Summer is the perfect time to explore new authors and expand your reading world into genres unfamiliar to you. July’s author offers a dive into the sci-fi thriller pool with The Pangaea Solution. This debut novel by one of my newest author friends, Charles Jacobs, doesn’t disappoint in the action category. In his day job, Chuck works as a management consultant, specializing in quantitative analysis applied to risk and strategy, and as an aspiring writer. In his writing, he mixes a thrilling story with complex, realistic characters against the backdrop of bigger social, political, and moral issues. Jacobs refers to his concepts as “science possible”—in his words, “not necessarily current science, but not quite the stretch of what is classically called science fiction.”
In addition to writing, Charles Jacobs is passionate about food and wine, photography, and cars. He and his wife live in Ohio with an English golden and a semi-homicidal cat.
I met Charles Jacobs at the inaugural PrimeCrime conference held in Indianapolis in October of 2022. We bonded over our mutual love of writing and a shared interest in science-based thrillers. As always, I look forward to introducing you to this author.
Janet Irvin: Welcome to my author nook, Chuck. You are a management consultant with a passion for writing. Was there one incident that impelled you to pursue novel writing or did the urge simply grow with your reading experiences?
Charles Jacobs: I’ve always had a vivid imagination, and back when I was a little kid, I enjoyed entertaining my friends with wild fantasy stories. My first success in writing came in the third grade when a short story I wrote won first prize in the school newspaper’s writing competition. After that, I continued to write short stories over the years and submitted them here and there, but I always had trouble keeping them short.
Then, I read an article that said if you can’t tell your story in less than 3000 words, maybe you’re not a short-story writer; maybe you’re really a novelist and just don’t realize it. That certainly sounded like me, but the idea of writing an entire book seemed impossibly daunting—until I read somewhere how the average novel is approximately 300 pages, so if you can manage to write three pages a day, you can have a draft in just over three months. I can do that, I decided, so, I began outlining and writing my first novel. (Of course, what the article didn’t tell you is that the first draft—especially the first draft of your first novel—is only about 5-10% of the work it will take to get a finished novel out.)
JEI: That is so very true! On your website, you speak about writers who influenced you, especially Ian Fleming and Frederick Forsyth. Will you speak to how you incorporate their lessons into your first novel The Pangaea Solution?
CJ: As a former newspaper reporter, Ian Fleming was a master of vivid, sensual details—sights, sounds, smells, textures, etc. As he once put it, he tried to thrill his readers, “right down to their taste buds.” Also, as Kingsley Amis pointed out, Fleming’s detailed descriptions of the physical world (including places, cars, weapons, and people) pulled readers in and made them willing to suspend their disbelief in some of Fleming’s more outrageous plot elements. I think that today, given people have grown up watching video media instead of just reading, providing these kinds of details helps them picture settings and people, so I tend to use a lot of descriptive detail.
That said, where Fleming suffered was in describing people’s emotional dimensions, in many cases reducing them to stereotypes and caricatures, especially women. In addition, by making his protagonist a professional agent (and a fantasy of one, at that), the reader can only peer in from the outside and be amused. Frederick Forsyth, on the other hand, pens protagonists that are everyday people—a journalist in The Odessa File, or a policeman in The Day of the Jackal—who get pulled into international conspiracies. The characters are more three-dimensional than Flemings, and I think using a character like that makes it easier for a reader to fantasize that they too could get involved in a similar adventure.
My protagonist, David Blum, is more of a Forsyth character than a Fleming one—an investment advisor who once worked in financial crimes for the FBI, who stumbles onto a global plot while looking into his father’s death.
JEI: I detect a wee bit of Jacobs in that character! Speaking of characters, how do you go about developing yours?
CJ: My writing tends to be plot-driven, so characters fulfill roles in that story. Of course, as characters develop into three-dimensional constructs, they in turn affect the plot. While it may not be terribly efficient, I think an iterative process like that aids both the plot and the characters.
In the case of The Pangaea Solution, one realization that helped me define the four principal characters (two protagonists and two antagonists) was recognizing that the book is in part an exploration of the relationships and conflicts between science, religion, and morality. A key premise is that religious devotion and morality are independent dimensions, and it’s the combinations of those dimensions that shape the perspectives of the four main characters. David Blum, the main character, is moral but not religious; his fellow protagonist, Kay Westfield, is moral and religious; Professor Feldmann and Victor Lawson—the key antagonists—are amoral, but the former is an atheist, and the latter is a religious fanatic. These points on the compass define their basic approaches to the events that unfold.
CJ: I can’t possibly answer this question without giving away the ending here, so—spoiler alert—Kay dies in the final chapter. Here’s why I wrote it that way: Continuing with the religious theme, in part, Kay fulfills the role of the innocent who guides David on his moral journey. In addition to providing him with critical support in his quest to defeat the bad guys, she also provides inspiration and spiritual guidance. And, while her death is not necessary for David to defeat the antagonist’s plot, that death gives him the motivation (and the freedom) to leave behind his self-gratifying lifestyle and pursue a more-noble mission in life. (And sets up the sequel, The Billion Dollar Sugar Cube, coming out this September.)
CJ: Clearly, photography is a visual medium, and writing is verbal, but both strive to create a finished product that conveys the intended message with sufficient but not excessive detail. In some ways, writing is more akin to painting—starting with a blank page/canvas and consciously adding details until the result conveys your message. In photography, unlike writing or painting, you can accidentally capture elements without seeing them at the time. In retrospect, they clutter or distract from the core image.
