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From Mad Men to Thrillers: An Interview with William Thompson Ong, Part 1

Note: the following is an interview from RedRoom member Robert Yehling's Word Journeys blog.

William Thompson Ong, or Tom as his friends know him, has created quite a stir with thriller readers in the past 12 months with his trilogy of novels featuring journalist-protagonist-amateur sleuth Kate Conway.

The Mounting Storm, The Deadly Buddha and The Fashionista Murders (published by Ri Publishing) combine tight, twisting plots, charming bad guys to which Kate becomes attracted, and some high-powered crime solving in great professional settings – art museums, Parisian fashion runways and the like. The trio of novels (not a trilogy; Tom has more Kate Conway novels in his future) also incorporates two aspects of writing of which I can never get enough (or impress more upon writers) – tough, gritty narrative voice, and attention to detail  explicit in time, place, and the character’s personal likes and dislikes. NWhen I see this, I see someone who has married fine journalistic skills with excellent fiction-writing style. ot as easy to write or maintain as it sounds.

Behind Kate Conway is a novelist with an illustrious past in the advertising industry, especially for fans of the hit AMC TV show Mad Men. Tom Ong is an original Mad Man, an advertising copywriter and, later, executive who began his career on New York’s Madison Avenue a decade before Mad Men star Jon Hamm was born. Later, he moved to the West Coast, where he cooks up plot twists rather than hook and tag lines.

This is the first of a two-part interview with Tom, in which he reflects on his Mad Men days and takes us deep into Kate Conway’s world, and the ways in which he constructed it. I found his answers rich and fascinating. Hope you do, too.

WORDJOURNEYS.COM: First of all, Tom, you’ve made an interesting creative leap – from being an advertising agency executive to writing thrillers. How did that come about?

William Thompson Ong: It wasn’t that hard. I entered the business as a copywriter, and every copywriter I knew was secretly working on a novel. It was in our blood. At one time at the Benton & Bowles agency we had four guys writing copy for P&G and General Foods, along with our other clients who went on to become successful novelists and lyricists and screenplay writers—Israel Horowitz, Shepherd Meade, Ed Hannibal and Herman Raucher  (who wrote Summer of ’42)—all of us working at the same time and on the same floor. Even though I eventually had many executive titles, like Creative Director and even CEO of my own agency, I was always a copywriter, creating ads and aiming for the fences.

WJ.COM: Could you give us a brief synopsis of your background?

WTO: I grew up in the quiet, tree-lined suburbs of Cleveland, and got my undergrad degree from DePauw University in Indiana. I wrote some short stories and then some angry editorials as editor of the campus newspaper, which led to my MA in journalism from Columbia. After the army I spent 15 years with the biggest advertising agencies in New York City—yes, I was one of the original Mad Men. Then I opened my own agency in Philadelphia and ten years ago cashed in on my lifelong dream, migrating to Los Angeles cold turkey to pursue a new career as a novelist.

WJ.COM: You’ve been quite prolific since becoming a full-time novelist.

WTO: I’ve completed seven novels (plus two screenplays). The three novels in the Kate Conway series are thrillers and have been partnership-published and are doing quite well on Amazon.  I have four more historical thrillers waiting to be published, and I’m still developing plots for Kate Conway.

WJ.COM: Have to ask, since you were one of the originals – how authentic is Mad Men?

WTO: Don Draper is hard to resist as the handsome anti-hero in a world of snakes and dragons, but in a sense he spoils the series for me.  I was hoping it would be more about the classic creative wars that took place at the time between the good guys in creative and the bad guys, at both the client and the agency—all heavily-armed and  thoroughly trained to shoot down any idea that looked fresh and original. I will give Don credit for his ploy in taking on the Cancer Society client and its anti-smoking messages to get even with the cigarette account the agency lost.  That was brilliant—and Don’s personal high for me.

What I like about the series is the telling it like it was—the drinking and smoking, the cheating and jealousy, the double-dealing and back-stabbing, the toll the business took on marriages. Incredible!—we were all so busy trying to survive and get ahead we failed to realize what was going on.

WJ.COM: What were some of the toughest parts of the adjustment from writing ad copy to subjective, character-based fictional narrative?

WTO: No matter how good you are with words, it requires work and study to absorb the basics of good fiction writing. And there definitely are rules: ‘Show, Don’t Tell’; establishing and following well-defined character arcs; knowing your characters intimately; and keeping the action moving—plus a dozen other rules that you should learn to follow before you can break them. You can break them when you reach that point of competence and hear that voice whispering in your ear saying you have arrived.  Then you can forget the rules because they are no longer rules on paper—they are automatic in your head.

