Monday, May 17, 2004

Author profile: Jim Born
By Lona O'Connor, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Sunday, May 16, 2004

If there was an instant when the proverbial light bulb went on, when the idea for writing a novel was born, then that light would have been a flashlight in an unmarked police car, in the middle of the night.

During endless hours of surveillance as a federal drug officer, Jim Born found plenty of time to read by flashlight: Tom Clancy, Larry McMurtry, James Michener, history books.

Finally, he looked up from his reading and said to himself, "I think I'll write something."

It illuminated the moment when Jim Born, agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration, began a 14-year morph into James O. Born, crime fiction writer.

Now, according to those who know, he's headed up the charts -- with a bullet.

Born's first novel, Walking Money, is due next month from Putnam.

A West Palm Beach native with 18 years in law enforcement, Born is keeping his day job in Fort Lauderdale as supervisor of special agents at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. But his future looks brighter than a police spotlight.

"Jim Born is the real thing," wrote Elmore Leonard in a blurb for the cover of Walking Money.

It's a rare compliment from the author of Get Shorty and dozens of other popular crime novels, according to Peter Rubie, Born's agent.

"Elmore does not give (book jacket) quotes," Rubie said. "If you can find more than two, I'd be surprised. But he knew this guy's work and felt satisfied that it was of a certain quality."

It's true that Leonard has a soft spot for Born.

"I'm so happy he stuck with it and made it," Leonard said, calling from Beverly Hills, where he was visiting the set of Be Cool, the latest movie based on one of his novels. Leonard said he helped Born with punctuation and dialogue when Born was starting out. "But he had that perspicacity to stick to it, and go right back to work," Leonard said.

Born, 43, who lives in suburban Lake Worth, drew on his prolific experience in high-profile crime cases, collected over his years working for the DEA and the FDLE.

His career highlights read like a list of instances where truth is stranger than fiction: He was a police diver in the Everglades after the 1996 ValuJet crash. He was part of the hunt for Andrew Cunanan, who shot designer Gianni Versace on the steps of his Miami Beach mansion. He worked on the anthrax investigation in Boca Raton and went undercover to investigate the Ku Klux Klan.

It was all fodder for Walking Money. Set in Miami, the novel is titled for a satchelful of ill-gotten cash that keeps moving from hand to dishonest hand -- with bad things befalling just about everyone who handles it. Somehow Bill Tasker, the detective hero of the tale, ends up framed for murder.

Neil Nyren, Born's editor, thinks he has what it takes to build a following in the world of mystery book readers.

"He's very smart about what he needs to be doing and he's eager to learn," said Nyren, who liked Born's work so well that he first gave him a two-book deal, then made it a four-book deal.

Even taking his real-life experiences into account, Born's arrival in the big time makes success sound infuriatingly easy. He is a self-taught writer who doesn't even suffer from writer's block. He's ahead of schedule on his next novel and fleshing out outlines for three more.

"When I'm running or at the gym or playing tennis with the kids, I'm working out where the story is going," he said.

Born, whose father was the late Palm Beach County Circuit Judge John Born, sees himself as someone who just keeps plugging away. He's a guy with two black belts in karate who likes to work and is determined to succeed.

"That's the cop side of him," said his friend Mike Sheehan, a Florida Highway Patrol lieutenant. "You want success, you don't want failure. We're a prideful bunch."

Leonard met Born through a mutual friend, the late Circuit Judge Marvin Mounts, the model for Leonard's fictional Maximum Bob. A stickler for realism, Leonard and his researcher, Greg Sutter, started calling Born for answers to detailed questions.

For Out of Sight, a novel and later a movie about a Florida prison jailbreak, Born's knowledge of the 1993 prison escape at the Glades Correctional Institution in Belle Glade came in handy. For Get Shorty, Sutter wanted to know how someone could sneak a gun into an airport.

After Born decided to try writing, he began making notes when he had time. He squirreled away details, such as the little old lady on the porch at the retirement home for greyhounds west of the Palm Beach International Airport. She showed up in Born's still-unpublished novel, Snitch.

He started writing Snitch when his wife, Donna, was pregnant with their son, John, 14 years ago. After John was born in 1989, he wrote late at night or during his son's nap time.

He learned as he wrote. Sutter suggested how to structure his first draft into chapters and scenes. He kept getting rejection letters, but the rejections got more encouraging as time passed. He hired a professional editor to polish the book.

"Jim could take criticism, and I'm good at criticizing," Sutter said. "I went at it like a chain saw. I told him, 'Hang in there, it'll happen.' (When he got a publishing deal), we were giddy for him."

When Born finished Walking Money, it got a warmer reception from agents than Snitch. About a year ago, he received a phone call from New York agent Peter Rubie. After years of rejection letters, this was another light-bulb moment.

"It immediately dawned on me that nobody had ever called me to reject me," said Born.

Within weeks, Born signed a deal with Putnam, and shortly thereafter started showing up at mystery writers' conventions, making friends with writers, asking questions. Meanwhile, Sutter recommended him for a job providing technical assistance for the short-lived cop show, Karen Sisco, based on the Jennifer Lopez character in Out of Sight.

Born's characters are often crusty and politically incorrect. Their adventures are likewise salted with the gallows humor of law enforcement.

"In this business, you just constantly look at the lighter side," said Sheehan. "It keeps us mentally on track."

Born is breezy and relaxed, married to his FSU college sweetheart, a family man living on a lake in a placid suburban neighborhood.

"My life is boring because I got everything I wanted," he said.

But as publicists line up book signings and interviews for the launch of Walking Money, Born senses he is on the cusp of something very different.

His second-biggest thrill so far was finding the book mentioned on a Japanese mystery fans' Web site. The best, though, was seeing his book cover advertised on the Wal-Mart Web site.

"Come on, I'm a redneck from Palm Beach County," he joked. "Wal-Mart is the Holy Grail."

Being on the cusp also has its humbling moments. A radio interviewer accidentally called him "James Hall" (another Florida mystery writer) on the air. And his wife jokes, "Hemingway, will you take out the garbage?"

There has been no big celebration, no big changes. He did indulge in a truck -- a used, gray, Dodge Dakota pickup he bought from a friend. It took some cajoling for him give up his 11-year-old truck.

"We had been begging him to get a new truck," said his wife. "The one he had was in such bad shape, the neighbors didn't want to borrow it."

Donna is already planning a summer "pickup book tour," day trips to book signings around Florida, with John and daughter, Emily, 10.

"They need to know that Dad plugged away for 14 years before he met with any success," she said. "He just stuck with it."

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