Skip to main content

Interview: September 25, 2009

September 25, 2009

Alan Jacobson is the author of four novels: FALSE ACCUSATIONS, THE HUNTED, THE 7th VICTIM and the newly released CRUSH. In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, Jacobson discusses the research he conducted in order to portray the mind and actions of a serial killer as accurately as possible, and explains why he chose to set his latest thriller in the unlikely location of Napa Valley. He also describes how one of his ideas prompted the production of a tool now used by a branch of the European Crime Division, shares his thoughts on the appeal of California's wine country, and reveals the real-life counterparts to his FBI-agent protagonist, Karen Vail. CRUSH, your latest novel and second book featuring FBI profiler Karen Vail, takes place shortly after the conclusion of THE 7th VICTIM. You take Vail out of her comfort zone, so to speak, transporting her to California’s Napa Valley region for what is supposed to be a well-deserved vacation with her significant other, police detective Robby Hernandez, but turns into a nightmare. One does not think of Napa Valley as a fertile ground for a violent crime story. How did you come to select it for the book’s setting?

Alan Jacobson: There were some who said that a thriller couldn’t be written against the setting of the Napa Valley because violent crime and the wine country are incongruous. But I’ve always wanted to set a story there. I love the valley and have spent a significant amount of time traveling the region during the past two-plus decades, so I know it fairly well. But over the years, a compelling story idea never struck me, and I wasn’t going to force it.

Then, as I started thinking about where I wanted to take Karen Vail after THE 7th VICTIM, the initial concept for CRUSH popped into my head and appeared to be the perfect vehicle for her. I wanted to write something different from THE 7th VICTIM, and I wanted Karen to grow a bit. But because she’s such a colorful personality, and because she resonated so strongly with readers, I didn’t want her to change so much that it would be jolting or disappointing. I realized the best way to approach the follow-up to THE 7th VICTIM was to remove Vail from her comfort zone and plunge her into a world she doesn’t know.

As I began to flesh out the plot for CRUSH, and as I dug behind the scenes of the wine industry, I got very excited about the story I was about to tell --- which is vital for me. If I get stimulated by the subject matter, that energy will be evident in my writing.

BRC: CRUSH deals with a serial killer who does not quite fit the preconceived stereotypes that one might expect of that sort of individual. Vail’s skills are of some use, but even she is confused at one point as to the killer’s motives, and not because the individual is lacking for them. Did you base the killer and/or the killer’s victims on any real-world cases?

AJ: For specific reasons, I did not model the killer after real-world cases. My characters are an interwoven part of the stories I tell. When outlining CRUSH, I wanted a killer who was substantially different from the Dead Eyes killer in THE 7th VICTIM; but more than that, I wanted an offender who fit the Napa Valley and who could feed off what it offers.

As to modeling after actual killers, I try to stay away from duplicating what’s already done --- either in real life or in fiction. I’d rather my readers not say, “That sounds like Bundy,” or “The Green River Killer did that.” I want people to remember the killer in the context of the story I’m telling and the characters who interacted with him.

Because I studied these killers, and the profilers, with the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit, I know the concepts of what makes these killers tick. So I feel confident I can create original characters who are true to the knowledge base of what we know about their personality traits --- yet fit the story I want to tell, alongside the characters I’m featuring. Interestingly, very little is known about the type of killer featured in CRUSH, so I spent a lot of time talking with the two profilers I’ve worked with on and off the past 15 years. I relied on their personal experiences dealing with these offenders.

When you read THE 7th VICTIM and CRUSH, you realize there’s a specific reason why those particular killers were created the way they were; they’re part of the fabric of the story. Different killers can’t be inserted without substantially changing the novels.

BRC: It became obvious to me while reading CRUSH that you invested an impressive amount of time in researching a number of the topics that you explored during the course of the novel. One of these was the economics of operating a winery, and the business politics involved when doing so in an area such as Napa Valley, which is known for its wineries. What brought about your interest in the mechanics of this industry, and what inspired you to use it as a backdrop for a crime thriller?

