Better Reading had the pleasure of chatting to James Phelan, the bestselling, award-winning author of twenty-eight novels, including his latest, Dark Heart. The page-turning thriller Dark Heart brings the Jed Walker Zodiac Quartet to a close. We talk series, thrillers, politics, and terrorism with James Phelan:
Better Reading: Congrats on the release of Dark Heart! This is the last book in your Zodiac Quartet – what can readers expect from the final chapter?
James Phelan: I’ve written all of the Jed Walker thrillers in a way that you can pick up any order and read it, but there is an overarching story across the first four books. I’d designed the Zodiac terror network as as a repeating antagonistic force, ever-present in Walker’s life until he could crack who was controlling it. Dark Heart gives him that answer, so Zodiac is done and dusted. At the end of Dark Heart, Walker’s life has changed dramatically. He has lost a family member, and he will soon be adding a new Walker to the world. He’s left at the end of the story in a place of peace. Originally I have thought of leaving the character there for a while and writing some different thrillers… Commercial realities have intervened, and there’s more Walker novels coming soon. So poor old Jed Walker will not get much chance to enjoy his newfound peace.
BR: Things get very personal for your protagonist Jed Walker, and he’s struggling to balance two very different senses of duty – to his country and to his family. Tell us more about creating the character of Jed, and what he goes through in Dark Heart.
JP: The Jed Walker series are all personal, as I knew from the get-go that Walker’s family would be important to the plots of all the books. He’s a military guy, so he has a military family, who he feels bonded too despite his service ending. His parents, and estranged wife, all have roles to play across the first four books. And the relationship with his father, David Walker, is fraught throughout; he doesn’t know if he can ever trust him, and he certainly doesn’t know the full truth of David’s involvement in creating Zodiac. Dark Heart brings closure to a lot of Jed’s family issues, so when we see him in the final scene of that story, it’s clear that he’s going to be a different character for the experience.
In terms of creating Jed Walker, I knew I needed an American character to take on these stories, some plot lines of which I’d thought up while writing my 5-book Lachlan Fox series – Fox being an Australian protagonist. Many of the Fox characters cross over into the Walker books, so it’s all set in the same universe, and it’s been fun for me living with those characters for the last fifteen or so years. The name “Walker” came about while I was walking my aunt’s dog, and my wife said to me: “If this writing thing doesn’t turn out, you can always be a walker.” And the first name, Jed, is my brother’s nick-name, as well as a nod to Jed Bartlett in the West Wing.
BR: It’s a book that deals with difficult and dark topics like terrorism, human trafficking and corruption: what was your experience researching and writing it?
JP: I don’t specifically research for any given book; my working life forms a body of research. I’ve been a student of terrorism and our response to that since 9/11, which occurred as I was writing my first thriller, Fox Hunt. For the last eleven years I’ve been a full-time author, and I spend a lot of time talking with people who are in and around our response to 9/11, and those affected by it. I’ve got friends in the military and intelligence community, the UN, in the media and academia, and through discussions with them, ideas and scenarios form and shape and eventually make it into my novels. I’ve got a lot of fans in the military, and I’ve given talks at various bases, including Jed Walker’s alma mata, the United States Air Force Academy.
As I believe good novels are shaped by the time and place they were created in, and form part of our broader discussion on the topics presented, I knew that Dark Heart would touch on the current refugee crisis. I, like most Australians, have refugees in my heritage, and seeing the current xenophobic and illegal response from the US is heartbreaking. The sense in my story of identity and belonging in the world is filtered through Jed Walker’s personal story through Dark Heart’s narrative. And he gets to have a little fun by dispatching a few bad guys along the way to setting things right.
BR: Many of your novels are influenced by real-life political events, and you’ve said that the Jed Walker series is “is all about the very new world we are in post Snowden and Assange.” Has all the recent political turmoil across the world inspired or affected you creatively?
JP: Snowden revealed the dangers inherent in “private spy” agencies, which are proliferating and are unchecked by governments. The ideas of the danger of information falling into the wrong hands has been a common theme throughout the four Jed Walker books, and in Dark Heart we have corruption mixed with greed and narcotic power-hungry guys who want to shape the world to their nationalistic vision. At the time of 9/11 I questioned the need for novels about terrorism. My conclusion was that we need them now more than ever, as a way of ordering ideas and having border discussions about the implications and dangers of the age we find ourselves in. Statistics might say that we are now living in the safest time ever to be a human – but does it feel that way? I see story telling as a powerful tool to share ideas and learn from, just as it has been through all remembered time. I might add, if I’d been writing the book now, I’d have had Walker punching out a few alt-right types.
BR: Who are some contemporary Australian and international authors that you admire?
I’ve long felt that Tim Winton is the best stylist of our age. Sonya Hartnett has also has a gift of tone. Michael Robotham is our best crime writer, if you like to be creeped out. Bruce Dawe is still kicking, and I think he’s our best poet.
Internationally, in thrillers I like the writing style of Dennis Lehane and Lee Child. I admire James Patterson and Stephen King for how much they give back to the community.
Cormac McCarthy is a genius writer, and is inspirational as an artist.
BR: What’s up next for you?
JP: More thrillers! I’ve signed on for a two more Jed Walker novels, and another untitled thriller, and… well, I’ll reveal more soon, but it’s another thriller thing. The next Jed Walker will be a prequel, to give him a little down-time with his family before I go back to present day and throw him into a new fire. The prequel will be about his time joining the CIA, and the first mission he’s tasked with. It’s a lot of fun, as my previous 26 novels have all been set in the present moment, and this one takes us back to 2005. And to think – back then we thought Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld were bad!
You can pick up a copy of Dark Heart here.