Iowa City author's teasing of neighbor being a spy leads to action-packed trilogy
A.J. Mahler had a running joke with a neighbor, teasing her about being a spy. That banter became a writing exercise, and that exercise has turned into a trio of novels known as the Betty Chronicles. The series began with “Money,” continued with “Power,” and the third volume, “Control,” has recently been released.
In this e-interview, Mahler, who lives in Iowa City, tells about the series’ creation, reveals the challenges to writing the series — and the third book in particular — and considers whether the series will continue.
Q: Tell me the origins of your story. What inspired you to write the Betty Chronicles?
A: After my dog was “kidnapped” by my neighbor, who I had previously accused of being a spy jetting off to Venezuela or Colombia instead of going to Clinton or Des Moines for her legal work, I was inspired by the absurdity of her ransom note written as a text message resembling a classic cutout paper message. The ransom was a billion dollars. I paid the ransom off by watching her dog in return; I renamed him McFluffy, and she adopted the spy name Betty.
A short while later, she had a bandage over her right eye that she tried to explain away. I said, no, I am going to tell the real story of how Betty got the scar. I wrote the first chapter that night, Feb. 10, 2010. The next day, “Betty” left her lights on during a daylong legal class, and needed a jump start over at a hotel in Coralville. From that I wrote the night scene replete with a thunderstorm set in Caracas, Venezuela, where Betty used jumper cables to incapacitate a Cabal guard. By the third day, I had five women expecting a chapter a day of Betty’s adventures. On good days I wrote ahead, but I only had a couple of dry days. One weekend I produced a quarter of the book when the ideas just kept coming. In all, it took 40 days to finish the first rough draft of “Money.”
Q: The plot of the trilogy is complicated in and of itself, and in the first two books you further the complication by telling the story in a non-linear fashion. How did you keep everything straight? Did you know the entire arc of the story — in outline or in detail — from the beginning?
A: I tend to segue easily, but in telling the story it was important to backfill information about the characters as needed, which might lead to a flashback.
One of the influences that caused me to write in a non-linear style was the movie “Memento” — stunning storytelling by Christopher Nolan that worked beautifully. Betty doesn’t realize she’s missing large chunks of her historical memory, parts stolen from her by her parents and others. The non-linear style works well to expose her story both to her and the reader simultaneously.
There are themes in all three books, such as the world of finance, terrorism, the source of the wealth that built the agency Betty works for, and whether Betty and Tom end up making it as a couple. My vision for the trilogy was a frayed rope of information; the tip is a jumbled mess, but all those strands come together eventually to form a strong woven fiber. For “Control,” there was a beginning and an end, but getting Betty to Vail turned out to be the most difficult part of the writing.
“Power” took five years to write in part because getting that frayed end to where “Control” starts was fraught with technical problems, necessitating the rewriting of the first six chapters of “Power” with ripples that went on forever.
Q: By calling the series the Betty Chronicles, you identify Betty as your primary protagonist, but the books feature the perspectives and adventures of a number of different characters. For you, what makes Betty the center of the story?
A: The story is about Betty’s world being ripped away and a different one being exposed by the murder of her fiance. She is forced to confront truths about her past that were hidden from her, some by the very people she loves most. All of the other characters exist because of her. That leads into why you should know the perspectives of other characters. Imagine yourself interrogating each person to find out more about Betty. It gives the reader the mind-set of a spy, allowing you to feel what she is going through — another reason for the non-linear narrative.
Q: I understand you had some health challenges that slowed the completion of the third book.
A: In February 2016, I had a brain bleed, which caused all sorts of linguistic and typing difficulties. I wrote “Control” while recovering and had to scour the manuscript for homophone typos. I might have been thinking “here” but typed “hear,” for example.
I have recovered fully, but that was a difficult time of frustration and residual chronic migraines. I am pleased “Control” matched “Money” and “Power” in quality and intrigue, thanks in no small measure to my copy editor Johanna Rosenbohm, and the extra help of Chris Ameling as a critical reader who had been through all of the revisions of the various manuscripts since “Money” went to my editor, Meghan Dee, in 2010.
Q: Who would you say are your influences as a writer of what might be called geopolitical thrillers?
A: Robert Ludlum’s Bourne series, the books, not the movies, caused me to think about geopolitical events in a different way. I have a history minor, a college segue that focused on early American and medieval European history with the intent of become a high school teacher. Ludlum took the big picture of history and made it personal. Other authors who influenced my style are Twain (“Joan of Arc”), Heinlein (“Stranger in a Strange Land”), Tolkien, and Chuck Palahniuk (“Fight Club”).
Q: What are you working on now/next? Are the Betty Chronicles complete or might there be a fourth book?
A: I am working on a murder mystery set in a town like Solon called Salida, Iowa, in fictional Burr Oak county. This is so much easier to write as there is only one perspective of a male protagonist telling his story in a mostly linear fashion. The movie “D.O.A.,” both the 1950 Edmond O’Brien and 1988 Dennis Quaid versions, influenced the storytelling, but it is not based on that plot or premise.
I intended for “Control” to be the end, but we have an opening; my editor suggested we take the final two chapters out, which we did, and use them for the beginning of a fourth book. I will let the readers decide if it will be written.