Furious: Sailing Into Terror by Jeffrey James Higgins Genre: Thriller, Suspense
**PenCraft Book Awards selected FURIOUS as the Best Fiction Book of 2021!!**
"An extraordinary achievement by a writer destined for greatness."
–Jon Land, USA Today bestselling author of the Caitlin Strong novels
"A gripping tale of a dream vacation that goes horribly wrong."
–Mark Alpert, internationally bestselling author of Saint Joan of New York
Trapped on a storm-damaged yacht, a grieving woman must conquer her worst fears and fight for her life, in a story described as The Shining on a yacht.
Dr. Dagny Steele is on the verge of fulfilling her lifelong calling to become a pediatric surgeon when the sudden death of her daughter sends her into a crushing depression. Grief stricken and desperate to heal, she takes a leave of absence and sails across the Indian Ocean with her husband. Dagny begins to recover from her tragic loss when her voyage turns into a nightmare.
Isolated and hunted at sea, can she survive a deadly crucible?
I wanted to die.
I leaned into the crib and brushed my fingers over Emma’s teddy bear, a stuffed animal larger than she had ever been. The velour fabric felt cool and still—the opposite of Emma during her short life—her three-month, impossibly brief existence. She had come and gone so quickly; it was almost possible to imagine she had never lived at all. Almost. Some mornings, I awakened and experienced a few seconds of peace, before remembering what had happened, then reality would rush into me like a cold wind. My baby girl is dead.
The teddy bear’s stitched eyes stared back at me. I had been so careful buying non-toxic bath toys and dolls free of choking hazards. Every object in the room was childproof, from the one-inch gaps between crib slats to the electrical outlet covers. I had given it all so much thought.
A tear wet my cheek, smearing my mascara, and I hugged the teddy bear against my chest. I could still smell the sweet, floral scent of baby powder, and I pictured the first time Emma smiled at me—her cheeks fat and rosy.
My eyes burned, and the crib blurred in my vision. The floor shifted under me, as if the carpet had transformed into desert sand, and the world rushed past me, moving on without me, jostling me like a leaf blowing down the side of the road, without direction, without hope.
I reached over the crib and caressed a cloth elephant dangling from a mobile. I flicked it and the mobile spun in a circle—going nowhere— as it chimed Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. Emma had giggled every time she heard it.
My pregnancy had been unplanned and the months before Emma’s birth had been a flurry, a frantic rush to prepare for motherhood. We painted the nursery and purchased a crib, stroller, and pacifiers. I took vitamins and read how-to books, all so we would be ready when she came. Then she arrived, and everyone wanted to see her, touch her, share our joy. For three months she consumed our thoughts, our every waking moment. Then she was gone. She had my blonde hair.
My knees buckled, and I wanted to fall through the floor, sink into the earth, lie with Emma in her grave. I wanted to hold her, kiss her, love her. I could not comprehend the unfairness of it, the cruelty. She had been healthy and full of life until the morning I found her cold and still.
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. How could that be a real thing? How could anyone allow it to happen?
I gripped the crib to steady myself.
“Are you okay?” Brad asked from the doorway.
My body stiffened. I had forgotten my husband was home and the need to hide my weakness from him overwhelmed me. I turned away so he would not see my tears. I pulled my shoulders back and straightened, hoping I would not topple over.
“What do you think?” I asked. My voice sounded foreign, like a soundtrack dubbed by an actor.
“I have something to show you.” “Not now.”
“Dagny, this isn’t helping.”
“I said, not now.”
He touched my hand, and I pulled it away.
I knelt and ran my fingertips over the crib bumpers, designed to keep Emma from banging her head against the wood. I had chosen the tea rose color for its calming effect. Had they contributed to her death? Brad and I were both surgeons, but we had not seen it coming, could not save her. I wanted to climb into the crib and pull the blanket over my head until the world disappeared. Until I disappeared.
“Did I lay Emma on her back?” I asked, still not making eye contact. “We’ve been through this.”
“Was the baby monitor turned up?”
“You know it was.”
“Did I do something wrong?”
Brad glared at me. “You have to stop.”
Bunny rabbits smirked at me from a mural painted on the wall. I had been overconfident, unprepared. What did life mean if an innocent child could die for no reason? My life became a pause, a question mark, a purgatory waiting for an explanation.
“I could call the medical examiner’s office or Detective Fuller again,” I said.
“You’ve called them at least once a week for months.”
“They’ve stopped returning my calls.”
“Their investigation is over. Sometimes children die and we never know the reason.”
“I still need answers.”
I had always been an optimistic person, able to see the positive side of things, instinctively searching for ways to be happy. Not now. I still had that person inside me, but she was underwater, struggling to reach the surface, thrashing her arms and legs as her air ran out, trying to reach the light. All I could do was watch her, like a disinterested passerby on the beach, not knowing if I wanted her to make it or not.
Groaning emanated from somewhere, deep and guttural, and it took a moment to realize the sound came from me—as if my soul had taken control of my body and cried out for this nightmare to end. Life had broken on an elemental level, beyond repair. My baby was gone forever.
