John shares how he has been influenced all his life by strong women and how he built this latest series around a flawed but strong female character, who is on a journey to understand herself better. John is a prolific author who plans to write and release six books in his new Alex Troutt series this year alone.
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Transcript of Interview with John Mefford
Alexandra: Hi everyone, this is the It’s a Mystery podcast, and I’m here today with John Mefford. Hi John.
John: How you doing, Alexandra?
Alexandra: I’m good. How are you?
John: Very good. Thanks for having me.
Alexandra: Oh, you’re so welcome. I’m happy to have you here. I’m going to give everybody a little bit of an introduction about you. Throughout his four decade writing career best-selling author, John Mefford, has written about storks, a story about his mother and her dog, every sport imaginable, and, here in the last few years, mystery thrillers. He much prefers writing mystery thrillers.
He’s published 11 novels across three series and in January 2015 released the first book in his new Alex Troutt series titled “At Bay”.
We’re going to talk about Alex Troutt a bit here today. I thought we could start out, maybe, you could tell us a bit about your other two series, though, because they’re both mystery thrillers as well, correct?
John: Exactly. The “Greed” series is the first series that I ever wrote, the first novel being “Fatal Greed”. Have to say it was inspired by some real life events through my day gig at the time, and back in those days there was a lot of tumultuous things going on in the business world. And while I did have this idea around a mystery thriller theme, there were just so many things going on in the business world that I felt had to be communicated in a way that people could really understand it and relate to it, but still have a lot of fun in the mystery thriller aspect of it.
It just somehow all came together. It was my first ever novel, so I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time. Took about 25 re-writes and, you know, many, many, many hours, many, many days and nights of working on it, and I can’t tell you how many folks looked at it. But, nonetheless, that was the very first one. And that really gave me the bug.
While I’ve wanted to write a book for so many years, getting that first one done, I think, is such a special, important event. To be able to say you climbed that mountain, you stood at the top of that mountain, and you just claimed victory. And that’s a kind of feeling that you can never replace. Even, you know, I’ve had some great launches, and I’ve loved some of the recent books I’ve written, here in the last couple years, but that first one you can’t replace it. That one’s “Fatal Greed”.
And then after that I was like, now what do I do with this series? Where do I take it? And I had a main character, so then I went on to to write “Lethal Greed”. Each one of the “Greed” series kind of takes a contemporary event and wraps a mystery thriller around it, using the same set of characters, couple of characters, from the first one.
I think people are kind of shocked after the third one I wrote, “Wicked Greed” because there’s just a couple of major events that happen in that one and then the series finishes off with “Greed Manifesto“. The first three actually take part in an imaginary city, here in the Dallas area. That’s where I live, here in the Dallas area. And then “Greed Manifesto” actually takes place in San Francisco, which is a city I know pretty well. Went out there a few times, actually used to live there when I was a kid.
So it’s lots of fleeting secrets in that city. It’s a wonderful city.
My second series, the “Booker” series is also based here in Dallas, for the most part, I didn’t have all six books in Dallas. But the main character’s from Dallas. Much different type of character than my first one. This guy is a former Dallas cop and actually was from the area. Went to high school here, was kind of an athletic star in high school. And ended up, had aspirations of becoming a detective, but things didn’t work out.
Don’t wanna spoil too much of it, but he got put in one of those political situations where things didn’t work out, and then things go downhill from there. At least, so it seems. And then he’s put in all sorts of interesting predicaments and is kind of drawn into…because he did love his job as a cop. So what can he do then, to really do what he loves? And that is to protect the people of Dallas, whether they’re good people, bad people, whatever. And he ends up becoming a PI.
From there he meets a lot of interesting characters, and lots of tension and suspense. And then thrills along the way, but also a few laughs. I think one of the things that I’ve learned to do, it’s, I guess, part of my personality, is even if there is a situation that is a little bit of life threatening, at the appropriate time. Gotta throw in a little bit of humor in there, just to kinda change a little bit of the emotion.
Alexandra: Right. I totally understand that.
Michael Doyle is the the character from the “Greed” series, and he’s a journalist, is that right? Or a newspaper publisher
John: Actually, he ends up becoming a newspaper journalist. He starts out in the IT field, just as a regular IT manager. Basically, he stumbles upon a dead body. And it’s somebody that he knows, but not real well. He kind of feels like it’s his calling, because this person, this very beautiful girl, really doesn’t have anybody speaking up for her because there’s nobody in the area that is related to her.
