Episode 46: DV Berkom

Leine checked her watch as she waited for the target to emerge from the concrete block building. Practical as only Soviet-style architecture could be, nevertheless the crumbling façade gave the impression of faded power, like a once-famous tenor now down on his luck and sucking on throat lozenges in order to save his voice…

Ah, the glamorous life of a jet-setting assassin…

DV Berkom, A Killing Truth

Looking for breathless, non-stop action with a smart, powerful woman kicking down the doors? Are you in for a treat! DV Berkom’s thrillers have it all.

DV and I chat about her two series, the Kate Jones Thrillers and the grittier Leine Basso Crime Thrillers. You can find out more about both series and DV herself on her website, right here. You can also find her on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest

DV and I talked about her adventures, her writing, and the development of both series. We also discussed some of the injustices that, in her novels at least, are righted by a powerful woman. Chief among those is Human Trafficking — a horrific problem, but one we are not powerless to fight — as was recently illustrated by the Alaska Airline attendant who recognized that a teenage girl was being transported against her will. 

If you need it, or ever encounter someone who does, the National Human Trafficking Hotline is (888) 373-7888. You can also text “BeFree” (233733) to reach the Polaris Project.

Also, the State Department has “15 Ways You Can Help Fight Human Trafficking” including a guide for parents and educators on how Human Traffickers Target Children. There are many organizations doing wonderful work; you can find local groups or check out some national groups like Polaris and GEMS. I also have to give a shout out to the wonderful Peg Brantley, whom I interview here, and whose latest book, Trafficked, also works to increase awareness of the problem.

Mysteries and thrillers are wonderful escapism and DV’s books are wildly entertaining. How awesome, too, that the information they bring out may save some lives.

As always, if you’d rather read than listen, here is the transcript. Enjoy!

— Laura

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Transcript of Interview with DV Berkom

Laura Brennan: DV Berkom is the USA Today bestselling author of not one, but two action-packed thriller series, each featuring a kick-ass woman: Leine Basso and Kate Jones. DV’s writing is high-octane, powerful, and direct — much like her two heroines.

DV, thank you for joining me.

DV Berkom: Thank you for having me here.

LB: So, you started out as a political science major. What was the plan at that point?

DVB: Well, I was going to become a lawyer.

LB: Really?

DVB: Yes. And I started running around with that crowd, I guess you’d call it, and realized that wasn’t really where my heart lay.
So I decided that the best thing I could do was take off and move to Mexico and live on a sailboat for a while.

LB: That’s an interesting leap to make.

DVB: [Laughter] Yes! Yes, kind of. It was one of the only things I could think of to do to really get my head back on straight. Because I didn’t want to really move into that — it was more like a game, like you’re playing a game, when you’re an attorney and I didn’t feel like, that that would be something I would be really good at. I think it was a better thing for me to take off and have some time alone to think. And doing it in Mexico on a sailboat is a really good place to do.

LB: That’s an adventure.

DVB: Mmm-hmm. Yeah. And that started several years of moving, oh, probably every six months to a year. Different places, different jobs. It was really great training for becoming a writer.

LB: It’s interesting that you mention that being a lawyer felt like it would be a game. Because reading your novels, it’s so high-octane and it feels like it’s a game in that everybody has a counter-move.

DVB: Yes, now that you bring it up, that makes a lot of sense. It is the way I think and that’s probably why I was attracted at first to becoming an attorney. But, yes, something about it, something about the people I was hangout with, it just didn’t appeal to me at that time. I don’t think it would still appeal to me. I much prefer writing and creating my own little worlds and playing the game with the characters.

LB: What was the thing then that made you go, okay, writing. Writing is the thing I’m going to do.

DVB: I’ve written short stories probably since I was about seven. And I loved writing the short stories. And one year, I think it was 2005, I found that I had quite a bit of time on my hands and so I thought, I want to write a book. I want to try writing a book. I wanted to write a book with a strong female protagonist that I could actually relate to, which — I hadn’t been able to find too many of those kinds of books up to that point.

I wrote the first book. It took about a year. And the feeling of accomplishment after that was just amazing. And of course I thought it was going to be a bestseller. So I sent it out, and when the rejections started coming back in I was like, oh, maybe there’s a little bit more to this. And so I spent the next few years writing more books and learning the craft and learning the business. And in 2010, a friend of mine who was reading my stuff that I was writing, I was writing some Kate Jones things at that point, she asked me if I would write a prequel to why Kate Jones was on the run. And I thought, well, that’s not a bad idea.

