J.J. describes his protagonist, Jackson Hurst, as the poster child of losers as the book begins. Jackson is one of the most unusual PI characters I’ve read in years.
We discuss the story line of DEVIANT ACTS which begins in 1973.
We discuss the use of Vermont as the setting for the book. J.J. finds it to be a rich source of interesting characters.
J.J. moved from Vermont to the east coast of Florida as a child and developed a love of surfing that has lasted to this day.
We discuss the various writers conferences that John has attended recently, which includes Writers in Paradise.
Interview Transcript with J.J. White and DEVIANT ACTS
Stephen: Welcome back to crimefiction.fm, where we bring the authors of today’s best books directly to you. I’m your host, Stephen Campbell, and I’m here with J.J. White, the award-winning author of Deviant Acts, which was released last month. J.J., Welcome!
J.J.: Thank you, Stephen. As a crime writer, I’d like to thank you for all the other crime writers for providing a platform to promote our books.
Stephen: Well, thank you so much for saying that. I always appreciate hearing that, and sadly I don’t hear it enough. But, I’m thrilled to talk with you. You have, this book has probably the most unique P.I. character that I’ve read in years, so let’s start talking about Jackson Hurst. Let’s start the interview off with Jackson, and give listeners a little sense of who he is, and maybe why you wrote him the way that you did.
J.J.: Well, I have to say it takes place in 1973, or it begins in 1973, which would help a lot in the description. I think if I had to describe him, he’d look like Gregg Allman, with his long blonde hair down past his shoulders, and long mustache, and very thin. Good looking. So, he looks like Gregg Allman, he smokes bad weed like Willie Nelson, and seems to have more crimes committed than Robert Downey, Jr.
But he’s, basically, I chose him for one reason. My brother went to Vietnam, and a lot of the stories in there are from him and from other Marines that have gone over to Vietnam, and I embellished them some. But this particular character, Jackson Hurst, he’s got PTSD, but he just doesn’t understand it because they didn’t have post-traumatic stress disorder back then.
J.J.: Jackson Hurst is probably the poster-child of losers. He can’t stay out of prison, he’s addicted to heroin, he lost his girlfriend because of that, he lost his job because of that. He lives with his mother and he’s 24 years old, now. That doesn’t sound too bad nowadays, there’s a lot of 24-year-olds living with their parents. Thank God my kids aren’t. But back then, if you lived with your parents at age 24 you were a loser.
Stephen: You know, I have to say, I was a junior in high school in 1973, and I moved out like two weeks after my senior year. So, yeah. Back in the day, I mean if you were still at home after age 19, you were bordering on being a loser.
J.J.: Exactly. And so he’s, like I said, he’s the poster-child of losers. He actually robs from his neighbors and steals, and he’s been in and out of prison. So, he’s really only got two choices. And one choice is to either die, and the other choice is either to go to prison. So he needs an event to happen in order to save him. And that event happens, which I’ll go into later.
But basically, the character is quite unusual for a private investigator, and he kind of stumbles his way through at least the first book. I’ve written this in two books. And he stumbles his way through.
Stephen: He’s one of those guys that grows on you. He’s a little repulsive in the beginning, but as the story goes on he really begins to grow on you. And by the end of the book, I’m like “Oh I hope this isn’t the end for Jackson.”
J.J.: Well, that’s the thing that authors have to do. Especially crime authors, and I’m sure if there’s some listening that they understand that you have to take your character. You have to have an event that changes their life, and then you have to have escalating trouble and be a sadist. You have to do everything you can to keep that protagonist from reaching their goal.
That’s the fun part about writing. You get to just tear the heck out of your protagonist. And it’s in order to find out if they have the wherewithal or the metal to overcome this trouble. And if they can, that’s what the reader’s looking for with a happy resolved ending. And you really can’t put a bad ending on them until you get to be more popular as a writer.
Stephen: That’s an excellent point. Well, let’s get into the book now. The storyline for Deviant Acts. It’s, again, it takes place, it begins in 1973, spans a few years, but it’s just back during a time of life that I’m so fond of. So, it was a great pleasure to me to read the story. It was a great story. I really like Jackson, and I love a story set in that time. So, give us a little sense of the storyline, if you would.
J.J.: It’s funny you say that, because everyone I talk to about 1973 says “Boy, that was a dirty time.” Everything seemed dirty back then, and run down. Well, it’s crime fiction in the true sense of crime fiction. The crime revolves around, both sections, both books, in the big book, on a kidnapping and the kidnapping of his cousin, who is Cheryl, and she’s adopted child. But, like I was saying before, Jackson has to have an event happen in his life that changes his life, and that event comes from his wicked Aunt Camille.
His wicked Aunt Camille is the B word, which I can’t say, but she lives up in Vermont. She’s a millionaire, and she has her daughter kidnapped – 20-year-old Cheryl. She’s going to the University of Vermont, her daughter is, University of Vermont, and she was kidnapped and they mailed her her ear. You know, just like J. Paul Getty’s son. They mailed her her ear and said “If you don’t deliver $100,000 to the Brookfield floating bridge at such-and-such time, we will mail her the other ear. And if you don’t, if you contact the authorities, then we’re gonna kill her.” So, she’s in a bad position, Aunt Camille.