AJ: I’m always looking for things that haven’t been done before and/or for an angle that’s not been explored. Once I wrote a general outline of the story that I wanted to tell, I knew what items I needed to learn about, and I set about doing my research. If you find the right people and ask the right questions, you can often discover secrets and other lesser known facts about that topic. When doing research, sometimes it’s knowing what questions to ask, while other times it’s knowing when to shut up and listen.

Through a friend, I met the CEO of a very prestigious winery (which is featured in CRUSH) who, during our discussions, mentioned something I didn’t know about the behind-the-scenes nuances of operating a winery. That triggered an idea and as I thought about it, I asked myself, “What if…” and a key piece of the plot took shape.

Other winery operators, sommeliers and residents I spoke with provided additional pieces to Napa’s historical landscape, including the politics involved. I then had another idea that built on some of that information, so I spoke with the CEO again and bounced my ideas off him to make sure I was remaining consistent with reality. When all was said and done, I was like a Rottweiler: I had some tasty plot points to sink my fangs into. So I did. And I shook violently.

BRC: I was also impressed with the revelations in CRUSH concerning Microsoft Office, and the manner in which you utilized it and IT in general as a fascinating detection tool. What sources did you utilize in digging up the more obscure features of Microsoft Office?

AJ: Ahh, that’s a favorite subject. I’ve always been a closet tech junkie. I’ve built several PCs over the years --- it started out as a project with my kids and went from there. So it’s a world I’m comfortable in. With so many criminals now connected via the Internet, I figured it was going to have to play a greater role in crime solving. And that’s happened, from the computers used to analyze forensics to the databases that make it possible to more accurately track, identify and link serial murders across the world. During my research with the Napa County Sheriff’s Department, I spent a lot of time in their state-of-the-art facility. I figured I’d use the technology available and my knowledge of computers to enhance CRUSH. In a sense, CRUSH is an interesting intersection of old-world wine-making methods and high-tech crime-solving tools.

I knew what I wanted to accomplish --- but I wasn’t sure it was possible. So I needed someone inside Microsoft who could answer my questions. While I was on book tour in Seattle for THE 7th VICTIM, I was writing parts of CRUSH. My friend connected me with a high-level executive at Microsoft who set up a (fascinating) tour for me at the campus. He connected me with Tomás, a senior Program Manager in the Office division, who walked me through the technical aspects of what I wanted to do. Tomás is an outside-the-box thinker, which was refreshing. We bounced ideas off one another, and then he’d check with his colleagues to find out if it was feasible because what I wanted to do hadn’t been done before.

In fact, once he determined it was possible, he subsequently informed law enforcement he was interested in developing a free tool for them to use. He immediately got interest from the European Union Cybercrime Division, which I found pretty cool. It’s not often a novelist influences real-life crime-solving techniques.

I ended up making Tomás a character in the novel, which we both found to be great fun. I set those scenes in places I’d visited when I was on tour, featuring some of the cool technology I’d used while there.

BRC: One of my favorite scenes in CRUSH takes place on the Napa Valley Wine Train, with Vail in pursuit of the killer. I see that you are going to do an author’s appearance on the train in support of the book. How did the owner/operators of the train feel about being part of the setting for a thriller novel? How did you approach them when you were doing your research in preparation for writing the scene?

AJ: My wife and I had been on the Wine Train a number of times over the years, so I was very familiar with it. When plotting out the novel, I tried to utilize interesting and unique locations that would enhance the story. I wanted the valley to be an interwoven part of CRUSH --- in other words, CRUSH is not a story you could set anywhere because it’s intimately tied to the Napa Valley.

So for the Wine Train, I outlined a scene that doesn’t just occur on the train, but that goes through it, with requisite tension and suspense. Everything that happens onboard was set up well before that chapter starts. For example, in reality, the train only makes a lunch and dinner run, and with my desire to be factually accurate, the timeline had to work relative to the dinner excursion the train makes because I wanted it to occur at night.

