Tim Downs has received high acclaim for his novels, such as a Christy award for PlagueMaker. He is also the author of First the Dead, Less than Dead, Head Game, Chop Shop, and Shoofly Pie. Tim lives in North Carolina with his wife and three children.
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Tim Downs is the author of several suspense thrillers, including SHOOFLY PIE, CHOP SHOP and PLAGUEMAKER. His latest novel, LESS THAN DEAD, features recurring character Nick Polchak, an offbeat entomologist who often finds himself embroiled in crime investigations and disaster sites. In this interview with FaithfulReader.com's Cindy Crosby, Downs describes how his career path took him from studying sculpture and drawing comics to writing full-length novels and speaking professionally, and discusses how he researched elements of this latest book, including visiting dog training centers and attending forensics seminars. He also explains what he hopes to achieve through his work and contemplates what's in store for the "Bug Man" in future installments.
FaithfulReader.com: Your new novel, LESS THAN DEAD, is even funnier and smarter than your previous books. Tell us how you got started as a writer.
Tim Downs: I went to college to study art --- sculpture and painting, to be specific. My first full-time job was writing and drawing a syndicated comic strip called “Downstown.” I’ve always been attracted to creative endeavors, and writing seemed to be the next logical step. I’d been writing dialogue for my comic strip for 11 years; I just decided to try to write a conversation longer than four panels!
FR: Your protagonist, Nick Polchak, is a forensic entomologist --- an unusual occupation. Is this an interest you have yourself? How did you come to choose this occupation for Nick? And how do you know so much about bugs?
TD: I have no background at all in entomology, the study of insects. But then, I have no background in terrorism or psyops or organ transplantation either --- the topics of some of my other novels. I just do the research necessary to write each story. I start on the Internet, collect several books on the topic, and interview as many people as possible who work in the field I’m interested in. It’s the most enjoyable part of writing: learning about some line of work I know nothing about.
FR: I liked the romance in LESS THAN DEAD. Will we see more of Alena in future books? Or was she just a passing interest?
TD: Yes, you’ll see Alena again in the book I’m working on now, BUG THE DEAD. Alena is just too good a character to give up after one story. I’ve thought about making her the lead character in her own story! There will probably always be a romantic element in my Nick Polchak stories, because Nick is always trying to decide whether he wants to be a human being or not --- and women can be very persuasive.
FR: LESS THAN DEAD has a lot of information about dogs, especially cadaver dogs. Are you a dog person yourself? Do you have a dog? How did you do your research for this part of the plot?
TD: I’m definitely a dog person, and we have a wonderful dog named Bailee. You can see her photo on my website at http://timdowns.net/Less_than_Dead_photo_gallery.htm. In doing my research on dog training, my wife and I took a tour of the Canine Enforcement Training Center in Front Royal, Virginia --- which is near the location of my fictional town of Endor. The CETC is run by US Customs & Border Protection; it’s the facility where they train all of their drug-sniffing dogs, as well as dogs that can detect human beings and stashes of currency. They don’t train cadaver dogs there, however; I had to do a lot of reading to learn about that.
FR: With some of the graphic “rotting corpse and maggot” descriptions you include in your Bug Man novels, you must have a strong stomach. Is this assumption correct?
TD: Not necessarily --- I just have strong typing fingers. To do my original research on forensic entomology, however, I signed up for a course intended to teach coroners and CSIs how to collect insect evidence at crime scenes. Every morning we watched slides of murder scenes for three hours, then we went out to a farm where each of the students was assigned a “victim” --- a dead pig. Our assignment was to collect maggots from the victim and label them properly --- and at the end of the course, we had a pig roast. Now those are people with strong stomachs!
FR: You worked as a comic strip writer/artist after graduating from college. Tell us about that. Do you see any of your books translating into graphic novels?
