Thursday, February 29, 2024

Jeffrey James Higgins, Author of The Forever Game

Jeffrey James Higgins is a former reporter and retired supervisory special agent who writes thriller novels, short stories, creative nonfiction, and essays. He has wrestled a suicide bomber, fought the Taliban in combat, and chased terrorists across five continents. He received both the Attorney General’s Award for Exceptional Heroism and the DEA Award of Valor.


Jeffrey has been interviewed by CNN, New York Times, Fox News, Investigation Discovery, Declassified, and USA Today. He has won numerous literary awards, including the PenCraft Book Awards Fiction Book of the Year and a Readers’ Favorite Gold Medal. Jeffrey is a #1 Amazon bestselling author.


He’s also a hell of a nice guy who is tireless in his support of other authors. I met Jeff when I moderated a panel a few years ago at the Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity conference and always look forward to getting together with him. I suspect you will, too, after reading this.


One Bite at a Time: Welcome back to the blog, Jeff. It’s always a pleasure to chat with you.

The new book, The Forever Game, doesn’t just have all the elements that made your earlier thrillers so popular, but is timely to boot, as it deals with artificial intelligence. Knowing the lag times between writing a book and seeing it on the market, you were a little ahead of the curve in latching onto AI as the motivating force here. What brought this to your attention so much you decided to write a book about it?

Jeffrey James Higgins: About five years ago, I heard about the CEO of an AI company in Silicon Valley who had offered a beta program to friends and family where he would download a model of their brains. In effect, he was attempting to preserve a digital version of their minds. The minute I heard the story, I knew I had to write about it.


Artificial intelligence will change everything. Most people don’t understand all the ramifications, but the world as we know it is about to change. AI can be scary, but the genie is out of the bottle, so we need to embrace the future and try to make the best decisions we can.


Ethical and moral questions are moving from the theoretical into the real world. It’s an amazing time with potential to make the world better, but it’s also fraught with danger.


OBAAT: Adam Locke is a decorated DEA agent, which is something you know quite a bit about. How did your experiences shape the story?

JJH: I open the story with Adam Locke conducting a DEA mission. I conducted hundreds of operations over the years, and I’ve been in combat, so I think I write with realism. I’ve had bullets snap through the air over my head, RPGs fly past me, and rockets land around me.


Having those experiences allows me to describe what characters feel during life-and-death conflicts. The Forever Game is a thriller, but the protagonist is an ex-DEA agent, like me, so the way he approaches a mystery is authentic. I was fortunate to be able to serve my country, and I hope my investigative experience translates into believable fiction.


OBAAT: The Amazon page reads: “The Forever Game examines the philosophical issues that arise when artificial intelligence can cure disease, download minds, and offer eternal life. It explores the nature of consciousness and what it means to be human.”


“Examine” and “explore” can be loaded words in fiction. Did you have a position you wanted to take, or was the goal only to make people aware of aspects of AI they might not otherwise think of?

JJH: My protagonist, Adam Locke, has a girlfriend who is dying of cancer, and he’s trying to save her. Artificial intelligence gives him hope that he can do that. But scientists are dying, and he believes someone is killing them to steal the priceless technology. In reality, AI can become an incredible medical diagnostic tool. Not only will it be able to detect disease early on and with less human error, but using technology like nano bots, it will cure disease and repair the human substrate. It has the potential to extend life for hundreds of years. If we can model the human brain, we have the potential to download consciousness. My novel explores the ethical issues that arise as we near this potential, but it does so within a fast-paced thriller. I don’t take a position on the issues, but I show the reader the benefits and dangers we will face living in a world with AI.


OBAAT: New York Times bestselling author Mark Greaney said The Forever Game is “a tautly-plotted thriller bursting with both action and depth.”


Speaking as both a writer and a reader, I can attest that pulling off both action and depth is a lot harder than it sounds. Action tends to skim the surface of thought to trigger the reader’s adrenaline; depth implies time for thought. How did you balance the two, and did one tend to come easier for you than the other?


JJH: That was a nice blurb by Mark Greaney. If anyone hasn’t read his work, I recommend it. The Gray Man is an iconic character, and I enjoy everything Mark writes.


I think depth of character is important to make readers care about characters when they’re in jeopardy. Internal and external conflict are both important to a layered story, and both must affect each other. A character must want something, and obstacles must prevent him or her from getting it. As important as character wants are what a character needs to change. One drives plot and the other structures the character arc. Ideally, a character’s needs must influence the resolution of the wants in the external conflict.


