

These people are very good writers. Their average collective ranking on Amazon.com? 4.8 (out of 5). And on Goodreads? 4.9 (out of 5).

Other interesting trivia tidbits: Remember the 1980s TV series Simon & Simon? The series was loosely (or not so loosely) based on Frank Ritter and his brother, private investigators at the time. Ritter’s expertise really shows in The Killing Games. Our other on-the-job expert is Wes Albers, a longtime member of the San Diego Police Department. Meanwhile, Tom Ong is one of the original Mad Men from the New York advertising scene of the early 1960s.

I hope you enjoy what they have to say – and buy their books, either for yourself or for a favorite crime & mystery fiction lover on your Holiday shopping list. Now, let’s get the roundtable started …

Jenny Hilborne

Jenny Hilborne

Q: First of all, give us a snapshot of your most recent books.

Jenny Hilborne: The Jackson Mystery Series, which can be read as standalones. They include Hide and Seek and Madness and Murder.

Frank Ritter: The Killing Games, an adult thriller (now available), and The Devil’s Crib, another adult thriller, which will be out in Spring 2014.

Gayle Carline: I write the Peri Minneopa Mystery Series. A couple of titles include Hit or Missus and Hot Mess.

William Thompson Ong: I call mine the Kate Conway Series – The Mounting Storm, The Deadly Buddha, and The Fashionista Murders.

Claudia Whitsitt: The Samantha Series: Identity Issues (Book 1) and Intimacy Issues (Book 2).

Wes Albers: Black & White is my first published novel. It’s a look into the life of a street cop, told through the eyes of veteran San Diego Police Patrolman John Hatch.

Q: Do you set up your plot twists before you begin writing, or do you let characters and situations take you there?

Albers: I do a little of both. For Black & White, I didn’t start out with anything. I simply sat down one day and started writing. I let the story take me where it wanted to go, until I hit a point where I needed to get to a logical conclusion. It became necessary to start doing some plotting and outlining as I went along, but mostly so that I could drive the story where I needed it to go rather than any creative plot twist.

Gayle Carline

Gayle Carline

One challenge in writing about street cops is that their job doesn’t necessarily flow like a typical story. The thought of having something fall along the lines of Act I, Act II, and Act III is kind of contrary to how the job works. Not every story in a cop’s life resolves. Instead, a street cop’s life is often more a series of scenes.

Whitsitt: Plot twists–what I live for! I do some pre-plotting. It’s best to know where I want the story to wind up, but I’m always willing to let the characters take over. I find a mix of planning/free-form works best for me. The story sometimes stays on track but often the twists are created along the way as a result of my character’s personalities and the ways in which they handle situations. The story evolves through the writing as I continually play “what if”. And my characters have minds of their own—feisty crew that they are!

Ong: I set up a basic plot with plenty of twists and turns in every chapter. But once I begin writing, those unexpected plot twists and turns will come flying at me from every angle and provide the spice for my story. While writing my first novel, I learned two very big lessons: 1) the best way to create plot twists is to ask your characters what’s the worst thing that can happen to them; and 2) believe in your characters and they will help you steer the plot, taking you to places you never thought possible.

Carline: It depends upon the book. Sometimes I just know how everything’s going to work and sometimes I get the idea as I’m writing. I try to do a very general outline. For my first mystery, I was so frightened of having any loose ends or conflicting clues, I stuck to my outline like duct tape. I thought writing to an outline would be my system. Then in the second mystery, I got bored with a scene, so I hit Peri over the head with a golf club and abandoned the outline. The third mystery was a hybrid of outlining, then ditching the outline, then re-outlining. I’m now writing a fourth book, and there is no outline.

William Thompson Ong

William Thompson Ong

Ritter: I story board not only my books but also my plays. All plot twists, locations and even some character traits are worked out on my story boards. I also do a personal profile of each major character and their traits.

Hilborne: I write whatever comes into my head at the time. My characters drive the story.

