Monday, February 25, 2008

Interview with author John DeDakis by Marta Stephens

“Sometimes, in order to find purpose for the future, you need to unravel the mystery of the past.”

Today it’s my pleasure to introduce John DeDakis, author of the mystery/suspense novel FAST TRACK published by ArcheBooks Publishing. John is the Senior Editor for CNN and writer for the Emmy-Award winning “The Situation Room,” anchored by Wolf Blitzer.

In addition to book signings and readings, John frequently speaks on the topic "From Journalist to Novelist: (Or How I Learned to Stop Telling the Truth and Start Making it Up)." He is a lecturer at American University, Washington, DC where he taught a journalism class of student interns during the summer of 2007.

John, a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, lives in Washington, DC with his wife, Cynthia, a choral conductor. They have three grown children.

MS: John, thank you for allowing me to interview you for MURDER BY 4. I’m fascinated by your background. Your career in news broadcasting spans four decades starting when you were as a student reporter in 1969 for a campus radio station at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. You are a former White House Correspondent, and have been with CNN since 1988. When did the fiction writing bug strike?

JD: I always knew I wanted to write, even when I was a kid, but it started with nonfiction. I toyed around with some short stories in grade school, but the bug for writing fiction didn't really bite until about 1994 when I was deep into my journalism career. I'd already been a reporter and White House Correspondent, but then I became an editor which is, by comparison, tedious and not particularly creative. That's when I got serious about writing fiction.

MS: Your career as a journalist/reporter/editor placed you in the center of the events and people who have shaped our nation. Have you ever been moved by any one event or individual to consider writing a political or spy thriller? Why or why not?

JD: Yes. Stay tuned.

MS: Now I’m totally curious, but I’ll move on to my next question. How would you say your personal experiences have influenced the direction of your writing?

JD: They're inseparable. My sister's suicide and the car/train collision I witnessed when I was nine became the impetus for my mystery/suspense novel FAST TRACK. But imagination plays into the process in a big way, too.

MS: What would you say are your biggest challenges as an author and how do you deal with them?

JD: There are several challenges. The first and foremost is to balance writing with the responsibilities of family. That's less an issue now because our kids are grown, but there was a time early in the process when my wife referred to my book as my "mistress." Once the book was published, the challenge became one of balancing the time between writing and marketing. If you want your book to be a success, you MUST be willing to do all you can to let people know about it. But it's extremely time-consuming, yet rewarding. I'm not a born salesman, yet I've found, to my surprise, that I like that side of things.

MS: What would you regard as your most successful method(s) of marketing your book?

JD: By far, e-mail is most effective for me, followed close behind by bookmarks. Before my novel came out, I began amassing a rolodex of contacts which I’ve been adding to ever since. Whenever a person I meet buys my book, I ask for their email, then I follow up with a "glad-we-met" note. I must have about 2,000 email addresses now -- a built-in base to contact when book two comes out.

Bookmarks are effective, too. For example, if I’m in an elevator with someone I think might be interested, I hand them a bookmark and give them the following ten-second spiel: "This is your next book. It’s mystery/suspense about a young woman trying to figure out what to do with her life. The publisher’s web site is right there."

I point to the link at the bottom of the bookmark.

"My publisher has posted a free sample for you to read." Just enough to get a reader hooked. I also highly recommend the book "Guerrilla Marketing for Writers" by Levinson, Frishman & Larsen (Writers Digest Books).

MS: What does a typical day in the life of John DeDakis look like? When do you find time to write?

JD: I'm up early, usually around 6 a.m. I write in my journal, then I check e-mail and write responses. I read the paper, exercise, shower, and have a bowl of cereal. If I'm working on a writing project, I tackle it in the hour or two I have before I have to be at the CNN Washington bureau at 11 a.m. At work in "The Situation Room," the first part of the day is spent getting up to speed on what's happening in the world, so I'm reading a LOT. As we get closer to air time, the pace picks up as the writers file their scripts for Wolf Blitzer to read. We only have four writers for three hours of airtime (4 p.m. -7 p.m. ET Monday-Friday). I share the editing load with one other person. He edits the 4 p.m. hour; I do the 5 p.m. and we share the 6 p.m. The writing and editing go on through all three hours and the pace is frenetic. But then, at 7 p.m., it's all over. After work, I'll either go out to dinner with a friend, or head home to hang out with my wife and/or work on a writing project. The days are always full and never boring.

MS: Your debut novel, FAST TRACK, was first released by ArcheBooks Publishing in hardcover in August 2005; the paperback was released in 2007. First, I’d like to share the blurb with our readers:

FAST TRACK (ArcheBooks) is the story of how sometimes, in order to find purpose for the future, it's necessary to unravel the mystery of the past. Impulsive 25-year-old Lark Chadwick, frustrated because she can't decide what to do with her life, learns she's the sole survivor of a car/train collision that killed her parents when she was an infant. Why was she never told? The only person with the answer -- the aunt who raised her -- has just died, an apparent suicide. With the help of Lionel Stone, an irascible retired New York Times editor, Lark digs into her past. But, as most reporters learn very quickly, someone's lying. Who is it? And why is someone trying to kill her?

MS: I’m immediately drawn to know more about your character Lark Chadwick. What prompted you to write this intriguing novel?

