Lucas Davenport, now a member of the U.S. Marshalls office, is back for what might just be his most disturbing case yet when he’s tasked with tracking down a killer who has a taste for his victims’ blood . . . literally.
Now twenty-nine books in and still going strong, Sandford puts his longtime hero up against one of the more ruthless, evil antagonists he’s ever faced off with. While readers know by now what they’re getting with one of Sandford’s thrillers, the veteran New York Times bestselling author still found a way to breathe new life into his series several books back, and did so without trying to re-invent the wheel in the process, by having Lucas join the Marshall’s office. It was a move that paid off immediately, bringing a freshness to the series, opening the door for exact kind of baddie Davenport goes after here.
Ahead of the book’s publication, Sandford went back on the record for our Five Questions segment, and I asked him about everything from how he came up with the story idea for Neon Prey to how he keeps up with his demanding, two-books-per-year publishing schedule.
See the full Q&A below, and make sure to order your copy of Neon Prey, in stores April 23, 2019.
TRBS: As always, Neon Prey is another fun, page-turning read with a great bad guy for Lucas to square off with. How did you come up with the story idea for this one?
Sandford: The key for me is always coming up with a villain. I don’t really believe in the Dr. Evil kind of villain, the super-villain, I’m always more interested in the down-home type (when you think of major real murderous villains in the past few decades in America, they’re almost all down-home kinds of guys.) It occurred to me that I’d never done a cannibal — maybe because Hannibal Lecter’s shadow falls on them — and I decided, what the hell, I’m going to do one. Then I had to find a credible person to embed the cannibal in; and instead of making him a complete nutso like Lecter, I decided to make him a barbecue aficionado. He’s not eating people because he’s crazy, he’s eating them because they’re available high-quality meat. My process of coming up with a whole storyline is really quite intellectual, in the simple meaning of that word. That is, I sit around with a yellow legal pad and think about it. There are a lot of false starts, but it eventually comes around.
TRBS: What kind of research did you have to do before actually sitting down to write this one?
Sandford: Well, you know, barbecue sauce. I spoke to a barbecue judge from Tifton, Georgia, and he gave me the opening chapter’s recipe. After that, much of it is location work. I spent a lot of time as a newspaper reporter covering cops, so I’ve got real crime scenes, and cop talk, already in my head. To that stuff, I’ve added some tech research (DNA.) But much of it is location. I’ve always been a thriller fan, and when I was a reporter at the Miami Herald, I read a thriller in which the hero was cast adrift off the Miami coast. When the sun came up he spied a line of low hills and knew which direction to paddle, or swim, or whatever. Big problem: There are no hills in Miami. None. Zip. The highest surface point, not counting buildings, is an overpass. That simple error damaged the book for me…I realized that the author didn’t know what he was writing about. I’ve never forgotten that lesson, so I do location research. I go to the places I write about so I can see them. I occasionally teach a class in thriller writing — I’ll do that this summer at Thrillerfest — and one thing I tell the students is that if you set a crime scene somewhere, go look at it. If you look at it and write it down as you look at it, your scenes will have a lot more solidity. In Neon Prey, toward the end (no spoilers here) there’s an unusual chase scene with Davenport and an FBI agent on foot in Las Vegas. Should you go to Las Vegas, you could easily find the beginning and end of that chase. They’re exactly as described.
TRBS: What’s a typical writing day like for you?
Sandford: I’ll write for three or four hours, usually in the late afternoon or evening — and when I’m getting jammed for time, at the end of the book, as I approach a deadline, sometimes both. I call those two-a-days, and they are wearing. That’s not all typing — I’m walking around, working out scenes in my head, as much as I sit at the keyboard.
TRBS: Most authors struggle to put out one book a year, and yet you seem to release two books, rather effortlessly, year in and year out. What’s your secret? How far out do you plan different books, and do you ever worry about running out of good ideas?
Sandford: There’s nothing effortless about this. I’ve always gotten a little nervous when people talk to me about creativity, or talent, especially a talent for writing because I’m not sure I ever had much. What I am is ferociously persistent. I wrote three novels before I got one published (I sometimes say two novels, because I keep forgetting one I wrote back in my twenties. That wasn’t a bad novel, either, if you like John D. MacDonald and Travis McGee.) Anyway, I got published because I wouldn’t quit trying; I currently write two books a year by working every day.
TRBS: Lastly, what’s next for you now that Neon Prey is set to finally hit bookstores?
Sandford: I am 62,445 words into the next Virgil Flowers book, Bloody Genius. As I write this, it’s April 2, and the deadline is mid-May, so I have to hustle. I keep a precise daily record of how many words I write, and a running total, so I can gauge my progress and know when I’ve got to start running hard. Now’s that time.
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). Steck also works full-time as a freelance editor and pens a monthly thriller column for CrimeReads. For more information, be sure to follow him on Twitter and Facebook. He currently lives in Southwest Michigan with his wife and their six children.