So, she calls on Jackson, who is her loser, useless nephew, and tells him to come up and she’ll make him into a private investigator because you don’t need a license up here in Vermont, and she wants him to come and get her daughter back and she cannot contact the authorities because her daughter wasn’t really adopted. She found her in a floating tub in the water in 1954 and has been passing her off as a daughter.
So she can’t get the authorities involved, plus she wants Jackson to kill the kidnappers because they cut off her daughter’s ear. So Jackson, he goes up because he needs the money, and he’ll do anything for that money and for the heroin. And so, he goes up. But, you know, he some redeeming qualities and he also has morality. He just hides it very well.
Stephen: It is well hidden. And the first redeeming quality that I really sensed was that he wanted to get his cousin back just because he liked her. And he was gonna get paid, and he wanted the money, he needed the money. He needed something. But he wanted to get her back because he liked her. And even while he was bickering with crazy Aunt Camille, his goal was just primarily to get her back.
J.J.: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. And he does like her and as the book goes along, he really likes her. So when he finds out, you know, truth…and I have a lot of turns and twists in the book, so I don’t want to give those off or anything like that, but he comes up with every intent of, not knowing that she’s kidnapped, with every intent of getting the money and getting the heck out of there. But, events happen one after the other. He grieves for the money to do it, but it becomes more and more difficult as he tries to work his way through the strange world of private investigation to figure out how he’s gonna get his cousin back and get the money from his Aunt Camille.
Stephen: You have some interesting characters in the book. Jackson is an interesting character. Aunt Camille is a really good bad-guy type character. Cheryl is a great character. And there are just a lot of colorful characters, from the loser-ish type like Jackson, to the thuggish type – some law enforcement people in there. A lot of good characters sort of come together to form this ensemble and tell the story
J.J.: Well, that’s one of the reasons why I try to…I’ve got a previous book called The Prodigious Savant, and it took place in Vermont, a good deal of it. And I try to use that location not only because I was born there, but because the people up in Vermont are very odd and eccentric, and do things differently. And it’s easy to find. You can just go up there and write any character down and put it into the book. And I also try, I’m a historical fiction buff. I’ve got another book coming out next year in June about called Nisei, which is a historical fiction about the Japanese Americans during the war.
So, I like to take that historical fiction and I like to take the geography and put it into a book so people will read it and they’re looking through there and they say “Well, where is this floating bridge?” Or “Where is these communes in the late ’60s?” Or “Was there really a Brinks truck robbery in such-and-such time by the Black Liberation Army?” Or “Was there really an exploding townhouse, that the Weathermen were making bombs?” And as they look that up on Wikipedia or Google or something like that, they’ll find out, yeah. That’s actually true. This really did happen and I embellish it the best I can and try to infuse it into the book to get the curiosity of the reader.
Stephen: And that’s one of the things that made it fun for a reader like me who is of a certain age. Because I lived through a lot of those things, and there were a lot of little homages to things that I clearly remember from back then. So, that was kind of fun. And I looked on your website, which is very funny by the way. I would encourage people to go there. Your blog is well written and funny. It’s jjwhitebooks.com. There’s a list of your books, and just in looking at them it seems like they’re all historical fiction. Is that your thing?
J.J.: The books?
J.J.: Well, no, not really. I can’t make my mind up. I’m a Gemini and I keep jumping around. But I started with a thriller and then I go to crime fiction and then I go to historical fiction, and next manuscript I’ve sent out, kind of a mixture of historical fiction and crime fiction. I like to write about the past because I don’t know about other authors, but if you have crimes in the contemporary novels, the cell phones mess you up. And you know you can trace a call in two minutes instead of three days, like they did in the old days. So you can get away with a lot of stuff in the past that you can’t with the present.
Stephen: That’s true. And there’s so much technology now in crime novels that it can sort of almost get in the way of the story. You mentioned that you lived in Vermont. You’re about as far away, still on the East Coast, from Vermont as you could be – you’re living in Florida now. And somehow or other, between living in Vermont and living in Florida, you have become a surfer. How did that happen?
J.J.: Well, I was brought here kicking and screaming from Vermont when I was nine years old. Yeah, all my friends were out there. So, that was years ago. And if you live on the east coast of Florida and you don’t surf, there’s not much to do. You have to surf, golf, or jog or run. So, I took it up when I was 15 years old, and I recently hurt my back, so it’s not as much as it used to be. But I used to love going to all up and down the coast, to Sebastian Inlet all the way to St. Augustine Beach. And the surf is horrible compared to the west coast, but I’ve been to California and Hawaii, too. And most of the surfers are really good from the east coast because they have a lot of chop they have to go through. We just learn how to do it.
And I actually didn’t get my degree in high school when I went up for graduation. I go up there and they hand me an empty diploma, and they said “You gotta take Chemistry over again.” The reason for that is that year, of my senior year, the surf was as good as it ever was. And every three or four days somebody’d stick their head into first class and say “Come on, let’s go.” So, I think I skipped 17 times and that was enough so I had to take, I had to get my degree after I graduated.
