JC lives in Tampa, Florida now, but he grew up on a ranch in Texas, where he and his brothers raised an honest-to-goodness lion. I’ll let him tell the story. It’s fascinating.
Now JC is the author of three mystery novels, with a fourth to be released later in the summer of 2016. Today we discuss what inspires his writing, some of his writing practices, why he’s drawn to writing stand-alone mysteries and more.
You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.
Transcript of Interview with JC Gatlin
Alexandra: Hi, mystery readers. I’m Alexandra Amor. This is “It’s a Mystery” podcast, and I’m here today with JC Gatlin. Hi, JC.
JC Gatlin: Hello.
Alexandra: How are you today?
JC Gatlin: I’m pretty good. How are you?
Alexandra: Yes, me too. Let me give our listeners a little bit of information about you.
JC Gatlin lives in Tampa, Florida. In addition to regular fishing trips, he wrote a monthly column for New Tampa Style Magazine, and then began penning several mystery/suspense stories. He also maintains a blog about the art of spinning a nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat mystery yarn. Coming from a large family with five brothers, JC grew up in Grapevine, a small Texas town just outside of Dallas. He moved to Tampa in 1999, and most of his stories feature the rich landscape of Texas and Florida as a background.
So let’s begin maybe…well, actually I have a question that’s completely unrelated to mystery novels.
JC Gatlin: Go for it.
Alexandra: Can you tell me a little bit about Hakeem, the lion?
JC Gatlin: Oh, Hakeem, he was so cool. Interesting story because we got him in high school. We rescued him from a farm who raises livestock.
We rescued the lion cub. He nursed off with a litter of Australian shepherds and grew up with us, and he’d go running with the horses. And he was a great, great animal.
Alexandra: Wow, that’s amazing. And then eventually, he went to live at a different location?
JC Gatlin: Yeah, we took him to Boyd, Texas. There was a large cat sanctuary there.
Because we were going off to college, and so we weren’t going to be there to take care of him. And he was so protective that my best friend’s father was just worried something was going to happen, especially if we weren’t there. So we took him there, and he had great…he had a huge cage with a swimming pool in it.
JC Gatlin: It was really nice, and we’d go visit him. And he knew the sound of my truck. He would start…he couldn’t roar because he grew up with dogs, so he barked. He would start growling, barking, whatever, as soon as, when we pulled up into the parking lot.
Alexandra: Really, wow. And how old did he live to be?
JC Gatlin: Eight, eight years old, which is…he died young. He died really young, but he was great. He was a lot of fun.
Alexandra: What an amazing experience for boys to have growing up in Texas.
JC Gatlin: It’s going to be in one of my books at some point. I don’t know how, but it will at some point.
Alexandra: Oh yeah, you have to use that for sure. Let’s talk about your three books, and we’ll start with “The Designated Survivor” which is free, we should say, on all the platforms.
The thing that grabbed my attention about that is Tess, the main character, is on the run from an inmate work farm, is that right?
JC Gatlin: Yup.
Alexandra: She’s got herself into a bit of a pickle, obviously. So tell us a bit about her.
JC Gatlin: She’s a single mother. She’s been separated from her daughter, and the whole book is about her trying to get reunited with her daughter. And so she escapes, she hitchhikes, gets picked up, and that’s probably the beginning of the story.
But she thinks that the guy who picked her up has murdered his wife and the wife’s body is in the trunk. And so the whole trip, and I call it a road trip mystery, goes from all the way to Sarasota, where she is reunited with her daughter.
Alexandra: And so the mystery is, I guess, her trying to unravel whether or not this fellow has in fact killed his wife?
JC Gatlin: Yeah, exactly.
Alexandra: I liked the tagline or part of the description I saw somewhere that said, “Tess isn’t about to let a little murder stand between her and her daughter.”
JC Gatlin: And what mother would? She’ll move heaven and earth to get to her daughter.
