A Conversation With: Joel Fox
June 29, 2014
Author, political advocate, researcher extraordinaire, and more!
Today, I’m conversing with Joel Fox. I most recently visited with Joel in person at the 2014 Left Coast Crime Conference. He was the moderator of a Small Press panel I was on with Kathleen Asay, Lorna Collins, and Reba White Williams. It was an informative and fun experience. And that had a lot to do with the moderator—Joel did an excellent job! As always at these conferences, you get to connect with old friends, and make new friends—and being on a good panel is icing on the cake.
Joel and I had talked before at previous conferences, and I kept in the back of my mind I would someday want to have a “conversation” with Joel. Well that day has come, and I’m so pleased to be chatting with Joel at last.
When you go to your website, http://www.joelfox.com/ , the visitor is greeted on your Home Page with a great book cover picture and synopsis of your latest, FDR’S TREASURE A Zane Rigby Mystery. What grabbed me right away was—and along with the unique title, Lincoln’s Hand–was the name, Zane Rigby. Your protagonist’s name not only caught my attention, but has also stuck in my brain. So, to start, Where did the name Zane Rigby come from? And, do you have thoughts you’d like to share on the importance of just the right name for a character?
First, Madeline, let me thank you for the opportunity to join your conversation.
There is a story behind my character’s name. I have two sons. My wife and I had a system for naming our children, sharing names, and seeing if we could come to an agreement. No problem with our first son, Zachary. But we had more difficulty agreeing on a second name. I wanted Zane. She was not convinced. When the boy was born we agreed to comprise and chose a name we mutually agreed upon — Eric. However, while she was still in the hospital, my wife had second thoughts. She went to the nurses’ station and said she wanted to change the name to Zane. The nurse said it was too late. The doctor had signed the papers. If she wanted to change the name she would have to go down to the Hall of Records in Los Angeles and do the paperwork to change the name – and, oh by the way, pay $75. My wife said, “Eric is a fine name!” and returned to her room. (By the way Eric prefers his name to Zane.)
I always liked the name Zane and if I couldn’t use it for my child I sure as heck could use it for my character. I was the king of my world, so Zane it was. Rigby I borrowed from the Beatles song, Eleanor Rigby.
My feeling is that a main character should have a name easy to remember and not difficult to pronounce for a general audience. I know many writers seek unusual names that hopefully will become unforgettable. How many Sherlocks do you know? I understand that. My goal is to try and find the happy medium, something that is not too common but not too extreme and easy to remember.
What a great story! And now Eleanor Rigby is also stuck in my head… I’m reading Lincoln’s Hand now, and without giving anything away, think the concepts/ideas in your book so creative, and unique. And being a native Illinoisan, stories about Lincoln, are of course captivating! Is there a back-story to how and why this particular tale?
The story of Lincoln’s Hand is based on actual history – an attempt to steal Abraham Lincoln’s body and hold it for both money and to trade for an imprisoned counterfeiter in 1876. While my mystery takes place in modern times, the catalyst for the story is the grave robbing event and the question: Is Lincoln in his grave and if not where is he?
My connection to this story came many years ago.
As a young man, maybe even a teenager, I watched a late night movie, The Abductors, a B movie from the 1950s that never got much attention. It starred Victor McLaglen, an Oscar winner from the 1930s who was near the end of his career and directed by his son Andrew McLaglen, who was at the beginning of his career. Andrew would go on to direct a lot of westerns starring John Wayne and other western stars. The movie was about the Lincoln body kidnapping. I was shocked at the audacity of the idea. I said what writer can think of such a thing. Then I found out it was true! The story was in the back of my mind and when I was thinking of a plot for a mystery it came back to me. I thought it would be a good basis for a mystery – solving a long ago puzzle and a modern day murder. I’m a history fan so I was comfortable with the topic.
Just love the way thoughts, events, places—all that stuff tie together to create novel ideas. I’ve never seen the Abductors, but it’s now on my DVR list. Continuing in line with my last question, you have a page on your website, Tales from the Writing Road, which I just love. You go into your research and some other very interesting tidbits outside of Lincoln research. I’d love to hear what for you have been highlights of your Writing Road. And how your writing has been affected/changed/enhanced?
The conclusion of Lincoln’s Hand was definitely influenced by my research trip to Springfield, Illinois where President Lincoln’s tomb is located. I found a book in an old shop there that had been written in 1890 by the caretaker of the tomb. Something in the book gave me the idea how to conclude the mystery. Of course, all the settings in my book around Springfield were enhanced by my travel there. I made up locations of some sites, like a local bar, if I needed to, but also included historical sites and a sense of the countryside because on my travels. I would have never known about the magnificent courthouse in Lincoln, Illinois about thirty miles north of Springfield if I had not driven around. It made it into my book. Interestingly, I also saw a placard on a building in Lincoln, IL that said a tavern standing on that spot had been a meeting place for the conspirators who attempted to steal Lincoln’s body. That too was mentioned in my story.
