CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Shortlist 2019 – Interview with Stephen Mack Jones

In preparation for the announcement of the winner of the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award later this month we have interviewed the authors. This week we talk to Stephen Mack Jones about his shortlisted book, Lives Laid Away.

How does it feel to be on the shortlist for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger?

Frankly, I’ve not quite come to terms with this extraordinary honor. I find myself alternately in a state of stunned, slack-jawed disbelief and an almost giddy euphoria. Ian Fleming was then and is now the touchstone for spy fiction/thrillers, and for me to be one of a select group of amazing writers to have the light of this touchstone cast upon them by the CWA is both glorious and humbling

If you could summarise Lives Laid Away in ten words, what would you say?

Saving the republic means taking the fight to its leaders.

What’s your writing process – do you jump straight in, or plan and plot first?

My writing process closely follows the process I use to make my World Famous At Least in Michigan chili: The Big Idea is to produce a meal that is spicy with sweet and hot notes and has a clean, satisfying finish. Then, with wild abandon and not much of a plan, I pour everything into the pot—including half of the dark beer I may be drinking at the time–and stir over medium heat. Constant tasting and adjustments are required—a bit more pepper here, half a chopped jalapeno there, an additional teaspoon of brown sugar. Should it be sour cream or bourbon finishing salt? Kidney and black beans for Midwest style? Or no beans for Texas style? Yes, for me, writing and making a good bowl of chili both require an exacting process that includes a healthy respect for and frequent practice of improvisation, i.e., the ability to tap dance on a razor’s edge.

Which thriller writers do you most admire?

I don’t know if you’d exactly call him a “thriller writer”, but in my teens the great Len Deighton made an incredible impact on me with his Berlin “Game, Set and Match” series. The series may be more closely associated with “spy fiction”, but Deighton kept me thrilled with his gritty, noir atmospherics and interoffice intrigues. Mr. Deighton led me back to Alistair MacLean. I mean, come on! The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra, Where Eagles Dare…hard on any writer’s best day to beat. Of course, it was Ian Fleming who showed me outrageous humor could be as dry as a vodka martini, sexual intrigue was hotter in implied doses, and outlandish plots could become as thoroughly realistic as the writer wished them to be. These days, I love the work of Nick Petrie, Steve Hamilton, Tana French and, of course, Peter Lovesey.

What makes a killer thriller?

A great “What If?” plot populated by believable, three-dimensional characters that we, as readers, are willing to invest our time, intellect and emotions with, and a propulsive narrative style. After that, the occasional description of a delicious imbibement or scrumptious meal. Did I mention that I make a mean pot of chili?

The winner of the 2019 CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger will be announced on 24th October.  The other shortlisted authors are Luke Jennings, Holly Watt, Dan Fesperman, Megan Abbott and Tim Willocks.  Look out for the next instalment from the shortlisted authors next week.Lives Laid Away

Photo of Stephen Mack Jones by Rachel Timlin.