Alexandra: Nice. And then your second book, “Prey of Desire”.
I read that you actually wrote that in college, and then revisited it.
JC Gatlin: I did. That is a book I’ve been working on for years and years and years. And I wrote a short story in college, and then a few years after that, I dusted it off, and tried to create a novel out of it, and came back to it, put it down, came back to it, put it down.
The main character is based on the girl that lived across from me when I was in college, and that another girl is based, Mallory is based on an actual person in one of my college classes. They were friends and I don’t know if either one of them…I have no idea where they are today. I don’t know if they would even recognize themselves because their names are different of course, and their appearances are very different, but I feel like I nailed the personalities.
Alexandra: What was it about their personalities that made you want to put them in a novel?
JC Gatlin: Kimberly went back and forth and back and forth with her boyfriend. And it was just always a drama, I mean, they’re breaking up and getting back together and breaking up, and everybody knew they should just go their separate ways, but for whatever reason, they didn’t.
And Mallory: that girl was a piece of work. She was so self-absorbed, but she loved her best friend very deeply, and she had a big crush on Jose Canseco, and so that worked into the book a little bit. And she made money, which I didn’t put this part in the book, but this girl would make money by rear-ending vehicles. And she’d make insurance money and she made a lot of money somehow from that, and she was crazy. And I kept thinking, I don’t know if I could get it in there in some way.
Alexandra: The crazier a person is or a character, it kind of makes it more interesting.
In life, they might be a pain in the ass, but in books, they’re fun to read about.
JC Gatlin: And you know what, it’s polarizing, Mallory is very polarizing. You love her or hate her, but I haven’t seen anyone being just…whatever.
Alexandra: Indifferent to her.
JC Gatlin: Exactly.
Alexandra: And so part of the deal with “Prey of Desire” is that Kimberly is getting a series of love notes, and she thinks they’re from her ex-fiancé?
JC Gatlin: Yeah, because they keep breaking up, and so she thinks, “Well, he’s just trying to get back together with me,” but it turns out…and he dies at the beginning of the book – I’m not spoiling anything – so the reader knows immediately that’s not from him.
Alexandra: The other thing I noticed in a description somewhere was that the notes have a bit of intimacy with them, like they have details I guess about Kimberly’s life, and so whoever is sending them is kind of in her inner circle, is that right?
JC Gatlin: It is. It’s in her inner circle. It’s someone she knows. And they’re based on…they don’t really go so much into her life as much as their poems and things, and some of them are things that they’ve studied in class, and so she starts to realize that it’s someone in class.
Alexandra: It gives me the shivers just thinking about that, knowing that somebody around you is doing that.
And then the third book, “The Cypress Trap.”
JC Gatlin: You know what, “The Cypress Trap” is an anomaly for me. Because it’s not a mystery in a sense, like the other two books have a dead body and you don’t know who killed the person. This one is a little bit more of a thriller, and that it’s about a husband and wife who are…they’re trying to repair their marriage. They go on a fishing trip together, and the husband reveals that he’s stolen something and now, the people, the owner wants it back, and so they have to get out of the woods alive. It’s one of those stories.
It was the oddest thing. I wrote it in…I mean, I just sat down and wrote it. I mean, it just came out, and I started it and sent it to the editor within two months, and then the editor sent it back to me with some changes, and so I fixed that. I mean, it came out so quickly, where “The Prey of Desire,” I’ve been working on for 15 years, and “The Designated Survivor” probably had two years in it, and it’s a relatively short story.
Alexandra: Wow, okay. So a very different writing experience between that one and the other two.
JC Gatlin: Exactly.
Alexandra: And it was the third one you wrote, I guess, yes?
JC Gatlin: It is the third one. I’ve got a book I’ve been working on, and I keep getting stuck, and so I put it down, and then I wrote “The Cypress Trap,” and that break. When that was published, I came back to the other book I’ve been working on, going on for three years. And then I’ve taken a break on it again.
