Is there a sociopathic killer on the loose and murdering prostitutes in New York City? NYPD’s top cop, Homicide Commander Lieutenant John Driscoll, believes there is. Someone who calls himself “Tilden” and claims to have been sexually abused as a child by his mother’s john. But what could have triggered Tilden’s rage that has him on a mission to eradicate all the women of the night in The Big Apple?
Q&A with Thomas O’Callaghan for Benjamin Thomas’ The Writing Train
How did your early reading habits lead you to become a writer?
After graduating with a liberal arts degree from Richmond College I landed a job with Allstate Insurance Company as a sales agent. When the company opted to take their sales force in another direction I decided it was time to retire and find something else to do with my time. I spent much of that time reading. On the beach in summer and on the couch in winter. One day I picked up a copy of HELTER SKELTER, by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry. This is an often used adage, but I couldn’t put it down. The author’s attention to detail fascinated me. After that, I was hooked on novels depicting murder, mayhem and suspense. I soon discovered such notables as Thomas Harris, John Sandford, Lawrence Block and Ed McBain, just to name a few. Unlike, HELTER SKELTER, where the storyline was based on an actual murder, Harris, Sandford, Block, McBain and company, created murder and the intrigue that surrounded it. I was enthralled all the more. Read on, I said, and so I did. After I finished reading my twelfth 87th Precinct novel, I thought: I could do that! And so, on a gloomy, rain-soaked Friday afternoon, that happened to follow Thanksgiving, I began writing NIGHTKILLS, which would later become BONE THIEF. Looking back, I’m happy with the course my life had taken me, bringing me to what has become my life’s passion: Writing!
Was it a journey developing the confidence to write, or did it come naturally?
It was a journey that had begun at a slow pace. Aside from essays in college I’d never written in a narrative fashion. When I took an early retirement from Allstate I was 49. With a great deal of free time on my hands a very good friend suggested to either take on a new job or devote time to a hobby I’d enjoy. My first venture toward that end had me wandering through Prospect Park in Brooklyn, NY armed with a 35mm camera taking photographs of nature-in-the-raw. That interest waned after four or five weeks. I then enrolled at HB Studios in NYC to study the art of ‘acting’. It was fun, but after two months I began to lose interest. Since I enjoyed reading mysteries and thrillers, my trusted friend suggested I write one. Me? Write a book? I haven’t a clue as to where to start, I argued. She suggested I write
an opening chapter similar in style to what I liked to read. And so I did. After she read it she asked me what I had in mind for the next chapter. This went on for several weeks at the end of which I had written the opening of a story that only she and I had read. I didn’t think it was very good but she encouraged me to call a friend of hers, a “writing coach” of sorts, which I did. His name was Stephen Ohayon. He had once taught the art of writing on a college level and offered to work with me to turn my feeble attempt into a saleable novel. We met weekly in his office in Manhattan where his day job was as a psychotherapist. He scheduled time for me between patients. I brought him a typed chapter and during a one hour session he helped me push that chapter from first draft to second, third, fourth and fifth. When we reached Chapter Last I set out to market the book. It sold close to 100,000 copies and was translated and published in Germany, Slovakia, Indonesia, the Czech Republic, China, and Italy.
What do you enjoy most about writing?
I enjoy writing for a number of reasons. One that comes to mind immediately is that writing allows me to escape the hum drum of everyday life. Another reason is that creating characters for the sole purpose of performing in a story that I’ve set in motion is exciting. I’m fueled by that. And, because it’s fiction, I’m motivated to weave memories of times in my life, some good, some regrettable, into the back story of my characters. We all have chapters we wish never to see published, but, with the right finesse, the theme of those blunders can and do add human authenticity to fictional entities.
What are the most challenging aspects?
One of the most challenging aspects of being a writer is constantly competing with an inner voice that tells me what I’ve written isn’t very good. That, of and in itself, drives me to be a better writer. Writers write. Rewriters get published.
How has your writing process developed over the twelve years it took to become published?
The writing process as outlined above continued in the same fashion, day after day, week after week. Those weeks became years as I needed to convince a publisher my work was ready for print. That involved submission after submission of query letters and partial manuscripts to every single literary agent that specialized in my genre. When I reached the end of the line, so to speak, and any further submission would be repetitive I took the advice of a few well intentioned literary agents along the way to have a professional editor have a look at my manuscript. After working for two years with the late Dick Marek, who’d edited The Silence of the Lambs for Thomas Harris along with nine of Robert Ludlam’s books, Kensington Books agreed to publish my debut novel.
What are some ways working with an editor has helped you?
Aside from learning that a tightly written novel reads very quickly, thereby keeping the reader engaged, working with a professional editor taught me a wonderful lesson: a writer, especially someone starting out, often feels his or her work is sacrosanct, but the editor is keenly aware of what a publisher is looking for and what sells. It’s best to accept that reality and be open to change. It will increase the chance of having your work published.
How important is rewriting when working on a manuscript?
Extremely important. I begin by writing a first draft of a chapter which entails typing without concern for spelling, punctuation, or cohesion. The point is to get the thought on paper as quickly as possible without listening to that inner voice telling you “Oh, that’s not good,” Once that’s done, I’ll go in and rewrite the chapter over and over again, until I have what I consider perfection. In essence, one must write drunk and edit sober.
If we were to meet NYPD homicide cop John Driscoll, what kind of person would we meet?
In short, he’d be a taller version of me. He’s an Irishman with a sense of morality who tries to do the right thing. A compassionate soul who tries to be kind to friends and foes alike. Yes, Lieutenant Driscoll is flawed. But, then, who isn’t?
Do the John Driscoll mysteries employ a certain theme?
Yes, the theme is that good prevails over evil. They are psychological thrillers which detail the fictionalized onslaught of heinous murders perpetrated by a madman, or in the case of THE SCREAMING ROOM, a set of demonic twins, using New York City as a killing field. Lieutenant Driscoll is brought into the equation intent on putting a stop to the madness.
If you were John Driscoll in, No One Will Hear Your Screams, could you solve the case?
Absolutely! The Lieutenant is a resourceful investigator who, with the able-bodied assistance of two professional and ingenious associates in Margaret Aligante and Cedric Thomlinson, evil can’t triumph.
What are you currently working on?
My current work in progress introduces Richard Singleton, a bestselling author suffering from writer’s block. When he becomes the owner of a beach house where a heinous murder had taken place, he finds stimulation and is able to put the pen to paper again. His manuscript is progressing well and his faltered career is looking bright again, that is until he gets an anonymous call from the former owner of the house who had perpetrated the aforementioned murder who has plans of his own regarding what this bestselling author should write.