The marketing director for the wine train has a history of working in the publishing industry, so we were a good fit. But by the time I’d contacted her, I’d already written the scenes that take place on the train. We actually filmed part of a CRUSH commercial onboard, though that footage ended up on the cutting room floor.

BRC: Another favorite scene concerns an arson attempt that nearly takes Vail’s life. The attempt, and the investigation in its aftermath, had a very “real-world” feeling to it. Were you able to observe an arson investigation in the course of writing and researching the book? How did you go about doing this?

AJ: I’ve been around, and researched, law enforcement enough over the past 15+ years to have an inherent sense as to how things work. That said, all of my knowledge regarding arson comes from working with the profiling unit. Two of the profilers in the unit are FBI-trained ATF agents. One of them is an extremely good profiler, who literally wrote the book on serial arson. There isn’t much information on this type of offender, so these internal-FBI publications were enormously helpful in giving me the background I needed to understand who these people were and why they do what they do. My good friend (and profiler) Mark Safarik reviewed the entire manuscript, and made sure I didn’t go astray with any of that information --- and where I did, we made corrections.

I also worked with the Napa County Sheriff’s Department relative to how they handle arson investigations. Each jurisdiction I’ve worked with has their own methods of going about setting up task forces, laying out their investigations, etc. In the case of the Napa Sheriff Department, they work closely with CalFire (a state agency), but have their own in-house detectives. I tried to replicate how they would approach such a scenario.

BRC: It is noted in CRUSH that Napa Valley is the United States’ third most popular tourist destination, behind the two Disney parks. While one attraction --- wine --- is obvious, what, in your opinion, are some of the other aspects of the area that make it an attractive place to visit?

AJ: Napa can be a destination vacation. It has the cachet of being one of the world’s premier wine growing regions --- and it has the product to back it up. It’s beautiful aesthetically, with the surrounding mountains, rolling hills and nearly wall-to-wall vineyards. There are so many unique wineries that not only produce fine wine, but many are artistically pleasing as well --- art museums, in a sense. Others have fascinating wine-producing histories.

It’s also very romantic and charming in its own way. There’s a wonderful blend of old and new, with some wineries still in business since the mid 1860s, amidst modern facilities that have just opened this year. The climate also plays a role, just as it does in growing quality grapes. The summer, spring and early fall are pleasant and sunny, while the winter can be foggy and drizzly. Against the hills and vineyards, it’s very atmospheric. It makes you want to be out amongst nature, and then curl up with candles and a good book at night.

The valley is also geared for the tourist trade because it has the infrastructure to make it a fun and rewarding visit. My wife and I were in Paso Robles a few years ago, and we saw a wine country in its infancy. You could find good wine, but you sometimes had to drive a distance to get there. And there wasn’t much infrastructure. Napa is more mature, and there are first-rate restaurants, museums, attendant facilities, bed-and-breakfasts and such that make it a self-contained destination vacation.

BRC: THE 7th VICTIM, the first Karen Vail novel, has been optioned for film. If you were the casting director for either THE 7th VICTIM or a film adaptation of CRUSH, who would be your pick to play the part of Karen Vail?

AJ: The producers asked me the same question. After attaching a screenwriter to the project, they then asked me if Vail’s age range could be expanded, which would help them in their dealings with the studios. A studio may have a production deal with a star and they’re looking for a quality vehicle for her. But she may be a few years younger or older than the character in the proposed project. So we settled on a range of 30-40. While Vail’s age is not specifically stated in THE 7th VICTIM or CRUSH, she’s around 38 because of the positions she’s held in her law enforcement career and because it takes about 11 years before an agent will be considered for the profiling unit.

No matter who played Vail, it would have to be an actress with tremendous range, because of all the emotions and challenges Vail experiences during the course of the novel. In Hollywood fashion, it would also require a top box office draw. Unfortunately, there aren’t many female actors who can “open” a film. My top choice would be Angelina Jolie or Charlize Theron. Closely following would be Rachel McAdams or Ashley Judd.