The cops aren’t being overly helpful, so he goes to the local newspaper publisher and tries to get them to investigate further and really to get a little bit more involved in the mystery and understand what happened. He pretty much has to pull them along. Kind of by defacto he ends up becoming part of the investigative team. And from there, one thing leads to another, and I think journalism is really ultimately his calling. He just didn’t know it at the time.
Alexandra: You have a bit of a journalism background too, right?
John: I do, yep. I think that’s why I went there. I just had so much knowledge of the journalism world. I had a IT background. I had a business background. Nothing in the murder field, yet.
John: The whole murder mystery thing, I’ve loved murders and mysteries my whole life. I mean, I used to get up at six in the morning to watch Charlie Chan shows on Saturday morning. I read every “Hardy Boys” mystery that was out there. I loved Scooby Doo. I mean, everything since I was a kid. It was all about cool mysteries.
John: It was a pretty natural fit, when it came around and I finally took that plunge to write a mystery thriller.
Alexandra: What caused you to switch to a female protagonist? Because the first two series are male protagonists. What drew you to Alex Troutt?
John: It’s a great question. I think just the fact that I wrote two male protagonists. I wrote 10 books with a male protagonist, and when you write a male protagonist, I’m not going to say it’s limiting, but I think you write books for people who read them, right? After a while, I’m probably going to go back, because I have some ideas for another male protagonist, but at the same time, you know, I guess it’s like anybody that’s creative. You wanna create something that has a lot of layers to it. I just felt like with Alex, I had more of an opportunity to provide so many different sides, so many different emotional responses. That I felt a little bit boxed in from a male.
And I don’t know why. I think while “Booker” is very different than Michael Doyle, they’re very opposite in many ways. They definitely had a good, and I think that’s probably the theme for all of my books, there is something good about all of the protagonists. They’re all flawed, but they all have, I think, a thread of goodness in them and sometimes a pretty big thread. But sometimes they have to figure out in their own way.
I know that a lot of folks who have read the first Alex Troutt book called “At Bay”, came out last month. They said, “You know, those first couple pages, I just didn’t like her very much.” And then they said, “Now, I love it. She’s one of the best characters I’ve ever read. It’s really one of the best series I’ve ever read.”
I really get a lot of email, so I don’t respond back with what I’m thinking, which is, you’ve gotta give every book a few pages. Ultimately, I think you have to write. I don’t know if everybody writes for this reason, but I know I write to take a protagonist, a character, on a journey. You can’t really start that journey in a perfect place.
John: To me, there has to be some kind of growth and involvement and evolution to people and relationships. Even if it is wrapped up in some kind of FBI thriller, with some lunatic doing something crazy, even if that impacts a friend or their life personally. I think a person, just like anybody in real life, goes through change and hopefully grows over time. I think Alex is no different than that, she’s complex.
I think one of the cool things about this first book, “At Bay”, that I wanted to convey is that Alex doesn’t really know how flawed she is until the book starts. She doesn’t think she’s infallible, but she works in a man’s world and has thrived in a man’s world. But really starting off at the very beginning, that’s when it kind of hits her that, for obvious reasons there, she basically is in a car crash and suffers amnesia.
And so she’s having to recall her whole life again. Her two kids, her husband, her work colleagues. The way she acted at work. What went on around her, how she behaved in certain situations. What her likes and dislikes were. Just how she behaved in normal life. So that evolution right there. I knew I needed something to take her along that path to ask herself those questions. That really provided the vehicle for me to be able to do that.
Alexandra: She’s an FBI special agent, is that right?
John: Yes, she is.
Alexandra: When I was reading the description, it made me think of the Bourne series. Maybe, that was the amnesia part that had me make that comparison.
I could tell through the description that she was going on quite a journey, which I think is interesting in a mystery thriller.
John: Yeah. Of course, I’ve seen the Bourne series before. I didn’t really have that one on my mind at all when I created Alex. Alex, I just kind of smile when I think of the name because your name is Alexandra, of course.
Alexandra: Yeah. 😉
John: That’s the first name that came to my mind. I knew I wanted to take a female name that had a male kind of representation of it. I purposely went that path. I just think there’s something that’s kind of cool about female names that can be used as male names, whether it be Chris, Alex. I’m sure I’m missing two or three out there.
But, you know, so I think the main thing about Alex is that, in some respects, she does come across as your normal mom, with the normal job.
