Sunday, March 29, 2015

Interview with T.J. O'Connor, Author of Dying for the Past

Dying for the Past, T. J. O’Connor.  Midnight Ink, Woodbury, MN, 2015. ISBN: 978-0-7387-4206-9. Paper. $14.99. 395 pp.

When did you begin writing?  Why?

I began writing in grade school—about the fifth grade. Later, in high school, I penned most of a novel, which was horrible of course. As a grade schooler, I fell in love with reading and used every resource to read books as an escape from a tough home life. It started with Mystery of the Witches' Bridge by Barbee Oliver Carleton, and then Gordon D. Shirreffs’ Mystery of the Haunted Mine. From there, I began reading every Franklin W. Dixon Hardy Boys mystery I could find. By the time I finished my third book, I wanted to be a writer—and my first mature book I’d read, Six Days of the Condor by James Grady, clinched it. These books set me on my path to be an anti-terrorism/counter-intelligence consultant and an author. 

When and why did you begin writing mysteries?

My love of books and writing began with mysteries—Carleton, Shirreffs, and Dixon. It was a natural progression from there. I also write thrillers and that love came from the first thriller I ever read, Six Days of the Condor by James Grady; that story is the focus of my most recent blog at my site But, mysteries continue to be my first love, and five of my eight novels are mysteries. 

  Explain your basic idea for your series.  Are you writing a series or a stand-alone?

A series, and I’ve just finished book three. The series title is The Gumshoe Ghost, is a traditional mystery with a paranormal twist. It’s about a detective in Winchester, Virginia, who is killed and returns to solve his own murder with the help of his wife and ex-partner. Think Richard Castle meets Ghost, or, for movie lovers like me, Topper meets the Thin Man. The first story in the series is Dying to Know, published last year, and the second, Dying for the Past, is just out from Midnight Ink. In each book, there are three elements—the first murder that sets the stage for the characters and plot; a historic subplot that is historically accurate to an event in the area’s history; and in the end, the collision of both reveal a larger, more complex story. I should note here that The Gumshoe Ghost moniker was not my idea and I don’t care for it. But, my publisher knows best. My point is that the series is not a ghost story. The reader forgets quickly as the lead character, Oliver Tucker, tells the story. Oh, there’s some paranormal events that allow Tuck to move from place to place and sometimes return in time to the historical subplot—that’s the paranormal twist—but those are just a means to tell the story and connect the historical mystery with the modern day one.

In Dying to Know, the main murder is Tuck, the lead character. The historical subplot revolves around the discovery of Civil War graves that interfere with a major highway construction project around the town. In the end, the killings are all connected and lead to a secret that has been kept for more than sixty years and encompasses the murders of many others.

In Dying for the Past, the first sequel just released by Midnight Ink, Tuck is back. He is investigating the murder of a mysterious philanthropist with ties to the Russian Mob and 1939 gangsters. The murder and other intrigue revolves around finding The Book, an old gangster’s journal keeping track of his enemies and World War II spy rings around Washington DC. In the end, the events all culminate with modern-day powerbrokers and corruption. It also reveals a lot about Tuck’s family lore and that being a ghost may be hereditary. 

Many folks who know me and read the books say Tuck reminds them of me. I’m not sure if they think I’m dead or just a smart-ass investigator. That has me worried sometimes!

Tell us about your journey to publication with this book.

It has been difficult and very common. I began trying to publish about twelve years ago with my first thriller, The Whisper Covenant. After about six months trying to land an agent, I gave up and decided I needed a better novel. When I finished my second thriller, The Hunter Betrayal, I tried for two years to get an agent and nearly landed several. In the end, they all passed. All the while I kept writing, improving, and trying to figure out my weaknesses and a strategy to go forward. Ultimately, I penned Dying to Know for my daughters; it was never meant for publication. When it was done, it turned out so well I decided to test the waters and on the third agent I queried, I found Kimberley Cameron. She signed me. Within eighteen months, she sold Dying to Know, Dying for the Past, and Dying to Tell as a series to Midnight Ink. 

Why did you choose to write about the topic, community, issues you chose?

