Author Wil Mara has a unique appreciation for epic turning points, although perhaps not as expertly foreshadowed as those in his award-winning suspense novels. A proud native of New Jersey, he cites Bruce Springsteen’s revelation upon the announcement of the singer’s archives being housed at Monmouth University—“He gave a talk recently where he reaclled walking a barren boardwalk back when nobody had even heard of him, and thinking no one had tapped into New Jersey’s rich storytelling potential yet—that, in fact, people were running away from Jersey—and that was the spark, that idea that ‘it’s all mine’.”
Getting behind a computer instead of a guitar, Wil would eventually transform himself into more than just a bystander on his own parcel of the Jersey shore. His 2005 debut novel for adults, Wave, chronicled the frightening ‘what-ifs’ of a monster tsunami devastating the small island oasis of Long Beach Island. Wave sold through its first printing in just six weeks and won the New Jersey Notable Book Award, establishing Wil as a provocative newcomer to the thriller genre. It was then picked up in paperback and eBook by publishing leviathan Macmillan and became the flagship title of a series of disaster novels, which would then produce 2012’s The Gemini Virus and 2017’s acclaimed Fallout. But it would be the first two installments of his Jason Hammond suspense trilogy—2013’s Frame 232 and 2017’s The Nevada Testament—that separated Wil from the rest of the pack. 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.
Wil’s metamorphosis from Jersey dreamer into professional writer in the late 1980s is an inspiring DIY tale rivaling Stephen King’s rise from janitor to author. “I wrote my first manuscript while working at a computer store located at the quiet end of a dying mall,” he recalls. “And, my God, a publisher bought it on first draft. I hadn’t even spellchecked it. I just wanted an opinion, maybe some encouragement. Next thing I knew, I had a contract in my hand. It was ridiculous.” He also experienced the horrors of an abusive home and a stint living in his car. Then came his first novel, achieved through ghostwriting five books in the popular ‘Boxcar Children’ mysteries—one of the oldest classic children’s literary franchises in the world. “There’s no feeling like it,” he says, “to see these characters, who’s latest story existed only in your imagination, come alive on the page and know that others will be able to sit and enjoy them as well.” It’s no wonder Wil strives for the unexpected in every story arc. He was placed for adoption 48 hours after he was born. Twentysome years later, his search for his birth mother revealed that he is a distant relation to singer Dolly Parton and, generations before her, a direct descendant of US President Andrew Jackson.
Wil has become known for tireless and 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 (and real) witness to the Kennedy assassination, the nightmare scenario of a full-on nuclear disaster, the hidden and world-shaking legacy of the world’s most eccentric business recluse, and the death of Princess Diana, which is the subject of his next Jason Hammond novel, The Diana Directive. It follows Jason as he unravels the conspiracy surrounding Diana’s untimely demise and once again features research that has unearthed some true-to-life details that will astound the public. The Diana Directive also has links to the previous Hammmond novel, The Nevada Testament, which together, along with an as-yet untitled third book, will form a trilogy that will have more than a few shadow figures in our modern world feeling very uneasy. And Wil isn’t hesitant to reveal why he’s decided to pursue these stories—“I believe there are very deliberate reasons why the guy who works hard to pay his bills and support his family has become so disenfranchised. Wealth inequality has always existed; that’s normal and to be expected. But to the degree it exists now…no, that’s not just a matter of economic fortitude. This is being done very much on purpose by some very nasty people. And I’m going to pull all of them out of the darkness and put them under a microscope for the rest of society to see, plain and clear. That’s the real reason I research the Hammond books to the degree that I do. They’re not some far-fetched conspiratorial fantasies. Readers feel in their gut when they’re being fed crap, and I’m not going to do that. I’ll spend hours of research just to get two lines right. Jason Hammond is a genuinely good person determined to expose the slime of the world. 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 dedicates himself to rooting out the people who have the power to make things better but don’t. The main wish-fulfillment here is that he’s somebody with immense power and ability, yet he’s someone who’s unswervingly on our side…for a change.”
What are your earliest memories of being a writer?
I was a good writer in school, but I really 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 those from 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 solid, realistic prose.
Do you remember submitting your first manuscript?
Very much so. It was a non-fiction manuscript in the naturalistic, wildlife genre, and it was accepted for publishing the day I submitted it, which is beyond crazy. I brought it to a publisher 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. I wrote another one for them and they offered me a job in their editorial department, which is how my career in publishing began.
What sparked your interest in writing fiction?
I’ve always loved a good story, having read loads of them as a kid. And story ideas would come to me all the time, too. I didn’t understand what they were, really, or why. But then I thought maybe I should try writing some of them down. I didn’t really get the motivation to do so, however, until things in life started to get tough. At one point I was penniless and living in my car for a couple months. Then I moved into this little one-room apartment with no heat over what had to be one of the noisiest bars along the Jersey Shore. It sucked, but it relaly motivated me, too. I remember telling a friend “this is where the turnaround starts. It’s entirely up to me now.” That’s around the time I got the editorial position I mentioned before. A few years later, I was offered the chance to write for the classic children’s franchise the ‘Boxcar Children’ mysteries. Not long after that, I wanted to aim for the adult trade fiction market. Honestly, I think most of my ideas for the disaster and suspense novels were already in my head, and I just tapped into them. I think it was John Grisham who said ‘if you knew how easy it was, you’d hate my guts.’ And once an initial inspiration strikes, I approach writing very methodically. But the ideas have been coming out faster than I can put them down. The first idea that I fully fleshed out in a novel for adults was a football book, The Draft. I did a tremendous amount of research for it, as I believe in the importance of getting the details right. And that one went on to become a feature film starring the terrific Kevin Costner called Draft Day, so I guess it was a good approach.
Do you ever get writer’s block?
I’ve never had even a minute’s of writer’s block, and I’m very thankful for that. Very thankful. 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 manuscript where I’ve had to switch gears or re-think the direction I was going in. I think starting in nonfiction, writing books for Scholastic and other publishers in the school library market where the output has to be consistent may have trained me to be productive to that degree.
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.