“21 Dares” is the book that’s coming out at the end of summer, and I wrote that one probably about three or four months.
Alexandra: We’re recording this in April 2016, I think we’ll probably broadcast in May.
Tell us more about that book then that’s coming out at the end of the summer.
JC Gatlin: “21 Dares” is another murder mystery, and this one is about a girl turning 21, and her college friends have a birthday party for her, and there’s going to be 21 dares in the party. And that’s something very common for 21-year-old birthday parties. And so along the way, they get wrapped up in a murder investigation and the whole thing kind of turns on its head. And of course, the lead character realizes that this whole thing is connected to her past and her father is involved. And so they unravel the mystery and who murdered who. Hopefully, it’s a surprise.
Alexandra: Do you ever imagine that you would write in a series? These four books are stand-alones.
JC Gatlin: They are stand-alones, and I get that question quite a bit. I do have a series idea but my brain just doesn’t seem to think that way. I mean, I come up with a murder mystery, and then they solve it, and I move on to the new group of characters. I don’t know if I ever will write a series. I hope I can at some point because it seems to be the best, pretty popular.
Alexandra: I guess readers do like to follow characters from one book to another.
But at the same time, I think of writers that I love who write standalone mysteries, and what I get attached to is the type of story that the person is telling.
JC Gatlin: Well, that’s the same for me because my stories are going to be very similar.
Alexandra: Right. Yes, your voice is going to be there each time, and the way you plot things, and that sort of thing. And so I read in your introduction, you’ve got a website with some advice about how to write a really tightly-paced nail-biting book.
JC Gatlin: I have blogged about it. So my website, of course, is about my books. My blog has really been more about…it’s more for other murder mystery writers because as I’ve learned, I’ve shared. And it’s actually really starting, it became a marketing, and they switch gears on that, and they become more of a book marketing form.
Alexandra: And so you must read those sorts of books as well, tightly-paced ones.
JC Gatlin: All of my life, I have. “Encyclopedia Brown” is what I grew up on. I love “Encyclopedia Brown.” When I was in high school, I loved “Remington Steele,” and that was a mystery every week. And of course, that was a TV show.
And I loved Dean Koontz. Dean Koontz is probably…and Mary Higgins Clark. Those are two of my favorite authors. I read everything that they have. I’ve read all Mary Higgins Clark’s books. Dean Koontz is hit and miss, but he’s got some excellent books.
Alexandra: Does he write in the same way as sort of a standalone story?
JC Gatlin: A lot of his are, but then he has “Odd Thomas,” which is a series.
JC Gatlin: And he gets a little more supernatural in my view. I can see myself touching on supernatural but it wouldn’t be a supernatural story.
JC Gatlin: “The Cypress Trap” has a little bit of a supernatural edge maybe, and it’s almost left up to the readers’ interpretation on what’s going on because it could be all just nonsense, or maybe there is something there.
Let’s talk about setting a little bit too, because we mentioned in the introduction, you like to set the books where you’re from, Texas and Florida, and then I think “The Cypress Trap,” that go to Georgia?
JC Gatlin: Georgia because the fishing part of it is in Georgia, so that’s what kind of gave me the idea there. And I wanted to break it up a little bit because my next two books will be in Tampa. So I wanted to…they started in Florida, but then they head off to Georgia.
Alexandra: I tend to write books that are set in Canada and here in British Columbia, and it’s one of my favorite things, is to bring the setting into the story and kind of make it another character in the book. Does that appeal to you as well?
JC Gatlin: Absolutely. Florida has just got so much character too, as I’m sure Canada does as well, but Florida has got…I mean Florida is unique in the United States. Very much so.
Alexandra: Yeah, with the Everglades, I don’t know if that’s coming to your stories at all?
JC Gatlin: No, I’m not quite that far south. That might at some point. But the swamps, too, but not quite the Everglades swamps. And Tampa does too. Tampa is a big town, and it feels a little bit small though. It’s one of those…coming from Dallas, you just never run into anybody. And Tampa, I run into people all the time that I know.
