Folks, this interview introduction will be longer than usual, because the author I’m spotlighting deserves a proper build-up.
One of the most humbling experiences any writer can undergo is to encounter another writer whose output and success put one’s own to shame. And it’s downright humiliating when that other author began his publishing career the same month you did—but has written and published dozens of thrillers during the same period that you only wrote and published two.
In the hope that I might learn something about literary productivity from a true master of the thriller genre, I approached this man, who has become a legend in the self-publishing field. And he generously consented to this interview.
Featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Times, and The Chicago Tribune, Russell Blake is The New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of around fifty action/adventure and mystery novels. Among his many titles, which you can find at this Amazon link:
The JET series, including: JET; JET— Ops Files; JET— Ops Files: Terror Alert; JET II—Betrayal; JET III—Vengeance; JET IV—Reckoning; JET V—Legacy; JET VI—Justice; JET VII—Sanctuary; JET VIII—Survival; JET IX—Escape; and JET X—Incarceration.
The Artemis Black detective series, including: BLACK; BLACK Is Back; BLACK Is the New Black; BLACK to Reality; and BLACK in the Box.
Plus: Fatal Exchange, Fatal Deception, The Geronimo Breach, Zero Sum, The Delphi Chronicle trilogy, The Voynich Cypher, Silver Justice, Upon A Pale Horse, Ramsey’s Gold, Emerald Buddha, Deadly Calm, and the forthcoming post-apocalypse series The Day After Never, starting with The Day After Never—Blood Honor.
Russell Blake’s non-fiction (yes, he writes that, too) includes the international bestseller An Angel With Fur (animal biography) and How To Sell A Gazillion eBooks In No Time (Even If Drunk, High Or Incarcerated)—a parody of all things writing-related.
As if this weren’t enough, Blake is co-author of The Eye of Heaven and The Solomon Curse with legendary author Clive Cussler. Blake’s novel King of Swords has been translated into German by Amazon Crossing, The Voynich Cypher into Bulgarian, and his JET and Ramsey‘s novels into Spanish, German, and Czech. His JET stories have inspired “fan fiction” by admiring writers through the “Kindle Worlds” program.
Having resided in Mexico for a dozen years, Blake says he enjoys his dogs, fishing, boating, tequila, and writing (he wasn’t clear to me about their order of priority), while battling world domination by clowns. This speed-writing demon generously took time from his insanely busy writing schedule to answer my questions during a coffee break while cranking out his latest novel. Really. Buckle in, and prepare to meet a literary marvel. Then visit his website, http://russellblake.com/, to learn more about him and his many books.
The Vigilante Author: Russell, thank you for your willingness to share with my readers a bit of yourself, your journey, and your work. I hope they’ll be sufficiently intrigued and inspired to check out your books, which I think they’ll love.
Since you began self-publishing in June 2011—the same month I did—you’ve written an amazing number of novels and sold millions of copies. Your incredible output and success have earned the attention of major media and the entire book industry.
So why don’t we begin by letting you say something about your books. And maybe focus a bit on your latest novel.
Russell Blake: Well, I’ve written about fifty at last count, so beyond saying they’re mainly action thrillers and mysteries, it would take all day. But they’re popular, and continue to sell well, so I must be doing something right.
As to the latest one, I’m very excited by it. It’s the first novel in a new post-apocalyptic series that I honestly think is some of my best work. Titled The Day After Never—Blood Honor, it goes live April 18th, and should do well in the genre. I have high expectations for this one, higher than for any series since I published JET three years ago, which remains a bestseller for me.
The Vigilante Author: I’ve just started reading your work, beginning with the original JET, which I’m enjoying for its amazing pacing and colorful action scenes. Yet your writing seems varied. What are your preferred genres?
Russell Blake: Action/Adventure, mainly, with some mysteries (BLACK series) and some conspiracy thrillers (Upon a Pale Horse, The Delphi Chronicle, Zero Sum, Silver Justice, Fatal Exchange, and Fatal Deception).
The Vigilante Author: You’ve created a host of interesting characters. For instance, Jet, one of your heroines, is an unusual female spy and assassin, with a background in the Israeli Mossad. What do you do to conjure distinctive heroes and heroines?
For me, reading about a protagonist who is infallible or convinced of their righteousness is akin to an adult comic book. Few don’t have warts and blemishes of some sort, and I try to paint my characters so they come alive on the page and are compelling and flawed.
The Vigilante Author: How did you start out in this fiction-writing gig? Was it a childhood dream, something you stumbled into—what?
Russell Blake: After a career in business wearing every hat you could imagine, I sold my company fifteen years ago and moved to Baja, Mexico. I started a home design and construction firm here a few years later, and when I wound that down, was looking for something to do.