Alexandra: Oh okay.
John: She has two kids. It isn’t just like she’s off on some kind of special agent thing like Jason Bourne and you never hear from her. She’s trying to juggle life like everybody else is.
She could say in many respects her job is more important than everybody else’s job because there’s a lot on the line. But ultimately, she has these two kids at home and a husband, and I think, you know, like a lot of people, a lot of ladies…you know, I have a lot of strong women in my life. I think, when we think about inspiration, and I was surrounded by strong women my whole life; my mom, my step-mom, my sister, my wife, I mean, and friends I’ve had over the years. It’s just I think I’ve drawn a little bit of inspiration from all of them. And that is really, I think, probably encompasses the spirit and character of Alex.
Alexandra: Do you have some female readers who read early drafts, to give you feedback about writing from a woman’s perspective?
John: It’s an interesting question. I was a little nervous early on just because I hear of the aura of how do you write from a woman’s perspective?
John: And I actually read a few blog articles and did a little research on things I needed to pay attention to and it seemed all very logical. I mean, none of those things were alarming or surprising. My editor is actually a female.
One of my proofreaders is female. I have two beta readers who are female. So my wife, of course, is female. I have input coming in from a lot of different folks. And my editor is very, very supportive of my career. She’s just been a great partner along the way. And, you know, she’s been very encouraging for me to do this. And I kind of get a good feel. She’ll tell me straight up, hey John, this isn’t working. Let’s look to go in a different direction, or this isn’t your strong suit or whatever.
I’m always looking for that. What’s her first response when I send her that first draft? Because I don’t give her partials, I say, here’s my first draft. You can bleed all over it, but go ahead and let me know what you think. We’ve worked together now for about three years. I got the feeling back when she sent the response back from on “At Bay”; it was great.
Is every book for everybody? Not necessarily, that’s why we have different series. Even when you have a favorite author, as you go through that author’s back list, there are going to be a certain series of books that you like more or less. You know, I think, as an author, for me, I really feel like this is my best work. Now a lot of authors are gonna say their most recent work is their best work because they continue to evolve. And I gotta feel that’s just the way I feel about how I’m growing and evolving as a writer.
Alexandra: Right, yeah. And I noticed on your website too there are six, at least, six books planned in the Alex Troutt series. You’ve got the titles picked out and everything.
That made me wonder, do you know what’s going to happen in all six books, or is there some sort of a running arc that goes through them?
John: I do have a high level story arc for each of the six novels, yes. And so, when I came up with the whole concept, this is gonna sound weird, I almost worked backwards. Well, I did have the character of Alex, maybe not the name, but the character, kind of in my mind at a high level, probably, for a good year or so, before I started. Kind of just working back there, just kind of weaving its way through my brain, trying to figure out exactly who and what she wanted to be, how old, you know. All those types of things.
I was then trying to figure out, how do I connect that to the marketing aspect of it? And, you know, I thought about different ways of how to create the cover, which I didn’t do. I have a great cover artist. I had her work with Jeremy, my cover artist, on “Greed” something that’s really eye catching, as well as the actual title itself. Because I wanted it to be unique. I didn’t just want to say here’s a cool…I didn’t want to take it one at a time like I’ve done before and say, “Okay, what’s this book about”? What’s something catchy related to this book?
I kinda wanted to work my way backwards a little bit and say, “How can we make this series stand out from a title perspective from every other series out there?” Now I haven’t thought about, if you look at the title “At Bay” you think about it from a symbol perspective on your laptop or computer there’s that @ sign that everybody’s familiar with, right?
John: I even thought about using that. And then it kind of evolved into, wait a second, Alex, Alex Troutt, that pretty much means the same thing. So that’s kind of where, you know, the leap went for my creative thought around the titling and tying that into the name, Alex Troutt. So I brainstormed everything that had to do with @, and then how I could weave it into this character.
I wanted to have her to have an affinity to the water, the beach, the ocean, and that’s going to be, at least, connected a little bit to each of the plots, as well as the covers. And so, “At Bay” obviously, I wanted it to start out it’s pretty obvious. There’s water mixed in, it looks very chilly and icy, of course. But “At Bay” can mean a lot of things, right? You think of water, you also think of keeping somebody at bay or keeping some entity at bay.
Alexandra: Yeah that’s right. Actually, I didn’t make the water connection. I was thinking of that when I read the title.