TD: I drew a daily comic strip for college newspapers for five years, then as a syndicated feature for commercial newspapers for six years after that. I enjoyed it very much --- it’s where I learned to write dialogue and humor. I think some of my stories would make good graphic novels, but I can’t imagine drawing them myself --- I’m too out of practice! I did, however, draw a graphic novel intro to my novel HEAD GAME. One of my characters was supposed to be a comic book artist who left a suicide note --- so he drew it. My publisher thought it would be a nice addition to the book if I drew the note myself, so I did. It was some of the first cartooning I’d done in 20 years!
FR: After writing a book of nonfiction, what led to the change to fiction?
TD: I wanted more room for creativity. I’ve always said that writing nonfiction is like riding a train: You have a direction you have to go and tracks to run on. But writing fiction is like riding a bumper car: You just go wherever you want! I’ve always been a storyteller, both as a comic strip artist and as a professional speaker. Fiction gives me the greatest possible freedom to tell stories --- and I believe very much in the power of stories to influence the way people think.
FR: What have you learned since SHOOFLY PIE about writing fiction?
TD: I’ve learned a lot about the whole craft of fiction writing: developing interesting characters, choosing unusual and interesting settings, writing clever dialogue. There’s no end to what there is to learn, and I feel like I’m just getting started. I’ve gotten to know Nick Polchak a lot better, too. When you introduce a character for the first time, you tend to make the character try too hard --- sort of like an insecure person at a party. Now I know Nick better and I just let Nick be Nick.
FR: How does your faith influence your writing?
TD: My faith is the reason I write. Jesus demonstrated the power of stories: Even people who have never read the Bible are familiar with some of the stories He told, and those stories were told two millennia ago --- that’s pretty effective communication. Followers of Jesus study what He said, but sometimes fail to learn from the way he said it. I think He was demonstrating a style of communication that was inherently powerful and interesting --- storytelling. I’m writing to try to do the same thing.
FR: Do you write full-time? Or do you have another occupation as well that helps pay the bills?
TD: I work as a professional speaker. My wife and I often speak at conferences about marriage and parenting skills. I write as often as I can, but not full time. I wish I had more time to write --- but every writer says that!
FR: Does living in North Carolina influence your writing? If so, how?
TD: I’m not sure it does, except that I’ve set a couple of my stories nearby --- both SHOOFLY PIE and the story I’m working on now. It was more for convenience than anything else; it gave me locations that were nearby that I could visit and describe. North Carolina State University is just up the road from me, so I chose to make Nick Polchak a professor there. My youngest daughter is now a junior there, and I’ve visited the campus many times to interview faculty and grad students.
FR: If you could work at anything other than writing, what would you choose?
TD: Probably another form of writing. Screenwriting would be a lot of fun to try; so would filmmaking, for that matter. I enjoy creative activities that require several different skills. I would probably enjoy just about any creative activity --- I get bored easily!
FR: What do you do for fun when you’re not writing?
TD: Not a whole lot. Between writing, speaking, spending time with my wife, and raising three kids, there’s just not a lot of time left over. When I’m not writing, I mostly try to find time to write!
FR: How is your “ugly dog” photo contest going (on your website, www.timdowns.net)? Any good entries?
TD: Take a look for yourself at http://timdowns.net/Ugly_Dog_Contest.htm. Personally, I think the contestants so far are kind of cute. I’m not sure if my readers don’t own any ugly dogs or if they’re just too ashamed to admit it! I’m hoping we get some more remarkable entries before the contest ends November 1st.
FR: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?
TD: I’m working on the third and final book in my Bug Man series. This one will be entitled BUG THE DEAD, and it’s scheduled for release in early July of next year. I can’t tell you a lot about the story yet, but I’ll give you one enticing hint: not only does Alena return in this story, but so does another female lead character from another of my Bug Man stories --- and Nick finds himself in a love triangle. What’s a Bug Man to do?