Q:  How much pre-planning do you put into your characters’ spoken voices, so that their dialogue is distinctive and forward-moving?

Hilborne: I’m not a planner. I hear their voices as I write the dialogue.

Ritter: I work very hard at making my dialogue match each character’s background and speech patterns so that each has his/her own voice. I study slang usage, speech patterns for an American locale I may need, and the speech patterns of those for whom English is a second language, if needed.

Carline: Of all the pre-planning, my characters are my biggest focus. I write up a study of each one, what they look like, their occupation, likes and dislikes, even astrological signs. Then I write a journal for each one. I let them tell me what’s important to them. By the time I start writing the book, I know who they are and how they sound.

Ong: Dialogue is not something that can be wasted. It must either establish character or further the plot. Before writing I make sure each character is

Claudia Whitsitt

Claudia Whitsitt

fixed in my mind—from what makes them tick right down to those quirky little details that are so important—and voice here is key. Then, before each scene, I write a brief outline that describes the action along with snippets of highlighted dialogue. Then I write the scene. I rewrite again and again. When I think I am finished with a novel I go over it carefully, looking for places where sharp dialogue can replace those author descriptions that are too long.

Whitsitt: I wrote a L.O.O.S.E. character sketch before I began writing the series, but I mostly hear my characters’ voices; it’s quite instinctive on my part. I simply step into their shoes and voila! Dialogue! (Don’t tell anyone I hear voices. Please!)

Albers: Dialogue thus far has been a pretty natural process for me. Often it is the easiest part of storytelling. I have an image of the character in my head and any distinct voice for a character just seems to develop as I work.  When I’m not writing but simply daydreaming about the story and where I want it to go, sometimes I’ll get a flash of something unique that I want to attribute specifically to a character.  The sergeant in Black & White is a good example. When I started writing him I had lots of examples of bad managers, or supervisors, from my past so I simply had him strike an elitist, condescending tone and the words just came naturally, his voice developed organically. I must have struck some chord because readers have consistently reacted to him as an accurate reflection of a bad boss that everyone has had at some point.

Q: Out of all the books you’ve written, what are two of the most surprising in-story developments that you did not know would happen when you started writing?

Wes Albers

Wes Albers

Albers: The first was in another unpublished story. I had a bad guy tied to a tree who was about to be executed. Hope was lost, from his perspective. When I originally started writing the chapter, I intended it to be more about the events that would ultimately lead to his surprise release, but as I wrote, it developed into an internal dialogue where this vicious and foul person started reflecting on the tragic path that led him to that tree. Suddenly, he became human and relatable.

The other was the start of Black & White. I didn’t set out to write police stories. In fact, I actively resisted them but someone encouraged me, and then repeatedly pestered me until I made an attempt. I never expected the first line of Black & White would ever survive to print, but in an instant, I found the voice of veteran of the streets, a voice that spoke with the authority of experience.

Whitsitt: My main character, Samantha, has experienced deep moments of profound sorrow. I was surprised how moved I was by those events and the lingering effects her grief had on me—losing loved ones I hadn’t intended to “kill” before I began penning the book. Writing those scenes is exhausting!

The other in-story surprise that has occurred is how much I enjoy writing male characters, (I guess my five brothers are worth something after all!), so much so that I’m considering a new series focused on one of those men.

Ong: At the end of The Mounting Storm, I originally had one ex-wife fire all six bullets from a Colt revolver into the body of the villain. At the very last minute, I switched the revolver into the hands of the other ex-wife. That gave the ending the unexpected wallop it needed.

In The Deadly Buddha, I changed the outcome of the scene where Kate survives the shooting in Central Park after Zack throws his body across hers and Zookie’s and nearly dies in the process. It then became a scene where a very  confused Kate realizes how much she loves the guy—and decides to marry him instead of keeping him waiting another 50 pages.

Carline: The first one came with the first book, Freezer Burn. I had imagined one character, Benny, as an immoral lout (this was before I started all the character development techniques). After the first scene, I saw him for what he was: an obsessive-compulsive man who was confused by the world around him and needed help.

