Globetrotting Spy Thrillers with Alan Petersen

Thriller author, and podcast host, Alan Petersen puts the writing adage, ‘Write what you know’ to good use in his Pete Maddox series.

Alan PetersenAs you’ll hear, Alan was born in Costa Rica and grew up in South America. He’s making the most of that experience by setting his first couple of fast-paced spy thrillers in that part of the world.

But he doesn’t stop there and you’ll hear us chat about the varied locations he’s now introducing into his books and how he goes about researching locations he’s never been to. Not to mention the CIA!

If you like your mysteries a bit more on the thriller end of the spectrum (think James Bond or Jason Bourne) then you’ll love Alan’s books. He’s got two available now and the third one will be published very soon.

Also, if you like thrillers, check out Alan’s podcast, Meet the Thriller Author. It’s another great source for readers looking for new books to read and authors to follow. 😉

You can find out more about today’s guest, Alan Petersen, and all his books on his website AlanPetersen.com. You can also find him on Twitter @AlanPetersen.

Links and resources mentioned in this episode

  • Click on any of the book covers to go to Alan’s books on Amazon

Press play (above) to listen to the show, or read the transcript below. Remember you can also subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts. And listen on Stitcher.

You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.

Transcription of Interview with Alan Petersen

Alexandra: Hi, mystery readers. I’m Alexandra Amor, this is “It’s a Mystery Podcast” and I’m here today with Alan Petersen. Hi, Alan.

Alan: Hi, Alexandra. How are you doing?

Alexandra: Very well. How are you?

Alan: Oh, I’m doing great. It’s a Friday, so that’s always good.

Alexandra: Yes. Yeah. Excellent. Well, let me just give our listeners a little bit of an introduction to you.

Alan PetersenAlan Petersen writes the high-octane Pete Maddox thrillers. He lives in San Francisco, where he’s working on publishing books number 3 and 4 in the series this summer, and we’re recording this in June 2017. And Alan is also the host of the “Meet the Thriller Author” podcast, which we’ll talk about a little bit.

And we’ve had some of the same guests on, I notice. Renee Paulish and John W. Mefford, to name a couple.

Alan: Oh yeah. Small world.

Alexandra: It is a small world. Yeah, exactly. Lots of mystery fans out there.

Why don’t you give us a little bit of an introduction to Pete, and his world, and what he’s up to.

Alan: Well, Pete Maddox is a… In the first book he’s in the CIA, and he’s a station chief down in Venezuela during the Hugo Chavez coup of 2002. So it’s kind of based a little bit on historical, you know, stuff that happened in real life, but of course it’s all fiction.

Through the book he’s now…currently he’s no longer in the CIA, he’s a freelancer. And so, yeah, just goes about helping people and kicking butt.

Alexandra: Very good, as a good thriller hero should do.

How did you come up with this character? Where did he come from, do you think?

Alan: I’ve always loved the thrillers. So when I started to write this book, I knew I wanted somebody who was kind of like one of those tough guys, you know?

And I always had the idea of writing a book on Venezuela. I grew up in Latin America, I was born in Costa Rica. I lived in Venezuela when I was a kid for, like, ten years. So I was always interested in that. And especially with the problems the United States and Venezuela has had the last 10, 15 years or so.

I read an article where Libya and Venezuela had a very close relationship. This was when Gaddafi was still alive, and Chavez was still alive. And I go, “My, what would happen if the United States found out that Venezuela and Libya were building terrorist camps in Venezuela, in our own Western Hemisphere?” And then that kind of just got the whole thing going for me. That was like the spark to my “ooh.”

Alexandra: Are you interested in politics, in general?

Alan: Yeah, well yes. I graduated, my college degree was in political science and history, so that’s always been something I’ve been interested in. So yeah, I try not to get too political, but the politics is always in the background for these thrillers.

Alexandra: Yes, of course, as they would have to be.

Tell me a bit about how you do the research for the CIA, because that’s something I’ve always wondered about. Because the CIA obviously isn’t going to open their doors to you. How do you figure out how an agent works?

Alan: Yeah, that’s true. Reading a lot of books. So there’s a lot of books out there from, you know, non-fiction books from agents. Some authorized, some not.

And then just doing a lot of research online. And then the CIA themselves, I mean, they’re secretive about what they do of course, but their structure, all that stuff is actually very wide-open.