Action should also be more necessary to advance plot. Everything in a story should further either plot or character. Plots themselves can have depth if they include deeper themes. Universality of themes helps readers relate. I also like to travel up and down the ladder of abstraction to keep the pace moving and make reader think.


OBAAT: We’ll talk about Elaine’s more later, but how does being a more or less full-time restauranteur affect your writing schedule? Maybe even more important, has it affected your process?

JJH: I don’t consider myself a restauranteur because Elaine’s is my wife’s dream, but I work there between 50-60 hours a week as day manager and general manager. I also coordinate literary events and interview authors, which takes another 10-15 hours per week.


I was a full-time author before we opened the restaurant, and I wrote at least two thousand words a day. Now, I get up early and am lucky to write one thousand words a day. My time is very structured, which is necessary when I’m so busy. I think the key to remaining productive is to write every day. Even a few hundred words a day will result in a book a year. My process is the same, but instead of having all morning to write, I only have one or two hours. I believe that’s enough, as long as I stay focused and make the most of my time. We all can find an hour or more each day, so there’s no excuse not to write. As a storyteller, I need to write to be happy.


OBAAT: Elaine’s, the restaurant you operate with your wife in Alexandria VA has become a salon for writers’ events; you’ve been kind enough to host me twice in the past year. As I can attest firsthand, your skills as a moderator and one-on-one interviewer aren’t just excellent; you’re the best I’ve worked with. How do you put together the questions for such events, and, maybe even more impressive, where do you find the time?

JJH: Thank you so much for that wonderful compliment. The restaurant is my wife’s passion, and I saw the opportunity to use our space to help the writing community. A massive predatory industry has cropped up and targeted authors, so we decided to become a haven for readers and writers. We don’t charge anything for literary events. It’s our way of helping writers and giving them a place to celebrate their work.


I love interviewing authors. I’m fascinated by their relationships with story, how they create characters and plot, and their process. I think my genuine interest creates fertile ground for good interviews.


You’re right about my difficulty in finding the time to hold these events. I also moderate other events online, and I’ve had weeks where I’ve interviewed more than ten authors, so I rarely plan more than a few minutes before each. I usually read a chapter to get a feel for an author’s style then I question them about their work and the craft of writing. I listen to what they say and ask deeper questions. I pride myself on asking authors questions they’ve never heard before and making them think.


I’ve been recording my interviews, and I hope to share them as a podcast, videos, or written transcripts. The authors I’ve spoken with are talented writers and interesting people. I think readers will enjoy hearing what they had to say.


OBAAT: What’s on the agenda for you? Conferences, other appearances, writing projects? Whatever is on your mind right now.

JJH: I’ve never been as busy as I am right now. I addition to launching The Forever Game, I’m working with three other publishers. I just signed a four-book contract with Severn River Publishing for my Nathan Burke espionage thriller series. I’m working with them to edit the first book, “The Havana Syndrome,” and book two is due in August. Next year, Running Wild Press will publish “Shaking,” a mystery thriller, and I’m about to sign a contract with another publisher for “The Fluttering,” a psychological suspense thriller. My agent and I are also working on “Relic,” an action-adventure thriller trilogy. I’m also working on a sequel to my novella, Forsaken. I’m excited about all these projects, and I wish I could focus on them full-time.


There are so many wonderful writing conferences, and I recommend authors seek them out to meet other writers. Conferences are wonderful opportunities to learn the craft and network within the industry. This year, I hope to attend Thrillerfest, BoucherCon, and Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity.


Thank you very much for hosting me again. If readers are interested in my writing, they can find links to my work at


OBAAT: It was my pleasure, Jeff. Readers, if you get a chance to catch Jeff conducting an interview or sitting on a panel, take full advantage. I’ve never worked with a better interviewer. 

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Thoughts on How to Handle Future Bouchercon Controversies

 I had a post drafted for today that discussed the recent Bouchercon Otto Penzler controversy, but Anthony Horowitz’s withdrawal from this year’s conference made the topic moot. The whole episode brought to mind things that seem to come up with increasing frequency, so I’m considering them fair game.

 For those unaware, I’m not just a cisgendered white heterosexual male; I’m old. If that disqualifies my opinion from your consideration, you can stop reading now. No hard feelings. I’ll catch you next week.

