Friday, July 17, 2015

Interview with writer and debut thriller novelist Jeffrey Hunter McQuain

I’m wrapping up the week with an interview with nonfiction writer and now thriller novelist Jeffrey Hunter McQuain, with a focus on his debut novel in the Christopher Klewe series,The Shakespeare Conspiracy.

Jeffrey Hunter McQuain, who holds a Doctorate in Literary Studies from American University, is co-author of several popular books, including Coined by Shakespeare and The Bard on the Brain. For more than a dozen years, he served as the researcher for William Safire’s “On Language” column in The New York Times. A poet and dramatist, he has also taught college courses in Shakespeare and occasionally performed in the Bard’s plays. His first novel, The Shakespeare Conspiracy, is based on his nonfiction book Ebony Swan: The Case for Shakespeare’s Race.

Dr. McQuain lives in Maryland and is currently adapting Ebony Swan as a stage play.

Welcome, Jeffrey. Please tell us about your current release.
I'm very excited about The Shakespeare Conspiracy. It's my first novel, a thriller based on the Bard's racial background. The main character is Professor Christopher Klewe. He is a Virginia expert on Shakespeare, whose best friend has been murdered in D.C. by a secret society. Joined by a female reporter, Chris, Klewe has only three days to outrun killers on two continents and reveal the biggest conspiracy in literary history. Much in the style of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, my novel uses the fast pacing of short chapters and cliffhangers to move the plot along and to allow readers a whole new way to see Shakespeare.

What inspired you to write this book?
As strange as it sounds, this novel was inspired by a dream. I was researching my latest nonfiction book, Ebony Swan: The Case for Shakespeare's Race, when I had a nightmare about being chased through a library. I had recently read Da Vinci Code and thoroughly enjoyed Brown's work. As a result, I decided to try my own hand at a thriller.

Excerpt from The Shakespeare Conspiracy:
Chapter One

Washington, D.C., late October

“WE ALL MAKE his praise …”

Mason Everly, coughing up blood, could not hear the words spoken behind him. With a long blade still firmly embedded in his back, the retired scholar stumbled down the Opera House steps into the main hallway of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. He stopped there in the Grand Foyer, one of the world’s largest rooms, and felt the killer’s hand brace against him to extract the deep-thrust dagger.

Staggering forward, Everly released his grip on a briefcase, which dropped noiselessly onto the plush red carpet suffusing Kennedy Center. He lurched across the enormous hallway, awkwardly embracing the stone pedestal beneath a giant bronze bust of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s face.

The gray-haired professor of Renaissance history glanced wildly about, but there was no one near him in the 600-foot corridor of marble walls and crystal chandeliers. It was Halloween, and a drizzly October afternoon in the District of Columbia meant fewer tourists in the Center than normal. Minutes earlier, Everly deliberately lagged behind a walking tour of the memorial. He had made his way unobserved inside the
empty Opera House. When he emerged from the theater a moment later, the dagger entered his back, tearing through the flesh, and he slumped forward, dizzied with pain.

Desperate to regain his balance, Everly clung to the base of the assassinated President’s sculpture. He pinched the gold stud in his left earlobe to concentrate on what needed to be done. Then he shoved himself away from the pedestal, lunging toward a set of tall glass doors leading out to a marble terrace and the Potomac River beyond.

Mere steps behind him, the hooded killer taunted him, repeating a mantra obscured by a mask. “We all … make his praise.”

Anguished by the effort, Everly inched open the nearest exit to find himself outside Kennedy Center in a steady afternoon rain. He pressed his face against the cool glass of the door as pellets of water cascaded into a shallow puddle at his feet. Realizing his left hand still clutched the London Fog coat he’d worn into Washington that morning, he knew what he had to do.

Everly carefully unfolded the coat onto the walkway. With his head spinning, he pushed wet strands of gray hair out of his eyes and knelt achingly down. His hand refused to work at first, but he reached slowly back to his wound and then outstretched his trembling fingers to mark the glass door in front of him. Then he

From close by him came the gentle whisk of another door being opened, and all too soon he heard the words one last time.

“We all make his praise.”

What exciting story are you working on next?
For the next novel in the Christopher Klewe series, I'm working on a prequel to The Shakespeare Conspiracy. It will tell how Klewe was originally caught up in solving 9 Shakespeare mysteries as he tracks a serial killer who leaves behind clues from the Bard's plays. This second novel takes place in and around Williamsburg, Virginia, where Klewe teaches at William and Mary College. The next book will be titled The Shakespeare Trap and should be ready later this year. (Also, I'm completing a stage version of Ebony Swan, the nonfiction book behind The Shakespeare Conspiracy, to be staged next year.)

When did you first consider yourself a writer?I always wanted to be a writer, but I suppose I became serious about it as a journalism student in high school.My very first interview was with the Broadway actress Julie Harris, a delightful person who made the whole experience less intimidating than I'd expected. Then I started college as a journalism major but switched to an English major after I discovered the plays of Shakespeare

Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
Yes, I do write full-time, but I have no typical writing day. I'm on the road most of the time, so I've learned to write at any time of day and in any environment. At first it can be daunting, but you teach yourself to concentrate and avoid the distractions. Also, I doubt that I'd ever 'find' the time to write, I force myself to 'make' the time to write.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I mentioned the dream behind The Shakespeare Conspiracy. My writing quirk, probably from my journalism training, is never to be without pen and paper. At night I keep supplies near my bed in case inspiration strikes and I'll jot down an idea in the dark. Of course, I can't tell you how long I've sometimes spent in deciphering those midnight hieroglyphics.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Even as a child, I loved words, especially long ones. I probably startled some adults when I announced at age four that I planned to be 'a mathematician,' I'm no longer as fond of numbers, but still love words.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
When I'm asked about my years as a New York Times language researcher, I tell people about my job interview with William Safire. (I may be the only person in history who was ever hired for knowing the difference between 'who' and 'whom.') I put those years of experience as a researcher to work in The Shakespeare Conspiracy. As a lifelong fan of mystery writers, from Agatha Christie to Martha Grimes, I hope readers will get as much pleasure from reading my novel as I enjoyed writing it.

Thanks, Jeffrey!

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