You can go to the CIA’s website and they have a ton of information there, you’d be very surprised, like where they’re located. And so that type of stuff is pretty wide-open, and everything else is just imagination.

Alexandra: Mm, okay. Yeah. Well as…yeah, I guess that makes sense. And then, so is Pete, is he stationed in South America now? As you’re writing-

Alan: No, not anymore.

Alexandra: No?

Alan: No. Yep. Now, the first book takes places in the early 2000s, and then he’s gonna run out of the agency. And so he’s no longer the CIA. So now he’s doing freelance work for himself. And so, you know, taking care of bad guys privately, versus working for the CIA or for the government.

Alexandra: Right. And so I guess he just goes where he’s needed?

Alan: Right, he’s part of this network. The third book that’ll be coming out in the summer looks at that a little bit more in depth. He’s part of this private network, and people bid. People post jobs that need people like Pete Maddox.

And so they all bid on these jobs, and they go out and carry them out, and then they come back.

I actually got that idea from Elance, and I know you’re familiar with that. It’s an outsourcing website.

Alexandra: Yeah.

Alan: And so, a couple years ago I was looking on Elance for something I needed. And I’m like, “Wait, this would be kind of cool if there was like an Elance website for, like, finding these killers and paramilitary-type people. And that’s where “Odd Jobs,” the idea for “Odd Jobs” came from.

Alexandra: Oh, that’s amazing. And “Odd Jobs” is going to be the third book in the series, we should say.

Alan: Right. Yep, it’s been delayed for a while but it’s coming out here in the summer. It’s with the editor now, so woohoo!

Alexandra: And what’s the fourth one called? I mentioned that in the introduction.

Alan: Ah, yep, the fourth one’s called “The Forgotten Spy,” and that’s the story about basically the collapse of the Soviet Union in the ’90s, in the early ’90s. One of their more ruthless KGB assassins ends up staying in the United States, and he’s sort of forgotten.

And then a cold case detective from Washington, DC starts investigating one of his old murders, and that sort of brings everything up to the forefront. And Pete Maddox was hunting him back in the ’90s, and so now he’s kind of coming back to finish what he couldn’t finish back in ’91.

Alexandra: Mm, oh, interesting. Okay. Well, we’ll keep our eyes open for that one.

I notice that because the first, at least the first book is set in South America, in Venezuela, partially.

I was wondering because you grew up there, and in other parts of South/Central America, do you write the descriptions of the scenery and that kind of thing just from memory? Or how does that work?

Alan: Yeah, some of it is from memory. A lot it though, I do always go and double-check again because things have changed. I haven’t been to Venezuela since I was, like, probably 12 years old, so it’s been a while. But you know, now with the YouTube and Google Street Views and all that, I can really, you know…So, like, I know the areas. And so then I can really go in there, then.

But you can really, then, get a feel for any of the changes in what’s going on right now, and how to get from point A to point B. You know, if you go to YouTube and you Google “Drive in Caracas,” for example, you’ll see tons of videos of people just driving. So you can really get an idea of what it’s like.

Alexandra: Right. Yes. Yeah, exactly. And one of the things I imagined, I know one of the series I write is historical fiction, and so it’s set in 1890, and in British Columbia. And it’s one thing to sort of describe a place physically, and then it’s another thing to kind of describe how it feels to be there.

I imagine you have a bit of an advantage when you’re describing Venezuela or the other South American countries, that you probably remember a little bit about what it felt like. Like what the air smelled like, what the foliage was like, that kind of thing.

Odd Jobs Alan PetersenAlan: Yeah, that’s why I chose it, really. When I decided I wanted to write a thriller, I figured I needed all the help I could get. And so I figured it would be “easier” if I at least knew the area, knew, like you said, knew the climate, the weather, you know, the humidity of Venezuela, and all that stuff.

And my second book’s the same thing, it was basically set in Central America and Honduras. And he’s tracking this person through all Central America and ends up in San Francisco, which is where I live now. So it’s just easier for me.

Although with the third book I wanted to get out of my comfort zone, and most of that action takes place in Europe. So that was…So now I know, I got rid of that little crutch that I was using with the first two.

Alexandra: Yeah. Have you ever been to Europe?

Alan: Yeah, I’ve been to Europe. But not these…most of the adventure takes place in Prague, in the Czech Republic. I’ve never been there.

Alexandra: Okay.

