Note: the giveaway is now closed. Winners will be announced in the morning.
First, something you might not know about me… (and, note: if you’re new to my FBI/U.S. Attorney books, I write them as standalones, so you can absolutely start with It Happened One Wedding): the law enforcement profession is something that’s interested me ever since I was a kid. Three family members of mine have been/are Chicago police officers, including my grandfather, who was a captain at the time he retired. Later, I married Mr. James, whose father is also a former Chicago police officer. So hearing cop stories is definitely part of the James family makeup.
And here’s something else you probably didn’t know: after graduating college, I went to law school with the goal of becoming an FBI agent. My first semester there, I met with an FBI recruiter who informed me that, sadly, I would never pass the vision test required of special agents. (This was back in the day when having Lasix surgery didn’t count—a rule which, I believe, they’ve since changed.) I remember leaving that interview with the FBI recruiter and thinking, “So. . . now what? You mean I have to be a real lawyer?”
In hindsight, becoming a “real” lawyer was a very good thing. First, because I’m basically a wuss—which is kind of an impediment to being a special agent—and second, because I ended up really enjoying my time as a trial lawyer. Now I’m a full-time author, and writing the FBI/U.S. Attorney series has allowed me to tap into those law enforcement roots—a wish fulfillment, of sorts, because I get to live vicariously through the lives of my characters.
And, on that note…
As many of you know, the hero of IT HAPPENED ONE WEDDING, Vaughn Roberts, is a Chicago FBI agent, and when writing his work-related scenes, I sought the advice of an active Chicago FBI agent—who we will refer to as “Mr. Special Agent.” And, folks, let me tell you two things: (1) Mr. Special Agent totally rocks, because I asked him, like, a bazillion pesky questions about being an FBI agent and he graciously answered every single one of them, and (2) there is a lot I didn’t know about FBI life.
So with me today is Mr. Special Agent himself, who’s here to talk about some of those things, and also to share his thoughts about being a “technical consultant” for the book. Oh—and we also have the answers to some questions you guys asked Mr. Special Agent on my Facebook page, and I’m giving away five signed copies of It Happened One Wedding. So let’s get started!
First, let’s begin with a short list I made just for this occasion:
Top Ten Things I Didn’t Know About FBI Agents (aka Things They Don’t Show you on TV and in the Movies)
10. As sexy as it may be on TV, real FBI agents don’t carry their guns in a shoulder rig/holster. I know, I know, all you Jack Pallas and Nick McCall fans are crushed. Apparently, that’s not a “practical” way to carry a gun—strong side hip is the natural draw position. Like FBI agents need to worry about being practical. Pfft.
9. Bullet proof vests are really uncomfortable.
8. FBI agents like to use the word “pistol” when referring to their guns. And they are really into their guns.
7. If you meet an FBI agent, proceed with caution—because odds are he’s armed to the teeth. In addition to their Glocks, most agents carry a knife on them. Some also carry a smaller backup gun in an ankle holster.
6. They have a serious jones for Dodge Chargers with the Pursuit Package. Like, if you’re an FBI agent, this is the car you want to have:
5. Every year, the FBI gets 115,000 applications and takes only approximately 1000 students from that. The majority of trainees who flunk out do so during the firearms/defensive tactics phase, because they can’t fire a gun without flinching.
4. They have an undercover school. With actual desks and everything.
3. Weird and funny stuff sometimes goes wrong when they’re working undercover. Mr. Special Agent told me he once drove a fancy Escalade while working undercover as a gun buyer and some random dude broke into his car and stole the radio. (Oops.)
2. It’s considered “poor form” for an FBI agent to have his gun exposed in public, which can lead to wardrobe challenges in warmer temperatures. According to Mr. Special Agent, they rock the untucked Polo in the summer.
1. Undercover operations are way, way more complicated than I’d ever imagined. (And we’ll be talking more about that in a moment.)
And now… onto the questions with Mr. Special Agent!
Q. Thanks for taking the time to do this! First things first: What did you think about being a “technical consultant” for the book? Was it about what you’d expected when you first said yes to helping me out, or was I more pesky than you’d ever imagined? 🙂
This was the second time I have been asked to be a technical consultant. The first was on a screenplay that became a stage production. It is an interesting process to try and make reality into entertainment. Just as I am sure you struggle to take the mundane realities of a relationship and make them interesting to your readers, a great deal of the grinding reality has to be removed from law enforcement to make it entertaining. The Bureau asked an agent friend of mine to consult on a major Hollywood production and Christian Bale told him roughly; “I want to know the right way to do everything. We may not do it that way in the film because the camera or the scene may dictate something else, but I always want you to tell me real way.” (That is not a direct quote as it is second hand, but I put quotes around for lack of a better idea). I look at working with you the same way. I will always tell you to the best of my ability what the reality would likely be of a situation you have created, but I know the reality may not be what the story needs.
