Thursday 17 November 2016

Interview: Russell Atkinson

Last Updated: 10 May 2024

Russ Atkinson, author of the Cliff Knowles Mysteries series, has stopped by The Writing Greyhound to answer a few questions ahead of the release of Behead Me, the sixth book in the series.

Firstly, tell me a little about yourself and your background.

I'm a retired FBI agent and lawyer living in California, the Silicon Valley area. My hobbies include finger-style guitar, geocaching, and cipher solving. I'm the past president of the American Cryptogram Association and I was the Head Cryptographer for the movie The Red Machine.

How did you first become interested in writing?

I've always enjoyed writing and my teachers and bosses always praised my writing style. When I practiced law after the FBI, the Chief Counsel would have me rewrite the briefs of the other attorneys. However, the idea of writing a novel only occurred to me when I was between jobs and had some time and a compelling true story about a particular kidnapping case that I thought was so interesting it should be told, showing what the real FBI is like, not the TV/movie version. I decided that it would not be marketable in a strict non-fiction narrative, though, so I decided to fictionalize it and turn it into a novel.

What draws you to writing mysteries and thrillers?

First of all, I like mysteries and the notion of righting wrongs. Solving crimes is what I did for a living for 25 years in the FBI. Perhaps more than that, though, is that I believe a writer, even of fiction, should write about what he or she knows. I enjoy other genres though, including science fiction and non-fiction.

Tell me about Behead Me.

Behead Me is the sixth novel in the Cliff Knowles Mysteries series. It combines some slightly disguised real FBI cases with geocaching, which is one of my hobbies. Cliff is now retired and working as a private investigator. He’s hired by a large high-tech firm to determine why sales of their spare parts are down. His investigation draws him to Utah where a young worker at a competing firm recently was killed by a hit-and-run driver, losing his head in the process. While there he decides to make a side trip to pick up a geocache in the desert and becomes the hunted himself.

Cliff’s FBI agent wife Ellen Kennedy is assigned to investigate the background of a woman applying for a presidential pardon. She’s shocked to learn that the woman had been convicted of drug dealing decades earlier and had attacked Cliff when he was the FBI agent arresting her.

Despite its grisly sound, the title actually refers to a type of word puzzle that was popular in the 19th Century. The book’s overall feel is light, almost a cozy mystery. It recently received an award from as one of the 50 Self-Published Books worth reading for 2016, and in fact was the top mystery and second overall, coming in behind a romance which took top spot.

Behead Me by Russell Atkinson book cover

How much of your writing is fictional and how much is based on real events?

It varies. Some of my novels, like Held for Ransom and Behead Me, follow real cases quite closely. Others, like Cached Out and Death Row, are almost entirely fiction, but even those have real cases mixed in here and there. The murders, however, are all fictional, and of course I’ve had to create totally fictional characters, both for privacy reasons and for dramatic purpose. The FBI has to approve all my novels on privacy grounds (not for their literary merit, thank heavens). I was once asked by an interviewer if I was Cliff Knowles. The answer is definitely no. I’ve given him some of my background because it makes it possible for me to write about what I know, but his physical appearance, personality, and family situation are totally different from mine. Some of my FBI agent friends think they recognize characters in some of my books as real persons, but they’re mistaken, too. All the characters are complete fiction.

What’s your writing process?

Once I have the basic story line in my head, I just sit down and start typing and keep going for days at a time. There are times when it becomes a bit of a chore and I take a break, but I don’t really get writer’s block. I can usually get a novel’s first draft out in anywhere from six to twelve weeks.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

Fixing the first draft. It’s grueling to read and reread the story multiple times, but it’s totally necessary. I find mistakes every time, everything from typos to inconsistencies to badly written sections. Of course I use friends and fans as beta readers or proofreaders, too, and they find mistakes or just things that don’t work. Rewriting is an author’s curse, but it must be done.

What do you love most about writing?

The total freedom I have as a self-published author to craft the story. I often don’t know exactly how the story is going to go and I love the anticipation and surprise I get when I suddenly figure out how to get from point A to point B or when I come up with a clever turn of phrase.

Which authors inspire you?

I really enjoy many mystery writers, including Michael Connelly and Sue Grafton, among others, but I wouldn’t say they inspire me. I am perhaps more inspired, even awestruck, by many authors recognized for their classic works, from Shakespeare, Conan Doyle, and Jane Austen to Edgar Allen Poe, Herman Wouk, and C.S. Forester.

Russell Atkinson author photo

Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?

Decide why you want to write and stay true to that goal. If your goal is to make a living at it, find an occupation that has writing as part of it. I enjoyed writing legal briefs, for example. I also recommend starting a blog to give yourself a creative outlet. But if you want to write books, you may have to choose between writing that great novel in you or producing a cookie cutter romance that a publisher wants.

Where’s your favourite place to write?

Last year my house was remodeled and I now have a cozy office overlooking my back yard. I love it.

What are your ambitions for your writing career?

I’ve never wanted or expected to hit it big, although like all writers, I’d love to see more people read my books. I really enjoy fan mail and other expressions of appreciation I get on social media. I hope I can continue to come up with ideas for more novels, but I enjoy writing my blog, too.

If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you’d be doing?

Writing is a passion for me, but not an occupation. If I couldn’t write, I would need to find other creative outlets. I recently got a gig creating crossword puzzles for The Grapevine, the magazine for the Society of Former FBI agents, for example, and I upload guitar videos to YouTube. I write programs to solve ciphers and might even try to learn a new computer language. I just wrote a program to play Poker Solitaire. Of course, I’m also a big reader and I have many other hobbies like geocaching and running.

What are you currently working on?

My seventh Cliff Knowles novel. It is set in San Diego and the murder victim is Cliff’s sister. That’s about all I can reveal right now.

Do you prefer e-books or traditional books?

I read both but I still have a preference for the dead tree version.

Do you prefer self-publishing or traditional publishing?

I had a literary agent for my first book, Held for Ransom, but no publisher picked it up. I hated the long drawn-out process and infuriatingly contradictory feedback I got from various sources in the business. I much prefer self-publishing, but that route is frustrating in how limiting it can be in terms of sales. I’m no salesman and I hate the necessity of marketing. Thank you for the opportunity to get some exposure here.

What are you reading at the moment?

I just finished The Lightless Sky by Gulwali Passarlay and today I started A Midsummer’s Equation by Keigo Higashino. It’s a mystery originally written in Japanese and an Edgar Award finalist.

To find out more about Russ, visit his blog. Behead Me is available to buy now (paid link; commission earned).

Will you be reading the book? Let me know in the comments below! 

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