FR: But Tim, we thought this was book #4 in the Bug Man series? And no more Nick? Say it isn’t so…
TD: Technically the Bug Man books aren’t a “series” at all. I wrote SHOOFLY PIE and CHOP SHOP for a different publisher; for my current publisher I’m doing a “series” of three in a row: FIRST THE DEAD, LESS THAN DEAD and BUG THE DEAD --- the title and cover similarities set them off as a series. BUG THE DEAD is the last of three, but it certainly won’t be my last Nick Polchak story.
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February 10, 2005
FaithfulReader.com's contributing writer Marcia Ford interviewed Tim Downs, author of the "Bug Man" novels. Downs discusses his inspiration for Nick Polchak --- the protagonist in this series --- the unusual research he conducted for these books, and details of his next novel, PLAGUE MAKER. He also describes the process of co-writing two nonfiction books with his wife, Joy, and talks about the marriage and parenting conferences that he and Joy conduct throughout the country.
FaithfulReader.com: Nick Polchak, the protagonist in your two "Bug Man" novels (SHOOFLY PIE and CHOP SHOP), is among the more intriguing and unusual characters in Christian fiction. Who did you have in mind when you created him?
Tim Downs: Nick is an amalgam of the real-life forensic entomologists I've interviewed. They're brilliant people, with remarkable memories and an eye for the smallest detail. They're also eccentric people; after all, these are people who decided to get a Ph.D. in bugs! They're not policemen, they're not investigators, they're not even pathologists --- and that means they don't exactly "fit" in a traditional crime investigation. I rolled all those eccentricities together into one quirky, unpredictable character.
FR: At the time you were writing SHOOFLY PIE, forensic entomology was a little-known science. The book released just as the "CSI" series of TV shows were gaining popularity and forensic entomology began to be featured in many of the segments. How do you think that may have given readers a greater understanding for, or appreciation of, your books? Do your readers now see you as an expert on entomology? Do they try to engage you in CSI-like conversations?
TD: I wrote SHOOFLY PIE before "CSI" first aired, but my book wasn't published until after the show began. Now there are all kinds of forensic shows on TV, and I think viewers/readers are much more knowledgeable about forensic science than they used to be. I'm often asked if I was trained in entomology or pathology, and it surprises people when I tell them I studied Art! I learned my forensic entomology through research and firsthand interviews with people who work in this field. I even attended an entomology workshop for coroners and crime scene investigators where we were trained to collect insect evidence at a crime scene.
FR: What was it like attending the two-day "maggot school" in order to research your books?
TD: It was held in a small town in rural Indiana. We met in the morning at an American Legion hall. For the first half of the day we were shown slides of horrendous murder scenes while they served Krispy Kremes in the back of the room. But then, these people were veterans of a lot of murder investigations --- they were immune to this kind of thing! In the afternoon we went out to a farm where dead pigs were strewn about in various stages of decomposition. We were each assigned a "victim," and our job was to collect and preserve the appropriate insects. The workshop traditionally ends with a pig roast --- like I said, they're immune.
FR: Imagine either book being made into a movie. Which actor do you see portraying Nick Polchak?
TD: Because the stories are so visual, people naturally imagine them as movies --- and I get a lot of casting suggestions! Someone said Nicholas Cage; I think Johnny Depp would be interesting. It would have to be someone with that quirky side to him.
FR: Before the release of your first "Bug Man" novel, you had written several nonfiction books. What was it like to make the transition from nonfiction to fiction?
TD: It was fun! Writing nonfiction is like driving a train; there are tracks to run on, you have requirements and restrictions. Writing fiction is like driving a bumper car. Where do you want to go today? What do you want to crash into? I love the creativity of it: the research, the plotting, the dialogue --- I love everything about it.
FR: FINDING COMMON GROUND (subtitled "How to Communicate with Those Outside the Christian Community…While We Still Can") won an ECPA Gold Medallion Award in the missions/evangelism category in 2000. That book still is considered one of the best books on being real with people as we attempt to share Jesus with them. In your work with Campus Crusade, and your observation of the Christian community, how are we doing at sharing the gospel with others? Has there been a noticeable improvement in how we evangelize?