The second one that truly surprised me didn’t happen when I was writing the book, but it happened when I was journaling one of the characters of my current work. I had thought of the crime, figured out the who/what/where, but while one of my characters was telling me about his life, I discovered the motive for the murder. It was completely different than what I was planning.

Ritter: After I story board, I then begin my plot and location research. In the case of The Killing Games, although my research had developed the needed information to make the climatic explosion at the LA Coliseum really happen, I altered this information so as to not be giving out factual instructions to any idiots or truly bad guys. Other than that, because I story board, the only in-story developments while putting pen (computer) to paper have been characters that I grew to truly like and had to either hurt badly or even kill them off. Honestly, when that happens, it really hurts. In The Killing Games, the bad guy rapes a woman and later he rapes her 12-year-old boy. Those scenes were very hard for me to write realistically, but they needed to be there to set up later actions and character developments.

Hilborne: All of my books have surprised me. The endings are never how I might imagine them. The most surprising element for me is the themes readers pick up in my stories. I never intend a message, but readers have pointed them out.

Read Part 2

 

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Why Thrillers Are Fun to Write, and #1 to Read: William Thompson Ong Interview

After he retired from a long career in the advertising industry, William Thompson Ong knew he wanted to return to his other love – 41z1MhGnReL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_writing – but didn’t know where to start. Like other writers, he wanted to draw plenty of fun and enjoyment from his daily sessions. However, he also wanted to write books that would find large audiences.

Ong did some research, and it brought him back to one of the favorite genres he read as a youth and young man: action thrillers with plenty of mystery. Bingo! He transformed into a typing thoroughbred, and burst out of the gates. In just a few years, he has written seven novels and a popular thriller series. In the second part of this exclusive interview, Ong reflects on why thrillers are so much fun to write, why they are the #1 fiction genre for readers (just ahead of the other ingredient in his books, romance), and how the stars have aligned ideally in the persona of Kate Conway, his protagonists for the novel series The Mounting Storm, The Deadly Buddha, and The Fashionista Murders, all available on Amazon.com.

WORDJOURNEYS.COM: What is it about the personalities and characteristics of investigative journalists that make them ideal protagonists for thrillers and mysteries? 

WILLIAM THOMPSON ONG: I’d like to answer with some comparisons between the detective and the newspaper guy or gal. Both appear to be dedicated to discovering breakthrough facts or evidence they can weave into a conclusive story or an indictment.  Aren’t they both in the same business, after all—fighting crime?

In Kate Conway’s case, the hurdles are set higher. The investigative reporter is in a class by herself at a newspaper or magazine journal, assigned to the really big and explosive stuff—stories and cases that go far beyond the murder story.  These are the bright, tenacious, and fearless guys and gals who won’t be home for Christmas—they’ll be spending it hiding in a basement in Teheran to escape a terrorist’s sword. These are the guys and gals whose names will appear on the stories that garner Pulitzer Prizes for their papers—(to say nothing of boosting circulation enough to keep today’s newspapers alive for another year.)  And in most cases they’ll be acting alone—not with the NYPD at their disposal.

Tom's jacket photo. Alicia #9 (preferred)WJ: You mentioned a disparity between typical education levels of an investigative journalist and detective, which creates major story problems in moving crime novels along because of the distrust with which one often views the other in real life. How did you get around that in your series?

TO: I made Kate’s father a gnarly ex-detective—(Paul Conway is a career dick from Brooklyn). When Kate needs help she whistles and Paul Conway appears, wise in the details of police procedure (which Kate and I choose not to be) and just dropping his name opens doors for Kate. Some may think I am cheating by supplying Kate with a crutch like this. But it allows Kate to cruise on a higher level and solve the really complicated crimes.

All of this explains why I lean away from the straight detective story in favor of the mystery-thriller. I’m still that stickler for detail.  But now I can keep a lot more balls in the air when it comes to plotting.

