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CJ Lyons:

This Best-Selling Suspense Writer Never Runs Out of Ideas to Please her Fans

There is a vast gulf between those who hear about the immense changes in the publishing world, and those who must survive them. No one understands these sea changes better than writers, and few are as savvy about meeting them head on as best-selling author CJ Lyons.

  Raised in State College, Pennsylvania, Lyons attended medical school at the University of Florida. She returned home to do her residency at a childrens’ hospital in Pittsburgh. While there, one of her fellow interns was brutally murdered. Lyons calls it the event that changed everything. It spurred her to write her first crime fiction novel, Borrowed Time, a romantic thriller that made it to the USA Today best-seller list. In 2006, Lyons left her medical practice and, as she describes it, took a “leap of faith” into full-time writing.

  Blessed with seemingly boundless energy and a prodigious output, Lyons’ works since then have varied between the successful Lucy Guardino series, to young adult books, to her self-created “thrillers with a heart” genre - stories offering romantic and even sometimes paranormal elements.

  By the end of 2014 Lyons’ output reached 27 books. In 2015 she will release her sixth Lucy Guardino book, the second book in her Fatal Insomnia series, as well as the second in her Renegade Justice series. She also takes advantage of the special opportunities afforded by self-publishing to provide her fans a steady stream of fresh content.

  Fortunately for Prose ‘n Cons readers, we were able to catch Lyons before heading out on a book tour. We asked her about her writing process, the difference between writing for adults and young adults, and how her popular FBI agent Lucy Guardino was born. Her answers to these and other questions offer a peek behind the scenes at the life of this gifted and generous writer.

 

PnC: On whom is Lucy Guardino based?

CJ: I was privileged enough to meet a real life FBI agent who invited me to stay with her and visit Quantico, the FBI Training academy. She’s the mother of two delightful kids and has a great husband as well as being a decorated and dedicated agent. In preparing for Lucy’s character, I also spoke with several agents who worked Crimes Against Children and explored how that work, dealing with the worst of the worst of predators, influenced their life on the job and with their families.

 

PnC: How do you think she differs from other female cops and special agents?

CJ: When I created Lucy, I wanted to give readers a more realistic depiction of a FBI agent than the clichéd driven by demons, stalked by serial killers, recovering addicts that were populating the thriller genre.

   Lucy is a Pittsburgh soccer mom with a loving family and no emotional baggage, struggling with the same tug-of-war that we all face: how to juggle work and family. Of course, when your job is saving lives, it becomes even more difficult to know where to draw that line, giving both your family your all, as well as the victims you’re protecting.

 

PnC: Last year your first young adult book debuted. What prompted you to write for this audience?

CJ: I’m a huge YA reader—have been all my life, so I’ve always wanted to write for that audience (as a pediatrician, it seemed natural to want to serve that audience). It took me years to find the right story, one that would both entertain as well as empower. That first book, Broken, went on to win several awards, and the response has been fantastic.

 

PnC: Is it harder, easier, or exactly the same writing for 12 to 17-year-olds as compared to adults?

CJ: Not harder or easier, just different. My voice in my YA work is much different than my adult work—I can go darker, edgier, more emotionally honest and the kids will still love it while adults might not necessarily see those works as “entertainment.” That gives me room to explore themes in my YA novels, such as the cyberpredator in Watched, that I can’t in my adult thrillers.

 

PnC: Which is the tougher audience in terms of buyer reviews?

CJ: The kids are definitely the tougher critics! But I love that—I always want to hear what works and what doesn’t to help me take my work to the next level.

 

PnC: When you now re-read your first book, Borrowed Time, is there anything you would change?

CJ: I actually haven’t re-read it in years, but I can’t think of anything I’d change other than what I’m always working to improve: elevating my craft to give my readers the best experience possible.

 

PnC: You refer to central Pennsylvania as "the heart of the rust belt." What do you mean by that? (I ask because we all, of course, view State College as a hip college town.)

CJ: State College might be a rocking college town when school is in session, but go five miles in any direction and you’re in the middle of the forest or up the side of a mountain. Surrounding State College are villages so small they have no police department and have to rely on State Troopers based forty miles away over a mountain range that is virtually impassable in bad weather. Even the towns with their own police departments often have large geographic areas to cover with too few men and little support as far as CSI and forensic training. That’s one of the reasons why I began my Buy a Book, Make a Difference charity program (http://cjlyons.net/buy-a-book-make-a-difference/) that creates scholarships for law enforcement officers to get CSI training.

 

PnC: Have you re-purchased your rights to any of your work?

CJ: I don’t have rights to any of my backlist books. I keep trying to get them back, but my NYC publishers make enough money from my older books that they won’t release them. But I do sell special editions with exclusive content of my self-published front list books via my

website store: http://cjlyons.net/store/. It’s a great way to give my hard-core fans something special that they can’t find anywhere else and they save money as well.