And so Tampa has got a good feel, too. I love St. Augustine as well.
Alexandra: Which is close to you?
JC Gatlin: Yeah, and it’s one of the very first establishments, and it’s got a lot of history, and that’s a very cool town as well.
Alexandra: Okay, it was founded by the Spanish, I guess?
JC Gatlin: You know what, I need to research that.
Alexandra: Sorry, I put you on the spot.
JC Gatlin: And I’ll take it. I should know that. But I think once I actually have a book set in St. Augustine, I’ll know everything there is about it.
Alexandra: Right, yeah.
Do you like doing research? Is that something you enjoy?
JC Gatlin: Yeah, absolutely, I do. And the research in my books, we’ll be writing a thriller where you’re researching things of the CIA and stuff like that. And this is probably the reason that I don’t have a series, is because all of my characters are amateur. They’re amateur detectives, and it’s hard to take a person who’s an amateur sleuth and then put them back into another murder investigation.
Alexandra: Right. Yeah, exactly.
Your research would just sort of be little things, not so much big events or whatever?
JC Gatlin: Yeah, it’s usually character-driven. If the character is interested in something, I’ll research that.
Alexandra: Okay, yeah.
And do you ever run into that problem? I know a lot of writers do have, sort of disappearing down the research rabbit hole.
JC Gatlin: I don’t think I do because I outline so heavily.
Alexandra: Oh, okay.
JC Gatlin: I outline, and I’ll spend more time on the outline than I do on the book, in writing it, because I plot everything. So once I start, I know this character is going to do this, and I’ll research that. I don’t get too deep because I know where I need to go with the book.
Alexandra: Okay. So you know what you need to know, and you don’t need to know more than that.
JC Gatlin: Exactly.
Alexandra: Do you have a regular writing practice, like do you try to spend time on it every day?
JC Gatlin: I do spend time almost every day because I’m passionate about writing. But I’ll tell you the thing that I really been good at is getting out of the office and going to the mall or to a restaurant, and taking my laptop and working there, and I will pound out a chapter. Whereas, at home, in my office, I’ll get distracted with the TV or, “Hey, that’s an eight ball.”
And I might get out into a restaurant, and I love to sit at the mall. There’s a food court sitting right, and I think it’s just because of people moving around, and I think that energy, I start feeding off that energy.
Alexandra: I’ve heard other writers say they like to write in coffee shops. I know some put headphones on though just so they’re not sort of distracted by the voices, but do you do that?
JC Gatlin: No, I enjoy the voices because I like to listen to what people are talking about really.
Alexandra: Really, I wouldn’t get a thing done.
JC Gatlin: And I’m in a zone too. I mean, once I get in a zone, it doesn’t matter what’s going on around me. I’ve got my blinders on, and I’m just…I’m focused.
Alexandra: Typing away.
JC Gatlin: Type off.
Alexandra: Well, that’s great. Well, thank you so much for spending time with us today, JC.
Why don’t you let everybody know where they can find your books?
JC Gatlin: My website is jcgatlin.com, and I have a whole page there on each book, and it’ll actually launch you back to Amazon. So all my books are available on Amazon. “The Designated Survivor” is free on my website. If you don’t want to buy it on Amazon, you can download it on my website.
JC Gatlin: And then “Prey of Desire” is out. It’s on NOOK and a lot of different sites in addition to Amazon.
Alexandra: To Amazon, okay.
JC Gatlin: Amazon seems like where everybody goes.
Alexandra: Yes, exactly. Well, thank you so much for being with me here today. It’s been great, and shoot me an e-mail when the new book comes out, and I’ll let everybody know.
JC Gatlin: Absolutely. Thank you.
Alexandra: You’re welcome. Bye-bye.
JC Gatlin: Have a good day.
Alexandra: Thanks. You, too.