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I went to Colorado recently to visit my parents, with my girlfriend. While there, we took a drive up to the top of a mountain. We passed through valleys of pine and aspen. The aspen was starting to turn, and the leaves seemed to sparkle when the wind hit them. If you’re not familiar with that, it’s a real phenomenon. My mother says it’s because the aspen trees are what the elves became. We stopped in a mountain town on the way up, to use the restroom. The restroom was in a gift shop, and while I was waiting for my girlfriend, I talked to the proprietor. He was from Chicago, as it turns out. He’d been visiting Colorado thirty years ago, found this mountain town, and never left. His wife at the time had come and gone, but he was still there. He told me he planned to die in that beautiful place.

‘Top of the mountain’ is a misnomer. You wind your way up by car to the visitors center, park, and then walk up the last five hundred feet or so to get to the summit. It took us a little while. We were above 12,000 feet by then, and were missing our normal sea-level surplus of oxygen. People coming down would smile and tell us ‘don’t worry, it’s worth it.’ We took them at their word and continued on, panting and gasping, until we reached the top.

What did we see there?

Why, everything, of course.

We saw all the places that we had passed from the valley to the peak. We saw where the tree line started, that place where barren grass turns back into towering life – or vice versa depending on your viewpoint. I looked down and noticed a lone ant clambering around the rock. I saw no other ants, which made me wonder about that one. Was he was an old ant, who’d always dreamed of looking down on it all instead of up at it all? Had he decided to make that dream come true before he died? If so, how long would it take for an ant to climb a mountain? In my fantasy world, that was one heroic ant.

My parents had remained in the parking lot. Dad had a triple bypass a few years back, and Mom had broken her hip and never regained full mobility. A sudden realization, a bolt of unexpected grief: that was that. Finito. Mom and dad would never climb up to this summit again. My mother and father would never again look down on the valleys we were seeing. Age had closed certain doors, forever. Someday, I thought, that’ll be us. We’ll have to wait in the parking lot and watch someone younger climb to the top. I comforted myself with the truth that they’d seen a lot of mountaintops in their times, probably more than most.

I told my girlfriend, who had struggled so gamely to get to the top with me: “See, they were right. It was worth it. You’ll never forget being here.” She agreed. We kissed at the summit. The aspen leaves hummed in the valleys below us. The wind made my inner ears ache. The sun lit up the patchwork of snow to a blinding white. Yeah. The kiss was memorable. I said goodbye to the ant, and wondered for a moment if my parents had once kissed here, too.

We drove back down the mountain in a comfortable silence, me, my girlfriend, my dad, my mom. The car was filled with cigarette smoke. My parents are two of the last surviving smokers on earth. Mom would break the silence now and again, because, well, my mother loves to talk, but mostly, we watched the trees go by, searched the valleys below, took it all in.

I thought a lot about writing on that trip down the mountain. Writing is a kind of alchemy, see? You mix elements together to come up with books or stories or poetry. I considered the elements of my own alchemy in that smoke filled car and I decided there were, primarily, three: reading, dreaming, and remembering.

I grew up reading because of my mother. Her home life was less than ideal, when she was a child, and so she was always looking for reasons to stay away. In the summertime, her favorite reason was the library. She’d hang out there all day long at times. The librarian would give her a reading list, and she’d work through it, reading there in the library, or in various other places in summertime Kentucky. Books were her most constant companions. They were loyal friends, certainly more reliable than family.

When I was old enough to get a library card, mom made sure I got one. Good thing, too, because in those early years, we didn’t have much money for books. I remember how startled I was to find out that they were going to let a kid like me walk out the door with a stack of books. I wasn’t sure if they were saints or suckers, but I was thankful either way.

I read everything I could get my hands on. I read and read and read. I was big into fantasy and science fiction, but I enjoyed a number of the classics, too. I loved Mark Twain. My cousins and I would spend time together in the summer, pretending to be characters from Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Reading transported me. I was never bored if I had a book.

When I was nine and ten, for example, we lived in upstate New York. Dad had gotten a job with IBM in Kingston, and we ended up renting a house on the top of a mountain. We had fourteen acres, ten cats, chickens, and a spring fed pond. The owner of the house had left behind bookshelves crammed with science fiction novels. When the snow hit up there, it stayed for about five months. I had a space heater that I’d plug in and I’d curl up with a book and read till I was done. Then I’d read another. That’s how I passed the winters, reading in front of that space heater, or in a steaming hot bathtub, with only my hands and head showing. My memories of that time, those winters, are more intense these days than ever before. They make my heart hurt a little, though I’m not sure why.

