Today we talk about why understanding the motivation for her characters is so important, the value of untethering from technology (even for an author who writes high tech thrillers), and why Helen is fascinated with ‘failure to launch’ syndrome.
You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.
Transcription of Interview with Helen Hanson
Alexandra: Hi, Mystery Readers. This is It’s a Mystery Podcast. I’m Alexandra Amor and I’m here today with Helen Hanson. Hi, Helen.
Helen: Hi, Alexandra. Nice to be here, thanks.
Alexandra: It’s great to have you here. I’m going to introduce you to our listeners. Bestselling Kindle writer Helen Hanson creates thrillers about desperate people with a high-tech bent. Hackers. The CIA. Industry titans. Guys on sailboats. Mobsters. Their personal maelstroms pit them against unrelenting forces willing to kill.
Helen directed operations for high-tech manufacturers of semiconductors, video games, software, and computers. Her reluctant education behind the Redwood Curtain culminated in a B.S. in Business Administration with concentrated studies in Computer Science. She also learned to play a mean game of hacky sack.
Helen is a licensed private pilot with a ticket for single-engine aircraft. She currently lives amid the bricks of Texas with her husband, son, a dog that composes music with squeaky toys, and another one that’s too lazy to bother. So welcome, Helen.
Helen: Thank you.
Alexandra: I hope one of the dogs makes an appearance, that would be exciting.
Helen: That’s very easy to do actually, she likes it. The other one I couldn’t get to get up unless I’m going to feed her, then the bowl has to be on the floor for her.
Alexandra: Yeah, not a very energetic dog, I guess.
Helen: No, no.
Alexandra: Why don’t we talk about starting with “Ocean of Fear,” and that’s a free book on your website if people sign up for your reader’s group, correct?
Helen: That’s correct.
Alexandra: And so, the main character is Baxter Cruise, and I love that you described him as a robotics expert and a spammer for hire.
Alexandra: Yeah, so tell us a bit about him.
Helen: Baxter lost his parents when he was just about ready to get launched as an adult. He was 18 years old, and both of his parents died in an auto accident. And he was thrust into this world. He was going to school at University of California at Santa Cruz, but he had to manage all these decisions on his own, and he had to figure out a way to pay for it past the first semester.
He met someone at the campus, a professor, dubious sort, but nonetheless he helped navigate, he helped Baxter navigate adulthood in a way that was rather unconventional, but worked for him at the time, through using his talents to write basically email spam, which is very lucrative.
Alexandra: Okay. And then he gets embroiled in a bit of a problem in “Ocean of Fear,”.
The tagline, I loved it, “It’s not his war, but he’s the only one who can stop it.”
Helen: As a mystery writer, you don’t want to give away too much, but he does get approached by someone who wants his skill set, and he is coerced into assisting some illegal activities, and this puts him in a moral framework to examine the choices he’s made in the past, because it kind of ups the ante for him, just how far is he willing to go, as well as he meets an FBI agent, who happens to be lovely, and who forces him to see him for himself.
I’m actually writing the sequel to that right now, so I’m rather intimately involved with this characters again, it’s fun. It’s been a while.
Alexandra: Oh, nice. I noticed you mentioned somewhere that that book will become a series. It won’t always be a standalone.
Helen: Indeed, yeah.
Alexandra: Oh, fantastic, okay. And so, let’s talk about your other standalone at the moment, which also I think is going to become a series. There aren’t enough hours in the day, right?
Alexandra: “Dark Pool” features Maggie Fender, who’s a waitress and a frustrated…she’s not able to go to law school. Is that correct? And she’s taking care of her dad, who has Alzheimer’s.
Helen: Her father and her brother. Her brother just got released from prison on the opening scene for hacking. And he swears he’s innocent. His father, their father, has Alzheimer’s. In our family, we lost our father to Alzheimer’s as well, so it’s got some personal elements. Although in their case, their father had early onset Alzheimer’s, which is particularly devastating to a family.
I took on a couple of notions there. The one of the young adults who fail to launch. To me, there’s been so few places in history where that’s a possibility. Kids got thrust into work environments, and they had to help the family. In my own case, my father had to help his family when he was in eighth grade.
So, for someone who is in her 30s and still hasn’t quite got it together. So Maggie is bearing the brunt of everybody’s burdens in her family, being only coherent one, and the only one who’s in a position to be of assistance.
Alexandra: Right, yeah, and you’re planning another book for Maggie. Do you know when that will be out, or…
Helen: I need to finish these two first. Honestly, for “Ocean of Fear,” the sequel to that one is taking me longer than I expected. but I want to get it right. I really enjoyed those characters’ first round and I have to be honest to them, so I’ve had to do some rewriting. But for Maggie, she’ll be out by next year, if not sooner.
Alexandra: Yeah, okay. Oh, that’s great.
Technology plays such a large part in all of your books, and you were involved in high tech as you said in your bio. So talk to us a bit about the attraction there with for folding technology into your plots.
