Interview with J. Luke Bennecke, author of Waterborne
Today it gives the Indie Crime Scene great pleasure to interview J. Luke Bennecke, whose newly released novel Waterborne we featured on April 21.
Waterborne concerns a pandemic, but the book was written two years ago, long before the current crisis. Is your work prophetic, and what does that mean to you?
At the core of each of the three Jake Bendel books is a real-life problem that, in my opinion, could be fixed if properly addressed. Engineers solve problems, whether it’s building a bridge across a ravine so people can safely get from one side to the other, or delivering enough electrical power to a city, or ensuring safe drinking water is efficiently delivered to businesses and homes. Of course, when COVID hit Spring 2020, like everyone else I wondered how serious the pandemic would be, how many people would be affected, impacts to the economy, etc. From my perspective, it’s a matter of time before these real-world problems affect us, so it would behoove us as a society to get ahead of the problems and solve them before they become reality. So…prophetic? Not really, just using logic and trying to see the big picture.
In what ways does the virus in the book with its “flu-like symptoms” differ from covid-19?
Honestly, the COVID-19 respiration problems are significantly worse than I’d predicted in Waterborne. I was imagining more of the standard flu-like symptoms we’ve all had: fever, chills, aches, nausea, and possibly headache.
Your protagonist, Jake Bendel, is a retired engineer who becomes a reluctant sleuth. We first meet him in your debut novel. Civil Terror: Gridlock. How has he changed since then?
Development of his character arc has been fun to watch. It’s amazing to me how characters end up as their own living/breathing things, even in a work of fiction. Jake started out somewhat arrogant and cocky because of the relatively simple efforts he put into an outstanding level of success he’d had until that point in his life. Methodically removing foundational items from his life, e.g. his wife, reputation, friends, etc. and thrusting him into a completely unfamiliar world of terrorism, FBI agents, bombs, guns, and more, has all humbled him and is turning him into a fighter. He has overcome his fear of physical confrontation and mastered his weakness of experiencing motion sickness at the slightest hint of movement. By the end of book three, he’s less of an engineer and more of a true empathetic hero.
As an engineer yourself, to what extent did you draw on your professional knowledge and experience in writing the books? Did it make it easier or harder to research and write them?
It turns out civil engineering is quite a dry career choice for someone with an appetite for action and adrenaline. It’s an amazing line of work if you enjoy math, computers, science, and solving puzzles. And it pays pretty well, too. But trying to glamorize the various aspects of civil engineering in a heroic fashion proved to be WAY more challenging than I’d originally anticipated. Fortunately, I was able to draw on my professional knowledge (they teach us a TON of fun stuff in engineering school) and had the opportunity—with substantial creative license—to (hopefully) come up with some believable scenarios where a civil engineering skillset can save the day, MacGyver-style. And of course, already having the civil engineering background did make the research less extensive than if I’d tried to write a legal or medical thriller.
In both books, Jake’s main adversaries are groups of very different terrorists. What can you tell us about the terrorists in Waterborne and what motivates them?
In Waterborne, initially, we have Viktor, whose motivation is based partially on religious fanaticism and partially on revenge (for Jake). But we find out at the very end of the story Viktor is just a puppet. Someone is pulling his strings and this person has a completely different agenda, which we fully explore in the third book, Blackout.
The other principal plot element of Waterborne concerns genetic modification as a weapon of mass destruction. What do you think underlies our fear of genetic modification and can it be traced back as far as works like Frankenstein by Mary Shelley?
In my opinion, our egos want to keep things simple and consistent, which is why change is such a challenging concept for most people. For better or worse (and the debate rages on “how” we actually came into existence) the fact remains we are all on planet earth and many of us are still trying to figure out our purpose. We know at some point we’re going to bite the dust and between now and that unknown point in the future, our daily goal is to avoid pain (financial, physical, mental, etc.). I think genetic modifications fly in the face of that sense of normalcy, adding an unholy level of risk to potential pain and uncertainly we as a species simply can’t digest mentally, hence the fear.
What are “molten salt reactors”, a source of nuclear power in the book, and how do they relate to the nuclear reactors in use today?
