The Winner Maker
by Jeff Bond
on Tour December 1-31, 2018
Bob Fiske — the 74-year-old dinosaur who’s taught Honors English and coached varsity football for five decades — is missing.
To his Winners, class favorites Fiske designated over the years for their potential to “Live Big,” it’s heartbreaking. Fiske did more than inspire with soaring oratory; he supported their ambitions into adulthood. Four of his brightest former stars reunite to find him, putting high-octane careers on hold, slipping police barricades, racing into the wilds of Northern Michigan for clues about the fate of their legendary mentor.
Others don’t see a legend. They see an elitist whose time has passed.
When a current student — female — disappears just hours into the Winners’ search amid rumors of inappropriate meetings, the Great Man’s reputation is a shambles.
Feints, betrayal, explosive secrets from their own pasts: as facts emerge, each Winner must decide how far they’ll go for Fiske. Can the truth redeem him? Or has this cult of hyper-achievement spawned a thing so vile none of their lives will survive intact?
“An exhilarating and emotionally astute mystery.” ~ Kirkus
Genre: Upmarket Mystery, Thriller
Published by: Indie
Publication Date: December 1st 2018
Number of Pages: 332
ISBN: 1732255202 (ISBN13: 9781732255203)
Purchase Links: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads
Jeff Bond is a Kansas native and graduate of Yale University. He lives in Michigan with his wife and two daughters, and belongs to the International Thriller Writers association.
Q&A with Jeff Bond
Writing and Reading:
Do you draw from personal experiences and/or current events?
I do, from both. I keep a running document of story ideas – categorized into “short,” “novella,” and “novel” – and try to add at least one per day. Generally it’ll be something inspired by my day, an interesting person I crossed paths with or situation I or one of my kids faced; or by a news story.
I subscribe to The New York Times on Kindle and live in constant regret for not reading it cover-to-cover, because every time I do, I find a great germ of a story.
Do you start with the conclusion and plot in reverse or start from the beginning and see where the story line brings you?
It varies. I’m a big upfront plotter, and before I sit down to write any scene at the level of dialog or physical description, I’ll know all the major plot points. (Which is not to say they can’t change later, either based on my own or early readers’ thoughts.) Sometimes the climax comes to me first—if you have a well-defined protagonist and antagonist, you can often imagine how they ought to collide for maximum effect.
Other times, particularly if the element driving a story is character or setting/milieu rather than situation or episode, I’ll just start brainstorming complications and possible twists, sprinkling them throughout an outline, and the plot emerges sort of all at once.
Are any of your characters based on you or people that you know?
While I certainly steal certain traits or mannerisms, I don’t have any characters – at least in The Winner Maker – that’re very close to real people. It can be tempting to do with minor characters. For example, if you want to quickly characterize a setting and know a person who typifies that place, you feel like just rolling them out with a different name. I try not to.
With major characters, in my experience, it can’t really work. You’re always going to need something different to support your plot or maximize conflict – even if it’s just a stray hobby or expertise.
Your routine when writing? Any idiosyncrasies?
I keep it pretty simple. Coffee and laptop. A café, library, or botanical gardens in good weather. I used to write in the early morning hours before going to a regular nine-to-five job, which conditioned me to write anywhere and make use of small windows of time.
Tell us why we should read this book.
The Winner Maker is unique in that it delivers high-octane thrills and reversals in the style of Harlan Coben or James Patterson, but does it using complex, likable characters you’ll recognize from real life.
I thought Kirkus Reviews captured this well: “Bond collapses two distinct literary genres into one seamless novelistic whole: a mystery and an emotional drama…The novel’s central mystery is thrilling, but the true spine of the tale is the fragile connections between the past Winners, who must not only investigate Fiske’s disappearance, but also the authenticity of their lives and friendships.”
Who are some of your favorite authors?
Gillian Flynn, Tana French, Jonathan Franzen, Nick Hornby, Harlan Coben
What are you reading now?
For me, Beartown by Fredrik Backman. To my kids, Ramona the Brave by Beverly Cleary.