FDR’s Treasure has a different tale. Yes, I managed to get to Hyde Park, New York and visit FDR’s Library and the railroad station that plays a role in the book and gave me the setting I would use as tension builds toward the conclusion.
However, a key location in FDR’s Treasure is Cocos Island, a island off of Costa Rica about 300 miles west in the Pacific Ocean. It was visited a number of times by President Roosevelt in the 1930s while on fishing expeditions. It reportedly contains not one, but three buried treasures. In my research, I discovered that some believe it was both the model for the island in the novel Jurassic Park and for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
Not an easy place to get to. I had to relay on the Internet and Google Earth to learn about the island and its history.
For sure, all your Illinois research paid off. Being from Illinois, albeit that strange city called Chicago, have driven around the state a lot, even went to a college in the “corn fields,”—all your research sounded so authentic. And your descriptive passages “took me right there.”
In my previous questions I was focusing on your Lincoln research travels, but I sure would also love to also hear about what it was like attending the FBI Los Angeles FBI Citizens Academy? Every year I try to attend the Public Safety Writers (PSWA) conference in Vegas to talk to and learn from public safety professionals. Boy, does talking to professionals really help in “getting it right.” I’m guessing your experience must have been awesome.
The FBI Citizen’s Academy was a unique experience. We met once a week for a few hours adjacent to the FBI headquarters in Los Angeles. Beyond meeting the Special Agent in Charge of the division and some of the other agents involved in community outreach, each week we heard from different agents on areas the FBI covers. For example, one week an agent assigned to LAX discussed his role there. Another time we followed step-by-step how the FBI tracked down and arrested a foreign national spy. The agent who was part of the operation led the discussion.
We also went through a training session that the agents must go through watching a film and deciding how and when to confront suspects. Graduation day took place at the local sheriff’s firing range where we watched a shooting exhibition geared to how different arms work and what their affects are. Finally, we had an opportunity ourselves on the firing range. One weapon we were allowed to fire was a Thompson submachine gun – like the ones you see in the movies of the 1930s and 40s. Alas, we didn’t get those round clips famous on the Thompson. We had five bullets than we squeezed off one at a time.
Sort of still in the travel arena, but from a different angle. I’ve lived in the Midwest, Texas (stands alone!), and West Coast. But never on the East Coast. And seems like I’m always asking, Any thoughts on East versus West you’d like to share? And I know it’s trite, but do you have a favorite location?
I grew up in the Boston area. I attribute my love of history to breathing the air there, for with every whiff I seem to draw in history. I would drive by the early homes of John and John Quincy Adams often. They were only a few miles from my house. Both the East and West have their own compelling characteristics and stories to tell. I can’t say I have a favorite. I enjoy both locations.
Oh Joel, how diplomatic you are! I think it very special you were so close to such historic sites.
On a completely different front, and without being political, I love the line, “Fox likes to say he has a long rap sheet in California politics.” From a writing perspective has your political experience, helped, hindered, improved your writing?
Politics involve a lot of human drama and often complex scenarios so in that regard I think it informs my writing. I have even on occasion used lines I heard in my work that were apropos for a character to say. I have also done a lot of writing related to political issues. I have been published hundreds of times on op-ed pages of newspapers and even more on political blogs so the demands of writing succinctly and meeting deadlines certainly is beneficial in helping to develop the craft. Yes, it’s a different kind of writing but the discipline is similar. I suppose a down side could be that someone who has a public career in a controversial area may be judged unfairly by perspective readers prior to giving the writing a chance.
Your fictional work that I’ve read, stands on its own, I think. Just a darned good read, no politics involved! And finally, Joel, what’s on the horizon for you?
I will soon issue a stand alone book that again follows my love of history. Eve’s Scar deals with a woman bewitched in colonial New England, never changing appearances and moving around to hide her identity until, aiding the female governor of California running for president, she steps in front of an assassin’s bullet. If her true story unravels the candidate’s race is doomed and Eve will be subject to investigation from science and religion. The book takes place today but has flashback chapters to her experiences as she goes through history.
I’m also in the process of writing a novella, a more noir like mystery.
Wow, Eve’s Scar really sounds intriguing…
Joel, this has been so much fun, and interesting, and I wish you continued success in all your endeavors! Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. Looking forward to seeing you at Bouchercon.
 Joel Fox likes to say he has a long rap sheet in California politics. For three decades he has been a taxpayer and small business advocate, served on numerous state commissions, worked on many ballot issue campaigns, and advised a number of candidates. He is an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Public Policy at Pepperdine University.
Authoring hundreds of opinion pieces, Fox has been published in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco Chronicle as well as other newspapers and websites.
Fox completed the Los Angeles FBI Citizens Academy program gaining a deeper understanding of the FBI and its mission.
Growing up in Massachusetts, Fox says he got his love of history breathing the air in the Boston area, often driving past the homes of the presidents Adams and visiting many historical sites.