Part of improving the quality of photographs is looking past the objects in your viewfinder (a tree, a barn, a sunset) and observing the forms, shapes, patterns, and overall composition that drives a pleasing image—and then eliminating superfluous details that only distract. I tend to overdo details, so I think photography has helped me to think more about simplifying.
JEI: Are there living mentors who have helped you on your writing journey?
CJ: I don’t have just a few mentors I can call out by name, and I couldn’t possibly list all the people who have helped me on my journey. When I first set out to write, I had two ridiculous misconceptions. (And I’m guessing many other beginning writers have similar ones.) Number one misconception was that I didn’t need help—I could do it all on my own. It took me a while to realize that wasn’t true, and trying to do it solo wasted years of rejections I didn’t understand.
The second misconception was thinking no one would help me. Again, I was so wrong. I’ve found the writing community, especially writers themselves, to be overwhelmingly helpful. So, my advice for anyone who’s getting started is to join writing groups, go to conferences, go to signings. Interact. You will be amazed at how supportive your fellow writers are.
JEI: What’s next in your writing life?
CJ: Right now, I’m working with my publisher toward a September release of the sequel to The Pangaea Solution, titled, The Billion Dollar Sugar Cube. In this book, David Blum, now a member of “The Organization,” teams up with Tina Santini (whom we met in Pangaea) to try to stop the shadowy Global Futures Alliance from using an advanced optical computer (the Cube) to integrate artificial intelligence with artificial emotion and weaponize sounds that can drive people to extreme emotional states.
In terms of conferences, I’ll be at Midwest Writers Workshop in Muncie, Indiana in July, and I’m planning on being at Killer Nashville in August. And I wouldn’t think of missing Prime Crime (formerly, Magna Cum Murder) in Indianapolis in October.
JEI: You also have an avid interest in food and wine…areas that interest me as well. 😉 Any suggestions on wines to try? Restaurants to put on our to-visit list?
CJ: I think answering either part of that question without knowing your taste would be an exercise in failure. So, instead, I’ll suggest a process.
Wines are like music—you can spend your life sampling a little bit of everything, or you can devote your whole life to exploring the minutia of one narrow area, or anything in between. If you want to experience as broad a range as possible, I recommend seeking out wines (or music) you’ve never experienced before—wines from out-of-the-way places like Lebanon, or, if you haven’t tried them, dessert wines like Trockenbeerenauslese or Sauterne, and so forth. If you have no idea where to start, think about the type of wine that goes best with the foods you enjoy.
On the other hand, if your search is for a deep appreciation of a narrow area, start with what you know you like and buy a variety of that. Decide which ones among them appeal to you the most and figure out what they have in common—grape type, region, producer, year—then buy more of that subtype and reevaluate. If it’s a region, explore subregions; if it’s a grape type, look for other regions that use the same grape. Keep narrowing that down and going deeper. And remember, the journey is the point, and wine always tastes better when it’s poured into two or more glasses.
Restaurants are harder to recommend. They open and fold all the time, or they switch chefs, and the whole place changes. That said, if you like wine and restaurants, one of my favorites is Bern’s Steak House in Tampa. Besides phenomenal steaks, they have what is probably the largest wine list in the world. The old stuff in their cellar is depleting, but they still have 6,800 different wines/vintages to pick from. (At one point there were something like 10,000.) I haven’t been in a few years, but I’m told there are still some bargains to be found.
JEI: Well, you’ve certainly given us a starting point for both wine and food. 🙂 So, what books are on your reading table these days?
CJ: Way too many. The last year has been mostly about finishing my second novel. Every time I sit down to read, I think, “I should be writing/editing” instead. Ironically, when I was traveling out of town four days a week as a consultant, I read a lot more. Sitting in flight lounges, cramped into middle seats on regional jets, and eating alone provided great opportunities to catch up on reading. No longer traveling much and being at home, there’s always a distraction, and binge-watching cable dramas with my wife is more social than sitting in the other room reading. Now that my manuscript is with the publisher, though, I hope to catch up.
JEI: One more question on a different topic…If time and money were no object, where would you travel?
CJ: Two types of places come to mind. The first is places I lived in or traveled to when I was a child. For instance, I was born in Shiraz, Iran (my father was working for U.S.A.I.D.), and left when I was only one year old. I’ve never been back, but time and safe travel permitting, I hope to go there at some point. I’d also love to go back to Thailand, where I went to kindergarten, and see how much it has changed. (Back then, we lived in an apartment building on a dirt street in the middle of Bangkok.)
The other category includes places I’ve always dreamed of going to but never have—most notably, the Serengeti Plains, but also the Great Barrier Reef, and the African rain forest. That said, I’m almost reluctant to visit at this point. I grew up in the sixties and seventies watching nature shows like National Geographic, Wild Kingdom, and Jacques Cousteau, and was blown away by the breadth and depth of the animal and plant life. Unfortunately, probably 90% of that is gone now, and maybe it’s better to just leave the old memories intact.
JEI: My thanks to you, Chuck, for sharing your writing and your personal thoughts with us. Below is the cover of Chuck’s book The Pangaea Solution, which I read and enjoyed. Looking forward to protagonist David Blum’s next adventure!
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