I have always read, and will always read. I don’t think you can write anything worthwhile if those statements are not true.

I dreamed, too, wherever I was. Reading and dreaming fit well together. I was a small, skinny, shrimpy kid, a little on the shy side with my contemporaries. Books let me imagine myself in other places, other times, doing much bigger things than I was capable of. Escapism wasn’t the most important aspect. The dreaming was done because dreaming is fun. It was done because I was allowed to dream. My mother encouraged it. She pummeled me early with the dictate that a free mind was not only acceptable, but vital.

The reading and the dreaming all happened through and around what would become the remembering. When I was a kid, mom and dad used vacation time to take us to far-away places. We’d load up in the car, and drive. Like, thousands of miles. We almost never stayed in a hotel during those trips. We camped. We saw so many places that way. The Rocky mountains, Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore. On and on and on. We watched thousands and thousands of bats fly up into the night from a cave in California. We drove through a wildlife preserve in Wyoming. I saw the sun rise and set while we camped next to the Grand Canyon. We drove through torrential rains and sweltering heat and freezing snow. My brother and I fought in that car, sometimes bitterly. My mother and father sang songs and made us sing along, and they always did this with enthusiasm, day or night. Sometimes they’d even harmonize. There was the smell of coffee poured from a thermos in that car, as well as the scents of cigarette tobacco and campfire smoke. We counted the miles, and were counted by them.

Everywhere we travelled, I read, and I dreamed. Books were a staple when taking a trip. We stuffed books into the suitcases, crammed them in the trunk, hid them under the seats. The radio never worked, but that was okay. We had books and each other and all the things we were seeing.

Nostalgia is idyllic, of course. The truth is that there were times we all dreaded climbing back in that car for another eight hours on the road together. There were times mom would blow a gasket about having to squat in the woods and not being able to shower. My brother and I could make life a living hell for each other and our parents. The hardest truth? I didn’t appreciate any of it enough at the time.

I appreciate it now, though. Those memories have a keen, sweet edge.

We drove back down the mountain on that recent Colorado trip, and I closed my eyes to dream for a moment, but instead, I found myself remembering. I saw a flash of images, good and bad, right and wrong. I saw my first kiss in those woods on the top of that mountain where we lived in New York. I was ten, Christa was her name, and it was a good kiss. Full of promise. I saw myself watching her change through the key hole in the bathroom after we had gone for a swim in the pond in the summer, mystified not just by what I was seeing, but about why I felt compelled to look at all. I saw myself reading Lord of the Rings by flashlight while rain pounded my tent in Rocky Mountain National Park, and I remember how isolated that felt, and how wonderful. I remembered getting a sunburn at twelve thousand feet, and I remembered hitting my brother and making him cry when my parents weren’t looking. My smug satisfaction at his tears. I remember my own impatience, sometimes, the strength of it, the sense of frustration at waiting for something special to happen while the beauty of the world passed me by.

I’m sorry if all of this is not what you came here for. I know, I write thrillers, about serial killers, about things that take place in the cities, not the mountains. What does blood on the asphalt have to do with aspens and dreaming?

Well…writing is about the whole banana. It’s about it all, everything, a big ball of reading, dreaming, and remembering that you reach into with creativity. The goal is gold. Sometimes, you succeed, sometimes you don’t. But success or not, the point is, writing about a serial killer is tied to that first kiss in the woods just as writing about my main character falling in love is tied to hitting my brother and making him cry. The quality of everything, of who you are, the life you’ve lived, the books you’ve read, the dreams you’ve dreamed, it all filters down into what you write, in big and small ways. Most of the time, it’s just background music. Dust motes. Sometimes it’s direct light.

I am not a great writer, in the sense of a Hemingway or a Tolkien. I stand behind what I write, but I don’t write at that level, and probably never will. I thought about that as we drove down the mountain. How much reading, dreaming, and remembering would you have to do to write like that? I saw the aspens again and let it go. I don’t know how to be ‘great’ as a writer, and in the end, that’s not really my goal.

I just want to write the book someone reads in front of a space heater.

We got to the bottom of the mountain, and then we got home. The next day, my girlfriend and I hopped on a plane and flew back to California. I read on the way, of course, as did many of my fellow passengers. I fell asleep on the last leg of the trip and was woken by my girlfriend shaking me.

