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Author profile: Tom Hunt says trick to writing thrillers is to capture readers' attention quickly

Debut author Tom Hunt, author of “Killer Choice,” has plenty of local connections.

“I was born and raised in Washington, about 30 miles south of Iowa City,” he said. “I went to Iowa for undergrad and I lived in Iowa City for a few years after I graduated. I still have a ton of family in the area and a ton of friends, and still make it back a lot.”

Having built a successful career as an advertising copywriter, including a stint in Chicago, Hunt now lives in New York City. Hunt joins writers like James Patterson and Cedar Rapids’ own Ed Gorman (who died in 2016) who got their start writing copy for advertising campaigns. He believes the job serves as solid training for writing thrillers.

“I think it does help and I think the reason it helps is when it comes to an ad you really only have a short amount of time to grab the audience’s attention,” he said. “You’ve basically got to grab their attention within a second or two or you’ve just pretty must lost them. They’re going to totally tune out... That’s really important with writing a thriller as well — to always have the audience’s attention and get straight to it and always have something going on. It helps as far as pacing and being able to write something that gets right to it and grabs their attention.”

“Killer Choice” grabs the reader’s attention with the story of a man, Gary Foster, who must make a series of morally fraught decisions to save his gravely ill wife.

“This just stemmed from a newspaper article I saw a couple of years ago. It was this couple who was in a situation similar to Gary and Beth in the novel,” Hunt explained. “The wife was sick and they found a treatment abroad that might help her, but they couldn’t afford it and they were just desperately trying to raise the money for it. That was the situation where I started and I started thinking about how far they might be willing to go. And it sort of took off from there.”

As Gary’s choices lead him farther and farther astray, the reader’s sympathy for him is jeopardized. Hunt was willing to take that chance.

“I always really enjoyed the show “Breaking Bad.” That was a real inspiration,” he said, “I think they did a great job with that show. Walter White, he did a lot of bad things and sort of turned into an unlikeable character, but he didn’t go all the way bad. He could justify some of the decisions he made and some of the things he did. And that’s what I hoped to do with Gary. I didn’t want to make him completely unlikeable, but on a few decisions, he might not have made the best choice.”

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Hunt’s character may have found himself making decisions on the fly, but the author is more deliberate when it comes to crafting a story.

“I usually start out with a synopsis and plan everything out. And then when I start writing, of course, it never goes according to plan. But it’s always nice to at least begin with some general idea of where you’re heading and what the characters are going to be and that sort of thing,” he said. “But like I said, it just never goes according to plan. You run into parts where the story might be dragging a little and you try to write something exciting or you don’t like one of the characters and you eliminate them. There’s a billion things that can wrong. Can and usually do go wrong.”

But Hunt overcomes those challenges and has recently turned in the first draft of a second standalone novel, which he believes will arrive in bookstores about this time next year. Many thriller writers who release a book a year, and he hopes to maintain that pace, though he knows the pressure will ramp up.

“The second book has been interesting because previously I’ve never had to work on a deadline. When you’re writing in your free time, it’s pretty much in your jurisdiction how much time you want to put in and when you want to work on it,” he said. “But with the second, they already had a schedule: this is when we want the first draft; this is when we’ll get you the feedback; this is when we want the second draft. That was planned out when I signed the contract for the first book, so it was planned out a year in advance. Even the publishing house is looking three and four years down the road and setting release dates for all of their books, so they really have everything planned. So with the second one, I had that deadline and really no wiggle room at all.”

Those struggles are nothing compared to what he puts his protagonist through. Gary Foster is unequipped to enter the violent world he finds himself in — and that’s just what Hunt wanted.

“One thing I do like about the book is that Gary in the book is just a normal everyday character. A lot of thrillers that you read, the main characters are always police detective, ex-military, just kind of larger than life characters like that. Whereas Gary is just a normal everyday guy with normal everyday problems who pretty much lived a normal life up until the point where this horrible thing happens. And now he’s just thrust into this environment that he’s just totally unprepared for and not familiar with at all. I think that somewhat distinguishes the book in that the main character is just a regular man.”

Hunt looks forward to reading in his hometown and at Prairie Lights Books.

“I’ve been to a lot of book signings at Prairie Lights. It will be cool to have my own.”

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