I’d been writing for years, mainly for my own amusement, and decided to try my hand at self-publishing in June 2011. I bombed for the first seven months and eight or nine books, and then caught a tail wind in February 2012, and never looked back. I’ve shifted several million books since then, so no complaints.
The Vigilante Author: So, “several million” in just four years! I am in utter awe. Russell, did any individual in your life spark or encourage your interest in pursuing writing?
Russell Blake: One comes to mind—a professor at a community college I got guilt tripped into attending by my mother. He proclaimed me to be the most promising writer he’d ever had in his lit class. Of course he probably said that to everyone, but I was naïve enough to believe it.
Once I figured out that the chances of making a living as a writer were about the same as winning the lottery, I put that aside and got on with the business of making money and generally misbehaving, but I’d be lying if it didn’t stick in my head. As to taking the plunge, I have a buddy who prodded me into trying self-publishing. He’d read my latest book, Fatal Exchange, and said I should publish it after reading, I think it was, an article about John Locke or Amanda Hocking [two iconic self-published success stories]. So I did, and the rest is history.
The Vigilante Author: For sure—you’re making history with every new book. Speaking of influences, whom would you list as authors who have left their mark on you?
What I’ve learned from Burke, who is masterful in description and prose, is to find the musicality in your cadence and not to back away from writing intelligently—alas, most novels these days are written for the greatest popularity, which means a low-grade level.
From DFW, I learned not to be afraid of expressing complex ideas in my writing, and to find the irony in all situations. He was brilliant at making you think, and I strive for that within the context of my chosen genres.
Others are [Edgar Rice] Burroughs, [Charles] Dickens, and [Alexandre] Dumas, who managed entertaining mass-market fiction for their time—from whom I learned that writing for popular genres isn’t selling out; it’s paying the light bill, which is first and foremost what any successful author has to worry about if he wants to continue writing and being read.
The Vigilante Author: Well, in their days, they didn’t have big light bills, but I take your point. Would you compare or contrast your books with those of any other familiar authors?
Russell Blake: Well, I co-wrote two novels with Clive Cussler—The Eye of Heaven and The Solomon Curse—so fans of CC could do worse than read my Ramsey’s Gold series. Fans of Tom [Thomas] Harris might enjoy my Fatal Exchange and Fatal Deception. Readers who enjoy [James] Patterson, or Vince Flynn, or [Daniel] Silva, will enjoy my JET series. And folks who like Raymond Chandler might get a kick out of BLACK. How’s that for narrowing it down?
The Vigilante Author: It’ll do. Here’s a question that I and fellow authors would love to hear you address. What are the special challenges you’ve faced as a writer, and what have you done about them?
Russell Blake: I’m naturally a loner, so being alone twelve hours a day doesn’t bother me in the least. Biggest obstacle was after about year number two of those kinds of hours, for month after month with no break, my legs started aching from being sedentary. So I got a treadmill desk, and since then have had no problems and have lost 25 pounds. I recommend it more to writers than a dictionary or thesaurus. It’s that vital to stay moving, or you won’t live to enjoy any success you might have.
The Vigilante Author: I’m not good about that, though I try to get to the gym several times each week. Another topic for you. A lot of us are curious: What motivates you to write, especially at this incredible clip?
Russell Blake: Greed and desperation. Actually, I have this recurring fear that I’ve written everything I can, and that I won’t be able to write anything more. That keeps me motivated to keep going, in case this has all been a fluke.
The Vigilante Author: Here’s the good news, Russell: After fifty books and millions of sales, it ain’t no fluke. So relax.
I’ve read your blog, and you seem pretty opinionated. Do your political and philosophical views ever find their way into your writing?
Russell Blake: Sure. I believe governments are largely corrupt institutions that are operated by their rich elite backers, to the detriment of the population. I think they lie early and often, and that power corrupts. And that you’re only on this planet for a blink, so it’s up to you to create meaning in your life.
Okay, let’s get personal, if I may. Want to tell us anything about the private Russell Blake?
Russell Blake: I don’t discuss my private life, because I try to keep that separate from my day job. What I will say is I enjoy tequila more than I should, as well as more often, and have two of the best dogs in the entire world. Having lived in Mexico for fifteen years now, I’ve also rid myself of the materialistic things that many Americans chase, and focus more on relationships and self-actualization than on keeping up with others.
Other than writing and occasionally designing a home to keep my skills sharp, I spend any free time I have either wine tasting or hanging on the beach.
The Vigilante Author: It sounds fulfilling, and you’ve earned your private pleasures.
Okay, fellow authors must ask you a bit about the craft and business of writing. Describe your writing methods, if you will. I always ask writers if they are meticulous planners and outliners, or if they write “seat of the pants,” just seeing where things will go—or if they are some hybrid of the two. What about you?