Q. When we first met (actually, the second time we’d met), I was in the brainstorming phase of It Happened One Wedding—which means I probably talked about all these wonderfully awesome, exciting ideas that . . . never made it into the book. You’ve now read the finished version. Were you surprised to see what did and did not make it into the story?
If I followed the creative process correctly it seemed halfway to the deadline you threw out everything and started from scratch. That decision took a lot of guts, but having pre-read the book the result was worth it. I was surprised by your ability to let go of a scene after you had invested time and energy when the scene just did not work out. I am not sure I would have the strength to drop a less than perfect scene after I had invested myself into the work.
Q. You’ve now read two of my books, Love Irresistibly and It Happened One Wedding. Is it safe to assume those are the only romance novels you’ve read?
Certainly not! When the Bureau was looking for someone to speak at the author’s conference I leapt at the chance because I am a voracious reader. In the past I have leaned toward historical romances over contemporary settings because I felt it gave the plot more depth. Romances do have a tendency to become formulaic.
I’ve read four of your books, actually, and I enjoyed them quite a bit. Your great strength is your dialogue and the character interaction. It is very easy to envision your work on the big screen. And thank you for not going down the damsel in distress road where the female lead is always kidnapped and saved by the FBI Agent. Your characters have wonderful dynamic personalities and I appreciate that each has doubt and angst regardless of how tough or glamorous they seem to outsiders. I think there is a lot of reality there.
Q. Well, thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed them! Now here’s the all-important question: how did I do with the FBI stuff? Now, I know you guys don’t actually have a pool in the gym at the Chicago FBI office. But in the Julie James world, you do. And also a boxing ring and an outdoor beach volleyball court ala Top Gun. (Kidding! Sort of.)
No boxing ring. I haven’t boxed since the academy. No volleyball court. We had a basketball court on top of the parking garage for a while, but there are too many cars and they are parking all the way to the top now. You did well in incorporating the way we do business into several of your scenes while not revealing too much. It is a delicate line to balance to talk about operational realities without publishing something criminals could use to become better criminals.
Q. In the book, there’s a subplot involving one of Vaughn’s undercover cases—he’s posing as an illegal gun buyer as part of an investigation into some corrupt Chicago cops who are running a smuggling ring. We talked a lot about those scenes—particularly, the mechanics behind Vaughn’s meetings with the bad guys. And I have to say, I was amazed by how much advance planning and backup goes into these kinds of undercover meetings. Can you talk about that a little?
Undercover operations are very difficult to control because people do such unexpected and often inexplicable things. Bad guys often decide to rip each other off or change plans as they see fit. These people are often already predisposed to violent solutions to their problems.
Often operations have to happen in public areas. Our highest duty is to protect the public. When we create an environment where a criminal is going to interact with the public in a potentially stressful event, like the deals laid out in the book, we take very seriously the need to protect our people and the public.
In order to provide protection to everyone in these situations we strive to exert as much control as possible. We try to control the physical location, the number of people and weapons the criminal can present and the avenues available. To do this we use a lot of technology for communications and surveillance. Often good information can prevent problems. If we know in advance the target is bringing extra people and guns to a meeting we can cancel and change tactics before anyone gets hurt. For the scenes in the book, we were dealing with criminals who were constantly armed and wary so it would have been reasonable to have an abundance of resources available to deal with situations.
Q. You told me that, “The FBI loves overwhelming people with manpower and firepower.” I thought that line was so great, I used it in the book. What did you mean by that?
Let me use an example, though it is not my story but another agent’s. An agent I knew had an arrest warrant and a good location for a subject. As they pulled up to the house the guy they were looking for was just walking out. The subject realized what was happening and tried to get back inside and the agent jumped out of his car with his sub machinegun and accosted the subject who had a revolver in his belt. My friend told me he could see in the guy’s eyes that he wanted to try for his revolver and he was thinking about the odds. The agent just said “You’re going to lose”. The subject eyed the big shoulder weapon and surrendered.
If that encounter had been pistol to pistol the guy would have tried it and he, and probably the agent as well, would have gotten shot. The agent bringing a bigger gun to the fight than the bad guy saved the bad guy’s life and possible the agent’s life as well.
We find people don’t fight when they decide the odds are overwhelmingly against them. When people don’t fight, no one gets hurts. It is only when you give someone the impression they might win or might escape they will fight.
[Julie makes note to self: I’m so going to use that “You’re going to lose” line in a book.]