BRC: You begin CRUSH with two quotations from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, writing as Sherlock Holmes. You are obviously familiar with the Holmes canon. What is your favorite Sherlock Holmes story? And why? Has Conan Doyle been an influence upon your work? What about other authors?

AJ: I’m actually not overly familiar with the canon, but we do share a common background: Doyle was an author and physician. But it’s Holmes’s deductive reasoning and investigative approach that I find intriguing --- this was, after all, the 1880s, before law enforcement had refined the art of working a case. But there have been other things that served as a much greater influence to my career: my time spent at the California Department of Justice’s crime lab while auditing a course on blood spatter pattern analysis; and, more than anything else, my years of research with the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit and the adjunctive time I spent with one of the profilers, in particular, who became a close friend. Those were enormously career-impacting experiences that exposed me to the realities of what law enforcement is faced with when evaluating and investigating a case.

As to authors who’ve influenced me…there’ve been so many. I’ll focus on those whose voice or writing style has made me run to my keyboard to create: Steve Martini, Brian Haig, Andy McNab, Nelson DeMille, Brian McGrory, and early James Patterson. I hate making a list like this because I always leave some out. Like these: Tess Gerritsen, particularly her medical thrillers, David Morrell, Allan Folsom, early Robert Ludlum, and John Case.

BRC: The last 60 pages or so of CRUSH blew me away. You not only solve one mystery but also introduce another while leaving a number of threads --- including a major one --- dangling. So what can we expect from you in your next novel?

AJ: Ah ha! Well, when the idea behind CRUSH came to me and I started outlining it, I realized it was a much larger story than could be told in one novel. I didn’t want to change the story to shorten it because it would lose the depth of the vision I had for it, and I was concerned it would feel superficial or rushed. Pacing is very important to me in a novel.

So I made the decision to have it span two books, which was risky --- but it was also something I found tremendously exciting and stimulating. I believe that if you always do the same thing, it’s the same thing. It can be boring. So I try to stay true to what I do and how I do it, but I try to find a fresh angle. It prevents me from becoming formulaic and keeps me stimulated as a writer.

That said, when I outlined CRUSH, I wanted to maintain some traditional structure to the novel to keep my readers happy and satisfied. Thus, there is a very definable story arc that concludes at the end, but as you noted, there’s also a major thread that does not get resolved. It’s something that will be picked up, and resolved, in the CRUSH sequel (tentatively titled VELOCITY). In fact, VELOCITY picks up the second CRUSH ends.

VELOCITY has been tremendous fun to write. I have another 25% or so to go on the first draft, and I feel the same excitement I felt while I was writing CRUSH, and THE 7th VICTIM.

BRC: On a related note, what are you working on at the moment?

AJ: The promotion of CRUSH has been a full-time job --- but during this time I’ve also been researching and writing VELOCITY. I have another novel that’s in a first draft phase that I’m itching to finish. I’m also planning to write a nonfiction book with one of my law enforcement friends, assuming that project gets off the ground.

As if that’s not enough, my agent wants me to start pitching TV series ideas to Hollywood. So I’ve been writing treatments for potential TV series. There literally aren’t enough hours in the day to get all this done.

BRC: You originally were a doctor of chiropractic, an occupation that you gave up due to an injury. Now you are an author; if you weren’t writing for a living, what do you think you would be doing?

AJ: It would probably be something in the arts; I’m a creative type and I need that outlet. I’m also a tactile person. I haven’t given much thought to it, but possibly sculpting, photography…even computer graphics and design.

BRC: All writers, aspiring and achieving, have to carve time out of their day to write. What is your writing schedule like? Does it differ much, if at all, from when you first started writing? How much difficulty do you have sticking to a writing schedule?

