ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Writing is usually a solitary pursuit. But the new book "Watchlist" was a group effort, created by thriller writers who wanted to bring attention to their craft. One person set the action in motion, then handed off to another writer who added a new chapter, often taking the plot in an unexpected direction. The result: two novellas first released as audio books, and now available in print.
NPR Lynn Neary spoke with some of the "Watchlist" writers about their unusual process.
LYNN NEARY: When David Corbett was asked to work on a round-robin thriller, the opportunity was too good to turn down. He knew he'd be working with some of the best writers in the business, and Corbett figured it would be a lot of fun. But when it was his turn to write, Corbett realized he would have to work in a completely new way.
Mr. DAVID CORBETT, (co-author, "Watchlist"): Normally, as a writer, you start out doing the background on all of your characters, you do all of your research and it's a living, breathing thing in a lot of ways, in your unconscious before you even begin. Here, here you're sort of like given building blocks.
NEARY: The main building block was the lead character, Harold Middleton, a former war crimes investigator who unexpectedly gets pulled back into a game of international intrigue at the start of the first novella, "The Chopin Manuscript."
Unidentified Man (Reading): People often had trouble seeing Harold Middleton, couldn't remember what he looked like. A friend of his daughter said he would make a good spy. The best ones, the young man explained, are invisible. Middleton knew this was true. He wondered how Charlotte's friend did.
NEARY: Harold Middleton was the creation of Jeffrey Deaver, the writer who not only set the book in motion but also had the difficult task of pulling all the myriad threads of the story together in the concluding chapter.
Mr. JEFFREY DEAVER (co-author, "Watchlist"): I'm one of those people who, you know, the teacher would say, he doesn't play well with others.
NEARY: Deaver says writing in collaboration with others didn't come easily to him.
Mr. DEAVER: It was with a little fear and trepidation that I, you know, handed my first chapter off because I had very clear ideas of where I would have taken the story. And I had to take a deep breath and say, Jeff, no. This is the way the project is going to work. You can get your sweaty grip off the novel and hand it off to someone else. And that was probably the hardest part for me.
NEARY: The story does take some wild turns, and each writer brought his or her own particular stylistic flourishes to the project. The man responsible for keeping everyone in line was Jim Fusilli, who not only wrote a chapter of his own but edited everyone else's.
Mr. JIM FUSILLI (co-author, "Watchlist"): I had no idea what was coming. When the file would arrive from the writer, that would be the first time we wouldve had any discussion about where the story should go. So I would read those things sort of as a reader, not as an editor. And most times, I was pretty excited. I mean, almost in every instance, the writers did something I wouldve never done. But in some cases, I was kind of shocked.
NEARY: Fusilli says the writers were given total freedom to take the story wherever their imaginations led them. But every now and then, he had to give them some direction.
Mr. FUSILLI: The only announcement or pronouncement or discussion I ever had with the writers in general was that at some point in both books, we had to say, listen, no more new characters. Now is the time to start pruning them, and you know what I mean by pruning.
NEARY: Well, these are thriller writers, after all, and they did know how to prune their characters. David Corbett says theres no shortage of untimely death in these stories.
Mr. CORBETT: I do believe that there may have been a little bit of sadistic mayhem in the hearts of some of these writers, not just to the characters, but to the next writer - not in a malicious way, but in sort of a teasing, oh, yeah, guess what? Make sense of this.
NEARY: Corbett says by the time his chapter came around, not too far into the first novella, the plot had already taken so many sharp turns that he felt he had to slow things down.
Mr. CORBETT: In four chapters, we had events taking place in Prague, Washington, D.C., Africa and - I'm trying to think - oh, and Rome. And it was a little bit crazy. So when my chapter came along, it was kind of like, let's settle things down a little bit. Let's - OK, get back to our hero, which was important. And let's drive the story forward with him.
NEARY: Everyone agrees, by the second novella, "The Copper Bracelet," they had a better sense of what they were doing. They also had the advantage of that familiar thriller device: a hero who is a known entity. In "The Copper Bracelet," Harold Middleton is once again at the center of the action.
Unidentified Man (Reading): Middleton was furious with himself. He should have anticipated the devices would be sabotaged. Now, the cheerful, young officer was dead all because of his carelessness. But he didnt have time to dwell on the tragedy.
NEARY: Part of the fun in reading the books is watching how the writers make the story their own. And, says Jeffrey Deaver, it's a good introduction to a lot of different thriller writers.
Mr. DEAVER: Readers say, oh, this is fascinating because there are authors I am curious about but have never had the chance to read and probably wouldn't pick up. And, yet now I get a little sampling. And I know now, oh, Lee Child, I want to go read a Lee Child book, or a David Liss book. I'm going to find one of his books. And I feel that we, you know, kind of helped each other in that regard.
NEARY: Deaver said there's one other way the writers have stayed true to the thriller tradition. Theyve left the door open for another Harold Middleton story.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
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