J.D. Barker was born to write crime thrillers.
That was my takeaway after reading his latest book, The Fifth to Die. Truthfully, I was willing to say that after The Fourth Monkey came out last year. I was blown away by Barker’s plotting, attention to detail, and stunning (haunting?) visuals, but you always like to make sure an up-and-coming writer is more than a one-hit-wonder before you start heaping praise.
I mean, just imagine if we all called Sir Mix-a-Lot the greatest musician ever after he released ‘Baby Got Back.’
All joking aside, it was easy to see that Barker was a special talent even before last year. Still, I honestly didn’t think he’d top himself this time around. And yet, he did just that. The Fifth to Die is incredible and proves once and for all that Barker is no longer an up-and-comer. . . he’s arrived with thundering force, quickly rising to the top of the genre with his scary-good thrillers that are impossible to put down.
I was thrilled when Barker agreed to go on the record for our Five Questions segment, and asked him about everything from his writing routine and process to what future projects he’s working on. Read the Q&A below, then make sure to order your copy of The Fifth to Die, in stores everywhere tomorrow, July 10th.
TRBS: I don’t know how you did it, but you’ve managed to top The Fourth Monkey. . . this new book is amazing, and I couldn’t put it down for a second. How did you come up with the plot idea for this book, and what kind of research did you have to do before actually sitting down to write it?
Barker: “Wow, thank you. Considering how many thrillers you probably read, that means a great deal. I get that question a lot—where do the ideas come from—and the honest to God answer is, I have no idea. I’m what they call a ‘pantser,’ meaning I don’t plot out my novels in advance or outline, I just create my characters and drop them into the middle of a scenario, then stir the pot. With this book being the second in the series, Porter, Bishop, and I all know each other pretty well, but I’d be lying if I said I was steering the ship. I see the story play out in my head, much like watching a movie, and I document what I see. I tend to fact-check along the way. My sister runs the maternity ward in a hospital, I’ve got her on speed-dial—she’s made more than her share of trips down to the morgue for me to ask a question or three of the pathologist on duty. I have several contacts in law enforcement who help me with procedural details. When starting any novel (or series) I do have several key plot points in mind, but for the most part, I let the characters tell the story. With The Fifth to Die, we open with the body of a young girl, missing for weeks, found deep under the ice of a lagoon. She’s wearing the clothes of a girl who just recently disappeared. It’s an impossible scenario, that’s what makes it so intriguing.”
TRBS: What is your writing process like, and what advice would you give to new or aspiring authors?
Barker: “Write every single day. Holidays. Birthdays. Super Bowl Sunday. I don’t care if it’s your wedding day, get some words down. Writing is very much like exercising a muscle, the more you do it, the stronger you become. If you can hammer out 200-300 words per day, you’ll have a draft novel within a year. Then the real work begins. To truly become a writer, you need to learn how to take the words away. A good book is born through solid editing. It’s like sculpting—during the writing phase, you build your slab of granite. With editing, you chip away until you find the true art beneath. I typically write about 200k words in a first draft, then I try to remove 50k-70k. I trim it down to the best possible story. It’s in there. Learning to write is all about finding your story in the stone.”
TRBS: Your name is sort of everywhere right now. Between this series, the prequel to Dracula you wrote with Dacre Stoker, and some other rumored projects, you’ve got to be one of the busiest writers working right now. What is it like working on so many high-profile things, and what are you currently writing?
Barker: “I just keep my head buried and work on the next book. If I stop to think about everything happening in my career, it’s mind-boggling. None of it feels real. Stephen King jumpstarted my career by allowing me to use some of his characters in my debut novel. The 4MK series has been optioned for both film and television. Dracul, set to release in October, was recently optioned for film by Paramount with Andy Muschetti (IT, Mama) attached to direct… So many good things have happened, I often tell people not to stand next to me outside—I’m worried karma might try to even things out with a lightning strike (or maybe a fast-moving bus). I recently turned in a new novel to my agent, something I’m really proud of. I’m currently working on a collaboration with James Patterson as well as writing the third and final book in the 4MK series.”
TRBS: Last year, you made headlines when CBS Films purchased the rights to The Fourth Monkey. Any updates on that, and who would your dream casting choice be to play Detective Porter?
Barker: “I love hearing other people’s thoughts on who should play who. It’s always cool to see how someone else envisions a story. For me, Sam Porter has always been Michael Keaton. He’s one of those guys who can say more with a glance than others can say with a twenty-minute soliloquy. I’ve dropped not-so-subtle hints with the producers—you know, Pittsburgh could easily double for Chicago, Keaton loves to spend time in Pittsburgh…big tax breaks when you film in Pittsburgh—of course, they may avoid the city just to ensure I don’t show up on set every morning with a box of donuts, some coffee, and three hundred pages of notes. I received some incredible news on the show about a week ago but unfortunately, I’ve been sworn to secrecy until it’s been formally announced. Stay tuned, big things coming!”
TRBS: Lastly, what’s the last great book you read, and who are some of your all-time favorite authors?
Barker: “I’ve been lucky enough to get to know Dean Koontz a little bit and he sent me an ARC for his latest, The Forbidden Door. I’m about halfway through it and it’s fantastic. Every time I pick up one of his books, I feel like I’m in school—pacing, character development, story arcs—he does it all with such fluid ease. I’m a huge John Saul fan. He recently read Dracul and provided a great quote for the cover. I’ve been reading him since I was a kid, it was one of those ‘full-circle’ moments for me. Thomas Harris is another personal favorite. I’ve read each of his books numerous times. Stephen King, of course. I recently re-read the Flowers in the Attic series by V.C. Andrews. Great Expectations by Dickens…I’m a sucker for a good story.”
Praised as “one of today’s finest book reviewers” by New York Times bestselling author Gayle Lynds, Ryan Steck (“The Godfather of the thriller genre” — Ben Coes) has “quickly established himself as the authority on mysteries and thrillers” (Author A.J. Tata). He currently lives in Southwest Michigan with his wife and their six children.