Alan: But some of it also takes place in London. I’ve been in London, and Wales and Scotland. So, yeah, so I did cheat a little bit with that.

Alexandra: That’s the thing about thrillers, isn’t it? That they do tend to be quite globe-trotting. The actors or the characters are all over the place.

Alan: Right, yeah, but that’s the fun thing, I think. That’s the fun part of it, and the readers like that part. They want the globe-trotting type of adventure, so yeah.

So usually most thrillers are set in a whole bunch of different despot areas. Especially spy thrillers, you know, espionage. They’re really, they’re everywhere. So there’s no borders really, when it comes to those type of thrillers.

Alexandra: No, exactly. Yeah.

Do you plan for the Pete Maddox series to go on for longer, or will you try something else at some point?

Alan: I do want to try something else. I have another series in mind. But I want to get to at least seven books in this series before trying something new. You know, people liked it, and I’ve been getting e-mails about, “Hey, where’s the third book?” You know, “When’s it coming out? When’s it coming out?”

So if there’s interest, I’ll continue it for now. But I do have another series planned that I wanna do, more crime fiction. And I wanna base it on a Costa Rican detective. Again, since I was born and raised in Costa Rica, my family all lives in Costa Rica. It’s like, I interviewed a detective down there. And so I know a little, you know, that would be really…you know, I really know about that area. So…

Alexandra: Yes. Yeah, exactly. I noticed on your bio that you were born in San Jose.

Alan: Mm-hm.

Alexandra: And have you been back? Is that where your family is?

Alan: Yep, yep, I go back. My mother, my brother, my sister, they all live there. I’m the only one who lived here. My father was American though, so I’m half-half.

Alexandra: Okay.

Alan: And so that’s how I ended up in the United States. And so, but my mom, and my brother and sister, they all still live in Costa Rica, and so I go down there and visit. My mom’s actually visiting me here right now, she goes back on Tuesday, so…

Alexandra: Oh, nice.

Alan: We go back and forth. She’s 84. She’s like, yeah, she comes up, like, no problem.

Alexandra: Wow, that’s amazing. Oh, incredible.

So, with the learning that you’ve been doing about the CIA, I know so very little about it.

I was wondering, do people get recruited into the CIA? Or do they join sort of like the way that people join the police department? You know, they have an interest, they apply, that kind of thing.

Alan: It’s both ways. Mostly people just apply, just like any other job.

Alexandra: Okay.

Alan: But the CIA does, they do recruit. They actually recruit on college campuses. They’ll go out and they’ll put up a sign saying, “We’re hiring.” So yeah, they do do a lot of recruiting.

And then they also recruit people from the military, they’ll recruit them as well. So it’s both ways. You can apply. There’s a whole job postings on their website of all the different type of jobs and people that they’re looking for. So yeah, it’s both ways.

Alexandra: Yes. Yeah. I guess it’s a corporation like any other, perhaps.

Alan: Yeah, I mean the real CIA and the real CIA agents probably are actually pretty boring, compared to how they’re portrayed in all the books. And actually when I was in Costa Rica, you know, at the time I didn’t know it, but I had actually met a couple CIA people. And they’re nothing like in the books. They’re just very…they’re bureaucrats. They’re, you know…They don’t carry guns or anything like that, so. At least not the, you know, the agents.

Alexandra: They’re not blowing stuff up.

Alan: No.

Alexandra: You mentioned that the third book “Odd Jobs” is with the editor now.

Do you have a regular writing routine? Do you write every day? How does that work?

Alan: Yeah, I try to write every day. Even if I’m not writing, you know, like, right now I’m going through two manuscripts. I haven’t been writing a new story. So I’ve been doing a little re-writing, I’ve been doing that part. But even then, though, I try to write something creative just to keep it going.

I try to write every day. It doesn’t happen every day, sometimes I fail. But that is the goal.

Alexandra: Yes. Yeah. And I imagine, well, one of the things I noticed about the reviews of your books on Amazon was that people talked about tightly plotted they are, and they’re really fast-paced, and as a thriller should be. But, you know, you start them and can’t put them down.

Do you find that when you write a book and then you have to take a lot of stuff out to make it fast-paced like that?