“Come on,” Brad said. He took my hand and led me out of the nursery.
I did not resist.
He turned to me. “There’s something I need to talk to you about. Wait for me in the sitting room.”
“Talk about what?”
“I have to get something from my office. Wait for me.” An order, not a request.
I walked downstairs and stood in front of our bay windows, not out of curiosity or because Brad had asked me, but because I could not think of anything else to do.
A minute later, Brad hurried into the room with an envelope in his hand. He smiled. Not really a smile, but more of a failed attempt at one. His lips pressed together, and his cheeks rose, but the corners of his mouth turned down—both a smile and a frown—his frustration molded into a mask. His expression told me he had reached the boundary of his patience. He wanted my grieving to stop, needed my pain to end, craved his life back. He had found a way to move on, the ability to breathe again, and I had not.
“Hey, Dagny. How are . . . uh, I think you will like this.”
I glared at him. Emma had only been gone for six months, twice as long as she had lived. I resented his resiliency, which was not fair to him, but I did not care. Life was unfair. Emma’s death was unfair. The end of my happiness was unfair.
“Have a seat,” Brad said, his voice gentle, solemn, like the funeral director who had helped me pick out the casket. “I think I know how to help you . . . to help us. I have an idea to break you out of this—”
“Break out of this? What makes you think there’s a way out?”
“Come and sit down.”
I followed him to the couch in the center of the room. It was a cavernous space, in a massive house, on an expansive estate. Brad had bought this mansion with his family’s money and surprised me the week before we married, four months before Emma’s birth. The beauty and opulence of the house matched the other homes in Newton, Massachusetts, but it was not Boston, not the city where I had spent my entire life. Not my home. It had all happened too fast—the dating, the unexpected pregnancy, the house, the marriage. The death.
I sat on the couch and peered out at the autumn tableau. The leaves had turned crimson, vermillion, arsenic-yellow. They were dying too.
“What is it?” My voice sounded distant, cold.
“It’s been six months, and you’re almost finished with your surgical fellowship,” Brad said. “You need to . . . we need to dig our way out of this and live again. We need to—”
“How long am I allowed to be sad, Brad?”
“I’m not saying you can’t grieve, but you have to move on. This has been hard for me too.”
“Has it? You seem to have recovered quickly.” What a mean thing to say. Who was this person who had taken over my body after my soul departed?
“It’s been awful, unthinkable, but I pushed through the pain. Damn it, she was my daughter too. I’m trying to help you.”
“Sometimes I think about taking pills, making it all stop,” I said.
He slammed his hand on the back of the couch. “Fuck this. You don’t think I’ve felt like dying too?”
I glared at him, silent. There it was. The anger always bubbling just below the surface. It had broken through and filled the room, like gas from a tar pit—foul, ugly, toxic.
“I . . . I didn’t mean to yell,” Brad said. “This has been unbearable. We have to do something.” He rolled his eyes to the ceiling.
I used to see that expression as a window into the mind of a brilliant doctor, but no longer. That was probably unfair too. Maybe I wanted someone to blame, and Brad’s proximity made him a convenient target. Maybe not.
He held the envelope out for me, but I did not take it.
“Plane tickets. Tickets to Bali. I leased a sailboat . . . a yacht, actually. We will sail from Indonesia to the Maldives, off the coast of India. Just the two of us.”
I gawked at him and blinked. “You think I want a vacation?”
“It’s not a vacation. It’s one month at sea, away from Boston, away from our lives . . . away from all of it.”
“You know I’m afraid of the water.”
“You don’t have to swim. We’ll be on a sixty-two-foot yacht.” “I haven’t sailed since I was a child.”
“I’ve been sailing my family’s yacht since I was twelve years old. I can do the heavy lifting, and if you’re interested, I’ll give you a refresher.”
“They’re expecting me back at Boston Pediatric,” I said.
“They’ve been expecting you back for months, and I don’t see you returning anytime soon. You need to get your head together before you can finish your fellowship and pass your boards.”
Brad’s answers came fast, as if he had given his plan great thought, prepared for my objections. I wobbled on my feet like a punch-drunk boxer, unable to respond to his counterpunches.
“I don’t know.”
“Trust me, the change of scenery will be therapeutic. I need this. We need this. You have to come.”
I looked out the window at the fallen leaves swirling on the lawn. Swirling and swirling. Going nowhere. Decomposing.
“We’re leaving next week.” He stood, set his jaw, and stormed out of the room. Conversation over.
I opened my mouth to yell, to tell him not to leave, but instead, I leaned back on the couch and gazed out the window. How could Brad plan a month-long voyage without my consent? I felt like I had no say in the matter, no right to object. Adversity seemed to have brought out the worst parts of his character. He had grown more pedantic in recent months, assuming an unearned authority in our relationship. It seemed as if by succumbing to depression, I had abdicated my standing in our partnership. He had grown more domineering, consulted me less, treated me like a child, as if he knew best. I had serious doubts about that—serious doubts about him.
