116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Nathan Timmel is a comedian.
But even a funny fella has serious thoughts. Timmel, who lives in Iowa City, took some of his serious thinking and used it as the groundwork for his self-published novel, “We Are 100.”
The novel follows two FBI agents as they try to stop a series of horrific crimes that are being masterminded by a shadowy figure using limitless cash, cutting edge AI, and personal grievances to push forward a violent agenda. That agenda seeks to hold the greedy, corrupt and immoral responsible for their actions in a world in which such people seem untouchable.
“We are 100” is a page turner told from multiple perspectives. We get inside the heads of the good guys and the bad guys — and we soon come to realize that “bad” is a relative and slippery term. Timmel has a tendency to over describe personal interactions and the underpinnings of dialogue (“Susan raised her eyebrows and gave a gentle look of expectation. Though she didn’t say, continue, it was written across her face.”), a tick that pulls the reader out of the action with some frequency. Still, the action rolls along at a good pace while still offering up plenty to think about.
Timmel answered questions about “We Are 100” via email.
Q: You're a comedian and a non-fiction writer, but “We Are 100” is a novel and its serious tone and topicality mean it isn't a laugh riot. What can you tell me about the origin of the book — the first spark that led to the story and to your desire to write a thriller?
A: Since stand-up comedy is my full-time job, I wanted to get some of my "non funny" ideas out there. I'd had a few thoughts bouncing around my head for a while, and I couldn't figure out how to turn them into jokes. I can't exactly remember what made me say, "Hey, dummy, write a book," but that's kind of what happened. I realized I could find another outlet for the "non joke" thoughts, and those became “We Are 100.”
Q: I think it's fair to call the novel an FBI procedural. What can you tell me about your research into FBI investigations? To what degree did you need to take liberties or fill in gaps with educated assumptions about the inner workings of the bureau?
A: This is slightly embarrassing, so I'm not sure if I should be admitting to it or not, but beyond looking up what it takes to apply to and be a cadet in the FBI, I didn't research very much. So, there are quite a few liberties, gaps and not-so-educated assumptions in the book. You know how Neil deGrasse Tyson has fun picking apart movies set in space? Well, Christopher Wray would have a field day with this.
Q: Are there books/movies/shows that you would site as direct influences on either the story or the structure (or both) of “We Are 100?” Whose work do you admire in this crime thriller space?
A: Given the no-funny nature of the book, this might sound odd, but my biggest influence was a special by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. The guys behind South Park. I watched a video of them giving a writers workshop to college students, and it really stuck with me.
I really liked their description of structure because at one point they said that the worst form of writing is, "and then."
"And then this happens, and then this happens, and then …"
Then they explained that the best writing is, "because."
"Because this happened, this happens, which causes this to happen …"
Q: I'm interested in your efforts to inspire the reader's empathy for the villains of the piece — both the pawns and the ultimate "big bad." What can you tell me about your approach to characterization, particularly when it comes to the bad guys?
A: Ah, here's the big "secret”: The whole book really stems from the idea of empathy for the "bad guys."
I wrote from that point of view, because — not really a spoiler alert — the main bad guy is based on me. It's also probably why I didn't research the FBI, because the "good guys" weren't my main focus.
More often than not, when someone is writing a book, they tend to make themselves the protagonist, or hero. People want to save the day. If that were the case here, I'd have created a member of law enforcement as my fantasy doppelganger. "Meet John Squarejaw, a tall, muscular, handsome FBI agent with broad shoulders, Einstein's IQ, and the athletic abilities of Usain Bolt."
But nope, many of the thoughts the "bad guys" have are thoughts I've had. The thoughts I mentioned earlier that I couldn't make funny. How would I react if I were placed in any one of their circumstances? What would it take to really push me to the edge? When I had that answer, I had the motivation for Josh, the main black hat. From there, the rest sort of took care of itself. I'd be reading a book — Jon Krakauer's “Missoula,” for example — and that would give me an idea for a "villain's" motivation.
Q: Why did you decide to self-publish the novel? Did you shop it around first or was it always your intention to self-publish?
A: My wife insisted we get an agent and have this published by one of the bigs. I warned her that such a journey wouldn't be easy, but she said she was up for it.
Unfortunately, the harsh reality of the indifference people in the "artistic" world face was a rude awakening for her. Over 90 percent of inquiries receive no response, 9.5 percent offer a generic form letter, and 0.5 percent actually write back.
The two responses we got were:
"No one reads fiction anymore. People only read partisan politics books. Echo chamber stuff."
"This is really good. Have you tried reading some traditional thrillers, and making it more like that?" (This person seemed to want more traditional "good" and "bad" guys.)
Thus, we were left to DIY, which has its pros and cons … After seeing what we were up against in trying to get a major publisher behind us, Lydia came to understand that self-publishing was a viable option. As long as we presented a quality product, what does it matter if it lacks a corporation's seal of approval?
Q: What’s your next writing project? Do you have another novel in the pipeline?
A: While I hoped people would like this book, I was in no way expecting the non-stop drumbeat of, "When's the sequel coming out?" that I've been receiving. More people than I'd ever expected are interested in further adventures of the FBI agents.
It's both flattering and intimidating, because I didn't plan that far ahead. In my mind, the book was a one off — a complete start-to-finish tale. People clamoring for a follow-up novel excites me, so we'll see what happens. If I get an idea, great! I'll start writing it down. That said, however, I'm not going to just barf up a quick book to cash in. I'd rather leave people wanting more than disappointed by an inadequate sequel.