WJ: In The Fashionista Murders, and also The Mounting Storm, you give an expert’s touch to how you portray the high fashion industry and the high-end art world. Are these interests of yours, or just story drivers that you researched (well) and brought to life?

Like Kate Conway herself in The Fashionista Murders, I am totally turned off by fashion—which is why I attached the serial killer to the story. In The Mounting Storm, introducing Kate to Margaret Winship opened up the world of art and museums and society that heightened Kate’s search for the missing Monet she suspects belonged to her grandmother and triggered Kate’s unmasking the Nazi.

It also opened all of Kate’s subsequent novels to the swanky world of high finance and billionaires and celebrity society with its pretension and snobbery and deviousness—absolutely wonderful and trusty elements for layering your novel.  These elements are story drivers and not comfortable elements already present in my life—although at one time I seriously considered becoming an artist.

WJ: You had an interesting way of becoming a thriller writer after leaving the advertising industry:

TO: I did. My decision to write thrillers was based on some good old-fashioned seat-of-the-pants research.  I found thrillers to be the most popular genre. I also found there were more female readers than male readers, which helped lead me to inventing Kate Conway.  Discovering that romances were the second hottest genre convinced me to spread Kate’s adventures with hot and spicy romance.

WJ: Were you a big reader of mysteries, thrillers and crime fiction in your growing up years? Who were your favorite 41u0RCXXw7L._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_authors, and what influenced you most about their works, styles and/or voices?

TO: When I was 9, my father brought home The Five Orange Pips and lightning struck. I became a Sherlock Holmes fan forever, admiring his characters and atmosphere (who can resist The Hound of the Baskervilles for atmosphere?) as much as his sleuthing.  But as I grew older, my tastes gravitated to more intricate thrillers like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Gorky Park, The Manchurian Candidate, and The Day of the Jackal.

By the time I reached college, writing style became important—the   grace and class of W. Somerset Maugham as well as the biting vividness of Hemingway and the magic of F. Scott Fitzgerald. (I have worn out several soft-cover editions of A Farewell to Arms and The Great Gatsby.)

WJ: Story structure and writing style definitely resonates in your books. We start off on one trail, only to be switched to another – then another –  always with entanglements of some kind involved. Is this a reflection of the way Kate keeps changing and running into surprises? Or the storycrafting style you’ve decided to run with?

TO: It’s both. The multi-layering of plot that I began in The Mounting Storm logically became a pattern for all of Kate’s novels.  In the beginning I had no thought of making the novel into a series.  It was to be a dark and brooding Citizen Kane type of story dramatizing the deviousness of Stirling Winship with Kate almost a minor figure. On the advice of an agent I cut some 90 pages and 30,000 words of background color on Stirling and turned it into a fast-paced thriller featuring Kate. But almost all the plots and subplots remained intact and we were off to the races with the Kate Conway series.

41WA0IPiSeL._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_WJ: Rather than go the traditional publishing route, you’ve partner-published with Charles Redner and RiPublishing. Could you elaborate on the advantages you’ve found to the path you’re taking?

TO: The advantages? I am getting to see my books in print, I’m getting strong reviews, and I’m selling enough books to encourage me to keep going. Plus, it’s happening right now. This sure beats waiting around while an editor fiddles and fusses with changes for a year and then spends another year wondering whether the publishing house bosses will give me the final green light.

Self-publishing no longer bears a stigma. It’s attracting big name authors as well as beginners.  If you can’t afford to wait, it’s the place to be. If your books have the necessary magic, they will almost certainly rise to the top.

Partnership-publishing is even better. In Charlie Redner, I have the advantage of a fellow author who acts as my publisher and also my agent when it comes to advice.  There’s a lot of advice you’ll need, especially if you’re like me and have a mind that was built to function in the old days before the computer and the internet—back when we spent our time thinking and doing things instead of walking around pressing buttons on gadgets. (But thank Heaven the word processor replaced my typewriter!)