 Among the benefits of being my age is – at least should be – an ability to gain context through viewing the world through the perspective of time. I’d hate to think I haven’t learned anything in sixty-eight years, so I continue to see what I might do differently if faced with similar circumstances. As a man with a temper, this comes in handy. (Those who have seen my temper know that is not a self-effacing comment.)

 There is much injustice in the world. Readers and writers conferences are not immune, and people are right to point it out when it happens. The recent Penzler controversy had to do with misogyny, but race and LGBTQ+ concerns are never far from public attention, nor should they be. The question is what to do about them. Too often the first impulse is to withdraw from the conference and talk about a boycott, but no one ever talks about what a boycott would accomplish other than making the participants feel good about their self-perceived purity.

 But what about the collateral damage? Let’s stick with Bouchercon and Penzler for a moment. Who would it harm if everyone who objected to his appearance chose to skip the conference? Certainly not Otto, but if a total boycott were successful enough it could put a significant crimp into Bouchercon’s finances and endanger future events. Is that what anybody wants?

 I’m sure there are some out there thinking “If that’s how the conference is going to be run, maybe it should go away.” Let’s step back a second and think of all the good Bouchercon does. In addition to the charitable work, the celebration of reading has value in a world that seems to care less about reading all the time. It’s also a chance for readers and writers – who are more likely than not introverts – to get together in a safe place with kindred spirits. Do we want to endanger that over a symbolic gesture not likely to accomplish anything concrete?

 So what can we do? We can express our displeasure as Lee Goldberg did so eloquently in a letter he shared on Facebook.

 But what if Horowitz hadn’t gotten everyone off the hook by withdrawing?

I think the best response would have been to go to Nashville, do everything that makes Bouchercon special, then boycott the guest of honor event. I can think of no better way to show what the crime fiction community thinks of Otto than to make him  interview Horowitz in an empty room. A conference boycott would allow him to claim martyrdom; mass avoidance of  his specific event sends a much more pointed and credible message.

 I raised this point on Facebook and Lori Rader-Day made an excellent counterpoint: How many people there either don’t know or don’t care and would go anyway? I have two thoughts on that:

 1.    If they don’t know, then it should be our job to educate them. Have pins made up for folks to wear. It could be as simple as “Boycott Otto,” though something more cryptic. “Ask me about Otto.” Notices on the bulletin boards. Arm-, wrist-, or headbands. Messages on the Bouchercon Facebook page. Whatever works.

2.    If they know and still want to come, well, it’s a free country.

Otto Penzler has a right to hold abhorrent positions. Let him come. It’s not as if he was going to give a pro-misogyny speech or hold a men’s rights rally. We could demonstrate our disdain by effectively shunning him, or by making a point of exposing how wrong his ideas about women are by showing strong, empowered women who no longer feel threatened by his Cro-Magnon outlook. To say “he can’t come or we won’t” is a form of cancelation. Seize the opportunity to expose his wrongheadedness to those previously unaware of it. To discourage such discourse is no better than banning books, which I assume is something no one reading this advocates.

 I am not defending Otto Penzler, nor Bouchercon’s invitation. (I know, it was at Horowitz’s request; the committee still formalized it.) The apology issued after Horowitz withdrew was an example of the non-apology apologies that have become so prevalent. The decision to invite him was tone deaf and insensitive. I dwell on it here because a similar situation is bound to come up again, and we should all think about what remedies we propose: Will this accomplish something? Or am I just doing it to make myself feel better?

 I don’t know Otto Penzler; never met him. Based on what I know, I don’t feel like I missed much. If folks wanted to show their disdain for him, which do you think would be better: to boycott the conference, allowing him to claim martyrdom and possibly risking Bouchercon’s continued existence? Or  to give everyone a chance to show him exactly what they think of him in person?

 I know which I’d choose.

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Bad Samaritan Re-Release


Today is the re-issue date for the fifth Nick Forte novel, Bad Samaritan, originally published in January of 2018. This is currently the most recent novel in which Forte is the protagonist, though he does make an appearance in the Penns River novel, The Spread.

Bad Sam was my examination of men’s activist groups and the damage they cause to society at large through their refusal to accept women as equals. The inciting incident is a series of letters received by soccer mom Becky Tuttle, who writes a series of bodice-ripping potboilers under an assumed name. Becky is so concerned for her family’s privacy she hired an actor to handle all her in-person appearances and interviews; a true Remington Steele scenario. Not even her editor knows who Desiree d’Arnaud really is.

