In these bleak midwinter months, many of us cannot help but heed the siren call of white sands and sunny skies, escaping the drudgery of shoveling and salting—and shoveling and salting some more—for a brief respite in warmer climes. Often times, we use our vacations to reconnect with an old hobby or embrace our adventurous “vacation selves” and attempt something wholly unfamiliar. Like solving a murder, perhaps? Or even two or three!
When guests at a thriller writers conference begin disappearing from the idyllic Spanish island resort, the characters in Ronald S. Barak’s engrossing mystery, Payback, do precisely that—attempt to figure out whodunit.
Newly retired, Judge Cyrus Brooks is looking to use this infusion of free time to take his passion for writing to the next level. His wife proposes a trip to the prestigious conference, with their friends, Homicide Detective Frank Lotello and his wife, tagging along for a little fun in the sun. Not even the most picturesque of settings can keep sinister secrets hidden forever, however, and it’s up to Brooks and Lotello to cut through a web of lies and likely suspects to hunt down a killer before they find themselves the prey.
Eager to learn more about the careful crafting of this thriller, we reached out to Ron for an interview. We hope you find his answers as arresting as we did.
Something I am sure we all have wondered from time to time is how crime fiction writers select their murderer. Did you know from the start who your killer would be, or did you dive in and wait for the characters to reveal it to you?
I am more a “pantser” (one who writes by the seat of his pants) than a “plotter” (one who writes from an outline developed in advance). Thus, most often, I dive right in and do wait for the characters to tell me where my story is going. More precisely, I usually have a germ of an idea on the underlying story theme, and an opening paragraph and a vague sense of how the story will end, but no idea what will happen in between, or when, until I get there, if not page-by-page, then at least chapter-by-chapter or scene-by-scene.
Payback was a mixture of these two approaches. When I started writing it, I certainly didn’t know who would be killed off and why, how the killer would be pursued, identified, and captured, if indeed that would be the outcome of the novel. (No spoilers here.) Given that Payback is a classic whodunit, I also had to leave clues to the killer along the way; too many and I might let the air out of the balloon prematurely, but too few and readers might feel I was not being fair, giving them a chance at figuring it all out before the ultimate reveal. I had no idea as I began writing the manuscript what clues I would leave or when or where.
All of that said, in the case of Payback, I knew before I wrote the first sentence what the objective and theme of the story were, who the writer-wannabe killer was, and why the killer was going to embark upon a murderous spree, killing famous persons at this make-believe writers conference. The objective was to share with readers how the literary world tends to function, but to do so through (hopefully) a highly suspenseful and entertaining piece of fiction. The theme was that, just as in the corporate world in general, the literary environment may also suffer its occasional ethical shortcomings.
The killer first appears in the prologue of the novel, which is approximately only two pages long. More precisely, the readers first find themselves inside the killer’s mind in the prologue. And they travel with the killer throughout the story, always inside the unidentified killer’s mind. I knew from the outset where I was headed with the killer, but the two-page prologue was by far the most difficult scene in the novel for me to get just right, if I did.
Within the novel, there are many perspective shifts, giving us a peek inside several characters’ heads as the sinister events unfold. When conjuring up these distinct personalities, did you draw from people in your life? Who would you say you most relate to, personally?
As I think most fiction writers do, I draw from real-world personalities and experiences in writing my novels. “Thriller Jubilee” is the name of the fictional writers conference in Payback. For more years than I can count at this point, I have attended Thriller Jubilee’s real-world counterpart, ThrillerFest, held in New York for one week every July. I relocated Thriller Jubilee to an island off the coast of Spain because I love Agatha Christie’s novels, which often take place in island settings, and because I thought this international location would add some flavor and mystery to the story. Hey, I love New York, but I’d much rather spend a week on a colorful island in the Mediterranean. Wouldn’t you? TITO, “The International Thrillers Organization,” is the name of the fictional organization that sponsors Thriller Jubilee. I am a long-standing member of ITW, International Thriller Writers, the sponsor of ThrillerFest. Several of their leaders have read Payback and graciously provided testimonials for the novel, which are included on my website: https://ronaldsbarak.com.
Payback is the latest in my Brooks/Lotello thriller series. Many who know me well maintain that Cyrus Brooks and I suffer from many similar characteristics, and that Cyrus’s wife, Eloise, is highly reminiscent of my wife, Barbie. As for the non-series characters in Payback, they are coincidentally similar to real-world characters you will find participating at ThrillerFest every year. As for our writer-wannabe killer, there are those who suggest that this killer reminds them of … me. I will cop to being a writer wannabe, and maybe also a bit demented, but I’m not quite that bold and daring!
Throughout Payback, we hear from the murderer in short asides, gaining insight into their motives and heightening tensions as they close in on our heroes. Were these glimpses into the criminal mind something you always wanted to include, or did you go back and add them further along in the process?
From the outset, I had in mind to include these short expressions of the killer, both to display the killer’s warped sense of humor, and mine. They were not an afterthought. While I didn’t know in the beginning exactly where they would appear, I knew for sure when I progressed to those various spots in the manuscript.
Finally, can you give us a clue as to what might be next for the dynamic duo of Brooks and Lotello?
The next in the Brooks/Lotello thriller series is titled JK’s Code. It will be published in the spring of 2021. The story is about cybercrime in general and election fraud in particular. I am very enthused about this next one for two reasons.
First, it will be my first novel centered around a female protagonist, Frank Lotello’s wife, Leah Klein. For those who read the Brooks/Lotello series, Leah has been a significant character throughout. A lawyer, she defended the accused serial killer in The Puppet Master in Cyrus Brooks’s court when he was still a sitting U.S. District Court Judge. This was also when Frank first met Cyrus and Leah. In The Amendment Killer, now married to Frank, Leah joined Cyrus Brooks in defending the make-believe 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution argued in the U.S. Supreme Court.
In JK’s Code, Leah will be required to come to the rescue of her younger brother, Jake Klein, who disappears off the grid after dropping out of college to pursue a career in cyber security, and who falls prey to a deadly cadre of cyber criminals.
Second, this will be my first novel where I was required to do an extensive amount of research into the subject matter of the story, which proved to be quite a challenge. Previously, I followed the wise, old adage of writing about what I already knew: law and politics, two very simple topics!