So I did, and then I submitted it to an online publisher. They accepted it and it sold very well. This was back in 2010, I think it was, when everything was starting to really take off, the indie publishing world was really starting to take off. And I realized, I’d had a couple of small businesses in my life, and I realized that this was a small business that I could really, really get interested in because it had a creative aspect and had the business aspect of it. Good thing I didn’t know how much work it was before I went into it! But, basically, I got my rights back for Bad Spirits, which was the prequel to Kate’s life, and I uploaded it myself and I’ve just been going on ever since and I haven’t looked back.

LB: Let’s talk a little bit about Kate. In Bad Spirits, she does not start off in a happy place.

DVB: No, she does not! No, she makes a really big mistake, as so many of us do in our 20s. She’s in Mexico on a vacation, she chooses the wrong guy, gets involved with him, he turns out to be a Mexican drug lord, she doesn’t find out until it’s too late and then she has to try to escape. And she takes off with a boatload of his money. And the whole series is based on her running away from him, trying to get away from him, and then also turning around and facing her past.

I had a reader write to me one day and say, you know I love Kate. She’s a strong, capable woman, but would you just have her fight back a little bit more? And I had really thought about it because I thought I had been having her fight back. But obviously not enough for this guy. So that’s what Yucatán Dead became, the whole culmination of it and really fighting back against Salazar, the guy that she had fallen for.

LB: I really love the series because, yes, she starts out definitely taking her destiny into her own hands and, this is not a spoiler, backpack full of money. But she becomes who she is going to be over the course of the running.

DVB: Right. Right, yes. She learns a lot about herself, she learns a lot about how strong she really is. She realizes that she’s impetuous and that it’s probably not the best way to go through life. A lot of it will help save her on some occasions.

LB: And she has one of my favorite lines now, I think, ever. In Vigilante Dead, she says: “There’s a little larceny in all of us. I just tended to use mine more often than most.”

DVB: [Laughter] Yeah!

LB: And that’s a perfect example of who she is.

DVB: Yes, that’s a good point.

LB: It felt as if you had completed a chapter of Kate’s life. And then you actually took a break from her.

DVB: Yes. I took a couple of years’ break and really concentrated on writing more of Leine Basso because I was getting a lot more feedback from readers that they really liked Leine. They really liked Kate, too, but at the time she was, Leine was really starting to take off. And so I thought, well, let’s really delve into her character. Because I really, really enjoyed her character. I loved Kate, too.

LB: No, they’re both good. They’re not in competition.

DVB: Right! Exactly. And for a while I was doing one — I would do a Kate and then a Leine, I’d do a Kate and then I’d do a Leine. And then I realized that the flow of the books was actually better if I went at least two in a row of one character. So that’s what I’m working on right now. I’v finished The Last Deception, which is the next Leine Basso, that’s coming out in July, and I’m going to do another Leine Basso after that and then I’m going to probably go back to Kate.

LB: So let’s talk about Leine. Leine is, she is a former assassin.

DVB: Yes.

LB: So, this is not a cozy.

DVB: No! This is not. It’s definitely not. In fact, I just did a TV interview not too long ago and we were talking about it and the interviewer said something about, oh, there’s profanity in your books and violence and all that. And he said, this is more of an adult thriller not a — I don’t know too many cozy thrillers.

LB: It’s a thriller. I don’t see any reason to justify any other part of it.

DVB: Right! Right, exactly.

LB: Well, that’s interesting. Did he think because it was a woman lead that there would be a gentler element to it?

DVB: No, he actually was bringing up the point that this is how people speak, this is how they talk in this kind of the setting and, you know, I write about the criminal underbelly. I’m writing about an assassin so of course there’s going to be profanity, there’s going to be a lot of violence. I mean you would just assume that when you’re picking up a book that has a former assassin as a lead that —

LB: Right. Absolutely. There is a body count.

DVB: Yeah! I tried to keep that up.

LB: And the other thing about thrillers is they, the pages keep turning. Which is really true of your books.

DVB: Oh, thank you. I appreciate that. I work very hard at getting it to be a fast-paced, enjoyable read.

LB: I want to ask about that, I want to ask about the pacing because they all — but especially, I think, the Leine Basso books — they just pace like a bat out of hell.

DVB: I like that! Can I use that?

LB: You certainly can. I imagine that they don’t write like that. Do you plot everything out? How do you approach the thriller?

DVB: You know, I used to just go by the seat of my pants. And then the plots got a little bit more complicated and so I found that if I jotted down a timeline and I filled in some scenes, that would help me have a little roadmap. I still do that and I still jot down scenes but I also allow the characters and the action to take me where they want to go. Because it seems to be so much more natural and organic that way. And then it also surprises me, and if it surprises me then it’s going to surprise the reader.

LB: So did you come up with Leine’s character first? Because she’s not just an assassin, she’s an assassin and she’s a single mom.

DVB: Well, what happened is I had a really twisted dream one night about a reality show that had serial killers as the bachelors and the women who were vying for a date with them. And I woke up and I talked to my husband about that and we were laughing about how absurd that whole thing was, and then I thought, hmm. That actually is kind of a good premise for a book. And so I started fleshing that out. And I thought, well, okay, so you have a serial killer who doesn’t like what’s going on with this reality show because these aren’t really serial killers on the reality show. They are ex-cons acting like serial killers, and it’s a hit reality show. There’s a serial killer who doesn’t like the idea of, well, that he’s not being consulted, I guess. And I thought, well, who could I have go up against a serial killer? And I want to have a strong female protagonists because that’s how I write, that’s who I write and that’s where Leine came from.

Well, of course, a former assassin would be a really good foil for the serial killer. And then there’s that question of, who is worse? And how do you make an assassin, or a former assassin, somebody who you root for? And so I decided also to make her a single mom, who doesn’t do very well at being a single mom. I like that flaw in her. She doesn’t have to — she’s not perfect. I really don’t like a character who is perfect and gets everything right. And I don’t think most people do, either. Because none of us gets everything right. And I want somebody who works through the problems and the flaws in their personality. And Leine’s got a lot of flaws but she also has a lot of good qualities.

LB: Yes, she does. She has a very strong moral compass, particularly given her past.

DVB: Exactly.

LB: Speaking of that past, you also, you ended up writing a prequel novella of her origin story as well.

DVB: I did. That was a tough book to write too, because when I was writing the series, I wasn’t really thinking about what it would be like to write all of the past events that I allude to in the books into one cohesive whole. And so I had to go through the books again and pick out all of these past events that I allude to and put them in a book. And it was kind of like a jigsaw puzzle, putting everything together and making all fit and making it a coherent whole. But it turned out well except for the ending. I had some people email me about the ending saying, well, why didn’t she do such and such?

LB: Let’s also put in, that’s A Killing Truth, is what we’re talking about right now.

DVB: Correct. If you’ve read the book you kind of know what everybody was wanting her to do at the end. Which she didn’t do. So I couldn’t do it because the character ends up being in a couple of other books down the road. So that was the only part that was tough, but it made it more of a surprising ending I think.

LB: Yes. And if you read the entire series I think you will find fulfillment.

DVB: Right. Exactly.

LB: But we’re not done with Leine. You have a new book coming out this summer.

DVB: I do! I do, it’s the 6th Leine Basso book if you include the prequel and it’s called The Last Deception. Let me just read off the description because I don’t have it memorized:

“In the Cold War, you knew who your friends and enemies were. In war today, there’s no difference. Just when Leine Basso thinks she’s free from the business of murder and deception, a desperate call from a friend drags her into the dark world of espionage and arms dealers.”

And now, this is a different book because Leine Basso finds a reason for being after her devastating loss in A Killing Truth. And her reason for being turns out, she starts working for an anti-trafficking group called SHEN, which is Stop Human Enslavement Now.

Now, The Last Deception is a bit of a departure. Human trafficking is not the main reason for her — is not the main reason for the book. This book is more of a political thriller. I’ve been wanting to do something that is a little bit bigger, a little bit more international and I believe that The Last Deception is the start of that.

LB: You mentioned that human trafficking has been the center of her life. It’s one of the ways that she, in her own eyes, can redeem herself.

DVB: Right.

LB: But it’s also, I think, something that as Americans we don’t really know a lot about. I mean, arms dealing, that’s very concrete and in a way understandable. Of course people are going to want weapons. Because we’re a violent species —

DVB: You’re right.

LB: And there’s always war somewhere. But human trafficking seems like it really belongs in the pages of a thriller. But it’s not. It’s a devastating and very real issue.

DVB: Exactly. In Serial Date — there was quite a bit of black humor in Serial Date. And some satire and a lot of irreverence. When I went into Bad Traffick, the reason I started writing that book was that I saw a documentary at our local community college about child sex trafficking and it made me so angry that I felt that I just had to do something. And I thought, well, I’m a writer. Why not write a book about it? Because I didn’t know the extent of human trafficking in the United States.

We’ve all heard about Thailand, Saudi Arabia, all of the other places where human trafficking is well known to be big business, but I had no idea that the US is one of the biggest places for human trafficking, especially for children under the age of 17.

LB: No, it’s horrendous. And I think most people don’t know about it. I think most Americans do not understand the scope of it.