Alan: Yeah, big time. Like, entire scenes out. I learned the more you do this, the more you learn how to do it. My first book I had no clue what I was doing. And I actually have a new…I’ve actually had it re-edited. So I actually have to upload that here, because I had too much. Too much explaining, too much characters that you’ll only see one and, you know, you don’t see them again.

So all that type of stuff I would’ve taken out. So like, well if I would have taken that out today, I might as well go back and take that out now. So I’m gonna…So yeah, a lot of stuff gets taken out. Just kind of…kind of stinks. But sometimes I re-use it, though. I’ll use it in another book. Or, one of the scenes that I removed from the “Odd Jobs,” I’m gonna use it as a little short story to give away on my website. So I try not to just trash it.

Alexandra: Exactly, yeah. Re-purpose it.

Alan: Yes. Yeah, I like that. Re-purpose it, yeah.

Alexandra: Let’s shift gears just a little bit and talk about your podcast, “Meet the Thriller Author.” How did you get the idea to do that show?

Meet the Thriller Author PodcastAlan: Well, I’ve always liked to podcast. I’ve always been a fan of podcasting, for like ten years. Way back when.

And so when I started getting into writing, and publishing, and self-publishing, I started listening to all these writing podcasts. And I love them, they’re great, but a lot of them…most of them are focused on the marketing and the business part of it. So I thought it would be fun to have a podcast where I just talk to authors about the writing process.

And so then I figured I better narrow it down a little bit more, and so I focused on thrillers because that’s what I like, and that’s what I write. And so I just, I dunno, I just start interviewing authors that write thrillers. Although now I’ve expanded to include mystery and suspense as well. But that was the cusp of the idea of starting to interview authors.

Alexandra: Yes. Yeah. And obviously you’re a fan of the genre.

Do you find that you learn a little bit from the authors you speak to? Not that you need to, but I know that for me interviewing mystery authors is just an interesting way to kind of open my eyes to the ways that other people do things. Do you find that as well?

Alan: Oh yeah, absolutely. I learn a lot. And, you know, I interviewed authors that are kind of like where I’m at, some that are starting, and then some big names. And I learn from everybody. And it’s also, especially with the more successful ones, and the ones who write prolifically, really, they motivate and inspire me, you know. So yeah, it’s been a gas.

Alexandra: Yeah, the Russell Blakes of this world.

Alan: Yeah. He’s in a whole different level when it comes to how he writes. Yeah, I remember when I interviewed him, he was saying, “Oh, I’m going to start this new series and we’ll see how it goes.” And since then I haven’t published anything, and he’s published like five books in that new series. I’m like, “Wow!”

Alexandra: Yes, yeah. Yeah, I don’t think he does anything else.

Alan: Yeah.

Alexandra: Except maybe walk his dog on the beach or something.

Alan: Yeah.

Alexandra: Yeah.

Alexandra: Well, this has been amazing, Alan. It’s been great chatting with you today, and I’ve really enjoyed it. So why don’t you tell our listeners where they can find your books.

Alan: Well, I’m on Amazon. I’m exclusive to Amazon right now, so that’s really the only place then can find them. You could go to my website at alanpetersen.com and there’s information there. And I’m also on Twitter, @alanpetersen, and also on Facebook with my name. So yes, if you type my name I should pop up on all social media haunts.

Alexandra: Great, okay. And we should say Petersen is P-E-T-E-R-S-E-N.

Alan: Yes, yes. Thank you. It is, yeah. It’s not S-O-N. And it’s A-L-A-N. So, there’s two out there. There’s another Alan Petersen, S-E-N, who’s a famous skateboarder. But that’s not me.

Alexandra: No. No, okay. Great. And so you think that “Odd Jobs” should probably be out later this summer?

Alan: Yep, later this summer. And then hopefully “Odd Jobs” will be out within the next month or so, and then hopefully “Forgotten Spy” will be out, you know, in the next couple months.

Alexandra: Yeah, great. Okay. So I’ll put links to everything you’ve mentioned in the show notes as well. And when “Odd Jobs” comes out perhaps I’ll update it with that cover and that kind of stuff.

Alan: Oh, that’d be great. Yeah, thank you.

Alexandra: Yeah, I’d love to do that. Well yeah, since we’re coinciding pretty closely with your launch.

Alan: I appreciate it.

Alexandra: No problem. So, thanks again so much Alan for chatting with me. Take care.

Alan: Thank you. It was nice talking to you.

Alexandra: Bye-bye.

Alan: Bye.

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