(NOTE: This is the 2nd part of the Bob Yehling interview with William Thompson (Tom) Ong)
After he retired from a long career in the advertising industry, William Thompson Ong knew he wanted to return to his other love –writing – but didn’t know where to start. Like other writers, he wanted to draw plenty of fun and enjoyment from his daily sessions. However, he also wanted to write books that would find large audiences.
Ong did some research, and it brought him back to one of the favorite genres he read as a youth and young man: action thrillers with plenty of mystery. Bingo! He transformed into a typing thoroughbred, and burst out of the gates. In just a few years, he has written seven novels and a popular thriller series. In the second part of this exclusive interview, Ong reflects on why thrillers are so much fun to write, why they are the #1 fiction genre for readers (just ahead of the other ingredient in his books, romance), and how the stars have aligned ideally in the persona of Kate Conway, his protagonists for the novel series The Mounting Storm, The Deadly Buddha, and The Fashionista Murders, all available on Amazon.com.
WORDJOURNEYS.COM: What is it about the personalities and characteristics of investigative journalists that make them ideal protagonists for thrillers and mysteries?
WILLIAM THOMPSON ONG: I’d like to answer with some comparisons between the detective and the newspaper guy or gal. Both appear to be dedicated to discovering breakthrough facts or evidence they can weave into a conclusive story or an indictment. Aren’t they both in the same business, after all—fighting crime?
In Kate Conway’s case, the hurdles are set higher. The investigative reporter is in a class by herself at a newspaper or magazine journal, assigned to the really big and explosive stuff—stories and cases that go far beyond the murder story. These are the bright, tenacious, and fearless guys and gals who won’t be home for Christmas—they’ll be spending it hiding in a basement in Teheran to escape a terrorist’s sword. These are the guys and gals whose names will appear on the stories that garner Pulitzer Prizes for their papers—(to say nothing of boosting circulation enough to keep today’s newspapers alive for another year.) And in most cases they’ll be acting alone—not with the NYPD at their disposal.
WJ: You mentioned a disparity between typical education levels of an investigative journalist and detective, which creates major story problems in moving crime novels along because of the distrust with which one often views the other in real life. How did you get around that in your series?
TO: I made Kate’s father a gnarly ex-detective—(Paul Conway is a career dick from Brooklyn). When Kate needs help she whistles and Paul Conway appears, wise in the details of police procedure (which Kate and I choose not to be) and just dropping his name opens doors for Kate. Some may think I am cheating by supplying Kate with a crutch like this. But it allows Kate to cruise on a higher level and solve the really complicated crimes. All of this explains why I lean away from the straight detective story in favor of the mystery-thriller. I’m still that stickler for detail. But now I can keep a lot more balls in the air when it comes to plotting.
WJ: In The Fashionista Murders, and also The Mounting Storm, you give an expert’s touch to how you portray the high fashion industry and the high-end art world. Are these interests of yours, or just story drivers that you researched (well) and brought to life?
Like Kate Conway herself in The Fashionista Murders, I am totally turned off by fashion—which is why I attached the serial killer to the story. In The Mounting Storm, introducing Kate to Margaret Winship opened up the world of art and museums and society that heightened Kate’s search for the missing Monet she suspects belonged to her grandmother and triggered Kate’s unmasking the Nazi.
It also opened all of Kate’s subsequent novels to the swanky world of high finance and billionaires and celebrity society with its pretension and snobbery and deviousness—absolutely wonderful and trusty elements for layering your novel. These elements are story drivers and not comfortable elements already present in my life—although at one time I seriously considered becoming an artist.
WJ: You had an interesting way of becoming a thriller writer after leaving the advertising industry:
TO: I did. My decision to write thrillers was based on some good old-fashioned seat-of-the-pants research. I found thrillers to be the most popular genre. I also found there were more female readers than male readers, which helped lead me to inventing Kate Conway. Discovering that romances were the second hottest genre convinced me to spread Kate’s adventures with hot and spicy romance.
WJ: Were you a big reader of mysteries, thrillers and crime fiction in your growing up years? Who were your favorite authors, and what influenced you most about their works, styles and/or voices?
TO: When I was 9, my father brought home The Five Orange Pips and lightning struck. I became a Sherlock Holmes fan forever, admiring his characters and atmosphere (who can resist The Hound of the Baskervilles for atmosphere?) as much as his sleuthing. But as I grew older, my tastes gravitated to more intricate thrillers like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Gorky Park, The Manchurian Candidate, and The Day of the Jackal. By the time I reached college, writing style became important—the grace and class of W. Somerset Maugham as well as the biting vividness of Hemingway and the magic of F. Scott Fitzgerald. (I have worn out several soft-cover editions of A Farewell to Arms and The Great Gatsby.)