Are you working on your next novel? Can you tell us a little about it?
My follow-up is called Blackquest 40. It’s more of a go-go thriller than Winner, a fresh take on the Die Hard formula about San Francisco tech workers whose office is locked down for a forty-hour corporate training exercise—or so they’re told as the story begins.
I’m just finishing final edits and plan a mid-May release.
Your novel will be a movie. Who would you cast?
I’m afraid parenting duties have eroded my knowledge of current movie actors who might play my Winners–in their late twenties—but for the title role of Bob Fiske, the missing teacher, I’ll take Ian McKellen.
Favorite leisure activity/hobby?
Basketball when I can find the time, and listening to audiobooks every morning while walking the dog.
Pozole, a pork and hominy Mexican stew.
Thank you for stopping by CMash Reads and spending time with us.
Read an excerpt:
Bob Fiske stalked out onto a glass-bottomed observation box of the Sears Tower, appearing to join the sky. His hair, wild and white, whorled with the passing clouds. His strides were at once rickety—owing to seventy-four-year-old joints—and resolute, each footfall seeming to make gravity, to seize its own plane of air.
He planted the portable lectern before his students with a leathered fist. “Poetry is the evidence of life. If your life is burning brightly, poetry is just the ash.”
The entire honors English class, and more than one passing tourist, considered this in reverential silence. The students’ faces glowed with a mishmash of excitements. They were out of school on a field trip! They had to recite a poem by heart; would they remember?
Being here with Fiske—Coach Fiske, Fiske the Great, Fiske the Feared—made them feel the way all high-school seniors should at least once during this final, never-to-be-forgotten year: special. Sure that every important thing in life was happening right here, right now, to them uniquely.
Marna Jacobs (left side, midway back) felt all this too, but more pressing was the weight of dual backpacks on her shoulders. What had Jesse put in this thing, lead? She shifted to resettle the load more comfortably over her five-one frame.
A voice behind her said, “Ooh, Marna, carrying your boyfriend’s bag for him? How old-fashioned. Part of the new vintage motif?”
It was Caitlyn of the perfect cheekbones and 4.5 GPA, a surefire Winner when Fiske’s list came out.
“Jesse’s not my boyfriend.” Marna crossed her ankles, suddenly less psyched about her thrift-store oxfords.
“Didn’t you two go to homecoming together?”
“We, um, broke up.”
“And you’ve accepted the demotion to pack mule?” Caitlyn said with a grin of ice.
Marna and Jesse were outsiders here, AP English being their only honors class. While the others elbowed for brownie points, Marna tried to fly under the radar—a strategy that had worked until last month when Mr. Fiske had praised her Brave New World essay as “refreshing, primitively honest.” Now Caitlyn ridiculed her at every turn.
Still, the question was legit. Marna had been standing around waiting to board one of the tower’s shockingly fast elevators when Jesse nudged her, asking if she’d leave his backpack on the glass bottom for him. Without waiting for an answer, he’d heaved the pack onto her shoulder. When she’d complained it was heavy, he had said all she had to do was leave it on the glass—then he slipped away as every ligament in Marna’s neck and upper back croaked under the burden.
“We’re friends,” Marna said now. “Friends do each other favors.”
Caitlyn sneered around the observation deck. The first student was approaching the podium, stealing a last peek at her crinkled notes. “What’s inside, a bomb? You two always were quiet. Maybe too quiet.”
Marna squirmed underneath the pack. It couldn’t be a bomb. Right? Everyone had gone through security. Jesse’s pack had been X-rayed.
She thought. Was pretty sure.
“Marna brought a bomb?” Todd Bruckmueller said, overhearing.
Caitlyn opened her shoulders to a larger audience. “Maybe.”
“This is really mean, you guys, I—”
Todd, right tackle for the football team, reached for the pack. Marna hunched like a threatened armadillo but couldn’t keep Todd from dislodging one arm. They struggled. Marna dug an elbow into the oaf’s ribs. He lost his grip, and the pack crashed to the glass floor.
Driven less by loyalty to Jesse than rage, Marna grabbed one strap. Todd grabbed the other. Security personnel moved dimly in the periphery.