“What?” I said.

“The woman in front of us. She’s reading one of your books.”

I was back, with that, at the top of the mountain again. I could see it all, the broad expanse of everywhere I’d been on my trip to ‘here.’ ‘Here’ was a place where a dream about reading had just become a reality to remember. I felt odd and exhilarated, like I was running the mile on a moebius strip.

I wanted to explain all of that to her. I tried to figure out how to boil it all down to a couple of brilliant, perfect sentences.

“Wow, that’s cool,” is what I managed to came up with.

What can I say? I’m no Hemingway. But my books are travelling.

That’s good enough for me.

Cody McFadyen is the author of the international bestsellers Shadow Man and The Face of Death. The Darker Side is his latest novel. Visit his website at http://www.codymcfadyen.com

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One of the things writers are asked most often is: where do you get your ideas from? I’ve heard all kinds of responses. I’m envious of the writers who know… but I suspect they are few and far between. The truth, for me, is that they fall out of the sky. They are an amalgamation of the life I’ve lived, the people I’ve known, the books I’ve read, the movies I’ve watched, the songs I’ve loved… and often all at oblique angles.

Example: I watch a lot of true crime shows. I watched one recently that was telling the story of this poor woman who’d been kidnapped by a man and his wife and imprisoned for six or seven years. I won’t go into all the horrible details, but suffice to say that it sparked something. What I ended up writing had little, if nothing, to do with the original story – but it started the ball rolling. Another time, I was writing about a relationship between two characters, and I remembered when a woman in my life had asked me to sing her to sleep because she loved the sound of my voice. My voice is nothing special, in my opinion, but her love of it was so honest and genuine, I couldn’t refuse. This found it’s way into the book, even though the character I ascribed it to was nothing like the real life woman I’d sung to.

I suppose people (self included) look for formulas for things. An ‘if you do A and B, then C will occur’. Writing is no different. In the end, I guess there aren’t any easy answers, or, if you really want to get down to it – there are too many. ‘Write what you know’ is true sometimes. ‘Less is more’ is true sometimes. But ‘rules are made to be broken’ can be true in the right moment as well. It’s all about a feeling in the gut, for me. ‘This goes there.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because it does.’

A last, too-cutesy little mention. If you want to get all butterfly effect and zen-ish. I once sat down and wrote out an idea for a story. It was a good idea, and, I thought, an original one. A few days later, I was watching one of those true crime shows, and there my idea was – in real life. Something that had happened years ago. I’d never heard the real life story, but the parallels were downright spooky. I’d come up with an idea for a story. A real life killer had executed this idea years before. Did we both get our inspiration from the same place?

Maybe, sometimes, ideas come from a dark little man in a dark little room who sings and claps his hands and laughs while we dance to his tune.

A native of Fort Worth, Texas, Cody McFadyen is the author of the international bestsellers Shadow Man and The Face of Death. A third book, The Darker Side, is coming out this October.

Read an interview with Cody at The Dark Phantom.

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A native of Fort Worth, Texas, Cody McFadyen is the author of the international bestsellers Shadow Man and The Face of Death. A third book, The Darker Side, is coming out this October. In this in-depth, candid interview, McFadyen talks about his books, inspiration, his writing habits, the difficult aspects of writing, negative criticism, and his experience in finding an agent, among other things.

Thanks for this interview, Cody. Why don’t you begin by telling us a little about yourself?

I was born in Fort Worth, Texas in February of 1968. My Mom and Dad were both 20 years old and as poor as you’d expect 20 year olds to be. I grew up reading, largely because we were too poor to do anything else, and with the dictate to choose my own life. The ‘choose’ part took a while longer than it should, but here I am.

When did you decide you wanted to become an author?

I’ve wanted to write since I was ten. I didn’t really start writing until I was thirty-five.

Were you an avid reader as a child? What type of books did you enjoy reading?

Very much an avid reader. I read across the spectrum. My mother would let me read anything as long as I could prove comprehension. She didn’t censor my choices. I grew up reading everything from the Lord of the Rings to Mark Twain to Mad Magazine to Michener. If a book really gripped me, I’d lock myself away and read all weekend and after school. I read Shogun by James Clavell, for example, over a weekend, and enjoyed it so much I read it again the next weekend. My Grandfather had a bound collection of classics in literature and Philosophy, and one summer when I was visiting them I read the Iliad and The Odyssey over a two week period, followed right after by Heinlein’s Time Enough For Love.

Tell us a bit about your latest book, and what inspired you to write such a story.

I’ll tell you about two – The Face of Death, which just came out in paperback, and The Darker Side, which is due out in Hardback 1 October.

The Face of Death: The idea of the book is simple. What if a serial killer, instead of killing many victims of the same physical type, left his primary victim alive? What if he followed her throughout her life, killing anyone and everyone that she ever loved? And what if no one believed her when she told them this was happening?

The Darker Side: A woman who is not what she seems is murdered on a plane at 30,000 feet. She leads Smoky Barrett (The FBI heroine of my series) to a monster who is obsessed with secrets. Not the itty-bitty secrets, but the deep, dark ones, the kind we’d rather die than reveal. He finds out your secret, and then he kills you for it, and then he reveals it to the world.

Inspiration comes from someplace, but I’m not sure of the source. What’s imagination? Mental illness or focused thinking? Maybe, in my genre, focused thinking about the mental illness of others?

How would you describe your creative process while writing this book? Was it stream-of-consciousness writing, or did you first write an outline?

The Face of Death was much more stream-of-consciousness. Pick up the laptop and let fly. For The Darker Side, I sketched out the general idea before writing.

Did your book require a lot of research?

Each book tends to require a certain amount of research. I build my books around the villains, and they each have their ‘niche’, which is to say, their obsession. I have to understand that obsession as much as they do, as does the hero.

What was your goal when writing this book?

My goal is to entertain and to move. To make the reader feel as though he or she has experienced something, and not passively. I want immersion and involvement, and for the reader to feel a little bit shook up by the end. When portraying violence, I don’t want to glamorize it by sugar-coating it. Nothing I’ve ever written is as violent as reality.

Who is your target audience?

Thriller readers, both men and women.

What will the reader learn after reading your book?

To quote the heroine of my books:
"However bad things may become, evil men only triumph in the most important ways when we let them."

What type of writer are you—the one who experiences before writing, like Hemingway, or the one who mostly daydreams and fantasizes?

Mostly the one who daydreams or fantasizes. But there is some experience there as well. Heh – not in the ‘killing people’ arena, but I think every writer, as he or she creates characters, draws on people from his or her own life. We observe as we live and that will find its way into books, intentionally or not.

Agatha Christie got her best ideas while eating green apples in the bathtub. Steven Spielberg says he gets his best ideas while driving on the highway. When do you get your best ideas and why do you think this is?

I get my best ideas in my own home, while reading or watching TV or staring at the ceiling. I can write anywhere, but I like to write at home the best, and I always prefer to start a book at home. I think it is because starting a book is such an uncertain act for me, I need the comfort and support and stability of ‘home’.

Do you get along with your muse? What do you do to placate her when she refuses to inspire you?

My muse and I mostly get along fine. She’s rarely uncooperative, but when she is, I just write anyway until she’s ready to get on board again. Inspiration/perspiration, for me, is a true proverb when it comes to writing.

From the moment you conceived the idea for the story, to the published book, how long did it take?

Writing a book generally takes me about 3 months. I spend quite a bit of time letting the idea percolate around, letting it settle into me. Once I begin writing, I write every day without exception, rain or shine or on the road, till the book is done.

Describe your working environment.

I write in my office mostly, which is its own environment. I have music, I have a TV, and I have pictures on the walls of ocean scenes. I have an easy chair that I write in. So I put on some music, or turn on the TV and then I sit down, lean back and write on my laptop.

What type of scenes give you the most trouble to write?

The connective tissue of the book. In other words, scenes of transition, movement from one place to the next. They’re necessary, but not always that exciting to write.

Do you write non-stop until you have a first draft, or do you edit as you move along?

I will generally write half of a novel, then I go back and revise up to that point. Why? Because I’m usually convinced, half-way in, that the book is crap. I have to go back and fix it before I can go on with the rest. I then write the last half, and revise that. Then I return to the beginning and re-edit it all again.

They say authors have immensely fragile egos… How would you handle negative criticism or a negative review?

