Interview Originally Published on JR O'Neill Writes
Gene, thank you for taking the time to grant us this interview. Let’s start with a few questions about your personal writing style.
1. Gene, What does your writing process look like?
I’m retired, so I write any time of the day. But as an earlier riser—from more years than I care to remember—riding the LIRR into the Big Apple, I prefer to write at the crack of dawn. The rest of my day is planned around my writing.
My home office is my library and has all the comforts of modern science, so I spent most of my day in it. I always carry a pad and take notes all the time—more on that later, but before I go to bed, I create plot points for the next day’s writing. I tried setting word goals, but that rarely works for me. Something always pulls me from my writing world, and I deal with it. There are days I write one or two sentences, and then there are days that I write over five thousand.
When I decide on a storyline, I research all the equipment, places, time zones, sunrises, sunsets, and anything else I can think of. It all goes into spreadsheets for later use. Then I pick my characters and work up conflicts to showcase their strengths and weaknesses. I like to have a few conflicts leading up to the big bang. I also like to keep my audience guessing. They think they know who the killer is when I throw on the brakes and toss a wrench into the gears.
I work with a couple of editors and feed them the story at certain points. I tell them the who, what, where, and why, and continue to write while I wait for feedback. They are great at catching details I missed or ones that need work. I save each version and make revisions. When I think the novel is done it goes back out again for a complete edit. Then I send it out to my critique group and share the feedback with my editors. I make the changes that make sense, and then decide how it will be published.
2. So, Do you have any strange writing habits?
I always have a pad on my nightstand Some of my best business system designs have come while I’m dreaming. This has carried over into my writing, and to be honest—most times I can’t read my scribble, so I get up and walk into my office and write. I keep spreadsheets for characters, scenes, and dialogue that I constantly update. Some of my best scenes are re-writes from occurrences that happen when I’m out and about. The perfect sunset, an ominous marine layer embracing the moon, or conversations happening around me.
One night a couple of ladies were having dinner at a table nearby. I couldn’t help myself when the platinum blonde turned my way and smiled. Her long lashes flitted over her emerald eyes, with dark blue rims and flecks of gold around the pupil. They dazzled like golden fireworks exploding across a lush meadow. I approached their table and said “hello I’m a writer.” To which The blonde replied, “Never heard that line before.” “Then you probably never heard this one, I would like to make you a character in my novel.” Now as most of you may not know— but I have an em-dash fetish. Well She agreed, and Emma Dash was born.
(Interviewer) Wow, Gene, that is some story! I will have to remember that line…
3. Is there any book you wish you could have written?
I’m writing it right now.
4. Gene, just as your books and your story inspire other authors, what authors have inspired you to write?
I read sparing as a child, and did not start to write until my late 50’s, but the Doc Savage paperbacks from the early 60’s became the basis for my protagonist Buck. Trevanian’s portrayal of Dr. Hemlock in the Eiger Sanction and Loo Sanction got my creative juices flowing. Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt series, Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp, Nelson DeMille’s John Corey, and John Sanford’s Lucas Davenport got me thinking—I can do this. And James Patterson re-writing the rules sealed the deal. Buckner Axele Davidssen was born.
Patricia Cornwell’s protagonist Kay Scarpetta intrigued me. But it was Lucy Farinella, Kay’s wunderkind niece who got me thinking about writing a YA. I wanted to create my own protégée child, and Jules Spenser was born.
5. This next question I like to ask as I feel it gives the readers a true sense of how you picture your characters. So Gene Hilgreen if you could cast your characters in the Hollywood adaptation of your book, who would play your characters?
Every one of my characters is modeled after a person in real life. Here is a few of my main characters.
6. How important are names to you in your books? Do you choose the names based on liking the way it sounds or the meaning? Do you have any name choosing resources you recommend?
Most of my characters are named after friends. I give them nicknames appropriate to the storyline. All of my antagonists are named after people who have done me wrong—with slight variations to protect the innocent. But there are the few like Buck, Anna, Char, and Emma Dash where I had some fun making up their names.
7. What do you consider to be your best accomplishment?
Besides my children, I had a pretty successful career in Information Technology and designed some pretty cool systems. When my short story (the third one I ever wrote), ‘The Trinity’ was picked by my peers in the Writers 750 group as their favorite—I was beyond elated. But when several of my stories were published by the creator of the Writers 750 group, Heather Schuldt—I began introducing myself as a writer.
8. Where does Gene Hilgreen see himself in 10 years?
I’m content and live comfortably. I live to write now and enjoy telling stories. My writing and voice get better each day and thank God for editors. I see myself continuing my Buck A. Davidssen and Jules Spenser series until I can’t write anymore. I also hope to be able to part wisdom with new writers who join our ever growing group at the Writers 750.
9. Were you already a great writer? Have you always like to write?
Ok, this is a good one—OMG no. I was an athlete in high school and college, and just barely passed thanks to coaches and the principle. Athletes ruled at my alma-mater West Islip High. My teachers labeled me Dutch D Hilgreen. I hardly read and my writing was horrendous. When I did start to write, one person who I consider my mentor once said, “Gene, good thing you type on a computer, because if you wrote with a pen—you’d hurt yourself”. This person pointed me in the right direction and showed me the tools. The more I wrote, the more I kicked myself for waiting so long.
10. What writing advice do you have for other aspiring authors?
(A) Read books on writing. I’ll name a few that helped me: Strunk and White – The Elements of Style, A Dash of Style by Noah Luckman, The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, Manuscript Makeover by Elizabeth Lyons, and Stephen King on Writing. That book gave me the juice to continue after several really bad critiques of my writing. Believe it or not, several publishers thought ‘Carrie’ sucked. Wonder what their fall back job was. Get your hands on a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style.
(B) Read books in the genre that you want to write in. Join writer’s group and participate. Speak out for help, and write.
11. If you didn’t like writing books, what would you do for a living?
I swore I would never go back into Information Technology or security auditing. It would have to be woodworking, which has always been my hobby. It has taken a backseat to my writing the past few years. I have almost 300 linear feet of Black Walnut just begging to be made into a wall unit, and I will need someplace to store my first run of 1000 copies of First of Jules—why not.
12. Are you a plotter or a pantster? (Write by the seat of your pants)
I’m a plotter and have several spreadsheets, and documents—open at the same time—across my three large screen monitors as I write. I know who my protagonist and antagonist are before I begin, then fill in the supporting cast. I know the beginning, middle, and end before I write the first sentence. Sometimes my characters have a mind of their own, and I let them take me for a ride. But wherever the story takes me—my spreadsheets are constantly updated.
13. Gene, how do you deal with your reviews? Do you respond to them, good or bad? Do you have any advice on how to deal with the bad?
Yes, I do. I am well aware that my voice and style are not for everyone. I look for people who have different beliefs and welcome their criticism. I have had a few people say that certain character traits were unbelievable. I digest their thoughts, and either tone them down, or give them a unique weakness that evens it out—kind of like Superman’s weakness to Krypton. Then there are those who I will never please.
14. What is your best marketing tip?
Utilize the internet and media to its fullest. I believe the cover of the book has to be an attention grabber. Time will tell on that one, but I believe I nailed it on ‘First of Jules’. When I’m looking for a new author to read—the cover has to reel me in. The synopsis or flap better get my juices flowing. If the cover is bland and boring, I expect the book to be, too—even if the title is catchy, and I move on.
15. What is your least favorite part of the publishing/writing process?
Deciding whether to self-publish or find an agent. Self-publishing is instant gratification. The traditional publication process can take forever.
16. Is there one subject you would never write about as an author? What is it?
I didn’t think I could write graphic violence, torture, and rape. I have all three in all my novels, but they are all toned down from the original script. I just wanted to know if I could do it. Look at the world we live in. The most liberal media imaginable shows beheadings at dinnertime, and graphic racial violence whenever the whim strikes them. With that said. Why can’t I be just as descriptive while having my way with a terrorist?
Gene, That is a good point. I marvel at how some readers object to a certain material when the truth is, bad things are happening all around us. I feel like it is our responsibility to expose these things realistically when it fits our storyline.
17. I particularly liked one of the short stories you wrote about Woodstock, How did living in those times effect who you are today? What is you’re fondest memory of Woodstock?
My short story “They Paved Paradise” was a true story that just happened to fit the highlights of the monthly contest. I was one month from turning seventeen, and beginning my senior year of high school. There was no way in hell that my mother was going to let me go—until she was sure that I would never make it. As Arlo Guthrie proudly proclaimed to the world, “Can you dig that? New York State Thruway is closed, man.”
I never let my mother live that down, but I make the trek to Woodstock (Bethel, NY) every year. The Thursday before the weekend festival is known as ‘Hippie Thanksgiving’. Everyone who attends must bring food. I met Michael Lange, one of the original producers at the 40th reunion. It was also my wife’s last journey.
Her cancer had already taken its toll and she could no longer make the trek. This year—the 45th reunion—I went with my son James, my dog Millie and my wife’s ashes.
I also brought a twenty-pound turkey that joined the other thirty—waiting to be cooked. It’s a time for peace, music, and friendship. All political views are banished for four days. Thanksgiving was at Hector’s Last Chance Saloon.
I was talking with Jeryl Abramson who has owned Yasgur’s Farm for the past eighteen plus years. She said, “Gene, you know you can’t bring Millie. Otherwise, I would have to let everyone bring their pets.” I let her know that I was staying at Hector’s and would come by myself. With that, the other original producer Artie Kornfeld puts his arm around my shoulder.
Woodstock is a state of mind, but it’s a living and breathing thing. I still listen to the music of Woodstock, and Woodstock Nation grows every year. Every person you meet says “Welcome home, you’re beautiful, and/or I love you.”
Yes, Woodstock has and will always be a part of who I am. When I die, my ashes will join my wife’s on the great lawn.
