Behind the Book - M.J Preston
To kick off the first of my Behind the Book author interviews, I spoke with the talented MJ Preston about his latest release, Four, his inspirations, serial killers, and what it was like to drive across the world's longest ice road...
Liz - Congratulations on the release of Four. Can you tell us about it?
MJ - Four is the conclusion of the Lance Belanger story. Its predecessor, Highwayman, was the
first half of a story which tells the tale Lance Belanger, who wants to be the most prolific
serial killer of all time. In Highwayman, Lance hones his craft and starts working his way
onto a spot on the FBI’s ten most wanted list. The story takes place between 2000 – 2007.
Four takes place between September and November 2008. A much faster pace than its
predecessor with lots of action. Although Four can be read as a standalone novel, I would
encourage readers to check out Highwayman first.
Liz - What was the inspiration for using backdrops like Bucharest? What research went into the
MJ - Well, to be clear, Bucharest, Romania plays a small part. But it was a fun place to write
about and I may expand on that in future works. Most of this book is set in the USA, but I have always had a fascination with the old country. When I was a kid, my stepfather, who knew that I was a huge fan of monsters, in particular, Bram Stoker’s Dracula told me the tory of Bran Castle and Vlad the Impaler and how this man inspired Stoker to write Dracula.
In the case of Bucharest, research was via the web. The Highwayman books were an overdose of research. As to the locations in the United States, I have been to every place I have written about. Including Lance’s hometowns of Syracuse, NY and Lawrenceville, PA. I’ve been to most of the places where the killings have taken place. That in itself lends a credible foundation upon which to build on.
Liz - Absolutely! Nothing beats first hand experience. Do you foresee further instalments of The Highwayman series?
MJ - I am working on another instalment as we speak, but beyond that we will have to see. I
enjoy revisiting character’s and there are plenty to revisit from Highwayman Book 1 and 2, but
the story must be different for me to keep it fresh. A common misconception is that the
series is about the hunt for the same serial killer, the Highwayman, when in fact it is not.
These two books do envelope one story, but the plan is to follow the characters down new
Liz - Sounds intriguing! You published your first book, The Equinox, in 2012. How do you feel you have grown and/or changed as a writer since then? Has your process changed?
MJ -Writing is a learning process. I believe with every new project; I have gotten better at
bringing stories to the reader. I have more confidence in my work, and I have learned a thing
or two along the way. When I was into the final drafts of writing The Equinox, I was so afraid
to let it go. I kept going back, looking for problems, passing it on to my mentor to check and
recheck until he final put his foot down and said, “It’s done, send it out!” Which I did, and
Equinox is still the book that gets the most love.
As to my process, whether it has changed or not? Certainly, I am less inclined to go through
12 or 13 drafts like I did with Equinox, so the overall process has sped up. But I still write by
the seat of my pants, no outline, and in most cases I do not know where the story is going to
take me. That makes the process more exhilarating. Because I do not know.
Liz - I admire that because I'm a compulsive plotter, ha ha! What inspired you to migrate from straight up horror to crime novels?
MJ - That is an interesting question. Somewhere along the line I ended up being labelled a horror
author. With my first two books falling into the horror category, I guess the label made
sense, but I do not define myself that way. I am simply a writer.
Migrating between genres has its perks and drawbacks. The perk of course is that you have a
new environment in which to play with new characters and in the case of the Highwayman
books, I have drawn inspiration from real life cases. The drawback is whether readers in the
horror genre will follow you over to the thriller genre? To which I plea, “Isn’t serial murder
horrific in the first place?”
Liz - Exactly. The human monsters can be far scarier than the imaginary ones, especially when it comes to serial killers. Is there a standout true crime case that has always intrigued you?
MJ - The 1970’s seemed to be the decade of serial murder, there were so many, like Ted Bundy,
Son of Sam, John Wayne Gacy, Wayne Williams, just to name a few. I have researched all of
these enigmatic monsters, but if there was a case that truly stands out it would be the
Houston mass murders that always intrigued me.
Between 1970 to 1973, serial killer, Dean Corll along with teen accomplices David Brooks
and Elmer Wayne Henley, killed at least 28 young boys ranging in ages 12 to 17 years. The
murders, which took place in an impoverished suburb in Houston, Texas, known as Houston
Heights, were considered the most sadistic of their time. The victims were assaulted and
tortured sexually, sometimes for days, before being killed. That story has drawn me back
again and again.
This story inspired the serial child killer, Stephen Hopper, in my first book, The Equinox.
Liz - Did you always want to write?
MJ - Yeah, always. Other kids wanted to be astronauts, firemen, doctors, nurses, I wanted to
write stories. When I was a kid, I used to carry around a binder filled with loose leaf where I
would pen stories accompanied by rudimentary drawings. One story I wrote was called:
David vs the Zombie. In it two teens, David and John, find a cave that has a zombie in it. The
zombie wakens and kills John while David narrowly escapes, only to return with a posse of
friends and dynamite to reap vengeance. Many of those silly stories were inspired by films I
got to see at the drive, by directors like Roger Corman. I was a real sponge back then.
Liz - I love that! Tell us about your nickname, Jumping MJ?