JD: I was doing a writing exercise about a personal experience. As I wrote about the car/train collision I witnessed as a kid, I remembered a radio news story I'd heard about a similar crash in which an infant survived. Since I'd never heard the full story of what happened in the crash I'd witnessed, I began to wonder what it might be like if that infant grew up and began digging into the circumstances surrounding the accident she survived.

MS: Obviously, your protagonist is a woman. What challenges have you faced while writing a woman’s voice?

JD: Not as many as you might expect. I find that emotions are universal -- they're not unique to either gender. In addition, I find that women are more interesting to me than men, primarily because women express themselves in more nuanced and entertaining ways. It helps that I work in a newsroom filled with twenty-something women who tell me their stories. Several of them read early drafts of the manuscript and were able to give me valuable feedback that helped to make my female "voice" more authentic. I write about this in greater depth in an article I wrote on entitled "Confessions of a Cross-Gender Writer."

MS: How much of yourself do you think seeps into your character?

JD: Quite a bit. She's probably what I would be like if I were a woman.

MS: I noticed on your website that you are working on a screenplay adaptation of FAST TRACK. When did you begin that project and how far has it progressed?

JD: I wrote the screen play about 10 years ago. It's gone through two drafts, but they're both too "talky." It needs more work, but for now, the project is on the back burner -- unless Hollywood shows some interest in adapting the book to the big screen.

MS: What’s next on your plate?

JD: I'm putting the finishing touches on my second novel, BLUFF, a sequel to FAST TRACK. It's based on my recent hike along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru. After that, I'm hoping my CNN colleague Carol Costello and I can follow through on our plan to do the audio book version of FAST TRACK. We just need to find some time.

MS: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

JD: NEVER GIVE UP! It took 10 years, 14 major revisions, and 39 agent queries before FAST TRACK found a home. If you give up, it guarantees that your book won't be published -- unless you go the self-published route (which isn't for me).

MS: I absolutely agree with you about not giving up. John, please feel free to share any additional information about yourself, your writing and/or your journey with our readers.

JD: Your readers are to be congratulated for enduring my turgid answers. If they want to know more, I suggest going my web site:, my writing site at or my publisher's site: And, oh yes, for the latest news, check out

John thank you again for allowing us to spend some time getting to know you. Best wishes on your continued success with FAST TRACK and your upcoming novel, BLUFF.

FAST TRACK is available in hardcover (2005) and in paperback (2007).


Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Marta and John - thanks for this fascinating glimpse into John's life and work. Fast Track sounds intriguing, I'm going over to check it out right now. I have a friend who's at this moment in Peru climbing Machu Picchu - I'll tell him to keep an eye out for Bluff when it is released. And thanks for the insight re. writing as a woman - I've been toying with the idea lately but wasn't sure I could pull it off. You've convinced me that it's not such a big deal, as long as my lady critique partners keep me in line! Thanks again and best of luck!

Kim Smith said...

Thank you both for such an interesting interview. John, you certainly have piqued my interest in your book. Ah. Another one for the to-be-read stack!

Gail L. said...

At Marta's suggestion, I put up a link on my blog to yours. Mine is Lving In Humorland.


pat said...

Hi Marta, Aaron, Kim...I have been enjoying my visits here to MB4 (coolest name) and eavesdropping on the chatter betwixt all you authors!!! Have just started reading Upstaged so can't stay long here! This is a great blog informative but it!

Marta Stephens said...

Hi John, wonder if you would mind talking about the process you follow when you sit down to write new book. Some authors outline in detail while others write a brief synopsis type of outline and allow the writing to flow and change as the plot and characters develop. What works best for you?

John DeDakis said...

I admire writers who can just sit down and "let it flow." I can't do that because it always feels like I'm spinning my wheels. I have to have an outline so that I know where I'm going. I can still change direction, but at least I have a goal.

Two books are indispensible to me: "The Weekend Novelist" and "The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery."


Helen said...

Good questions Marta and very interesting answers John. Loved the interview. I liked your handling of the bookmark in the elevator.

Marta Stephens said...

Hi John,

I usually prepare an outline of the plot and subplots so I know where I’m going with the story. I usually have a good idea of how it will end too, but even that depends on how the plot unfolds. Like you, I leave things flexible enough to allow for changes.

Another thing I find very useful is to write back stories for the new characters I add to the series. It's amazing the things I've learned about them – what was the life changing event in their lives that made them who they are now? That also leads to a better understanding of their motivation. I find it to be a great exercise. Character interviews work well too.

Talk about being flexible, I added a short scene at the beginning of the book that initially was meant to be a transitional scene. In fact, I had seriously thought of cutting it from the book because I wasn’t sure it would add to the plot. However, as the plot intensified, the characters developed, and their motives became better defined, that little transitional scene became a pivotal piece of the puzzle. It’s key to the plot and capturing the criminal.

I find the whole process of writing fascinating.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Great interview! Enjoyed it.


Marta Stephens said...

Hi Marilyn!! Thanks so much for stopping by and posting. I thoroughly enjoyed doing this interview with John. Now I must buy the book. ;)

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

While in Boston for the past two days, I passed out fistfuls of my bookmarks everywhere - airport book stores, restaurants, a college, a streetside book vendor, and I always slip a few into the airline magazine in the seat pocket. ;o) Bookmarks are the best - I love having them handy when I go anywhere. Whoever I run into always walks away with bookmark. Great strategy!

Anonymous said...

Great work.