WJ: Final question: In each of your books, what is the one scene, situation, or character shift that surprised you most when it came flying from your mind to pen or computer screen?

TO: What a terrific question for ending this interview!

In The Mounting Storm, it’s the scene where Kate’s having dinner as the guest of Winston Winship.  She has found the guy an obnoxious bore and lets us know it. But then he says something encouraging about her idea for a new magazine—and she warms to him. When he invites Kate to the party he’s throwing in the Hamptons, which she absolutely hates…

            Kate looked at him before answering, digesting all over again his         coolness, his incredible confidence, his mastery at what he does, his   extremely good looks. And his eyes, those wonderful gray eyes with      their look of sadness.

           “Yes, I’ll come,” she said. “I love the Hamptons.

In The Deadly Buddha, in the party scene at the Hollywood movie studio, Kate has no idea the handsome dude chatting her up—and from whom she reluctantly accepts a ride back to her hotel—is the Welsh movie star she’s been ordered to interview.  He stops at the Griffith Observatory and they find themselves having a ball as they recall from memory the lines James Dean and Natalie Wood exchanged in Rebel Without a Cause. This is how the scene ends:

             Kate didn’t lean over and kiss him, although she thought about it. They were too busy laughing. They laughed all the way back to the hotel. The doorman helped her out. She turned to wave goodbye, but he was already in the circle and heading toward the Wilshire exit, his hand waving carelessly in the air.

           That was the moment Kate realized she didn’t even know his name.

In The Fashionista Murders, we go through the thought process that keeps Kate from giving in to sex, this time in the apartment-studio and in the arms of the handsome photographer covering the fashion shows with her:

Maybe the shrink her friends had dragged her to was right—instead of shutting men out of her life she should loosen up when she felt her buttons being pushed and let things happen. Maybe she needs to change—not just Cam.

          “You are not only a sex maniac but a full-fledged, card-carrying, conniving bastard,” was the way she began the terms of her surrender.  

           She took a step back, grasping both his hands in hers while shaking her mane of Irish red hair. “And now that I have made it ridiculously clear, you may do what you want with me—so long as it’s not boring, distasteful, or so devious it will land us in jail.”

 I warned you how much fun it is writing thrillers, especially when you decide to stretch the boundaries a little. Thanks again for inviting me into your sanctuary.

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From Mad Men to Thrillers: An Interview with William Thompson Ong

William Thompson Ong, or Tom as his friends know him, has created quite a stir with thriller readers in the past 12 months with his trilogy of novels featuring journalist-protagonist-amateur sleuth Kate Conway.Tom's jacket photo. Alicia #9 (preferred)

The Mounting Storm, The Deadly Buddha and The Fashionista Murders (published by Ri Publishing) combine tight, twisting plots, charming bad guys to which Kate becomes attracted, and some high-powered crime solving in great professional settings – art museums, Parisian fashion runways and the like. The trio of novels (not a trilogy; Tom has more Kate Conway novels in his future) also incorporates two aspects of writing of which I can never get enough (or impress more upon writers) – tough, gritty narrative voice, and attention to detail  explicit in time, place, and the character’s personal likes and dislikes. NWhen I see this, I see someone who has married fine journalistic skills with excellent fiction-writing style. ot as easy to write or maintain as it sounds.

41z1MhGnReL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_Behind Kate Conway is a novelist with an illustrious past in the advertising industry, especially for fans of the hit AMC TV show Mad Men. Tom Ong is an original Mad Man, an advertising copywriter and, later, executive who began his career on New York’s Madison Avenue a decade before Mad Men star Jon Hamm was born. Later, he moved to the West Coast, where he cooks up plot twists rather than hook and tag lines.

This is the first of a two-part interview with Tom, in which he reflects on his Mad Men days and takes us deep into Kate Conway’s world, and the ways in which he constructed it. I found his answers rich and fascinating. Hope you do, too.

WORDJOURNEYS.COM: First of all, Tom, you’ve made an interesting creative leap – from being an advertising agency executive to writing thrillers. How did that come about?