MJ - Ah yes, Jumping MJ. I remember that well? It’s sort of like Jumping Jack Flash without the
Liz - What was it like driving across the world’s longest ice-road?
MJ - Where do I begin? After leaving the Canadian military in 1998, I decided to become a trucker. I trucked all over the place, including the United States and Canada. In 2012, I was getting to the point where I was getting ready to look at a career change when a friend of mine suggested I come run the ice road. I agreed and I have to tell you that that first year was the most awe-inspiring season, of which I would do two more, up there. I took thousands of photographs, we got buried in two snowstorms, the second being a category 3 which wiped out the entire ice road and left us stranded for five days at the Ekati diamond, roughly 300 miles south of the Arctic Circle. They eventually cut a new road and we went
I cannot even begin to tell you how important this adventure was to me as a writer. This was one of those things I got to do in life that was not only was cool, but it also inspired my second novel Acadia Event. I’d always thought if you want to write about the world you need to get out there and discover it. This was a pinnacle moment in my writing journey. My mind was on fire as we trucked up and down that ice road and I will admit that I had moments of
real fear driving a loaded down twin tanker on some of the most dangerous and challenging roads in the world. But there is nothing quite as exciting as having a pack of wolves running
beside you while navigating the endless arctic tundra.
Believe it or not, I would love to go up again. But I’d rather take a pickup truck so that I can give my full attention to the environment. I am an amateur photographer and there are so many things that I would like to photograph.
Liz - That sounds both incredibly intense and incredibly beautiful. I’ve always found the Northern Lights fascinating and would love to see them myself one day. Tell us what it was like to see them above all that ice?
MJ - Majestic! There is nothing quite like it on this earth. The farther you go north the deeper the intensity of the experience. The colors range from green to yellow and even blue and red.Sometimes that curtains of light span the entire spectrum of the horizon, twisting and shimmering in the frozen night sky.
Liz - If you could live anywhere in the world as research for an upcoming novel, where would it
be and why?
MJ - Oh man, that is a tough one. There are probably a dozen places on my bucket list. My family built a castle called Gormanston in Ireland, not to far from Dublin. The castle has been converted to a university, but the crypts of my family members are still there. I am guessing that such a gothic venue would be awe inspiring. But more to writing and location, I would like to write a Highwayman book set in New Orleans or at the very least, the state of Louisiana. I love everything I have read about the place, even though its one of the few places in the United States I have never been there. Even though I am a Canadian, I am drawn to the southern charm and darkness of the south. I’ve read a lot of stories about Louisiana and New Orleans and as a writer, I feel that someday I must go there to see it. Authors like, James Lee Burke, have romanticized this place and I feel it is a personal mission for me to explore and write about it.
Liz - I feel the exact same way about New Orleans and would love to go on a writing journey there. One day! If you were asked to write a story based on memory, which memory would you choose and why?
MJ - In 1968, my two older brothers Tony and Kenny, set out onto the ice of the St Lawrence River in Montreal. They were seven and eight years old in order of mention. That day, our brother Kenny did not return. He fell through the ice and into the frigid waters of the river and was taken from us. It was a devastating juncture in my family’s history, but that is not the memory, but a Segway. Halloween, 1970, I was trick or treating with my older brother Tony and there were some older kids who were remarking that they were going steal a bag of candy. I was five, so I guess that made me easy pickings. The kids swooped in, pushed me to the ground and snatched the pillowcase of treats I’d been collecting. I began wailing after the mugging, tears streaming down my face. Then my brother was there and through my blubbering he was handing me his pillowcase and yelling, “Marky, wait here!” Then he turned and was gone into the darkness, in pursuit of the candy bandits and leaving me sitting beneath a streetlight while the passing trick or treaters gawked. I do not know how long he was gone, five, maybe ten minutes? I thought the three boys might hurt my brother, but he returned with that pillowcase and picked me up off the ground. I was old enough to understand that my brother had chased those boys down and convinced
them to give that back that pillowcase of stolen candy. He was very convincing, because those three boys came to me and apologized the next day at school and from there on gave me and my brother, Tony a wide berth. This memory brings tears to my eyes even as I write this, but it is a memory worth keeping and sharing.
Liz - What a story and what a big brother! Perhaps there's a YA book waiting to be written there? What’s the favourite review you’ve ever received?
MJ - I do not have a specific review that I will reference. But if I were to be pressed, I will tell you this in the most unpatronizing way. It would be a reader review. Reader reviews mean more to me than any other because they are the destination for every piece I write, whether a short story or a novel. The reader is the most important reviewer because without readers a fantastic New York Times Book Review would not be worth the paper it’s written on. Not that I am poo pooing The New York Times book review.
Liz - What’s next for you, MJ?
MJ - In the short term, I think I will hit the hot tub, turn on Spotify, and listen to a little All Them Witches until I find my mojo. After that I will return to my work in progress, with the working title: THE ICE CREAM MEN Book three in the Highwayman Series. I am still working on this one, but I would encourage readers who dig my stuff to check out all my books while I get the new book finished.
Liz - Now that sounds like a plan! For readers keen to buy your books and keep in the loop, where can they find you?
MJ - I can be found on the web at: