Author Wil Mara has a unique appreciation for epic turning points, not all of them as expertly foreshadowed as those in his award-winning suspense novels. A proud native of southern New Jersey, he cites Bruce Springsteen’s revelation upon the announcement of the singer’s archives being housed at Monmouth University – where Mara attended college: “He gave a talk recently and recalled walking a barren boardwalk back when nobody had even heard of him, and thinking no one had tapped into that yet – people were running away from Jersey – and that was the spark, that idea ‘that it’s all mine’.”
Brandishing a pen instead of a guitar, Mara would eventually transform himself into more than just a bystander on his own parcel of Jersey shore. His 2005 debut novel, The Wave, chronicled the frightening ‘what-ifs’ of a monster Tsunami devastating the small island oasis of Jersey’s Long Beach Island and won the New Jersey Notable Book Award, establishing Mara as a provocative newcomer to disaster fiction. The searing novel became the flagship title of a series of disaster novels, 2012’s The Gemini Virus and this year’s acclaimed Fallout Shelter, but it would be the first two installments of his Jason Hammond suspense trilogy – 2013’s Frame 232 and 2017’s Nevada Testament – that separated Mara from the page-turner herd. His creation of a billionaire sleuth with the common-man touch for uncovering the shadow-conspirators responsible for the dismantling the American dream resonates in the Trump era like no other edge-of-your seat suspense hero. The Hammond myth is also an invitation to rediscover one of the most credible under-the-radar suspense novelists’ writing today.
Mara’s metamorphosis from Jersey dreamer into self-taught novelist in the early-2000s is an inspiring DIY tale rivaling Stephen King’s rise from janitor to author. “I wrote my first manuscript working the night shift alone at a computer store located at the quiet end of a dying mall,” recalls Mara. The resourceful writer also experienced living in his car, ghost-writing five books for one of the oldest classic children’s literary franchises, working a day-job as an editor in a publishing house, and receiving the honor of having a species of snake named after him (for that story please see Q&A Below), before achieving the once-in-a-lifetime thrill of getting that first novel published. “There’s no other feeling in the world comparable to it,” he says (Well, maybe it’s a tie with the snake-thing). It’s no wonder Mara strives for the unexpected in every story arc. He was placed for adoption 48 hours after he was born, his search for his birth mother revealing he is a distant relation to singer Dolly Parton, who – Wil humorously points out – is a direct descendant of Andrew Jackson.
Mara practices similar unsparing research for all his books. Consider it due diligence when you’ve generated a collection of fiction that spans catastrophic weather events, a deadly virus outbreak, a forgotten witness to the Kennedy Assassination, the nightmare scenario of a full-on nuclear disaster, the hidden legacy of the world’s most eccentric business recluse, and the death of Princess Diana, which is the subject of his next novel, Queen Of Hearts – which follows Hammond as he unravels the conspiracy surrounding her untimely demise. Wil Mara also leaves no stone unturned when linking past historical flashpoints with significant contemporary narratives and events. “I believe there are reasons why the guy who works hard, who pays his bills, supports his family has become so disenfranchised,” says Mara. “Why there’s such a wealth disparity, why we’ve slid so far down in only a generation. The Hammond novels bring light to people who want to get their country back. Jason Hammond isn’t off on some conspiratorial fantasy that is so far-fetched you become discouraged reading it. Readers feel in their gut when they’re being fed hokum. I’ll spend hours of research just to get two lines right. Hammond is a genuinely good person getting to the bottom of it all. He’s not a Bond or a Jason Bourne who’s going to kill six guys on twelve inches of ground, but a real guy who discovers he has a knack for sleuthing; a guy who dedicates himself to exposing the people who have the power to make things better but don’t. The only wish-fulfillment here is he’s somebody on our side, for a change.”
What are your earliest memories of being a writer?
I was a good writer in school but thought anybody could do it. It wasn’t until I did a very long report on the Revolutionary War in 8th grade and the teacher thought I plagiarized it, because it was so complete and more thorough than rest of the class, that I realized I maybe had a special talent. Not for copying others work (LOL), but for diligently capturing on paper that ‘sweetspot’ between imagination and research that makes for good, realistic fiction.
Do you remember submitting your first manuscript?
Vividly. It was a non-fiction manuscript in the naturalistic, wildlife genre, and unlike a lot of writers’ trials and tribulations (believe me I’ve had my share of mine) it was accepted for publishing soon after I submitted it. I brought it to a publisher that just happened to be down at the shore hoping they would just critique it. They sat me down in a lunch room and an hour-and-half later they put a contract in front of me. I was stunned. Soon after, I wrote another one for them and they offered me a job in their editorial department, which is how I began working for my first publishing house.
What sparked you to begin writing fiction?
I think it’s a cross between necessity and having faith in your talent. I had gone through some hard times, living in my car for a couple months, moving into this little one room apartment with no heater over the noisiest bar in south Jersey. I remember telling a friend ‘this is where the turnaround starts.’ I got a gig writing for the classic children’s franchise the Boxcar Children Mysteries. I knew after that I’d have to aim for the Adult trade fiction market. Honestly, I think most of my ideas for the disaster and suspense novels were already ‘there’ and I just tapped into it. I think it was John Grisham who said ‘if you knew how easy it was you’d hate my guts.’ I’ve always approached writing very methodically, but the ideas were coming out faster than I could put them down. It’s like having a house but you can only paint one room at a time. My first idea that I fully fleshed out in a novel was a football book, The Draft. I did a tremendous amount of research for that book, so it also instilled in me the importance of getting the details right.
Do you ever get writer’s block?
I’ve never had even an hour of writer’s block in my entire career. I’m very humbled and lucky for that. I sit down and turn the faucet on and it just comes out. That’s not to say I haven’t had points in a Draft where I’ve had to switch gears or re-think the direction I was going in. I think starting in non-fiction, writing books for Scholastic and the school library market where the output has to be consistent may have trained me to be productive.
How did you get the idea for the Jason Hammond character?
I was sitting at home taking a break on another novel I was writing when this special on the Kennedy Assassination came on the TV. They were talking about the ‘babushka lady,’ who was a real woman present in Dealey Plaza the moment Kennedy was shot but has never been identified to this day. She wore a kerchief on her head – a Babushka’ – and was believed to have been photographing the event. I got the basic story idea for Frame 232 immediately – why would she be covering herself up. Does she have evidence that there was more than one person involved? Why did she never come forward? But as I was mapping all this out I started thinking there had to be someone in the middle of this who can sort it all out; a moralistic hero who is willing to go the distance to solve the mystery. It always bothered me that such an enormous public crime has never really been brought to a satisfactory close. That’s when I got the idea for Jason Hammond. If there is a real conspiracy behind all this, someone like Hammond would have the means (he’s a billionaire) and inclination to find out the truth. But not for his own agenda. I wanted him to be a genuinely good person who has inherited his wealth because his parents died, tragically, which makes him question everything out there, but at the same time have the ability to facilitate whatever is necessary to get to the bottom of it. I realized I could carry him into the Nevada Testament, this ordinary man with an extraordinary sense of justice to make things right again. It’s in the Nevada Testament that he realizes there is a conspiracy to bring down America as the standard of the world. He discovers that there is a shadow group who believes the best way to take down the U.S.A is from within. He’s an ordinary guy who has all the resources and power to follow through wherever the mystery leads him. He possesses the energy, the physical ability, the intelligence and focus, and most of all the moral compass to help those people who think their hands are tied. The people who wonder what happened to their country; who wonder why they can’t make ends meet like their parents’ generation did. The disenfranchised. Hammond is the guy who can withstand – no matter the pressure from this conspiracy group – withstand their machinations to expose them and make the world a better place.
Why did you want to make it a trilogy?
He’s such a dynamic character with an arc that touches on so many things that have happened in this country the past 30 years, I realized I couldn’t capture it all in one novel. The third book is the Queen Of Hearts which delves into the death of Princess Diana, with Hammond connecting the dots of this sinister group that wants America to fall even lower. Life for the average American has been sinking for a generation and Jason Hammond discovers it’s no accident.
You talk about the importance of research, how crucial was it to the Hammond books?
Very important. For Frame 232 I went to Dallas and did my own investigation of the Kennedy assassination, the Babushka Lady, and what it would take to unearth the facts that Hammond discovers in the novel. For the Nevada Testament I did a tremendous amount of research on Howard Hughes, who is a very key part of the story. The book follows Hammond to Las Vegas where he uncovers the explosive conspiracy leading him to a search for Howard Hughes’ will. A revealing insight into Hammond’s character is that by creating his world, I basically had to draw on the more decent impulses of a man who is out to right the ship but also happens to be a billionaire. It was fun creating his persona, because our images of billionaires today – especially in the Trump era – are mostly negative. I think readers looking for a character to fix the real world and at the same time be true to what he stands for will find Jason Hammond a fascinating hero for our times.
Regarding the conspiratorial aspects to the trilogy, do you believe that certain events are controlled by unseen forces or actors, or that mysterious connections affect history in ways not governed by the public?
I think there are two components to the conspiracy movement out there. First let’s make no mistake that the internet and technology have made the theories more pervasive. I believe there are the hokey theories out there like Area 51 and Alien abductions that are almost comical, but still have their believers. Then there are the conspiracies that turned out to be fact like the Lincoln assassination, the cigarette industry conspiracy where Big Tobacco covered up for decades about the harmful effects of smoking, or the lingering doubt about who killed Kennedy. The kind of conspiracy I’m interested in is the subtle erosion of the American dream. I can understand how the average person out there looks around and begins to feel helpless, begins to feel victimized by the massive transfer of wealth where a CEO now makes 300 times what the average wage-earner makes. Where they can no longer make their insurance payments. Where 70% of the country has less than $1,000 in savings. How did we get to this? Are there other forces at play? It’s like that book ‘Dude, Where’s My country?’ People are legitimately asking the question and when the representatives we elect can’t come up with answers, you start to wonder. People who read Frame 232 and move on to The Nevada Testament, will say Aha! I’ve always wondered who was behind this. Nevada Testament is the most intense material I’ve ever written. Is it fiction? Yes? Does it resonate in today’s world of falling down the rabbit hole? You better believe it does. We need a Jason Hammond more than ever.
And about that snake thing?
I had an interest in herpetology when I was younger (the branch of zoology studying reptiles and amphibians) and went on to write many books in the field, including Venomous Snakes Of The World, and Desert Snakes Of North America. I became an editor at TFH Publications, which as the largest publisher of Animal books. During this time, I had a snake species named after me, the Mexican False Corral Snake – Pliocercus Wilmarai. You can look it up in the Epoynm Dictionary of Reptiles. I’ve always said the publishing world was a jungle, but it’s comforting to know my name will at least live on in the animal kingdom after I’ve gone.