It’s Valentine’s Day! And what better way to celebrate than to discuss all the things in life that scare the hell out of you!
I like to keep it dark over here, so I’m thrilled to chat with a wonderful thriller writer and retired special agent, Jeffrey James Higgins. Jeff’s latest novel is Unseen: Evil Lurks Among Us, about a rookie homicide detective who investigates a string of murders in Washington, DC and uncovers both a vigilante killer and a terrorist conspiracy—making himself a target. He also recently wrote this fab blog post about mistakes writers often make when writing about deadly force, which I found incredibly insightful.
I don’t believe Jeff and I have crossed paths IRL (soon to be rectified! We will be on a panel together at the Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival next month!), but we spend a lot of our lunch hours together during the Chessie Chapter of Sisters in Crime lunchtime write-ins.
From the stories he’s told there, I knew this was gonna be good. AND I WAS RIGHT.
What is your greatest fear?
What I fear most is losing my loved ones. My brother-in-law, Amir Farahat, recently passed away, and his death devastated our family. The loss of a family member is a phobia most of us share. The flip side of that worry is being lucky enough to have people in my life that I love. When I write thrillers, I often create dread in readers’ minds by threatening my character’s family or friends. What are higher stakes than death?
Is there any fear you’ve overcome in your life? How has that changed you?
I was a shy kid with a strong interior life, like many writers and readers, and public speaking terrified me. I remember having to present a paper to my class and being unable to get out of my seat. Eventually, I confronted my fear and overcame it. As a special agent, I gave hundreds of briefings to police, ambassadors, generals, and cabinet members, and as an elected official, I routinely spoke to large audiences. As an author, I give talks, sit on panels, and actually enjoy the thing that once scared me most.
What is your weirdest fear?
I chased terrorists and transnational criminals around the world for decades. Bad guys have shot bullets and missiles at me, and I’ve fought hand-to-hand to save my life. I don’t have PTSD, but after living in austere environments in developing countries, I developed germophobia. I try to control it, but it worsens when I’m fatigued. Sometimes, I think it’s gone, then I catch myself opening a door with a tissue. Shooting it out with terrorists doesn’t scare me, but bacteria…yikes.
“My dogs have always been my best friends, and I won’t even watch a movie where a dog dies of natural causes.”
Do you believe in ghosts? Why or why not?
I’m a rational person who relies on data, evidence, and reason, however (and you knew a however was coming), science can’t explain everything we observe in the natural world. Quantum mechanics and general relativity are incompatible theories, quantum entanglement seems to prove the impossible, and many physicists believe ten or more nine dimensions exist—so it’s possible what we call ghosts has a scientific explanation. I know many people who’ve had supernatural experiences, myself included. I don’t know how to explain those incidents, but I know they happened. For thousands of years, humans have believed in the spirit world, and doubt only crept after the scientific revolution when things had to be measured and tested to be accepted. I believe paranormal activity exists, but we don’t have the science to explain it.
Have you ever had any paranormal experiences or premonitions? How did you deal with it?
A few years ago, I was walking out of my office in downtown Washington, DC, when I spotted Fran, a colleague I’d worked with in New York City and hadn’t seen in twelve years. We’d been friendly but not close enough to keep in touch, and I hadn’t thought about her since I’d left Manhattan. I was on my cell, but I kept my eye on her as she strolled up the block toward me. When she drew near, I ended my call, smiled, and reached out to hug her. In an instant, her face changed, and she no longer looked anything like Fran. The stranger flinched and darted away from me, probably thinking I was a creep. I gawked at the woman until she turned the corner at the end of the block, then I shook my head and went home. What was that? I returned to work the next day and received an agency-wide email announcing Fran had died. She had passed away at the exact moment I had seen her on the street.
What is your greatest fear as a writer?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was about six years old. I started as a reporter, but my professional career took a radical turn, and I ended up working as a special agent for decades. Now that I’ve returned to my life’s calling, my fear is that I won’t live long enough to write all the books I have inside me. I know it sounds strange, but I believe writers are conduits for stories that exist in the universe, and as an author, I need to fulfill my role and share them.
What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever written?
Many readers have told me that my debut novel, Furious: Sailing into Terror, terrified them, but a couple of years ago, I self-published The Interrogation, a short crime story. When my wife read it, she screamed when she reached a twist at the end. One of my friends did the same thing, and he’s a retired cop. For pure shock value, that story wins, but my scariest work may be The Garden, a horror tale about a woman with dementia. I performed it at Noir at the ‘Voir last week, and the audience screamed at the end of that one too.
Do you have any horror movie deal breakers?
I can’t watch anything where animals are hurt. Well, at least nothing where dogs or cats are injured. Things didn’t end well for the rabbit in Fatal Attraction, and I loved that movie. My dogs have always been my best friends, and I won’t even watch a movie where a dog dies of natural causes.
If you HAD to live through/experience one of Stephen King’s novels or stories, which one would you pick and why?
When my wife and I were dating, I told her she reminded me of Annie Wilkes in Misery. I teased her because she always said, “I’m your number one fan,” which is a line from the movie. She’d never seen the film and thought it must be a romantic comedy. When she finally watched it, she wanted to murder me. After we were married, I killed my wife’s favorite character in my crime novel, Unseen. After she read that scene, she came running into the room and attacked me—exactly like the movie. Well, without the kidnapping and hobbling. She now sees Annie Wilkes as the protagonist. So, which Stephen King Novel would I pick? None of them. I’m living in one right now.
Jeffrey James Higgins is a retired supervisory special agent who writes thrillers, short stories, scripts, creative nonfiction, and essays. He has wrestled a suicide bomber, fought the Taliban in combat, and chased terrorists across five continents. He received the Attorney General’s Award for Exceptional Heroism and the DEA Award of Valor. Jeffrey has been interviewed by CNN, National Geographic, and The New York Times. He’s a #1 Amazon bestselling author and has won eighteen literary awards, including the Claymore Award, PenCraft’s Best Fiction Book of 2022, and a Reader’s Favorite Gold Medal. In 2021, Black Rose Writing published his first two novels, Furious: Sailing into Terror, and Unseen: Evil Lurks Among Us.