When I sat down to write ads and campaigns I would always begin by briefing myself as thoroughly as possible and then staring at that blank sheet of paper—rejecting idea after idea until I knew I had nailed that one idea that would knock everything else silly. It’s the same in fiction writing—we are always staring at that blank sheet of paper and forcing ourselves to come up with that one great plot, one great character, one great scene, one word that propels our story forward. It’s the same process for both. And it’s nakedly, sinfully, deliciously, heart-warmingly beautiful.

WJ.COM: What do you feel are the most important points to remember when writing action-based fiction?

WTO: Every writer has a checklist. Here’s mine, just the way I have the points written down:

  1. SHOW DON’T TELL. Avoid “She saw . . . /noticed . . .” Substitute: “She turned. Two snakes were slithering down the embankment.”
  2. NEVER BE BORING—keep asking yourself what’s the worst thing that could happen next?
  3. Welcome friction, antagonism, fear, unexpected twists and turns. Make characters want something out of reach in every scene.
  4. Know where you are going with the story.
  5. Start the FLASHPOINT OF ACTION on Page One
  6. Make Kate a tough cookie and keep her there. Never let romance get the best of her.  Keep her innocent of how sexy she is.
  7. AVOID CLICHES AND EMPTY GESTURES.  ‘She finished eating and, wiping her mouth with a napkin, smiled.’

8 .  Watch the adjectives, adverbs. Ditch the colons and semi-colons. Don’t try so hard with word play. Use dialogue more often to advance the story.

Another thing I keep in mind is that, broadly speaking, thrillers are action-oriented while literary fiction is character-oriented.

WJ.COM: You’ve brought your journalistic skills into the mix through the way you interlace precise details that are on the money for time and place as well. Could you talk about the importance of enriching narrative with well-chosen details?

WTO: At Columbia University we had a tough, white-thatched ex-Chicago Daily News editor as one of our professors. His name was Roscoe Ellard and he described the cub reporter who couldn’t wait to hand in the story of a horrific fire that destroyed a landmark church and its historic steeple. The reporter captured all the details—the time of the fire, names and addresses of the dead, degree of burns of all victims, age of the church, the hospitals involved, whether arson was suspected, plus dozens of other facts that were right on the money. The professor finally asked the cub writer one simple question.

“How high was the steeple?”

A stony silence followed.

For the rest of the school year Professor Ellard, in his huge booming voice, not only opened every class with the same question, but as students passing each other in the halls or meeting in bars our official greeting became: “How high was the steeple, pal?”

WJ.COM: The other side of your journalistic background comes from Kate Conway, the protagonist in three books now – The Mounting Storm, The Deadly Buddha and The Fashionista Murders. Is Kate the journalist you would have been had you not moved into the advertising business?  

WTO: This is a tricky question, and I’m not sure, since Kate and I represent opposite sexes. My first response would be to say yes, that Kate and I are Type-A personalities not content to stand idly by but want to always plunge in and slug the perpetrator – or at least try to bring the body at our feet back to life.

WJ.COM: How different or similar were your primary goals?

WTO: Kate’s primary goal in journalism is to do what she was taught as a child and had driven into her being by her Catholic parents and especially her detective father— TELL THE TRUTH.  That also describes my background, my family, my political views and, although I am a Presbyterian, my religious beliefs.  With a nation full of evil CEOs, politicians and killers posing as saints, there is plenty for Kate and me and any other investigative reporter, real or imaginary, to feast upon.

WJ.COM: While many male novelists have written strong woman characters, it is very rare to find a male thriller writer using a female protagonist.

WTO: I have received a lot of praise for establishing Kate as a role model for women. I set out to do this intentionally.  In Kate’s first novel, The Mounting Storm, we see her flair for journalism in writing an innocent bio piece about Margaret Winship, The Museum Queen. The piece leads ultimately to exposing her husband and finding the missing Monet, but in it, Kate has Margaret deliver a stern lecture challenging today’s women in the work force to keep giving back to their own sex as they plunge ahead.

WJ.COM: What is Kate’s primary motivation in life? How is it she finds herself crossing paths with the twisted, sophisticated, charismatic bad guys you bring into each story?

TO: Close behind Kate’s driving preoccupation with discovering and telling the truth is coming face-to-face with a talented and romantic male character who she is attracted to and, plot-wise, becomes deeply  involved with—and in two of the three novels comes close to marrying.

I’ve already mentioned how I chose a woman as my major character to stand out from the male-dominated thrillers.  I decided to take this extra positioning step by not being afraid to have romance that leads to sex (and a lot of it) become a powerful and controlling factor in all three of Kate Conway’s adventures.

In this case it was more than relieving my own boredom.  I felt I was being adventurous myself, perhaps venturing where others feared to tread and all that ego-enhancing stuff.  But I knew I was on the right track when women readers and the dozen or so agents who read the first manuscript loved Kate just as written with all her romantic entanglements.

(PART TWO will run on Friday, August 9)