The word boomed forth, sucking all air from the fight. Marna first thought Todd had said it—so loud, his meat-pie face right here—before spotting the pair of Illinois State 6A Championship rings against his neck. The rings belonged to Fiske. The septuagenarian had his 230-pound lineman in a half nelson.
“Poor form, Mr. Bruckmueller.” Fiske unhanded Todd, then turned to Marna with a wink. “I cordially invite you to Wildkit Stadium this afternoon, four o’clock sharp, to witness your tormentor ascending and descending the east stairs in rapid succession. Two hundred flights or heatstroke, whichever comes first.”
Before Marna could respond—was she supposed to respond? could Fiske get busted for laying hands on a student like that?—a metallic clunk sounded nearby. Jesse’s pack began sliding in the direction of the noise.
“Hey, what—what’s happening?” Todd said, scurrying back.
Marna instinctively raised her hands. Three guards were beelining her way, fingers pressed to earpieces. Students and tourists alike scattered. The backpack moved seven inches across the glass floor before locking into place with a small, intense shimmy.
Directly below, on the underside of the glass and suspended 103 stories above Wacker Drive, a hook protruded from a squat black cylinder.
That’s why the backpack was so heavy. There’s a gigantic magnet inside.
The hook was closed, and now a hand—a hand?—emerged from the void to clip what looked like a fat red ribbon onto it. The backpack’s fabric strained about the glass in a circle, the magnet inside perfectly mirroring the magnet below.
Marna squinted to make sure this wasn’t allergies messing with her eyes. Also, the day was overcast; up here, they were literally in the clouds.
“Oh. My. God.”
Suspended upside down, staring at her with that wobbly grin. The diamond-check soles of his shoes visible through the glass, he held on by a short length of the ribbon—which Marna saw was a bungee cord. The rest of the cord dangled far below, lilting now back against the skyscraper, now out over the Chicago River, twisting and kinking, rippling, the greatest part shrouded in fog.
Marna staggered into a row with the security guards. How did he get up there? Are those magnets seriously gonna hold? Will the guards shoot him, or Tase him? Can you Tase through glass?
The guards barked into walkie-talkies. When one stepped toward the pack, Jesse felt for something behind his waist and gave the bungee two sharp tugs.
“No!” Marna screamed. “You stupid jerk, no! Whatever you’re thinking!”
But she recognized the sequence he was rushing through: the harness buckling, the strap cinching, his rawboned fingers jittery but unhesitating. Technical rock climbing was Jesse’s thing—he actually taught yuppies at a downtown bouldering gym. He could do it in his sleep.
Marna flattened her whole body to the glass floor, fingers splayed, nose squished. “Why? What is the point, J? Stop!”
Into the misty chasm, her words were weak and scrabbling and basically nothing.
Jesse glanced past her. As his wild pupils settled on Fiske, his face took on a dreamy, near-euphoric blush.
The venerable teacher stood with arms folded. Impassive. Like Marna, Jesse had been encouraged by Fiske—had won kudos for his “exuberant prose style,” even been assigned an extracurricular joint project with one of Fiske’s pet students. In recent weeks, Jesse had even talked about making Winner.
“Respect your life!” Fiske called down. “Cherish it. Be the keeper of its sanctity.”
He knelt beside Marna and, placing both hands on the glass, glared down. She had a fleeting notion that the Great Man could grab Jesse, that those gnarled fingers were capable of parting glass—or transmuting through, or willing matter around, something—and rescuing him.
The blush heightened in Jesse’s face. His eyes pulsed. The sinews of his neck became taut and grotesque.
He plunged. Leading with his forehead, Adam’s apple slicing the clouds. He was a falling, twisting, shrinking blur.
Smaller, smaller…very small.
Marna had almost lost the dot when an enormous white tarp exploded upward through the fog. A block-print message snapped into view across its expanse:
Excerpt from The Winner Maker by Jeff Bond. Copyright © 2018 by Jeff Bond. Reproduced with permission from Jeff Bond. All rights reserved.
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