William Thompson Ong: It wasn’t that hard. I entered the business as a copywriter, and every copywriter I knew was secretly working on a novel. It was in our blood. At one time at the Benton & Bowles agency we had four guys writing copy for P&G and General Foods, along with our other clients who went on to become successful novelists and lyricists and screenplay writers—Israel Horowitz, Shepherd Meade, Ed Hannibal and Herman Raucher  (who wrote Summer of ’42)—all of us working at the same time and on the same floor. Even though I eventually had many executive titles, like Creative Director and even CEO of my own agency, I was always a copywriter, creating ads and aiming for the fences.

WJ.COM: Could you give us a brief synopsis of your background?

WTO: I grew up in the quiet, tree-lined suburbs of Cleveland, and got my undergrad degree from DePauw University in Indiana. I wrote some short stories and then some angry editorials as editor of the campus newspaper, which led to my MA in journalism from Columbia. After the army I spent 15 years with the biggest advertising agencies in New York City—yes, I was one of the original Mad Men. Then I opened my own agency in Philadelphia and ten years ago cashed in on my lifelong dream, migrating to Los Angeles cold turkey to pursue a new career as a novelist.

WJ.COM: You’ve been quite prolific since becoming a full-time novelist.

WTO: I’ve completed seven novels (plus two screenplays). The three novels in the Kate Conway series are thrillers and have been partnership-published and are doing quite well on Amazon.  I have four more historical thrillers waiting to be published, and I’m still developing plots for Kate Conway.

WJ.COM: Have to ask, since you were one of the originals – how authentic is Mad Men?

WTO: Don Draper is hard to resist as the handsome anti-hero in a world of snakes and dragons, but in a sense he spoils the series for me.  I was hoping it would be more about the classic creative wars that took place at the time between the good guys in creative and the bad guys, at both the client and the agency—all heavily-armed and  thoroughly trained to shoot down any idea that looked fresh and original. I will give Don credit for his ploy in taking on the Cancer Society client and its anti-smoking messages to get even with the cigarette account the agency lost.  That was brilliant—and Don’s personal high for me.

What I like about the series is the telling it like it was—the drinking and smoking, the cheating and jealousy, the double-dealing and back-stabbing, the toll the business took on marriages. Incredible!—we were all so busy trying to survive and get ahead we failed to realize what was going on.

WJ.COM: What were some of the toughest parts of the adjustment from writing ad copy to subjective, character-based fictional narrative?41WA0IPiSeL._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_

WTO: No matter how good you are with words, it requires work and study to absorb the basics of good fiction writing. And there definitely are rules: ‘Show, Don’t Tell’; establishing and following well-defined character arcs; knowing your characters intimately; and keeping the action moving—plus a dozen other rules that you should learn to follow before you can break them. You can break them when you reach that point of competence and hear that voice whispering in your ear saying you have arrived.  Then you can forget the rules because they are no longer rules on paper—they are automatic in your head.

When I sat down to write ads and campaigns I would always begin by briefing myself as thoroughly as possible and then staring at that blank sheet of paper—rejecting idea after idea until I knew I had nailed that one idea that would knock everything else silly. It’s the same in fiction writing—we are always staring at that blank sheet of paper and forcing ourselves to come up with that one great plot, one great character, one great scene, one word that propels our story forward. It’s the same process for both. And it’s nakedly, sinfully, deliciously, heart-warmingly beautiful.

WJ.COM: What do you feel are the most important points to remember when writing action-based fiction?

WTO: Every writer has a checklist. Here’s mine, just the way I have the points written down:

  1. SHOW DON’T TELL. Avoid “She saw . . . /noticed . . .” Substitute: “She turned. Two snakes were slithering down the embankment.”
  2. NEVER BE BORING—keep asking yourself what’s the worst thing that could happen next?
  3. Welcome friction, antagonism, fear, unexpected twists and turns. Make characters want something out of reach in every scene.
  4. Know where you are going with the story.
  5. Start the FLASHPOINT OF ACTION on Page One
  6. Make Kate a tough cookie and keep her there. Never let romance get the best of her.  Keep her innocent of how sexy she is.
  7. AVOID CLICHES AND EMPTY GESTURES.  ‘She finished eating and, wiping her mouth with a napkin, smiled.’