 

PnC: You've said you don't set daily quotas for your writing - rather, that you simply work toward the overall deadline. How close to deadline do you deliver your manuscript to your publisher? Are you an early bird, or do you run right up to the last minute?

CJ: I’m an early bird, I always beat my deadlines.

 

PnC: What's the last non-C.J. Lyons book you read?

CJ: I read more than one book at once and don’t read in whatever genre the current book I’m writing is, so right now I’m in the middle of 1Q84, Lisa Gardner’s latest, and I just finished Jodi Piccoult’s 19 Minutes...next up, I’m looking forward to David Mitchell’s Bone Clocks and I have a stack of YA novels I’m eager to dive into once I finish working on the YA I’m writing.

 

PnC: What's your favorite television detective or mystery/crime/suspense show?

CJ: Current TV, Justified and Longmire, but most of my favs are older: Hill Street Blues (inspired by Pittsburgh’s Hill District), Southland, The Wire, Burn Notice. I’m looking forward to the new Bosch series coming to Amazon.

 

PnC: What's your personal preference: digital or paper books?

CJ: I love my print books but working 12-14 hours a day at a computer has left me with arthritis in my wrists and heavy hard covers are just too painful to read, so any more I tend to buy e-books. A nice bonus is that at the end of the day if my eyes are tired I can increase the print size and still be able to read.

 

PnC: Do you have a favorite book store?

CJ: Several! Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego, Mystery Book Lovers in Pittsburgh, and Tattered Cover in Denver spring to mind, but my mom was an indy bookseller for 25 years, so really, I feel at home in any bookstore!

 

PnC: What's the best piece of writing advice you've ever received?

CJ: Jeffery Deaver told me to never forget “the reader is god.” I’ve taken that advice to heart, not only in my writing, but also in how I run my business, from deciding who to partner with in publishing a book (NYC or a small press or self-publishing), to deciding which book to focus on next. It’s all about my readers. I want them so excited by my books that they can’t wait to tell all their thriller-loving friends.

 

PnC: What is the criteria for being a New York Times or USA Today best-seller? What's the magic number?

CJ: That’s proprietary information that I’m not privy to, but you do need significant sales in a short period of time on several venues to make either list. A lot of it depends on the competition any given week.

 

PnC: Where do you see your writing taking you? New genres? A replacement for Lucy? More young adult? Perhaps even non-fiction?

CJ: I get bored easily, so I do tend to stretch the limits of genre fiction by blending and re-imagining typical genre conventions. That’s why I created my own sub-genre of Thrillers with Heart. That gives me room to include books that have more romantic elements such as my Shadow Ops and Hart & Drake series, as well as adding paranormal elements and even science fiction type world building such as in Lucidity and my new Fatal Insomnia series.

   Of course, I still love writing my mainstream thrillers, but Lucy will be moving into new types of cases and the Renegade Justice spin-off series (featuring characters from Lucy’s world, but with a younger, more edgy vibe) gives me a chance to explore non-conventional types of stories.

   I’m also playing with an idea for a YA science fiction thriller series, if I can find time to write it.

 

PnC: You co-wrote a book with Erin Brokovich. How did that come about?

CJ: She had read my Angels of Mercy series and enjoyed my strong female protagonists, so her publisher called and asked me if I was interested—of course I jumped at the chance.

 

PnC: Where’s home at the moment?

CJ: When I took the leap of faith to write full time and left my medical practice eight years ago, I moved from Pennsylvania to a small town near Savannah, GA. As much as I love my mountains, it’s nice not shoveling snow!

 

PnC: In a perfect world, what is your ultimate professional or personal goal?

CJ: I’m fortunate that I’m at the stage in my career where all I need to worry about is exciting and delighting my readers with every book. I honestly don’t worry too much about marketing, best seller lists, reviews, or awards any more.

   For me, it’s all about finding the emotional heart of each story and engaging my readers with that world in a way that is so gripping that they can’t stop turning pages. Since every book is different for me—both in how I write and how the book is structured, the unique voice that fits that story—the biggest challenge is continuing to find new ways to connect my readers to my stories since they never know what they’re going to find with each new book.

  That’s a bit hard on me as well as my readers (thankfully, they’re a tough bunch!) since even in a given series one book might be a pure thriller, the next a dark psychological suspense, followed by a mystery or an action-adventure, so they never know what to expect from my books except for that emotional heart that each book is grounded in.

 

PnC: What can we look for in 2015?

CJ: Next spring we’ll have Lucy’s sixth book, Bad Break; followed by the second in the Fatal

Insomnia series, A Raging Dawn; the second in the Renegade Justice series (featuring everyone’s favorite teenaged psychopath, Morgan Ames), Raw Edges; and hopefully a few surprises!

 

For information about CJ Lyons’ upcoming appearances and books, visit CJLyons.net.

Reprinted from the Winter 2015 issue of Prose ‘n Cons™ Mystery Magazine

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