TD: Every generation has to learn to evangelize all over again, because the values and attitudes of every generation of listeners change. Christians have to learn to communicate timeless truths to a constantly changing audience. That's not easy! One of the reasons I decided to write fiction is that it allows me to communicate in a form that I think is currently very powerful --- through story. I think that's what this generation of Christians is discovering: We have to move whole people with the gospel --- not just minds, but hearts too.
FR: Two of your nonfiction books, FIGHT FAIR! Winning at Conflict Without Losing at Love, and THE SEVEN CONFLICTS: Resolving the Most Common Disagreements in Marriage, were co-authored with your wife, Joy. What was that process like --- would co-writing a book qualify as the eighth conflict, or was it a relatively painless experience?
TD: When we first discussed those projects my wife said, "Are you sure you want to write these books together?" I said, "Of course --- you've been a big part of every conflict we've ever had."
Seriously, the process was painless --- but complex. I would write a chapter and she would edit it; then she would write a chapter and send it to me for my suggestions. We would both collect quotes, articles, ideas, then dump them all on the table and see what we could assemble. What a process! I don't think I could write a novel that way.
FR: Any possibility that you'll write another book together, perhaps one focusing more on parenting?
TD: It's always possible. For now, I'm focusing on fiction --- but we take it one book at a time.
FR: Tell us about the marriage and parenting conferences you and Joy conduct throughout the country.
TD: Joy and I speak at conferences called "A Weekend to Remember," hosted by a group called FamilyLife. They're weekend-long conferences that help couples develop the skills and perspective they need to have a great marriage. That's why we wrote the two books on conflict --- it's one of the topics we discuss at these conferences. We've done these conferences for almost twenty years now, and they're great fun. Your readers can learn more about the date and location of a conference in their area at FamilyLife's website, www.familylife.com.
FR: You used to produce a syndicated comic strip called DOWNSTOWN. Any interest in returning to that art form?
TD: I drew about 3,000 comic strips in my career, and I doubt I'll do more. I'm getting the same creative fulfillment from fiction writing --- and I get to write more than four frames a day!
FR: Do your novels "emerge," as some authors describe the process, or do you plot them out in detail in advance?
TD: I definitely plot them in advance. The plots I assemble are fairly intricate, and I can't imagine just allowing them to "emerge." Maybe a chess grand master could do it, but not me! I begin every novel with a thorough plot summary, where I (hopefully) work out all my plot problems before I begin writing. The plot summary for my next novel, PLAGUE MAKER, is forty pages long --- and I just drop it in the trash when the book is done.
FR: What does your writing routine involve?
TD: First comes reading, online research, and interviews --- that takes place over a period of three or four months, depending on what else is going on in my schedule. Then comes the writing. I try to write 2,000-2,500 words per day of good, clean text, and I keep a spreadsheet to keep me on track. PLAGUE MAKER is just less than 500 pages (in manuscript form). I wrote it in 58 days over a three-month period.
FR: Tell us about a little about PLAGUE MAKER. Will Nick Polchak make an appearance in that book?
TD: Nick makes an appearance --- though only in one chapter. PLAGUE MAKER is a bioterrorism story. The central characters are Nathan Donovan, a counterterrorism agent with the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force in New York City, and his ex-wife, Macy Monroe, a professor at Columbia University and an expert in the psychology of terrorism. The story is about an attempted biological attack on New York City. Like the Bug Man stories, I did a lot of research for this book, including interviews with actual counterterrorism agents in New York. It's scary stuff --- and fascinating.
FR: What are your plans for additional books in the "Bug Man" series?
TD: I've signed to do my next three novels with Westbow. PLAGUE MAKER is the first; the next two are undetermined yet. I definitely plan to do more stories with Nick; it's just a question of when.
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