AJ: It differs a great deal now from what it was. Early on, I could spend hours each day doing research --- and did, as in the case of the time I spent studying with the Behavioral Analysis Unit, or the weeks I spent at the California Criminalistics Institute for my first novel, FALSE ACCUSATIONS. Nowadays, being on a book-a-year cycle, it’s fortunate I learned what I did because I can use that knowledge base from which everything else emanates. When I need refinement and expansion of that core knowledge, I know whom to call (or where to go) to get the answers.

However, when I stray outside that zone into other areas I don’t know about or in which I have no contacts, I have to find sources (for CRUSH, I had to learn how the local police jurisdiction would construct a task force and handle a major crime; the nuances of Napa Valley politics; the intricacies of the wine industry’s business model, and so on).

For VELOCITY, I’ve had to deal with an entirely different agency that I hadn’t yet worked with, and getting clearance took a lot of paperwork and a three-week wait while the application made its way through the system. Unexpected delays in getting information are stressful because they put you in danger of falling behind schedule. And when you’re writing a book a year, you have to keep to a disciplined writing plan.

That can be difficult when you have to deal simultaneously with the production end of the forthcoming novel --- repeated proofing, reviewing and responding to your copyeditor’s inquiries --- and then the promotional aspect, which entails working with your publicist to get the book tour set up and laid out.

Then there’s blogging and Facebook and Twitter, and Red Room and Writing Room, and FiledBy and LinkedIn, and --- it’s endless. All of this takes a great deal of time if you want to use them correctly. So where and how do you want to spend your time? If you have kids and a spouse and home responsibilities, there’s a lot on your plate.

I’ve developed the ability to focus and write in nearly any setting. Give me my laptop, my outline, and my Zune, and the words will start flowing --- whether that be in a coffee shop, an airport, a hotel room, or in my office.

BRC: What books have you read in the past six months that you would like to recommend to our readers?

AJ: Michael Connelly’s THE BRASS VERDICT; Robert B. Parker’s DOUBLE PLAY; Barry Eisler’s THE LAST ASSASSIN; Val McDermid’s A PLACE OF EXECUTION; Gregg Hurwitz’s THE CRIME WRITER. I have a lot of enticing novels sitting on my shelves waiting for their spines to be cracked, or (in the case of my Kindle) buttons to be clicked.

BRC: Lastly --- and answer this only if it won’t get you into trouble --- you have indicated that there is a fair amount of you and of your wife Jill in Karen Vail. Who else, if anyone, is a part of her persona?

AJ: My friend Mark Safarik, the profiler, said it’s sometimes tough to tell his partner, Mary Ellen O’Toole, the “real-life Karen Vail,” from Karen Vail. I guess there has to be some of Mary Ellen in Vail, even though I created Vail before meeting Mary Ellen. But a lot of what Mary Ellen told me about her Bureau and BAU experiences ended up getting incorporated into Vail, and the relationships she has forged within the unit.

But in a larger sense, the core of who Vail is lives inside me. I never drew up a list of her favorite color, favorite childhood food, favorite song, and other such exercises some authors use to flesh out a character. I know who Karen Vail is because she’s part of me. I write her intuitively. That’s why I can get into her head so easily. I share some of her inner thoughts with the reader, which I believe brings her closer to him/her in a way that allows him/her to engage emotionally and care about what happens to her.

I believe we learn more about people when they’re placed under pressure…not by what they say, but by what they do. One of my jobs is to put Vail in situations where the reader will learn who she is at her core by the way she acts. I’m more than pleased that my readers have responded so strongly to Vail. I never intended her to be a series character. Then again, most things in life don’t go according to plan. But if everything in life works out as well as Vail has, I’ll be a pretty happy guy.

One thing I’d like to mention, because it’s so very important, is that Mark Safarik and I decided to co-write an article on personal safety. But there was so much vital information to include that it blossomed into a 22-page booklet covering home safety, personal safety and cybersafety. Anyone can get a free copy by going to the homepage of my website, If our safety booklet prevents one person from falling prey to a violent criminal, all the hard work will have been worth it.

Click here now to buy this book from Amazon.

© Copyright 1996-2011, All rights reserved.