Russell Blake: I used to “pants.” Now I outline. I wrote a blog describing my approach, as well as the reasons for it, titled “Outlining Made Easy” or something like that. Search “Outlining” on my blog and it lays it all out.
The Vigilante Author: I just looked it up. It was “Outlining Made Simple,” and it’s filled with a lot of fertile ideas and advice.
In keeping with the thriller theme, let’s suppose that a team of spies sneaked into your home office. They planted a miniature camera and a bug there. So, what would they see and hear while you’re writing?
Russell Blake: They’d be deeply underwhelmed, I’m sure. They’d see me on my treadmill, tapping away, in my office. I write from about 9 a.m. until I hit my word count, which is usually between 5-8K a day, depending on the style and my publishing schedule. That can take until 9 at night, or sometimes later, with plenty of coffee breaks and a light lunch to refresh myself.
The Vigilante Author: Five to eight thousand words per day? That pace would burn out most writers. So you only take breaks for coffee and lunch?
Russell Blake: I also take a break after each chapter—usually around 2K words—so I can clear the cobwebs and figure out how to approach the next one in a fresh manner. As an example, I did this interview on one of those breaks.
The Vigilante Author: Many writers I’ve interviewed have spent hours responding to my questions, yet you gave me all these answers during a break. That’s just amazing. Writing obviously comes easy to you.
Or does it? What’s the hardest thing for you about writing?
Russell Blake: Not repeating myself, and keeping the prose vital and evocative without going purple or overwrought.
The Vigilante Author: Okay, so what is easiest aspect for you? And the most pleasurable?
Russell Blake: The easiest is the actual writing, most of the time. When it flows, it’s like magic. I’d say the biggest pleasure, other than the dream homes and sports cars and harem of nubiles, is in starting the next one. It’s weird, because once I’m done with a book, I’m done with it, and it’s all but dead to me. I work it until I never want to see it again, and then promptly forget about it in favor of something new.
Russell Blake: Well, self-publishing allows me to produce the stories I want at the rate I like, and to explore anything I feel like without censure. And I make a decent amount of money at it, so that doesn’t suck.
My traditional-published experiences have been largely positive—working with Clive and the people at G.P. Putnam’s was a great experience, and I’ve had about ten of my books bought by trad publishers in other countries, so that’s exciting. I’d say both have their positives and negatives. I simply lack the personality or the patience to be a good employee, so self-publishing is probably more suited to my nature.
The Vigilante Author: My own experiences, though much more limited, are similar. HUNTER has been traditionally published in two foreign editions and BAD DEEDS has been issued in an audio edition by Audible Studios. That’s fine, and I like having my work reach new audiences. But like you, I’m not suited to be a happy employee, and self-publishing suits me much better. Given your experiences, which publishing route would you recommend to writers starting out?
Russell Blake: Depends on what they want out of it. If financial success, no question that self offers a better chance than trad. If validation from gatekeepers, or seeing their book, however briefly, in book stores, is their thing, then trad.
But remember that with trad, probably 99 percent of everything submitted to them doesn’t make it to being bought, and of that which is bought, 99 percent fails. So if those odds tickle you, I’d say by all means start polishing up your query letter and begin the process of trying to find an agent, which might take years, and then have him shop your masterpiece, which will likely be rejected, or at best, you’ll get $5K in three payments over 18 months and have bragging rights for a brief period at the coffee shop.
The Vigilante Author: I started out too old to have time to waste jumping through those kinds of hoops.
Russell Blake: I tend to be more results oriented, so I chose self, because I’m uncomfortable with all the unknowns involved in having so many other folks required to do everything right for my book to do well. This way it’s just me, which makes me sleep better at night.
The Vigilante Author: Me too. I like exercising control over the outcome.
You’ve had incredible success, Russell. To what do you attribute it? What are the most important qualities you think a writer must have to succeed in today’s tough, competitive environment?
Russell Blake: Perseverance, valuing literacy, and a love of reading. I’d add that they should be good storytellers, and feel a genuine passion for writing, because in all likelihood they won’t hit big, and the journey, as they say, is its own reward.
The Vigilante Author: What’s on the horizon for your readers?
Russell Blake: More drivel, with occasional drabs of dross.
The Vigilante Author: Not likely. But if readers here are interested in your drivel and dross, where can they find it? And how can they learn more about you and your books?
Russell Blake: I have links to Amazon at my blog, RussellBlake.com, where I rant and rave with some regularity. I’m also distributed via Smashwords, iTunes, B&N, and wherever ebooks are sold.
The Vigilante Author: Russell, this has been a privilege, an inspiration, and a learning experience for me—and I’m sure for my readers. I hope they race to your website and then check out your books. Here’s wishing you every continued success. You’ve earned it.
For more information about Russell Blake and his books, visit his website: