Scott's Note: Dust Up, the new biotech thriller from Jon McGoran, comes out today. That's good news; I can vouch for the novel being fast, suspenseful, and quite entertaining. Good to know, also, that a guy who's funny in person is just as amusing in print. So....what does Jon have to say about his book?
Halfway through writing the first draft of Dust Up, I was ambushed by a Haitian gangster. Not literally, but literarily.
I am an assiduous outliner. I like to know as much as possible about where a story is going before I start writing. Outlining might not be for everyone, but it’s definitely for me. If you ask me why, I’ll tell you more than you want to know about that, but I’ll also tell you that the outline has to work for the author, not the other way around. Two or three times per book, while writing a first draft, I’ll go back and tweak my outline to accommodate different directions the story has taken.
One of the knocks against outlining is that it can steal some spontaneity from the writing of the actual draft. I get that, and to some extent it may be true, but even as much as I outline, I frequently experience new minor characters unexpectedly stepping onto the page because that is what the story needs. And sometimes minor characters become major ones, expanding to fill a void in the narrative. But rarely does one of those characters grab hold of my affections — and my narrative — just through the force of their own personality. That’s what happened with a character named Toma in my latest thriller, Dust Up.
A late addition and a very minor character, Toma is the gangster nephew of one of the main characters.
From the very beginning, Toma responded to the practical demands of the plot with a backstory that gave him depth and complexity.
When I needed him to speak English, I realized that as a child, he’d been a boat person, brought on the dangerous journey to Miami by his mother. She died shortly after their arrival, but not before conferring upon him a deep understanding of Haiti and its history. Forced to make his own way, he became a small-time criminal, until his arrest and deportation back to Haiti. He is from both worlds and neither, but his experiences give him a broader view and insights that none of the other characters possess.
The plot dictated that the head of the gang had recently been killed, leaving Toma as the leader. But I realized Toma hadn’t just lost his boss, he had lost a friend. Being the gang leader wasn’t something he had sought or wanted. It wasn’t an opportunity, it was a tragedy.
Toma became one of my favorites — a troubled character with a difficult past and an uncertain future, a personality of unexpected depth, intelligence, passion and remarkable complexity.
In what has become one of my favorite scenes I have ever written, Toma lets loose with a ranting monologue, releasing the bottled up anger and outrage and frustration at the things that are done to his country and the things that it does to itself.
It erupts as Doyle and Toma are hiking through the jungle at night, as part of a broader plan. Just before they leave, Toma is forced to kill someone — a senseless murder that the victim brings on himself, and another tragedy in Toma’s life.
Immediately afterward, he and Doyle set out.
There is a lull in the narrative, and in it, unbidden, Toma starts talking.
“Fucking Haiti,” Toma said, bitter and weary, fifteen minutes after we’d set out.
I didn’t know what to say to that. He had a point. It was not a country without problems. But it had upsides, as well. People like Regi and Marcel and Elena. People like Portia. And it wasn’t my country to criticize. How many times a day did I say, “Fucking America”— and with good reason too. But I wasn’t Haitian, so I kept my mouth shut.
For the next two pages, Toma talks about Haiti’s history, its place in the world, the heartbreaking unfairness that seems to haunt it, and that it sometimes brings upon itself.
I’m not a big fan of long monologues. I take very seriously my role as a storyteller, and while the books I write often have topical themes, I feel very strongly that those ideas should add to the story, not interfere with it. Whenever the two compete, story wins. Every time. Just the whiff of exposition makes me jittery and depressed.
In the scene, Doyle doesn't know what to make of it at first. Writing it, I didn’t either. I had no idea where this was coming from, but every time I tried to reign Toma in, to cut him off, he told me, ‘No, I’m not done yet.’ And he was right.
Looking back after writing it, I realized Toma had just been through this traumatic event. He barely knew Doyle and didn’t care what he would think. And in the darkness, like a confessional, Toma might feel more freer to speak his mind.
It made perfect sense. The crazy thing was, Toma realized it long before I did.
And that’s one more reason why I love him.
Dust Up is out now and available here: DUST UP.
Dust Up is out now and available here: DUST UP.
Jon McGoran is the author of the Doyle Carrick biotech thrillers Drift, Deadout, and the newest releases, Dust Up, as well as the novella Down to Zero, from Tor/Forge Books. Writing as D. H. Dublin, he is the author of the forensic thrillers Body Trace, Blood Poison and Freezer Burn.