DVB: Right. And another fact that I came across when I was doing the research for Bad Traffick was that the Super Bowl is a huge, huge event for human traffickers. Because they go to the city where the Super Bowl is being held and then they bring in girls and boys for all the people who are attending. So it’s this huge black market of human flesh, I guess you’d call it.

LB: That’s horrendous. That’s horrific.

DVB: Yes. Yes it is. And bringing that out into the open in Bad Traffick was really important to me to do. And then The Body Market, which is the next book after that, deals with a little bit older person — because in Bad Traffick, it’s a 12-year-old girl. In The Body Market, it’s a 17-year-old girl. And she’s very well-to-do, she’s from a well-to-do family in LA and all that. And then that also deals with organ trafficking, illegal organ trafficking as well.

And then in Cargo, the next one after that, there’s some human trafficking elements and there’s also exotic animal trafficking. Endangered species trafficking. And elephant, ivory poaching. Basically if something pisses me off enough, I’m going to write about it. And so all of those things that I just mentioned in these books pissed me off so much that I had to write something about it. And bring out that information.

LB: People, other than reading your books and raising their own awareness, is there anything people can do to combat? Certainly, as far as ivory poaching, we’ve known for years, don’t buy ivory.

DVB: Right! Right. Well, and there’s little figurines and things like that, that they say, oh it’s, it’s legal ivory. Well, most of it’s not. The human trafficking aspect, just be aware that it exists probably in your neighborhood or in your city. If you see something that concerns you, let the authorities know. If you see a young girl that’s being manhandled or taken somewhere and the girl doesn’t seem like she’s accepting of what he’s doing or she’s afraid or something like that, then let the authorities know. Because just down our street there was a hotel that, it was pretty well known that they had, there was human trafficking going on in that. And, we live in a nice area. So just be aware that it’s happening everywhere. And if you want to get involved, there’s a lot of local, homegrown places and organizations that you can become a part of and be active in. Or you can give money to the larger organizations. There’s just tons of places that you can help either financially or with your time.

LB: I do think it’s one of the things that the more we know, the better prepared we are. There was just a situation with the airline personnel, the woman on the airline who noticed that a girl was not in a good place.

DVB: Right, right. Yes.

LB: And it was because she was trained to notice the signs.

DVB: Mm-hmm.

LB: That’s fantastic. So raising awareness. Kudos to you for tackling such a difficult subject. Was it hard to write?

DVB: Yes, it was, because of the research involved. I’d go to bed at night and have all these horrendous stories going around my brain about these younger people that were being taken advantage of. And a lot of them were runaways because they had a crappy home life and they’d be preyed upon on the streets. And it just, it’s just so sad. It stunned me the amount and the types of — what would happen to these children. And adult women. They’d go somewhere thinking they’re going to get a job and they go to a different country where they don’t speak the language. And then they take away their passports and they can’t get away, they don’t have any money, they have to pay off their steerage, I guess is what you’d call it. And then they’d be stuck and they’d have to have sex for money to pay off their bill, so to speak. And it’s — ugh!

LB: Well, I love that what you’ve done, though, is you’ve also put it in the context of a series of novels that feature a very strong and competent and capable woman.

DVB: Correct, yeah.

LB: And I also love how she’s inspiring as well because she’s able to heal her relationships. Which I also do not think as a spoiler. That she grows as a human being and comes to terms and heals both herself and her relationships with the people she loves.

DVB: Yes. She had a little bit of a problem being an assassin/mother.

LB: Right.

DVB: As you can understand.

LB: Which, absolutely. I have that problem every day. Right.

DVB: [Laughter] And her daughter’s a teenager and then when we see her in Serial Date, they’re estranged. But, yes, she does, she is able to heal that. True. Exactly.

LB: So, what is next for you, then? What is next for you?

DVB: Well, I’m going to publish The Last Deception. That will be coming out the end of July. And then I’ll be starting on a new Leine Basso that I’m still kind of noodling around with the premise and the plot. I hope to have that out, who knows, hopefully by the end of the year but it might not be that soon.

LB: Well, I will of course link to your website and also to some of the things that we’ve discussed in the show notes, but for people who don’t go to the show notes, can you tell us where we can find you online?

DVB: Sure. You can go to my website, which is DVBerkom.com. I also have Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, you can email me. I always answer my emails — I might not get back to you right away, but I always make sure I answer all emails. And the books are available everywhere online. Amazon and — Leine Basso is wide. She’s at Barnes & Noble and iBooks and Kobo and all that. Currently Kate is only at Amazon.

LB: Terrific. Well, thank you so much for joining me, DV.

DVB: Well, thank you so much for having me.