18. Now is there a certain type of scene that’s harder for you to write than others? Love? Action? Racy?
No. But I enjoy writing action scenes.
19. Ok, Is this your first book? How many books have you written prior?
‘First of Jules’ is my third novel and my first YA. ‘Dragon at 1600’ was my first and introduced Buck Axele Davidssen. The sequel ‘The K2 Sanction’ was my second. They are both very political suspense thrillers and will never be published. They’re mine, and I only let close friends and my editor read them.
20. What are you working on now? What is your next project?
First of Jules is complete and off to my editor. I was going to self-publish because the book is getting a ton of attention on the internet (pays to have an IT background). My editor thinks it’s too good to self-publish—I love her, too. I’m attending the March 2015 Unicorn Writers Conference at the Reid castle in Purchase, NY, where three agents will get to critique my synopsis and the first 40 pages. As soon as First of Jules is ready to publish, I will tone down and combine my first two novels into one kick-ass thriller—minus the political angle.
Gene, I am always amazed at the lives that fellow authors have lived, and yours is certainly no exception. I do have a few more questions, that I like to ask. They are a little off beat, so have some fun with your answers!
1. What has been your biggest regret in life?
This is a tough one. I have to go with not being the best dad I could have been. I’m making up for it now.
2. How has all the time you invest in others (IE: Writers 750, and the various LinkedIn groups to which you are a constant contributor) Helped or hindered you in your own writing journey.
The Writers 750 Group on LinkedIn was a godsend, and Heather Schuldt is the best. I have been a member for two years (March), and the group as a whole is only getting better. It has allowed me to hone my style and voice with the month contests. Both of my editors are members, and everyone gives advice and helpful tips. The camaraderie is second to none. I know for a fact, that it has helped others, too just from their writing.
3. Characters often find themselves in situations they aren’t sure they can get themselves out of. When was the last time you found yourself in a situation that was hard to get out of and what did you do?
Situations, regarding authorities and law enforcement, take tact and politeness. You don’t always win, but it helps. Twice, I was in a life or death situation, and I’m still here. I’d rather not delve into how. But — Preparation is the key. I have a go bag, and what I take from it depends on what, when, and where I’m going. Even before 9-11, I was always conscious of what was happening around me. 9-11 changed me forever. I am always ready and always aware of my surroundings.
I can’t remember the quote exactly, but it goes something like this: A person prepared for trouble always has the edge over the one looking for it.
4.Could you tell us what is your biggest fear is?
Claustrophobia, and it got worse after 9-11. I don’t like elevators; I’d rather walk the stairs. I hate bridges and tunnels, which makes my daughter mad at me. I had to fly on business right after 9-11. Every week I had to fly. Something happened on my last flight. I can’t remember what it was—it’s locked away in my mind somewhere. I quit my job a week later, and have never flown again. And I write suspense thrillers… maybe we should keep it at claustrophobia.
5. What do you want your tombstone to say?
Winners always want the ball when the game is on the line — game over.
6. Ok, so if you had a superpower, what would it be?
Flying is easy. I fly in my dreams all the time. But bending time-space, teleportation—now we’re talking. I have written several stories on this topic. Two years ago I started reading everything I could on Quantum Physics. I’m seriously considering going back to school and getting my PhD. The Corporation, my fictional company has the fastest cyclotron on earth—the Infinity Cyclotron. It sits in a perfect Photonic Crystal vacuum. Its core, the resistive magnet was made from an exotic meta-material found at 28,000 feet on K2 in The K2 Sanction. Look for teleportation in the sequel to First of Jules, Second ?.
7. This is a fun one. If you were a superhero, what would your name be? What costume would you wear?
As a kid I loved the Flash, still, I think I’ll go with Panther for now; all the really good names have been taken.
My costume would be a black bodysuit with titanium bolts.
8. What literary character is most like you?
I’m partial to Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp. He reports only to ‘God and Old Glory’.
9. Gene, do you have a secret talent?
I make red wine and brandy. The secret is pretty much out already, I could probably make a living selling my brandy. Everyone who tastes it wants to buy it. My reds are pretty kick ass, too.
10. Where is one place you want to visit that you haven’t been before?
I’ve been to 42 of the 50 states, and as much as I like to see Mount Rushmore in person—I want to walk the battlefield in Gettysburg. I lived in Texas, was in eight different airports, but never saw the Alamo. In 1989, I crossed that off on a business trip.
11. If you were an animal, what would you be?
A Black Panther.
12. What is something you want to accomplish before you die?
Visit Gettysburg, PA.
13. If you could have any accents from anywhere in the world, what would you choose?
I love the Russian accent, but I’ll tell you something — French sounds so sexy, even when they are cursing you out.
14. What were you like as a child? Your favorite toy?
I was raised by a Marine. My favorite toy was a rifle. Now it’s an AR15.
15. Do you dream? Do you have any recurring dreams/nightmares?
I have reoccurring dreams of past companies and vacations places I been to all rolled into one dream. But I can always fly.