RJ McDonnell is the author of the Rock & Roll Mystery Series. He worked full-time as a non-fiction writer for 17 years, spent two years writing scripts for a comedy television series, two years as a Careers columnist, and the past six years as a novelist while continuing to write non-fiction.
Time to chat with RJ!
What is your latest book?
My latest novel is The Classic Rockers Reunion with Death. It’s the 4th novel in my series, and may be read as a stand-alone. My protagonist, Jason Duffy, worked his way through high school, college, and grad school as the lead singer and rhythm guitarist for a club band in San Diego. After working in the counseling field for two years, Jason completed an internship with a private investigator and opened an agency in La Jolla, CA. He’s the son of a retired SDPD detective with whom he’s had a very strained relationship since purchasing his first electric guitar at the age of 14. Since Jason entered the family business, their relationship has improved, but that progress has been a two steps forward, one step back type of progress.
In the new novel, Jason travels to Northeastern Pennsylvania in mid-winter to help his 59-year-old uncle, whose best friend was murdered just as they were about to play a reunion concert for their 60’s rock band. Jason agrees to fill in on rhythm guitar while conducting his investigation since the clues all relate to the reunion show.
Jason’s father has been estranged from his hippie, rockstar brother since the Vietnam War. Jason is forced to arbitrate their feud while dealing with his depressed, pot-smoking uncle. He also deals with being in the crosshairs of the killer in this hardboiled mystery.
Do you write anything besides novels? Care to share?
I am the sole proprietor of Affordable Quality Resumes (aka, www.affordablequalityresumes.com). I was formerly the Regional Director of the largest resume writing service in the United States, and co-author of a manual used to train professional resume writers at over 500 offices across the country. Experts fielding questions on Monster.com and Career Ladders continue to quote my contributions to the manual on a fairly regular basis.
In addition to writing resumes, I continue to write about issues relating to the job search process that have a significant impact on job seekers. Last week I posted a blog about how more than half of all resumes are screened out at the computer level through Applicant Tracking Systems. In it, I drill down into specifics on how it works, why the average job seeker is behind the curve on important screening technology, and how to make the new innovations work to their advantage. Here’s a link to the article if you’re interested: http://www.affordablequalityresumes.com/?p=178
Were you “born to write” or did you discover your passion for writing later in life?
I was definitely born to write. I could be the poster-boy for right brain/left brain asymmetry. When I reached high school, I was allowed to skip 9th grade English while being treated to an encore performance of Algebra I.
Is there a question I haven’t asked you that you would like to answer? If so, what is it?
[What life experience helped you the most in creating your novels’ characters?]
I tend to spend a great deal of time getting to know my resume clients. Having written over 5000 resumes in my career, I have a very good feel for the range of motivations that lead people to significant career choices. In addition, I have a firm grasp of the day-to-day responsibilities of most professions. When one of my clients comes home from a long day at the office (or assembly line) I know exactly what he’s been dealing with and why he is in his current state of mind. I also have a good feel for how perspectives change over time in many fields. I use this information to bring a genuine quality to my characters.
For example, Jason has developed a strong working relationship with a 55-year-old homicide detective on SDPD. He also frequently deals with an ambitious younger detective who is focused on climbing the ladder via political connections, and who serves as an antagonist. Once it became known in San Diego that I was the son of a police detective, I received numerous referrals from cops trying to help coworkers advance to the next level. Invariably, the higher the position that the cop was seeking, the more value he placed on communication skills. Conversely, the lower the cop’s rank, the greater the emphasis on physical confrontation. I work those attributes and attitudes into my novels on a regular basis.
Do you have complete control over your characters or do they ever control you?
I try my best to control my characters by developing fairly detailed outlines, but they still tend to surprise me. The creative process is just that – a process. Outlining has become a bigger part of my process with each succeeding book. But I never exclude the notion that an even better idea could be right around the corner.