Alexandra: Yeah, now I get it.
John: You know, sometimes titles can have double meanings.
Alexandra: Yeah, absolutely.
John: It’s readers guessing and kind of enticed a little bit.
So it all kind of tied in together, and I know Jeremy, my cover artist, when we worked together on this concept for the covers. And I gave him all the high level story arcs for each of the six novels, you know, he was thrilled. And we’ve gone back and forth so we have three of them out there right now, and we’re going to be working on the other three here in the next two or three months.
Alexandra: Do you have a plan for when the series will be finished? Will it be by the end of this year?
John: It will be, yes, so I basically release a novel about once every two months.
So the first book came out in January. The next one will be out here in a month, in March and then May, July-ish, whatever’s after that. And August time, let’s see, September…
John: And then, probably the last one will be…I’m not sure if November or December. This last one, this past year. I did the “Booker” series, all six novels in 2015. I’m gonna do that with the Troutt series, all six novels in 2016.
Alexandra: Oh, wow, great for you. That’s awesome.
John: And if people are really paying attention, they’ll notice that when they come out, this is what I’m doing especially here on the Alex Troutt series, that the time period that they come out in is about the time of year, in the novel itself.
John: So Alex Troutt, so “At Bay” was released, it was generally in the January time frame, set in Boston.
John: The second one, March will be about the time frame there in Boston. The third one in May. Of course, the winters, that go on forever up north.
John: Yeah, so I just try to match them. It just gives them another connection hopefully to, you know, the novel and the character.
Alexandra: I think you would really classify your mysteries as mystery thrillers, right?
Alexandra: And I noticed a lot of your reviews, like, people use the words, like exciting and suspense-filled and roller coaster. So for someone who’s looking for a really suspenseful read, these would be…
John: Yes. I would think, and so honestly, the “Greed” series are probably more R rated. And there’s a lot of people who are completely comfortable with that. I’d say that they’re probably, more James Patterson… You know, James Patterson can be really out there with some of his novels. And he had a huge influence on me. I love James Patterson. I’ve read many of his books, growing up when I got to be my late teens early 20’s. And so it kind of has a kind of James Patterson-type feel, I think, just from a sheer rawness.
And I think “Booker” and Alex Troutt, they have their moments. They’re for adults, obviously. They’re PG-13. I’d say that’s probably the best rating. But still I think it’s a little bit more open-ended to the type of reader that can read those, I’d say. Some of the folks that read “Fatal Greed”, they were like, they didn’t expect them to be quite that raw, I think. And maybe that was a factor of my background and being my first novel and just kinda getting everything out of my soul. You know, it was kind of a cleansing effort, if nothing else.
Alexandra: Right, yeah. I think you mentioned the “Alex Cross” series might be a good comparison with the “Greed” series.
John: With “Booker”.
Alexandra: Oh, with “Booker”.
John: Actually with “Booker”, yes. I have actually had quite a few people in the reviews connect Alex Cross to Booker. And they’re both African-American, while Alex Cross is a former doctor, Booker is a former cop. But they have a little bit of grit, but they really have a warm spot for the people that’re special in their lives. But they don’t take a lot of stuff from a whole lot of people.
John: And really, Alex is cut in the same mold but she’s a much different package. I mean, she’s five foot six, 125 pounds. You know, Booker’s a large guy, just like Alex Cross. He’s a former football player. Played football at University of Texas or, at least, rode the bench there. Played well in high school.
But the thing is, the coolness about Booker is he’s got some really interesting friends and colleagues. And people that you wouldn’t necessarily expect them to be really close to. The school that he went to was mostly all black, but his best friend is a skinny white kid, you know. One of his best friends in the world is a guy he met in college, who helped him regain his scholarship, because he had lost his scholarship for…this is all back story that nobody even hears in the book, basically.
Or you hear a little bit of it. It’s just gonna pop up. But it’s just on my mind because he seems so real life. This guy, basically, met a guy, ended up being a future friend, who ends up becoming a lawyer. And because Booker almost lost his scholarship because he was in a fight for protecting some other kid from one of his bullheaded offensive linemen who just wanted to pound some guy in the head. This Asian, little tiny guy who’s gonna be a lawyer in the future ended up taking on his case and saving his scholarship for him.
So, anyway, that’s one of the many folks, that are in Booker’s life, and yeah, you’re introduced to a lot of different of them. And they also grow and they’re all kind of part of the mystery and the thriller route of the whole series. It isn’t just all about Booker.
