Author Interview: TJ Turner—Federal Agent by Day, Writer by Night

TJ Turner, author of debut novel LINCOLN'S BODYGUARD (April 2015, Oceanview), talks balancing writing and work, obtaining an agent, and other fun facts.
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I love featuring interviews with debut authors on the blog, because it gives aspiring or new authors the opportunity to learn from others who have had success on their journeys. This interview is with author TJ Turner, author of LINCOLN'S BODYGUARD, released in April 2015 by Oceanview Publishing. Publisher's Weekly says that "The plot twists of this imaginative what-if will keep readers guessing."

Author TJ Turner is a novelist, research scientist, and a Federal Agent. He graduated from Cornell University, where his love of writing was almost snuffed out by a 350 page doctoral dissertation. After rekindling his passion for the writing life he has written three novels, the most recent (and the first to be published) is LINCOLN’s BODYGUARD. Outside of writing he enjoys time with his wife, Nancy, their three children, a huge white dog, a crazy collie, and a pair of cats. Connect with him on Twitter.

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What is the book’s genre/category?

LINCOLN’S BODYGUARD is a thriller. It’s a work of historical fiction, but at the heart of it, the story is all thriller. I also tend to describe the novel as historical fiction, which is important to note because it also fits into the genre of revisionist historical fiction—a reimagining of history.

Please describe what the story/book is about in one sentence.

Imagine if President Lincoln had lived—the America that might have been!

Where do you write from?

I’m from Yellow Springs, Ohio—smack dab in the middle of the Midwest, and of course, in the middle of all the political fury that’s about to unleash itself in this election year as Ohio will once more be a swing state. Is it bad to admit that despite a book about a president, that I’m already sick of Presidential politics and we’re still a year from election day?!

(Querying? Read advice on how to find the most target agents to query.)

Briefly, what led up to this book? 

I had finished a couple of earlier novels, both of which will likely remain buried in my proverbial bottom desk drawer. I had come close with the second novel, one set in Afghanistan very loosely based on one of my deployments there. But ultimately I just couldn’t find representation for it, and after a long talk with a freelance editor who had taken me under his wing and looked at my work pro-bono, he suggested that I move along and write my next project. I left work early that day, quite depressed. Driving home, I happened upon Fresh Air with Teri Gross. She had a guest on the program that was discussing some aspect of Lincoln’s presidency, and she said something to the effect of: “Wouldn’t it had been great if Lincoln had a real bodyguard that night in the theater.” Immediately that title—LINCOLN'S BODYGUARD—stuck in my head, and the story evolved from there.

What was the time frame for writing this book? 

The first draft of LINCOLN'S BODYGUARD took me just about 6 months to complete. That’s light speed for me! My other two attempts at a novel had each taken several years, but this story just wanted to be told and came out almost faster than I could write it. I’ve heard authors talk about characters that led them down the path, and this was the first time I experienced something similar. Joseph Foster kept driving me back to the keyboard until I had it all down on paper…or in the computer.

How did you find your agent? 

After my fist experiences of trying to land an agent, I fine-tuned my approach. By that I mean that I really researched who might be best for the project—cyber stalking! I looked at recent projects sold, what other authors each agent represented, and listened or read every interview I could find from those I narrowed down in my search. From there I wrote very specific queries to the three agents I thought would be the very best fit, and I was so lucky to land in Liz Kracht’s (Kimberly Cameron & Associates) slush pile. Liz’s assistant, Mary Moore, pulled me from the pile and passed my query along to Liz. I remember receiving a request from her for the first 50 pages the day before I deployed on my third tour to Afghanistan. I sent them out, and then promptly forgot all about it! I know that sounds crazy, but I had bigger things to worry about. About half-way through my deployment, I received an e-mail from Liz saying she wanted to talk! So our first conversation was over a phone, connected by satellites with an annoying 2-second delay, while I sat in Parwan Province, Afghanistan. I remember telling her I might have to hang up and run in case we took incoming fire, which we did most nights—I’m not sure she actually believed I was in Afghanistan! For whatever reason, the Taliban left us alone that night, and by the end of our conversation Liz sent a contract my way!

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What were your 1-2 biggest learning experience(s) or surprise(s) throughout the publishing process?

How much editing I had left to do! And how much Liz would help guide me through it all. A good agent is amazing, and Liz is an amazing agent! She’s so well read, and sees the trends in the marketplace, that she could zoom into the exact spots in the manuscript that needed work. I couldn’t have done it without her. After Liz helped me polish, the rest was really smooth. She handled everything, and the waiting was the worst part. I can’t over-stress how important a literary agent is.

Looking back, what did you do right that helped you break in?

I made my manuscript as polished as I could, then with all the research, I approached the right people looking for that next step. A careful study of who to query—what they represent, who they are, what they like, really helped me hone and craft personal queries. I’m convinced that was what made me stand out, and then the story took me to the next level. It’s a process, and you have to prepare as best you can at every step.

On that note, what would you have done differently if you could do it again?

Honestly…I don’t think anything. It’s been a magical ride, from signing with Liz, to finding a publisher, to seeing the cover art come out, to getting a box of advanced reading copies, to seeing the final book out, and to signing that very first edition. Amazing. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything—I would have loved if it happened 10 years earlier, but other than that, it’s been amazing.

Did you have a platform in place? On this topic, what are you doing the build a platform and gain readership?

Almost all of it is through social media. I have a blog that I post to (and am in bad need of updating!), but mostly I reach out through social media. I’m fascinated by historical fiction, specifically American history, and at least in the near-term I see myself developing more historical fiction works and getting known as a historical thriller writer!

Website(s)?

www.tjturnerauthor.com

Favorite movie?

Man, that’s tough. There are so many…but if you’re making me choose just one, then I’d have to go with Shawshank Redemption. Or maybe Forrest Gump, or The Unforgiven…see, I can’t choose just one!

(Classifying Your Book: How to Research & Target Literary Agents.)

Best piece(s) of writing advice we haven’t discussed?

Find someone who doesn’t love you to read your manuscript! That’s the only way to get some honest feedback.

Something personal about you people may be surprised to know?

I don’t like to be bored, so I get myself into all sorts of trouble. In my free time when I’m not getting myself deployed with my reserve military job, I like building acoustic guitars. I dream of a day when I can quit my day job and just write, build guitars, and occasionally still get mobilized to chase after the bad guys.

What’s next?

Oceanview Publishing has just purchased the sequel to LINCOLN'S BODYGUARD. So I’m writing under a deadline and loving every minute of it! Then I have a standalone historical thriller set in New York City during the American Revolution. And somewhere in there I have a guitar to build for someone I deployed with. Never a dull moment…

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