Helen: Well, for me, I’ve seen books where with a cellphone, the whole plot changes. So, and because it’s such a part of my life, I write characters who are going to be in that world as well. And it’s interesting, I mean I end up doing a lot of research, which, probably 90% of it doesn’t go in my book, but I find it fascinating.
In the case of Baxter, I researched robotics for submarines, the mechanisms by which you can get a submarines to maneuver underwater and show up where you want it to. It’s kind of a tricky little problem. But one of the things that people appreciate is that I put it in terms that are understandable, that’s not to say I’ve become an expert on this by any means, but I can take the elements that I find interesting and relay those to the readers, who also find them interesting. And as well, it gives my characters an interesting set of tools that might not be available otherwise.
Alexandra: Right, and you mentioned somewhere, I think in an interview or an article, I noticed that your characters are mostly just normal, average people.
Helen: Yeah, indeed, because not everybody is James Bond. Everybody wants his little toys perhaps, and maybe James isn’t a particularly good example, but Jason Bourne, he can kick anybody’s butt. My characters aren’t like that. Maggie Fender, she’s just a young woman with no skills who’s probably never even taken a karate class, but she can find her way in the world. With her brother’s assistance, she can maneuver some things that wouldn’t be possible otherwise, because they aren’t physically able to beat up a room full of bad guys. It’s just not something that’s part of their makeup.
I kind of put myself in some of these positions although none of the characters are me. Like my character Clint Masters, he’s a rich guy, but he’s not especially…he’s not going to kick anybody’s butt, but he does have some street smarts, as well as the technology available to him.
Alexandra: Would you say that given that your characters are quite normal people involved in unusual situations, that their choices sometimes surprise you?
Helen: Oh yeah.
Helen: Absolutely, particularly, when I have to be in their head. I took acting when I was in college. At one point, I really wanted to be an actress, but so the motivation is key. Why are they doing it? And unless that’s smooth for me, I have a hard time writing it. In many cases, what I think it might be ends up not being at all, because once you’re in somebody else’s head…I’m not a male CEO of a company that runs a satellite operation.
I’m not a young woman who has a brother in jail, but once I put myself into their shoes, so to speak, their motivation has always surprised me, because it’s going to be different than mine. We’re just all in different places at life, and you have to let them speak to you, the characters.
Alexandra: Right, yes. And I think that makes it so interesting for a reader as well if as the author, you’re surprised and delighted, then of course the readers is going to be as well.
Helen: I have to make myself amused first. Sometimes my husband will walk by and he’s, “Why are you laughing?” I said, “Well, a line I wrote. I kind of liked it.” I don’t write funny stuff, but there are just some things that just make me smile and you want to keep those in there, because you’ve got to entertain yourself first. If you’re not entertained for the 90,000 words, nobody else is going to be.
Alexandra: Exactly, yup. So let’s talk about Clint Masters. So he’s the hero of a trilogy that you have right now.
Helen: That’s right.
Alexandra: And it’s called the Masters CIA Thriller series. So tell us a little bit about him. He lives on a boat.
Helen: Well, he kind of does, yes. In the first book, which is “3 Lies,” he has abandoned his business. He was the co-founder of a startup that went just mega, and they are a satellite delivery company. They’ll deliver instructions to equipment via satellite around the world. So it’s a couple of billion dollar company.
He was the technology side of it. His partner’s the shell man, if you will, the man who gets the attention and the investors. At a certain point, his wife leaves him, and when the story opens, he’s got a girlfriend. His wife has already dumped him. They’re on the verge of a divorce, and his girlfriend goes missing.
But he has left behind all his electronic tethers at this point. He’s just living as simply as he can on a sailboat. He doesn’t even particularly like the water, but it seemed as far removed as he could go without moving into the outback. That really does have a little bit to do with my life because of the technology I’m involved in.
There are days I would like to unplug completely and go sit on a mountain and do nothing else. And so, it was kind of out of that impetus that that book was born. I will say all of my books are in the same story world. So, for instance, the book I’m writing now, Clint Masters actually makes an appearance even though it’s the sequel to “Ocean of Fear.” All of my characters are able to pop up in any one of the other books.
Alexandra: Right. Are they all set geographically in the same area? Is that…
Helen: Not necessarily. Clint is based out of Boston and Maggie is in Half Moon Bay, California, and Baxter is in Santa Cruz, California on the coast.
Alexandra: But they still overlap occasionally.
Alexandra: Yeah. Oh, that’s great. I notice you mentioned that Clint’s girlfriend has…her kidneys are failing, and she’s on dialysis. My brother had experience with that, unfortunately.
And that’s something that I guess adds to the tension in the first book, “3 Lies,” because when she disappears, you have to have dialysis every couple of days, or you die. So I imagine that ratchets up the pressure on Clint.
Helen: It did. It also did for the people who had her, because they wanted her alive, as well as for the people around her. Any time you watch somebody suffer, it’s difficult. At least it should be.