Someone figures it out, though, and is sending Becky letters addressed to her pen name at the Tuttle residence. The police stand back, as there is nothing overtly threatening in any of the letters. Still, Becky and her husband are creeped out.

While investigating Becky’s situation, Forte encounters Lily O’Donoghue, the beautiful and expensive prostitute who appeared in Forte 2, The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of. She’s being blackmailed and Forte volunteers to help out of a sense of obligation to Lily’s dead mother. The blackmailer turns up dead later the same night Forte confronts him.

I spent more time researching Bad Sam than any other Forte novel, as I wanted to be sure I was fair to all sides in the men’s rights argument. That research was the most distressing and disgusting work of my writing life to that point, as what we see in mainstream media barely scratches the surface of how vile these people are, including the women who support them.

Bad Sam was a problematic book from the beginning. As regular readers know, Forte is a tough guy in the Continental Op/Mike Hammer model, though informed with 21st Century sensibilities. While he empathizes with Becky’s and Lily’s plights, he still comes in as if he’s on a white horse, which in its way disempowers them even more. As might be expected in a story where a man feels as though he has to set things right for women regardless of what resolution they want, nothing works out the way Forte planned.

This is my most difficult book for me to write about. If you’d like more insight into Bad Sam, take a look at Benoit Lelieve’s review in Dead End Follies. It’s honest and fair and the best analysis of my work that has ever been done. I’ll let the book rise and fall on what Ben has to say about it.

Bad Samaritan is available on Amazon. Prices are $2.99 for Kindle and $9.99 for a paperback. It’s the last re-release in the Forte series. Next month will see the arrival of the sixth novel, and the first in six years, when Off the Books drops. Don’t worry that you’ll forget about it. I’m sure to remind you.

Thursday, February 8, 2024

The Age of Umbrage, Part Two

 This went viral on Facebook a few weeks ago: Name ten writers you’ve read at least five books by. The responses were plentiful and it was fun to see who others come back to time after time.

Until someone decided to take offense. Too many lists were oversaturated with male writers.

This is a multi-level complaint. First, it implies women are underrepresented as writers, but are they? As of 2021, according to, 50.4% of authors in the United States are women. True, they only make 96% as much money, but that can likely be attributed to sales. As women buy most of the books in this country, I’ll leave that question open.

(I don’t know why Wordsrated uses the term “salaries,” as fiction authors generally work on advances and royalties. If anyone can show I missed something, please let me know in the comments.)

More bothersome was the implication the respondents were  prejudice against women authors. Speaking only for myself as one who named all male writers, my tastes were formed forty to fifty years ago, when not nearly as many women were published. The Wordsrated study shows the average age of authors working in the United States is 42, which means most writers working today weren’t born when my tastes were coming together.

It was deplorable that women were so badly underrepresented in so many areas; we all suffered. I recently watched a video of the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein and was struck by how few female faces were in what was/is arguably the world’s greatest orchestra. By “few” I mean “none.” Today’s orchestras are better than their predecessors, if only because until recently they excluded half the talent pool.

It only makes sense that fiction writing, and reading, is better off with more proportional representation of  women and minorities. That doesn’t change my tastes. I appreciate Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, and Laura Lippman as outstanding writers; Kinsey Milhone, V.I. Warshawsky, and Tess Monahan are enduring and ground-breaking characters. I cut my PI reading teeth on Mike Hammer and Spenser; I like my detectives to be more proactive in their case resolutions. (Yes, by “proactive” I mean “violent.”) I came to love police procedurals through reading Joseph Wambaugh and Ed McBain. I’m not apologizing for it.

Do I wish women had been better represented in those days? Absolutely. Can I do anything about it? No. Even if I were to read nothing but books by women, it would not help those who were discriminated against fifty years ago; they’re all dead. And I really can’t do anything for those who were most damaged, because their books never saw the light of day.

People tend to listen to the music they fell in love with in high school and college for the rest of their lives. Our parents listened to swing bands long after they were no longer in vogue. I fell in love with jazz when I played in my high school’s stage band; with classical while performing in my college orchestra. Now I listen to a lot of country music because that’s what I heard around the house when I was a kid. It’s musical comfort food for me. About the youngest country singers I listen to today are Dwight Yoakum and Patty Loveless. Both are my age.

