Q&A with R.J. Jacobs, author of Always the First to Die
By J.B. StevensNovember 9, 2022
Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with R.J. Jacobs, whose newest book, Always the First to Die, was an October release from Poisoned Pen Press. In preparation for this interview, I read the novel. It was fast-paced and fun, and the atmosphere was perfect. If you’re looking for your next read, check it out.
J.B.: R.J., thank you for speaking with me. Can you tell me about yourself?
R.J.: I grew up in Southwest Florida and have lived in Nashville for about nineteen years. I work as a psychologist, but writing has become a big part of my life in the last few years. I started writing when I was in college and came up with two short, plotless novels that were pretty awful. That’s not humility—it’s true. But I think I’m starting to get the hang of it a bit.
J.B.: I’d agree, you’re definitely getting the hang of it. Your latest work is a great example and a testament to your skill. Speaking of your latest, can you tell us about it?
R.J.: In Always the First to Die, a former horror movie actress goes into the evacuated Florida Keys to find her daughter after a hurricane, and the circumstances begin to resemble the plot of the film she starred in.
I started thinking about nautical elements that could come in handy for a thriller—pressurized air, boat props, water itself. The Keys also have only one way in and out, which works well for a story. I interviewed residents who’d lived through Hurricane Matthew who described the inky darkness at night, and how they cooked and read at night by candlelight. I thought about how spooky that would seem—just like a horror movie, and the story was born.
My next book should be out in fall 2023 and the working title is This is How We End Things. It’s about a group of psychology graduate students running an experiment on deception. I wanted to write a classic locked room mystery set in an academic department. There’s a lot of mistrust of psychology, but I hope the story is a lot of fun.
J.B.: This Is How We End Things sounds very interesting. I really like the setup—I’ll be reading it for sure. So, you’re working on this new book, while promoting your most recent. How long does writing a new book take for you?
R.J.: The first draft takes about six months to write, then about another six months to edit and get in shape. Someone told me when I was starting out that to be a writer, you actually have to be writing one book, editing another, and promoting a third. That pace seemed overwhelming at the time, but the description is pretty accurate.
I work as a psychologist during the day, so finding time to work on my books is a challenge. But even at my busiest, I try to at least do some small thing toward what I’m working on each day.
J.B.: Working full-time in mental health and still having the mental stamina to write is very impressive. I’d imagine hearing from readers helps you push through the spots where your internal creative battery is running low. Do you hear from readers often?
R.J.: The main character of my first novel struggles with Bipolar Disorder and after it was published, I heard from a number of people who also have that diagnosis. Those were my favorite notes— readers saying the story’s description was accurate and sometimes expressing relief that the bipolar character wasn’t the villain! Pretty often, mental illness is a story’s explanation for wickedness. I consider myself a mental health advocate and wanted my story to be a bit different in that way.
The vast majority of readers I hear from send thoughtful messages about how they enjoyed the book. I will say, a number of readers get peeved by errors and let me know when they find one. I understand reacting to books, for sure—I’m a reader, too, after all—and I hope my novels elicit some sort of emotion. I think of writers and readers as belonging to the same community.
J.B.: As a writer, I know you love to hear that so many people connect with your work. That’s the dream for most authors. Speaking of dreams, they—just like this interview—must end. I’d like to thank you for your time, R.J.!
And for those of you reading this, I strongly encourage you to go pick up Always the First to Die—I think you’ll enjoy it!
About Always the First to Die by R.J. Jacobs:
For Lexi, the Pinecrest Estate has become a place of horror. The dilapidated manor house in the Florida Keys, once the site of her teenage movie debut, is now haunted by memories. Memories of working on a legendary horror director’s most famous film and of the terrible death that propelled them all to infamy. And ever since Lexi fled the Keys, she has vowed to never return.
Until, years later, her daughter escapes to the Pinecrest in search of answers. Right when a Category 4 hurricane hits the southern coast.
Now, Lexi is back on the ravaged island with only a few remaining behind, and soon enough, her life begins to resemble the plot of her most famous film. And this time, she’s not sure who will make it out alive.