I think that’s a mis-statement… I think anyone who creates something, who puts something out there that is a part of them, is vulnerable to criticism, whether they’re a painter, a singer, an actor, or a writer. Having said that, I do think you have to develop an acceptance of the basic truth: not everyone is going to like what you create, and many are going to hate it. And that’s okay. I really don’t mind if someone doesn’t like a book I write. That’s what subjectivity and opinion is all about. I do have a problem with someone being too snarky or acerbic, or when someone proclaims themselves as the guardian of ‘what is good’. The old ‘brutally honest’ trick, wherein honesty is used as an excuse to be cruel.

As a writer, what scares you the most?
The next book.

When writing, what themes do you feel passionate about?

Love. Surviving and overcoming suffering. The truth that most things don’t come easy. Exploration of morality in all its forms. I also feel strongly that underdoing violence can be as damaging as overdoing it, and that I need to work in each book to find the right balance between them both.

Are you a disciplined writer?

Yes. When I am writing, I write every day, and I try and set a word goal and meet it. When I don’t, I feel guilty and like I’m loafing.

How do you divide your time between taking care of a home and children, and writing? Do you plan your writing sessions in advance?

I generally write in the morning (which answers the next question), and try and finish up by lunch time. Then I deal with correspondence and the other aspects of writing. However… I can get obsessed when I’m writing, particularly towards the end of a book, and can become a bit inaccessible to my family at those times. I find it hard to get the book out of my mind in those instances, and will be thinking about it at dinner, or even while out with the family.

When it comes to writing, are you an early bird, or a night owl?

I used to be a terrible night owl. I’ve changed my ways, and now I write in the morning, mostly.

Do you have an agent? How was your experience in searching for one?

I have a great agent, Liza Dawson. Searching for an agent was the biggest part of getting published, for me. I tell people that it took me about three months to write my first book, about three years to find an agent, and then six weeks for my agent to sell the book. Finding the agent was definitely the hardest part.

Do you have any unusual writing quirks?

Sometimes I write with the music or TV blaring. As in, really loud.

What is your opinion about critique groups? What words of advice would you offer a novice writer who is joining one? Do you think the wrong critique group can ‘crush’ a fledgling writer?

I personally can’t be in a critique group. I’m too superstitious about my writing. I’m afraid if I did that it would, as you say, ‘crush’ my writing. I really can’t say it wouldn’t work for others, but I don’t know… I’m leery of anyone who says they’re an expert on the subject of writing. I might go to a critique group run by Hemingway, but beyond that, I’d be suspicious.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? What seems to work for unleashing your creativity?

Oh sure. Everyone gets writer’s block. My solution is to step away for a bit. Go watch a movie, work in the yard, hit the gym. Take your mind off the writing and refuel.

Technically speaking, what do you have to struggle the most when writing? How do you tackle it?

Finishing what I start. Seriously. It sounds inane, but the first failure in writing, as in anything, is follow-through. Writing is a perilous activity for me, fraught with self-doubts and uncertainty. I’m always sure, half-way in, that a book is worthless. When I hit those moments, I just keep on writing and hope for the best. The fact of writing eventually pushes through those doubts. Besides, revision is where the book gets good anyway.

How was your experience in looking for a publisher? What words of advice would you offer those novice authors who are in search of one?

I was lucky to have a lot of interest from various publishers in my first novel. My advice is to get yourself a good agent. This is a great industry filled with great people that love books, but you need an agent that is in there fighting for you.

What type of book promotion seems to work the best for you?

Still finding out…

Who are your favorite authors?

This changes every time I get asked this question… I’m currently going through a Tess Gerritsen and Karin Slaughter phase. I just finished reading John Connolly, who is amazing. Meg Gardiner is great. I am working my way through the books of some authors I was on panels with or met recently, and two of note have been Tim Maleeny and Kathryn Fox. Good stuff.

What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Always use the active voice versus the passive. Avoid adverbs wherever possible.

Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?

www.codymcfadyen.com.

Do you have another book on the works? Would you like to tell readers about your current or future projects?

I’m currently working on the 4th installment of my series featuring FBI agent Smoky Barrett.

As an author, what is your greatest reward?

Hearing from a satisfied reader. That sounds trite on the surface, but it is the truth: most of us write to be read. I’m satisfied that I’m not writing the next great American novel. I want to entertain people within my genre. So when I hear that someone couldn’t put the book down or wept on the subway or couldn’t sleep with the lights off because of one of my books, I really am tickled pink. I grew up loving reading, and loving that experience myself. To be able to deliver it to others is an honor.

Anything else you’d like to say about yourself or your work?

Read my books!

Thanks, Cody, and good luck with your books!

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