Q. Less than 10% of special agents go to undercover school, and you’re one of that small percentage. You mentioned something else that I used in the book, that you tell your friends and family not to approach you if they see you out and about in a coffee shop and such, in case you are undercover in that moment. But you mentioned that you’ve still been busted, nevertheless… Want to share that story?
One of my funniest moments from undercover work happened walking into a restaurant hand in hand with a female agent. Another agent’s wife was walking out, recognized the agent with me and clearly thinking she had stumbled onto an indiscretion stopped to say hello with a gleam in her eye. She called the agent with me by her true name and we gave her a flat stare watching the situation dawn on her. If there is anyone in the world who should know better it is an agent’s wife. The stricken look on her face was unforgettable and she fled without another word. The operation went on without a hitch.
Q. One last thing: a few months ago you asked if I wanted to participate in a SWAT training event, as a hostage. I couldn’t go, unfortunately, but when I mentioned that I couldn’t believe you use actual civilians for those kinds of things, you said it was good training because “innocent people do bizarre things while we are trying to save them.” Anything specific you can tell us about?
I am still not sure I believe you were busy. I think you might have been scared.
Julie: Oh, I definitely was intimidated. Still, if I hadn’t been on mom duty at the time (darn kids) I probably would’ve sucked it up and gone anyway just for the writing material I would’ve gotten.
It is not only bad guys that do crazy things under stress, but innocent people as well. When a hostage has been under incredible stress for hours not knowing if they will be hurt and suddenly they see a chance, often in a surge of violence, no one can say how they will react. I have seen people stand upright paralyzed with fear as gunfire has been exchanged all around them. Often hostages will rush for us trying to reach freedom but our priority has to be neutralizing the threat posed by the bad guys. Sometimes we have difficulty telling hostages from hostage takers as the bad guys drop their guns and get on the floor in response to our commands while the hostages dig through pockets looking for cell phones to make a Youtube video of their rescue.
Seriously, I could probably chat with you all day about this stuff. But, since you undoubtedly have tons of super-important special agent stuff to get back to, let me get to those reader questions. Unfortunately, we don’t have time for all the questions people posted on my Facebook page, but here’s a sample:
1. What scares you in your line of work?
The greatest fear is that someone on my team would get hurt because I have done something wrong or careless. When you work closely with people you may not get along, you may not even like them, but they are your people. You have to count on them and they have to count on you.
2. What’s the most ridiculous/funny stereotype people have of FBI agents?
“We are the FBI and we are taking over!” It doesn’t really happen that way even if sometimes it should.
3. Do any of the FBI shows on TV accurately depict reality?
I doubt they would be very successful shows if they depicted reality particularly well. To provide entertainment any show/movie/book has to skip over the thousands of mundane things taking up the majority of time in any job and show only the action. One episode of any popular FBI based show would probably result in months of report writing, investigation and possible congressional hearings!
4. What is your most interesting experience as a “technical consultant” for a fiction writer?
Reading the result! Especially on this project where the plot changed and I had no idea what to expect.
5. What was your most memorable under cover assignment and why?
I was chosen for my first undercover assignment because I was available and from out of town. Therefore I was a fresh face. It was supposed to just be a couple of interactions but went on for months. I ended up constantly dropping my regular work to fly back there for more meetings and my actual supervisor was not happy. I learned a lot about the difficulty of keeping a second life together. Different city, home, car, clothes, phones, friends, name, address, profession. Think about how difficult it is to remember where you put your keys last night. Now tomorrow do it in a different home with different keys. I had to sit down and be friends with people and share stories that I would be able to remember from each interaction, but that could not be used to identify me.
This can all sound glamorous and exciting. The fifth time you are cancelling plans with your family and friends because the target of the investigation wants to take you to this party Saturday and introduce you to this guy the glamorous shine begins to wear thin.
6. Did you read Julie’s books to see how she used the information you gave her?
There is no way I could resist reading Julie’s books!
7. What’s it like to balance work and your personal life since secrecy is important?
This is a complicated answer because it is not an issue until it suddenly becomes an issue. Imagine living with someone who goes to work in the morning and generally comes home around the same time in the evening. Sometimes he complains about judge’s rulings or US Attorneys that won’t do what he thinks they should or bad coffee. You make plans for weekends and have a normal life. But when he works late he can’t tell you why, where or when he will be home. You don’t know who is going to call you if something goes wrong or how long it is going to take to call you. Every day you come home you check the bag he keeps packed in the closet. Every now and then the bag is gone and instead there is a note on the refrigerator that says “Had to go out of town. I’ll call”. Now you are taking the kids to the soccer game and every parent says “where is he” but the fact is you don’t know and you don’t know if you are ever going to know where he went. He may come back and tell you all about it or that trip may never be spoken of again.