It was a nightmare—literally. I was a government anti-terrorism agent some years ago and I was working overseas during the first Gulf war. When I returned home and resigned to pursue a career as a security consultant, I was plagued by a recurring nightmare that I was killed and came back to find my killers. I told my daughter about the dream and she encouraged me to write it as a novel. I did, but just for her. My nightmare morphed over the years and followed me to Winchester, Virginia. The setting and my nightmare seemed to work well in the story so I kept it—small historical town, murder, etc. Also, Winchester is a wonderful town filled with hundreds of years of history. As I’m a history-lover, I did some research of the town’s past and found some events I could use as a historical subplot—the building of a highway bypass around town and the many Civil War battles that took place here. The other historical events ended up supporting my three-book series. 

In Dying for the Past, the historical subplot revolves around 1939 gangsters. In truth, back in the World War II days, gangsters were reported to cooperate with the U.S. Government to look for Nazi, Japanese, and even Russian spy networks. In Dying for the Past, those events are stretched a bit and fit into the hunt for The Book—the gangster’s journal of spy networks he was watching for the FBI. Ultimately, The Book, and the murder of the philanthropist, all culminate in modern day corruption and intrigue.

How have you found it to be published?  Share that experience.

Bittersweet. So many people think that once you get published, you’re there. You haven’t even scratched the surface yet. It was a tough climb to find an agent. A tougher climb to get published. And now, a new flight of stairs—nearly vertical—to get fans and keep going and building a following. It’s tough, but it is exciting, too. Unlike other professions, there are really not that many published authors. It’s a small community in comparison. I’ve met some wonderful people—both superstar authors and beginners like me (and all in-between). I spent an enormous amount of time trying to get my books noticed and read, spent tons of money, and still have to find time to write the next one. It’s tough and exhausting at times, and worth every bit of it. 

I’m not complaining, mind you. I don’t think you can gain anything of value without a little trial and struggle. I never have. In fact, if anything ever came easy to me, I’d throw it back for fear it was a scam from some foreign nation seeking my bank account numbers—and boy, would the joke be on them!

Do you have comments from readers or reviewers you’d like to share?

Well, I’m not very well known, but it’s both a thrill and a humbling experience when a reader reaches out to me or finds me at a conference or book signing. I have a few loyal followers and hear from them quite often. Those are the real humbling experiences when one of them takes the time to write me an email or find me at a conference just to say hello and chat about my books. The first time someone approached me at Malice and asked if I were me, I thought one of my author-pals set me up for a laugh. It was real. I gave that fellow a signed book and bought him lunch. No, that is not an invitation to assail me at Malice this year!

There are also the reviewers and I have to say, I find most of the experience very helpful—fun even. Then there are always a few I get frustrated with or have to scratch my head. Like those who complain about the cover, a few spelling/grammar goofs, or that they don’t like mysteries and therefore didn’t like my book. Here’s a clue—I have little say in the covers, I edit but the publisher is primarily responsible for final copy, and if you don’t like mysteries, why did you pick it up? But then, all publicity is good publicity. Right … ha!

What other books have you published and where, when?

My other publications have been with the series beginning with Dying to Know. Dying for the Past just hit the shelves in January 2015 and Dying to Tell, the third in the series, will be out January 2016. They are all from Midnight Ink.

My amazing agent, Kimberley Cameron, also has another mystery with a paranormal/historical twist—New Sins for Old Scores—that she’s shopping around. So, if you’re a publisher, please …

Do you have a work in progress now?  Is it part of a series?

I am working on two other mysteries right now. Both were works I’d finished before Dying to Know was sold and stole my time to write the sequels. So, both have been pining for my attention to return. My books love me that way.

The Killing of Tyler Quinn, is about a Gulf War journalist who goes missing for years. He returns to find his former newspaper pal and rival murdered. He has to find out who and why his pal is killed and it leads all the way back to Kabul and to a possible string of murders from the 1970s. 

The Consultant—Double Effect is a murder mystery intertwined with a thriller. It will be a series about a security consultant who takes on major consulting projects—leading investigations, engineering security programs, infiltrating companies to test their security—and he always ends up tangled up in murder and mayhem. Sort of like raising five kids but without the shooting and killing and car chases. Okay, maybe a few car chases raising them … The opening story is about The Consultant—Jonathan Hunter—who returns home from an overseas project to find his estranged brother murdered. His brother—a Virginia State Detective—may be a corrupt cop tangled up with a Latino gang smuggling guns and bombs with domestic terrorists. 