Stephen: And you’re that rare Floridian who both surfs and plays golf.
J.J.: Well, as you get older, you gotta get the sports that aren’t quite as traumatic to your back.
Stephen: So, is this like a surfing in the morning and golfing in the afternoon kind of thing?
J.J.: Well, it’s great because I golf at Spessard Holland Golf Course, which is between the beach and the Banana River. So, right after you’re done golfing you just take your board out of the back of the car, go across the street, and go out on the ocean.
Stephen: Now do any of your golfing buddies go with you?
J.J.: Yes. Joel Cohen. He’s a paddle boarder, which, you know, I think he’s a sissy. Because it’s really easy to get out on a paddle board. Come on, let’s see you try to get out on a surfboard. And we go out once in a while, or he goes out at Paradise Beach. Which is close by, so. Yes, see he’s a surfer and I have a couple of friends from high school that go out there also.
Stephen: Before we began recording we were talking about writers’ conferences. And I had asked you whether or not you were going to go to Sleuthfest and you said you are, but you hadn’t been there because you normally go to some other ones. You said you were at Killer Nashville earlier this year?
J.J.: Yeah, I went to Killer Nashville this year, which was an excellent conference. It was up at the Omni in Nashville. And that’s four-day actually, and I got to see Lady Antebellum while I was there, that was interesting. And that’s a great one. They have a lot of law enforcement people there that go over the details. You know, they tell you there’s no safety on a Glock, but there are actually five safetys on a Glock. Things like that.
And then I do want to go to Sleuthfest this year. But normally, for the past five or six years I’ve been going to Dennis Lehane’s Writers in Paradise, which is at Eckerd College over at St. Petersberg. And that’s an eight-day conference where you have about 10 or 11 students for one teacher. And the teachers are well-known writers, and so you get to read your 21 pages to a well-known writer with 10 other students. So you’ve got Laura Lippman, Stephen King was an instructor there, Dennis Lehane. Stewart O’Nan. Just all of them. So, you really learn a lot from them. But, you have to be invited to that one. And so this year, I’m going to go to Sleuthfest for the first time and I hope I will see you there.
Stephen: And that particular conference, the one you’re talking about. I’ve always been intrigued by it. Laura Lippman told me about it of couple years ago at Sleuthfest, and I’d never heard of it prior to that. But it sounds like a really hardcore, intensive writing kind of thing. Versus, sort of a Sleuthfest type conference or Killer Nashville that’s 60% fun and 40% learning, maybe.
J.J.: Oh, it’s tough. I’ve had Laura twice, and she’ll sit there, and she’ll be completely honest with you. Well, she can be completely honest with you. And I’ve seen men and women in our class cry, you know, after a review of their work. And you just have to be tough and take it and listen to what they say, and they know what they’re talking about. And Laura comes every year up there, and she always takes a class. The good thing is at nighttime you get to go to the cocktail parties and then they have each one of the well-known authors speaks, or reads their piece – reads what they’re writing at the time, which is usually about 40, 50 pages. So, in an auditorium.
Stephen: Well, J.J. I look forward to meeting you face-to-face at Sleuthfest this spring. I guess it’s this spring. Where can listeners find Deviant Acts?
J.J.: Well, there’s several places. They can get it anywhere digital, but if you want a hardback copy you can go to Amazon or Barnes and Noble online or you can go the publisher, Black Opal Books, which is located in Oregon. Just look up blackopalbooks.com. And my website, if you want to read some silly golf stories and if you go to the awards and look up some of the, go to my blog and go to my past blogs, you might get a chuckle out of that. But you can also purchase my book directly. It’ll take you to the Amazon. That’s www.jjwhitebooks.com.
Stephen: And I will link to that as well as to Black Opal Books in the show notes, so if you’re out there driving around, just check the website and you’ll find those in the show notes. Is your website the best place for people to find you online, J.J.?
J.J.: I think so. You can go. I also have J.J. White author page on Facebook, and I’m on Twitter and whatever else. You know, all the social networks.
Stephen: Okay. I will link to those as well. J.J. this has been fun. I really enjoyed the book and it was a pleasure to chat with you.
J.J.: Thank you Stephen, and I certainly appreciate it.
From the Publisher:
Jackson Hurst lives his nightmares with his eyes open. Only the heroin he’s been addicted to since Vietnam keeps the horror at bay. A poster child for losers, Jackson’s addiction has cost him his job, his girlfriend—and unless there’s a change soon—his life.
That change comes in the form of the wicked Aunt Camille, a Vermont millionaire who desperately needs Jackson’s services to retrieve her twenty-year-old daughter, Cheryl, from kidnappers. Camille wants her back at any cost and she wants the kidnappers, who maimed her only daughter, murdered. Jackson could use the money—no, he desperately needs the money—but can he stay clean long enough to get her back? And more importantly, can he kill again despite the demons that haunt him from the war?
Purchase DEVIANT ACTS at Amazon
J.J. White’s Website www.jjwhitebooks.com
Black Opal Books website.
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