WJ: Story structure and writing style definitely resonates in your books. We start off on one trail, only to be switched to another – then another – always with entanglements of some kind involved. Is this a reflection of the way Kate keeps changing and running into surprises? Or the storycrafting style you’ve decided to run with?
TO: It’s both. The multi-layering of plot that I began in The Mounting Storm logically became a pattern for all of Kate’s novels. In the beginning I had no thought of making the novel into a series. It was to be a dark and brooding Citizen Kane type of story dramatizing the deviousness of Stirling Winship with Kate almost a minor figure. On the advice of an agent I cut some 90 pages and 30,000 words of background color on Stirling and turned it into a fast-paced thriller featuring Kate. But almost all the plots and subplots remained intact and we were off to the races with the Kate Conway series.
WJ: Rather than go the traditional publishing route, you’ve partner-published with Charles Redner and RiPublishing. Could you elaborate on the advantages you’ve found to the path you’re taking?
TO: The advantages? I am getting to see my books in print, I’m getting strong reviews, and I’m selling enough books to encourage me to keep going. Plus, it’s happening right now. This sure beats waiting around while an editor fiddles and fusses with changes for a year and then spends another year wondering whether the publishing house bosses will give me the final green light.
Self-publishing no longer bears a stigma. It’s attracting big name authors as well as beginners. If you can’t afford to wait, it’s the place to be. If your books have the necessary magic, they will almost certainly rise to the top.
Partnership-publishing is even better. In Charlie Redner, I have the advantage of a fellow author who acts as my publisher and also my agent when it comes to advice. There’s a lot of advice you’ll need, especially if you’re like me and have a mind that was built to function in the old days before the computer and the internet—back when we spent our time thinking and doing things instead of walking around pressing buttons on gadgets. (But thank Heaven the word processor replaced my typewriter!)
WJ: Final question: In each of your books, what is the one scene, situation, or character shift that surprised you most when it came flying from your mind to pen or computer screen?
TO: What a terrific question for ending this interview!
In The Mounting Storm, it’s the scene where Kate’s having dinner as the guest of Winston Winship. She has found the guy an obnoxious bore and lets us know it. But then he says something encouraging about her idea for a new magazine—and she warms to him. When he invites Kate to the party he’s throwing in the Hamptons, which she absolutely hates…
Kate looked at him before answering, digesting all over again his coolness, his incredible confidence, his mastery at what he does, his extremely good looks. And his eyes, those wonderful gray eyes with their look of sadness.
“Yes, I’ll come,” she said. “I love the Hamptons.
In The Deadly Buddha, in the party scene at the Hollywood movie studio, Kate has no idea the handsome dude chatting her up—and from whom she reluctantly accepts a ride back to her hotel—is the Welsh movie star she’s been ordered to interview. He stops at the Griffith Observatory and they find themselves having a ball as they recall from memory the lines James Dean and Natalie Wood exchanged in Rebel Without a Cause. This is how the scene ends:
Kate didn’t lean over and kiss him, although she thought about it. They were too busy laughing. They laughed all the way back to the hotel. The doorman helped her out. She turned to wave goodbye, but he was already in the circle and heading toward the Wilshire exit, his hand waving carelessly in the air.
That was the moment Kate realized she didn’t even know his name.
In The Fashionista Murders, we go through the thought process that keeps Kate from giving in to sex, this time in the apartment-studio and in the arms of the handsome photographer covering the fashion shows with her:
Maybe the shrink her friends had dragged her to was right—instead of shutting men out of her life she should loosen up when she felt her buttons being pushed and let things happen. Maybe she needs to change—not just Cam.
“You are not only a sex maniac but a full-fledged, card-carrying, conniving bastard,” was the way she began the terms of her surrender.
She took a step back, grasping both his hands in hers while shaking her mane of Irish red hair. “And now that I have made it ridiculously clear, you may do what you want with me—so long as it’s not boring, distasteful, or so devious it will land us in jail.”
I warned you how much fun it is writing thrillers, especially when you decide to stretch the boundaries a little. Thanks again for inviting me into your sanctuary.
Causes William Ong Supports
Southern Poverty Law Center