8. Do you have a favorite “dumb criminal” story? One that is so ridiculous and outrageous that if it were in a work of fiction no one would ever find it believable?
A man came to our office for a pre-employment polygraph (lie detector) exam having applied for a job as an Intelligence Analyst. He failed the test and the examiner asked some follow up questions. He admitted he had downloaded some child pornography to his computer for a research paper. By the time we had the whole story out of him he had a huge collection of material and had made a video of his 32 year-old self with his high school girlfriend.
We told him we had agents on the way to his apartment to seize his computer and he asked us to give him a day because it was his birthday and he was worried his friends would be at the house to give him a surprise party.
He asked the judge to throw out his statements because when he made them he still thought he was being interviewed for a job with the FBI rather than investigated by the FBI.
If this were used as a plot by an author everyone would say it was too farfetched. This man was a community college professor working on a doctorate.
9. Have you become cynical?
No. Why, what are you hiding? I have been asked several times why cops are all mean. There are many regular looking people who do truly horrible things. If you interact with them long enough you start to look askance at everyone. Whatever evil you may be able to image there is some real evil that will simply leave you stunned. Some people will never find justice; some bad people will get away and do it all over again. I don’t think you can do this job for very long without some cynicism to help protect you.
10. How much is undercover work like acting?
I have never been an actor so I cannot be sure. Actors get scripts and rehearsals though, and I would love to have a paper telling me what the other guy is going to say.
11. Are you really required to wear a suit with dress shoes? Is it more difficult to chase a criminal dressed that way?
We try to dress appropriate to the work we are doing, but we are ultimately a professional organization and we try to represent ourselves that way by dressing professionally when we can. We do not show up to planned tactical operations in a suit and tie, but it has happened that I have found myself strapping armor over professional clothing. I take pains to always wear soft soled shoes with ties so I can run if necessary.
12. What’s the craziest/ funniest thing you’ve encountered while on the job?
There are too many to choose. I often think of writing a book just about the stupid unpredictable stuff that happens.
Recently I was on the street with a team when one agent called out for help after someone tried to force their way into his car. We all went rushing to his location and as I came around the corner my headlights illuminated someone fleeing. I bailed out and chased the guy only to conclude he was clearly training for the Olympic track and field team. He leaped over a six-foot high gate like he was in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. I kicked off the gate for altitude, threw one leg over the top and the entire thing fell off its hinges onto the concrete with me riding it all the way down. Turned out he did not meet the description at all and had just taken off running because of the sirens.
[Cue Julie, laughing as she reads this]
13. Is it hard to separate yourself once you start to go undercover and then come back to your our own life?
It can be because things you do start to become habits. If your undercover persona requires you to lie and be violent, you are in danger of those habits bleeding over into your regular life. Worse, it is impossible to escape the stress of living this double life and the very serious danger of making a mistake. Stress can be very debilitating and ruin your life and your case.
14. On TV, it looks like a glamorous job. Is it? What do you like most and least about being an agent?
The job has glamorous moments. Everyone wants to talk to you about your job and wants to hear stories. I have been filmed by multitude news cameras and asked for interviews many times. Even better Julie James wants my opinion on things. Heady stuff indeed.
There are two things about this job I love. First, it defies routine. We simply do too many different things and have to react to such a diverse set of circumstances that things stay fresh. Second, no matter how awful, demoralizing and utterly useless a day you just had, you were fighting the good fight. You don’t always win the good fight, but it is good to have the opportunity to fight it.
I don’t like that we often don’t get to find out the rest of the story. Things often lack closure. We will work on a portion of a case, send off the results and you never really know what happened. It is frustrating but we are typically way too busy to spend the time to find out the ending for personal edification. I also hate that the media and defense attorneys can go on camera and say whatever they please with no regard to the truth, and the facts can’t come out until trial. Then when the facts are presented at trial they are so watered down by pre-trial motions only fractions of the facts ever get to come out.
* * *
So there you have it, folks. The straight skinny from a Chicago FBI agent. Mr. Special Agent, I can’t thank you enough for sharing your insight with me this past year, and also for coming here to chat with us today.
And now for the giveaway part! Today I’m giving away five copies of It Happened One Wedding—actual finished copies, not ARCs. All you have to do to enter is leave a comment below. Winners can choose either a signed paperback or a Kindle/Nook ebook. The giveaway is international, and will remain open until 9pm CST on Thursday, May 1. Those of you reading this on my Goodreads page should click here to leave a comment.
Good luck! And remember to mark your calendars for May 6–IT HAPPENED ONE WEDDING hits bookstores one week from today!