I took guitar lessons five years ago after a long layoff due to injury. My teacher played in a band with Noel Redding of The Jimi Hendrix Experience. He once told me that almost all songs have an “outside chord” that falls outside of the key. Because of that, it’s the most difficult to suss out, but frequently the part of the song that listeners like best. I view new ideas that don’t fit my outline as my outside chords. It’s imperative that I give them serious consideration. I wouldn’t want to ignore something that could prove to be the best part of my story because it didn’t fit neatly into my outline.
If you were to write a non-fiction book, what might it be about?
One of the saddest patterns I’ve noticed in my years in the resume writing business is that almost half of my clients sought jobs that they really weren’t interested in doing. They usually pursued those job objectives because they felt it gave them the best chance for earning the most money. Most people never take the time to realize that they bring the drudgery of a bad job home with them every night, and it can have a profound effect on their family life and free time.
If I had to put my finger on one root cause it would be the fact that, as a society we expect 18-year-olds to know exactly what they want to do with the rest of their lives. About half of the resumes I prepared for people with a college education were for job objectives that had nothing to do with their degrees. Some of the folks who pursued jobs in their field were doing so only because they felt the need to get a return on their educational investment.
My non-fiction book would be directed to the parents of high school students, and aimed at helping them guide their children to career/education decisions that are consistent with the child’s interests and aptitudes, while also factoring in the realities of the job market.
How would you define your style of writing?
I write hardboiled mysteries with a bit of humor. I would describe my style as reality-based. Many of the books that I read in my genre tend to feature a lot of coincidences and “barely-in-the-nick-of-time” climaxes. Yes, I’ve been guilty of the latter on a few occasions, but I try to not make a habit out of it. Just as I do my best to purge my books of clichés, I also try to avoid hackneyed formulas. No one wants to read a murder mystery that has already been done to death.
Have you received reactions/feedback to your work that has surprised you? In what way?
A couple of years ago I gave myself a Saturday afternoon off from my writing schedule to watch my alma mater play football. As I was about to settle onto my couch to watch the kickoff, my mailman dropped off a package at my door. At the time, I had my books in record stores across the country, and as they closed their doors, many were kind enough to return unsold stock. The package I received was about the size of one of my books. I tossed it on my kitchen table and watched the game.
By halftime, I was feeling guilty about slacking off, so I decided to process the return during the break. When I opened the package, instead of finding a returned book I discovered a plaque with my name on it, declaring my novel “Rock & Roll Rip-Off” the 2010 Mystery/Thriller of the Year.
I was shocked. The football game continued to play on my TV but I don’t think I even noticed who won. The recognition fueled my passion for writing and inspired me to do a bookstore and library tour that included relating several classic rock songs to my characters and series storylines. I don’ think I would have put in the time and effort to write and learn and hour-long presentation along with practicing a dozen songs every day for months were it not for the emotional B-12 shot I got from that plaque.
What might we be surprised to know about you?
Several of my high school friends went off to war after graduation. I opted for college instead, but always felt an obligation to contribute in some way. A couple of years after writing the resume manual, I volunteered to write an article for the Military Press designed to help military personnel to make the transition to the civilian world. The newspaper liked the article so much that they talked me into writing a column that appeared in all of their issues for the next two years.
What music soothes your soul?
I’ve always enjoyed both hard rock and acoustic rock. When it’s time for soothing music I turn to Clapton’s blues albums, John Mayer, Sheryl Crow, and Jack Johnson, to name a few.
Have you ever played a practical joke on a friend?
When I was in my mid-twenties, I set my alarm for 5:00 AM on April Fools Day. My sister was the target of my ruse. I called and told her I was in Las Vegas, and that I had just gotten married to a girl I met earlier in the evening. For my wedding present I wanted her to break the news to our parents. Despite the hour and obvious lack of caffeine, she went into a rant that lasted 15 minutes. When she finally calmed down enough for me to get a word in, I said to be sure to tell them one more thing – happy April Fools Day! Friends of my sister might be surprised to learn I’m still alive to tell that tale.
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