The types of books men and women write also matters. I doubt there is a better writer working today, crime or otherwise, than Megan Abbott. I loved Queenpin and think Bury Me Deep belongs in college classes. Since Dare Me, though, the books she writes are about people so distant from my tastes and interests I have no connection to them and, frankly, don’t really care what happens to them.

Psychological suspense stories are immensely popular gith now. These books typically involve a middle-class or higher person or family – often a woman – who is subjected to what can best be described as psychological torture by someone who may or may not be known to them. The best of these books are well written and obviously compelling to many or they wouldn’t sell as they do. I rarely read them. I grew up working class, and my sensibilities and sympathies remain so. Working class people don’t fuck with your mind; they fuck with you personally. I am far more likely to be drawn to protagonists in novels by Dennis Lehane or James D.F. Hannah, as those are people with whom I can most readily identify. As Lehane said when asked why he didn’t write about rich people: “I don’t give a fuck about them.” The same applies to my reading.

We all like what we like. As authors, we should be grateful that people are reading at all rather than taking them to task for not reading who we think they should read, whatever the reason. I’m 68 years old and there are more books I want to read than I have time for; I’m not looking for new horizons. I enjoy stumbling onto someone new – the past two years I tripped over Don Winslow and Loren Estelman – but their prose falls into my already established wheelhouse..

Let’s agree that I won’t criticize or try to shame you into reading what I think you should, and you will show me the same courtesy.

Or I’m liable to take umbrage.

Thursday, February 1, 2024

Some Critical Advice

 Some of you know I hold a master’s degree in Trumpet Performance from New England Conservatory. While I have not played for years, lessons learned through musical studies still resonate today, almost forty years after leaving the Conservatory.

Most of the day-to-day stuff came from my trumpet teacher, Charles Schlueter. Charlie was Principal Trumpet of the Boston Symphony at the time and he often found ways to relate everyday activities and principles to music; the reverse also works.

My best piece of writing advice also came from my time at NEC, from Benjamin Zander, who was then music director of the Boston Philharmonic. Ben taught a class titled “Chamber Music Interpretation” that was pivotal in how I approached all performances forever after.

The first day of class, Ben congratulated us on having chosen to dedicate our lives to music. He said it was a noble calling (he was right) and mentioned several luminaries whose paths we were following, no matter how remotely. I took the class out of curiosity but by the end of our first session Ben had me hooked.

He spoke of something else that day that stayed with me: being a musician would not be without cost. Among those costs was a discipline we would have to self-impose, of never listening to music solely for entertainment. Not that we couldn’t or shouldn’t enjoy music, but that we must always listen on a deeper level.

What did he mean by that? We could no longer afford just to hear the notes. We needed to look for some understanding of why the composer and/or performer made the choices they made. It didn’t matter if we were on an elevator and subjected to a Muzak version of “Thriller.” We should look for something to take away from it, either good or bad.

Casual musicians and other music lovers have asked if this ruined listening to music for me. The truth is the exact opposite. Listening critically opened new vistas of enjoyment, as I came to better understand which choices were available and which were more, or less, successful. It made listening a delight, though I must admit that I now listen to little music while doing anything that requires concentration, as my mind is too strongly attracted to the music.

How does that affect my writing? It affects my reading. I did not begin writing seriously until I was in my forties. I hadn’t taken an English composition class since freshman year of college, and the experimental “linguistics” education I received in junior high school gave me virtually no knowledge of grammar. I had to catch up in a hurry.

My solution was to adapt Ben Zander’s principle of critical listening to reading. As with music, once I got the hang of it, critical reading enhanced my enjoyment of what I read. I no longer read even a newspaper article without thinking of why the writer made this or that choice, what might have worked better, or what I would have done differently.

To prove this constant analysis of what I read in no way diminishes my enjoyment, I am currently reading Carl Hiaasen’s Bad Monkey. The Beloved Spouse™ will sometimes comment how she can hear me laughing out loud at various times, but I am still looking at the bits between the lines and words. “I see what he did there.” “That could come in handy for me some time.” “I wonder why he made that choice.”

If you want to be a writer, or claim to be one already, this might be the one piece of advice I would most want you to take to heart. If it sounds like too much work, then maybe writing is not for you.