How does Clint then get involved in the subsequent stories? Is he like a private investigator, or…
Helen: Well, he eventually returns to the world of technology. And so, through his company, certain events take place that draw him further into difficulty. You know how that goes.
Helen: And he and Beth really, in the first book, they really aren’t together. You know they have a relationship, but in the first scene, she’s taken. So, we get to explore their relationship a little bit. I don’t write romance, but I like to have complete characters, and typically that involves somebody else, so they don’t always have to have parents, but it’s important to see who the key people are in their lives.
Alexandra: What kind of a writing routine do you have? Do you write everyday now?
Helen: I try to. For me, it’s really key to have my story mapped out in my head or on paper and the motivations defined. But frankly if I don’t have that, I can’t write. I might do other things and will write other things, but that’s really important to me. But yes, I’m always at my desk every day trying to accomplish something, even if it’s a few lines, even if it’s some plotting. I have other responsibilities, so I can’t always spend as much time as I’d like to but…
Alexandra: Yeah, and I think that’s true probably for most of us. Yeah, the competing priorities for writers, right?
Helen: Yes, yes. It’s another good reason to go up on that mountain every once in a while.
Alexandra: Yeah, exactly, and become untethered.
Have you ever done anything like that, the way that Clint is doing, like really unplugged for an extended period of time?
Helen: Oh yeah, I’ve done some hiking up in the wilderness area. The Sierras in California, a couple of week trips here and there. There’s nothing out there. I find it…the thing that irritates me the most is when you hike in, you’re carrying all your food, because there’s nothing else out there, right. You’re carrying in all of your equipment, and then when you leave, it’s empty.
It should be easy to carry out a tin can, and yet you still find people’s trash out there. It’s like, “Come on, the hard part was done.” And it was even uphill, so downhill ought to be easier. But you can get in on a boat, I like boats. Just the ability to have the wind blow out all the thoughts from your brain, it just takes away the day, if that makes any sense.
All the stuff that you have to do gets replaced by all the possibilities when you’re in a more natural environment, at least that’s the way I look at it. Just kind of overwhelms you sometimes, and I like that. It’s good, it’s healthy.
Alexandra: Yes, yeah, I agree. That’s a nice way to look at it, that it blows out the thoughts in your head, that’s great. Oh, I have another question, and it’s just in speaking of blowing out of my head, I’ve lost it.
Helen: My new book on “Ocean of Fear,” or the sequel to that, that one’s called “Spider Games,” and that one should be out within a month or so. It should’ve been out by now but I’m…it will be out. I had to be happy with that one first.
Alexandra: I know what I was going to ask.
You have a reader’s group on your website and one of the things that I noticed too is that you do a giveaway every month, correct?
Helen: Just started that, and it’s one of these where you don’t have to enter anything. All you do is if you’re on the list, I’ll randomly pull one a month, and it’s a $25 gift card to one of either Barnes & Noble or iBooks or Amazon.
Alexandra: Oh, fantastic, okay, yeah. So, and people can get signed up for that just by signing up for your newsletter list, and then they get “Ocean of Fear…”
Helen: That’s correct.
Alexandra: …in exchange? Yeah.
Helen: Yeah, that’s correct. As well, “Three Lies” right now is free at most of the vendors. If you see, there it’s free at the moment, so at Amazon, NOOK, iTunes, and Kobo, it’s free.
Alexandra: Oh, fantastic. Wow, so people can try two books at no charge? Oh, that’s great.
Helen: That’s correct, that’s a great deal.
Alexandra: It is a great deal, amazing. So, thank you so much for being here with me today, Helen. It’s been fantastic. Why don’t we let people know, we’ve kind of already touched on this, but where they can find your books. So, helenhanson.com, correct?
Helen: That’s correct. That’s Hanson with an O.
Alexandra: Hanson with an O, okay.
Helen: And one other thing I want to mention, I have “Three Lies” is coming out on Audible here probably early May, and hopefully the other two books will follow soon in the trilogy.
Alexandra: That’s very cool. So you were able to find a narrator, you used ACX I guess?
Helen: Indeed, yeah.
Alexandra: Awesome, was that a good experience?
Helen: It has been so far.
Helen: Yeah, it’s been great.
Alexandra: Audio is becoming more popular all the time with streaming and all that kind of stuff, so that’s great to hear, fantastic.
Helen: Well, so many people stuck in their car, so it’s nice to have some entertainment there.
Alexandra: Yes, yeah, some hands-free entertainment, right?
Helen: Yes, exactly.
Alexandra: Yeah, exactly. Okay. And so, if people want to find your books, they’re at all the major retailers like you said, Amazon, iTunes, Kobo, NOOK?
Helen: That’s correct.
Alexandra: Yeah, okay, perfect. Well, thank you so much, Helen. It’s been great talking to you today.
Helen: Thank you. I appreciate it Alexandra. This has been fun.
Alexandra: Good. Talk to you soon.
Helen: All right, take care.