I’m working on both stories and trying to get them shaped up to about 100 pages each. Then, I’ll decide which to finish first—typing on two keyboards with two computers hurts my fingers. Oh, I’ll finish both because I love both stories (and they love me). I’m having a hard time deciding which to attack first. So, I’ll write the openings, hide at my favorite Greek restaurant with my mentor—Wally—who will help guide me in my quest, and choose which to finish first. 

In truth, Wally has already decided which to finish first. He’ll just play along like he’s really helping choose until he raps his gavel and passes on my sentence. 

If you belong to Sisters in Crime, and/or the Guppies, has that been helpful?  How?

I just joined Sisters and haven’t had the opportunity to get involved yet. I’ll be pursuing that this spring when my schedule lightens up a little. I’ve heard nothing but great things about the organization and I’m looking forward to becoming active with them. So if there are any Sisters reading this, drop me a line! 

What benefit to you has it been to go to mystery conferences like Malice Domestic?

Probably the biggest benefit is networking and meeting other authors and readers. I very much enjoy doing panels and this year is my second panel at Malice. I’ve done other panels elsewhere and find that it gives me great exposure to fans of the genre—I also get to goof around and have fun with some amazing authors who really know what they’re doing. Somehow, they still let me on the panels!

I thoroughly enjoy hanging out with other writers and my publisher and just relaxing and talking books. In my real profession—a terrorism consultant—I don’t get much opportunity to do that—relax and enjoy a weekend. So, I take every opportunity I can to switch hats and just enjoy colleagues. I keep having to remind myself that the other authors are not terrorists so I don’t follow them around taking notes and sneaking photographs of them at lunch. I still check under my bed at night, though.

What else would like to say about your books, the next one in your series?

The next book, Dying to Tell, was one of my most enjoyable to write. Tuck is back and he’s on the trail of the murderer of a wealthy bank executive who has a dark past involving a World War II OSS (Office of Strategic Services) Operative in Cairo, Egypt. The bank executive, along with three other pals, got caught up in a caper in Cairo and it followed them home after the war. Now, Tuck has to figure out who killed the executive, what connection it has to Cairo—if any, and what a stash of missing Egyptian treasure has to do with all of it. 

Dying to Tell was particularly enjoyable because it wraps several of my favorite topics—Tuck and his pals solving murder, World War II, Egypt, and the OSS. My mentor, Wally, is one of the last surviving OSS operatives in the world. OSS, as many know, is the forerunner to the CIA. Wally fought the Germans in WWII as an operative and went on to be a senior big shot in the CIA, too. But, I love all things history—especially Egypt—and always loved the old movies centering on that. So, it was a blast writing a story that brought all those things together. Dying to Tell also addresses Tuck’s personal situation—being a dead detective and married to a beautiful, brilliant history professor. Tuck’s fate—and the murderer’s—become entwined and the outcome will surprise.

So for those of you who may know me, no, this book is not about me either. I’ve never been a bank executive, never served with the OSS in Cairo, and I don’t have a stash of Egyptian antiquities in my basement. And, I’m not dead (yet). I’m just a lonely author who has had the great fortune of knowing most of these amazing people. Just don’t tell them I write about them!


Tj O’Connor is the author of Dying to Know and Dying for the Past, the first two novels in a mystery series that follows a dead detective as he solves murders and learns to be back among the living but not one of them. The third installment of his series, Dying to Tell, will hit the shelves in January 2016. Tj is an international security consultant specializing in anti-terrorism, investigations, and threat analysis—life experiences that drive his novels. With his former life as a government agent and years as a consultant, he has lived and worked around the world in places like Greece, Turkey, Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, and throughout the Americas—among others. 

Many of Tj’s plots and characters come from his travels and cases he’s worked around the world—except for being a dead detective, he’s making that up as he goes along—at least, so far.

Dying to Know is the first published novel of eight and was selected as a finalist for Foreword Reviews’2014 INDIEFAB Book of the Year for Mysteries. Between consulting and writing, Tj has little free time, and that time is spent feeling guilty for not consulting and writing.

1 comment:

  1. A good interview, Judy. I think T.J. O'Connor's books would be ones I like. I look forward to seeing you and him at Malice.