8 .  Watch the adjectives, adverbs. Ditch the colons and semi-colons. Don’t try so hard with word play. Use dialogue more often to advance the story.

Another thing I keep in mind is that, broadly speaking, thrillers are action-oriented while literary fiction is character-oriented.

WJ.COM: You’ve brought your journalistic skills into the mix through the way you interlace precise details that are on the money for time and place as well. Could you talk about the importance of enriching narrative with well-chosen details?

WTO: At Columbia University we had a tough, white-thatched ex-Chicago Daily News editor as one of our professors. His name was Roscoe Ellard and he described the cub reporter who couldn’t wait to hand in the story of a horrific fire that destroyed a landmark church and its historic steeple. The reporter captured all the details—the time of the fire, names and addresses of the dead, degree of burns of all victims, age of the church, the hospitals involved, whether arson was suspected, plus dozens of other facts that were right on the money. The professor finally asked the cub writer one simple question.

“How high was the steeple?”

A stony silence followed.

For the rest of the school year Professor Ellard, in his huge booming voice, not only opened every class with the same question, but as students passing each other in the halls or meeting in bars our official greeting became: “How high was the steeple, pal?”

41u0RCXXw7L._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_WJ.COM: The other side of your journalistic background comes from Kate Conway, the protagonist in three books now – The Mounting Storm, The Deadly Buddha and The Fashionista Murders. Is Kate the journalist you would have been had you not moved into the advertising business?  

WTO: This is a tricky question, and I’m not sure, since Kate and I represent opposite sexes. My first response would be to say yes, that Kate and I are Type-A personalities not content to stand idly by but want to always plunge in and slug the perpetrator – or at least try to bring the body at our feet back to life.

WJ.COM: How different or similar were your primary goals?

WTO: Kate’s primary goal in journalism is to do what she was taught as a child and had driven into her being by her Catholic parents and especially her detective father— TELL THE TRUTH.  That also describes my background, my family, my political views and, although I am a Presbyterian, my religious beliefs.  With a nation full of evil CEOs, politicians and killers posing as saints, there is plenty for Kate and me and any other investigative reporter, real or imaginary, to feast upon.

WJ.COM: While many male novelists have written strong woman characters, it is very rare to find a male thriller writer using a female protagonist.

WTO: I have received a lot of praise for establishing Kate as a role model for women. I set out to do this intentionally.  In Kate’s first novel, The Mounting Storm, we see her flair for journalism in writing an innocent bio piece about Margaret Winship, The Museum Queen. The piece leads ultimately to exposing her husband and finding the missing Monet, but in it, Kate has Margaret deliver a stern lecture challenging today’s women in the work force to keep giving back to their own sex as they plunge ahead.

WJ.COM: What is Kate’s primary motivation in life? How is it she finds herself crossing paths with the twisted, sophisticated, charismatic bad guys you bring into each story?

TO: Close behind Kate’s driving preoccupation with discovering and telling the truth is coming face-to-face with a talented and romantic male character who she is attracted to and, plot-wise, becomes deeply  involved with—and in two of the three novels comes close to marrying.

I’ve already mentioned how I chose a woman as my major character to stand out from the male-dominated thrillers.  I decided to take this extra positioning step by not being afraid to have romance that leads to sex (and a lot of it) become a powerful and controlling factor in all three of Kate Conway’s adventures.

In this case it was more than relieving my own boredom.  I felt I was being adventurous myself, perhaps venturing where others feared to tread and all that ego-enhancing stuff.  But I knew I was on the right track when women readers and the dozen or so agents who read the first manuscript loved Kate just as written with all her romantic entanglements.

(PART TWO will run on Friday, August 9)

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