Alexandra: Right, yeah. Oh, that’s amazing. And so one more question before we go.
I’m always intrigued by people who write about police officers or detectives or FBI agents, do you have any of those people in your life, that you can do research with or ask questions of?
John: Good question. I was really fortunate enough to, so let’s start off with Booker “Streets of Mayhem”. I knew somebody who used to be a bomb expert. I’m not even sure of the word anymore.
John: Diffuse bombs, right. For the Dallas Police Department. It’s been two years since I’ve talked to him, and he was ranked like…they had some sort of ranking system, and he was ranked like one of the top 10 people in his profession, back when he was doing it. He was retired when I talked to him. And when I talked to him, he told me everything in the book. There’s a lot of bomb related things in the “Streets of Mayhem”. And he went on and on for a couple of hours, and then I said, “Wow, this has been great information I’d love to put your name in the book as an acknowledgment.” He said, “No please, no, because there’s too many crazy people out there who’ll hunt me down.”
Alexandra: Oh no.
John: So the other thing is that I was actually fortunate enough to, it was during this last summer, so summer of 2015, I was able to go out to the FBI office in Dallas. I spoke to the person that runs communications there and one of their female FBI agents, special agents. And they gave me a tour of the whole place and sat down and talked to me for a good two to three hours.
John: And just answered. Yeah, it was awesome. They answered everything under the sun. They never said, “Hey I can’t tell you.” They told me everything. It was great.
And not every little bit of that is gonna enter a novel, but it’s just great to have that comfortability of, okay, now I really know what the life is like and now I gotta spin a fictional novel out of this.
Because some of the things you hear, you know, from the agents is that the agent I talked to, she had never drawn her gun. And she said, “You know, FBI is not really like the police in that the FBI typically plans everything out so well, 95% of the time they don’t have that quick jump in the car and go raid somebody’s house. It’s planned, if not days in advance, then weeks or months in advance. And so that was another key bit of information I learned.
The other being, them getting warrants to go, you know, basically, arrest someone or to search somebody’s house, does not happen quickly, because they have to work with the U.S. Marshall’s office. It’s almost better for them to be working with the local folks because the local folks can get a warrant, like that.
So just little things like that that I had really no idea about, it was great to know, so that, at least, if I was going to go down that path I knew I wasn’t going down blindly. Because obviously to make it a thriller, there’s gonna be a little bit of action in there, actually more than a little bit. And so you have to put Alex in some kind of situation, but, at least, I knew what is fictional versus what is really close to reality.
Alexandra: Yes, yeah, oh good for you, that’s fantastic. Well, thank you so much for talking to me today. I really appreciate it. And so, tell everyone where they can find your books. Your website address is JohnWMefford.com.
John: Yes, it’s JohnWMefford, M-E-F-F-O-R-D, and real quickly, everybody’s wondering why I put the W in there.
John: And the reason I put the W in there is kind of a stupid mistake I made years ago when I first started in this business. Actually the URL for my name JohnMefford.com was taken. When somebody has one of those squatting things with URLs I contacted them and offered them a bit of money. They never even replied. So the smart John would have said, hey call my website JohnMeffordbooks.com or something like that, but no, I just went straight to the middle initial and I think it was because of my affinity to John Grisham books. I used to read a lot of Grisham, and Grisham with all the lawyer names always used middle or first initials quite a bit.
So I just went to the middle initial and go, “Well, that’s the obvious choice.” Now I’m there and I can’t really turn it back so it’s on all my covers and so it’s kind of like Micheal J. Fox, you know what I mean, the actor? So it’s John W. Mefford.
Alexandra: Exactly. John W. Mefford. And everything’s available on the online stores as well, correct?
John: Exactly, Amazon, Kobo, Apple, Barnes and Noble, of course, and making paperbacks at the same time and I’m going to be, I think, coming out with audio-books in 2016, as well.
Alexandra: Oh, wow, that’s a big project.
John: In fact, I just had one of my folks that I was looking at for the “Booker” series reply back to me today and say that he’s going to be giving me an audition. So I’m really thrilled about that opportunity and to get that out in audio-book form.
Alexandra: Oh nice That’s great. Well, I look forward to hearing what happens with that.
Alexandra: Fantastis. Well, thanks so much, John. Take care.
John: Thank you very much. Appreciate it.
Alexandra: Oh, my pleasure.