Again, I like to bring real-world stuff into my stories to enhance their believability. MSR’s were developed in the 50’s as a different type of nuclear power plant. Light water reactors are the ones we’ve all seen or heard of and are the ones that can melt down (e.g. Fukushima, Chernobyl, etc). They are the source of tons and tons of nuclear waste. In contrast, MSR’s have 99% less waste and are virtually impossible to melt down, so the risks to human life and the environment are significantly less. However, as I understand the lore surrounding the evolution of nuclear reactors in the USA, light water reactors were cheaper, and the government decided to accept the risks. Now, however, scientists at MIT and other institutions have developed an inexpensive way to construct MSR’s. So, as an author, I simply allowed the story to jump ahead a few years and let the tech become reality. Imagine inexpensive, hyper-efficient power generators running on nuclear fuel BUT without the waste or risk of meltdown. To me, this seems like a path we need to explore, so I’m hoping this story might help nudge some decision-makers down that road and we can all see what happens.
What impelled you to write a story about solving California’s drought and weaponized waterborne viruses?
California has about 800 miles of coastline, but is again facing a horrific drought. Desalination plants turn salt water into fresh water. But they are notorious energy hogs. So…I thought it would be logical if we took the MSR tech (above) and used those to overcome the power issues and voila! Cheap, fresh, clean drinking water for all Californians and crops. Of course, that’s too simple. If we did that in the real world, it opens us up to the potential of a terrorist attack. So, I wanted to explore what would happen if we put all of those ideas into a cautionary tale and we ended up with Waterborne.
You live in Southern California, itself a somewhat mythic place with a unique landscape and challenges, as seen in last year's fires. How does your knowledge of the place and the land inform your writing?
I was fortunate to have been born and raised in Southern California, so I’ve explored just about everywhere possible. And I’ve designed and constructed some of the roads, freeways, and interchanges and have witnessed a lot of interesting events during my time here. I guess it makes the writing easier because I can picture cities, freeways, roads, buildings, etc. in my head as I’m writing. This is one of the reasons I moved the locations for the third book to the East Coast. I wanted to challenge myself, forcing the author in me to struggle and research at a higher level.
What do you consider the essential elements of a good thriller?
Character arcs with emotional connections are key. Humans are emotional creatures. Sure, we have logic, but that’s not necessarily what motivates us or allows us to feel. Of course, a three-act structure, hitting the plot points and proper pacing are essential ingredients. But the master storytellers, authors I look up to and enjoy reading, have the ability to grab a reader with emotions. So, integrating this into the character arcs is essential, I believe. Easier said than done, though!
Civil Terror: Gridlock, became an Amazon Bestseller. How do you interact with your readers? How important is that to you?
As one of my favorite authors, Stephen King, talks about in his book On Writing, the process of imagining a story, putting pen to paper, editing/typing/printing the story, and then having a reader consume your words is a magical, time-eluding process. Knowing that someone has read words I’ve written . . . is special. I do not take that for granted. So yes, the process itself is important. I interact with my readers by responding to emails (email@example.com), Instagram posts, and, being an extrovert (somewhat rare as an author, I believe) my favorite form of interaction is at book signing events where I can meet readers in person. That’s the ultimate.
Will there be further adventures for Jake Bendel?
Yes! The third installment, Blackout, is fully edited and ready to go. I might write a fourth Bendel book and if I do, it will likely involve the conspiracies around the Twin Towers and what happened on 9-11.
In the blurb, it says: “Jake overcomes drone strikes and bunker bombs to discover the mastermind behind the plot, but not until the very end does he realize he’s been chasing someone who can’t possibly be caught.” Without giving anything away, can you offer your readers any hints or clues?
Please see answer to question No. 5. 😊
What are you working on now and how has the real-life pandemic affected your writing schedule, if at all?
A couple years ago, I wrote a sci-fi screenplay with a strong woman scientist protagonist that has to do with solving crimes by peeking back in time using alternate dimensions. The story has a TON of potential as multiple movies or a TV (Netflix) series. As I’m shopping that screenplay around, I’m going to write a reverse screen-adaptation and turn it into a full novel. It’s a different sub-genre, but if I can pull it off, it should fit nicely into the sci-fi thriller category. The pandemic has given me more time to write and think and meditate on story ideas. The analogy of a caterpillar in a chrysalis comes to mind.
Are there any thriller writers old or new whose work you enjoy and admire?
I’ve now read five books written by J.D. Barker. The guy is an absolute genius and I love everything he writes. Truly inspirational. I’m also a fan of John Sanford, Dan Brown, Stephen James, Peter James, Grant Blackwood, and nearly all of the authors whose works I’ve read after meeting them at the ITW ThrillerFest events over the years.
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About J. Luke Bennecke:
J. Luke Bennecke is a native Californian and veteran civil engineer. His first book, Civil Terror: Gridlock, became an Amazon Bestseller. Bennecke currently resides in Southern California with his wife of 30 years, whom he enjoys traveling with, and three spunky cats. Waterborne is his second novel.