Outside, the car door slammed. The engine started and Brad drove past the windows and down the long driveway. The iron gates creaked open, and I watched him turn left, driving past brick mansions, stone walls, and velvet lawns. Leaves fluttered in his wake.
I did not care where he went.
I had done nothing but mourn for six months, the longest period of inactivity in my thirty-two years. I did not recognize the weeping woman I had become—unable to work, unable to socialize, unable to cope. I had always used my mind to overcome obstacles, but I could not think my way out of this depression. I could not move on after Emma’s death.
Maybe Brad’s sailing trip would give me distance from the psychological trauma, the space to get my emotions under control. If I did not recover soon, I would lose my pediatric surgical fellowship, lose everything I had worked my entire life to achieve. Forcing myself onto a sailboat would also make me confront my biggest fear, and if I could do that, I would become a stronger person. My trepidation entailed more than an irrational phobia—sailing across the Indian Ocean carried genuine risks. Ships sank, accidents happened, people died.
But I was desperate. Maybe this time, Brad knew best. He loved me and sailing across an ocean could be the change I required to recover. Maybe I needed this voyage.
I sat on the couch and pictured my father, the sun reflecting off the water, moments before it happened—twenty-one years ago. The day that defined my life.
I blinked the thought away and focused on the front yard. Leaves blew in circles across the driveway. The sun sank lower in the sky and shadows crept across the floor. The umbra climbed my legs, covering me, plunging the room into darkness. I watched myself sitting there, like I was that bystander on the beach.
I waited to see what I would do.
Jeffrey James Higgins is a former reporter and retired supervisory special agent who writes thriller novels, short stories, creative nonfiction, and essays. He has wrestled a suicide bomber, fought the Taliban in combat, and chased terrorists across five continents. During his career, he made the first narco-terrorism arrest, convicted the world’s most prolific heroin trafficker, and arrested an Iranian operative trying to acquire surface-to-air missiles. Jeffrey received both the Attorney General’s Award for Exceptional Heroism and the DEA Award of Valor.
What inspired you to write this book?
A year before Covid-19, I thought about ways someone could flee a populated area during a pandemic and decided escaping on a yacht would work. Then I wondered what would happen if someone on the boat was dangerous. That led me to write a closed-environment thriller. I wanted to create a fast-paced novel that readers would not want to put down. Furious is pure romanticism. The protagonist, Dagny, must use her mind to find ways to survive. It’s about using reason, being courageous, and never giving up.
Can you, for those who don't know you already, tell something about yourself and how you became an author?
I’ve wanted to be an author since my parents read me bedtime stories. I worked as a journalist to pay the bills, then entered law enforcement and stopped writing during my 25 years as a police officer and special agent. When I returned to writing a few years ago, I felt like I was coming home. I’ve always been a writer, even when I wasn’t writing.
Who is your hero and why?
My wife, Cynthia Farahat Higgins, is my hero. She grew up in Cairo, Egypt and wanted to be a sculptor, but the government prevented her from going to art school. Instead of accepting being a victim of a patriarchal, socialist, Islamist society, she decided to understand the minds of Islamists.
Cynthia spent the two decades studying Islamic jurisprudence and became a founding member of Egypt’s first secular, pro-western political party. She fought for the rights of women, minorities, and all individuals. The government, al-Qaeda, and the Muslim Brotherhood targeted her, but she stayed true to her values and never backed down. She spent more than a decade under surveillance and received death threats daily. She sought asylum in the US only after Islamists murdered her friend and targeted her for assassination.
My wife has continued to write and expose radical Islamic terror groups. Her efforts had saved countless lives, and she has helped transform Egyptian society. The woman who once had her name officially banned from print now regularly appears in the most widely circulated newspaper in the Middle East. Cynthia’s courage and morality are a shining star for all to follow. Her nonfiction book, The Secret Apparatus, exposes the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. Post Hill Press will publish it in 2022.
Which of your novels can you imagine made into a movie?
I think all my novels would make wonderful movies. I say that because I’m a visual author. Stories play like movies in my imagination when I write. Readers often tell me my books would make great movies. Some writers get offended by that comment, because novels and cinema are different mediums, but I take it as a compliment, because it means the book came alive in the reader’s mind.
Furious: Sailing into Terror would probably make the best movie. It was a quarterfinalist in Screencraft’s Most Cinematic Book Competition. Best Thrillers selected it as an Editor’s Pick, and Reader’s Favorites gave it a Gold Medal. Furious would be the least expensive to film, because 90% of the story takes place on a 62-foot Beneteau Oceanis Yacht. I’ve been studying script writing, and I hope to have the screenplay written soon. I plan to adapt my other work into scripts too. Unseen: Evil Lurks Among Us would also translate well on the big screen.
How did you come up with the title of the book?
The title, Furious, has multiple meanings and implications, which the reader will understand when they read the story. No spoilers!
Who designed your book covers?
Black Rose Writing published my first two novels, Furious and Unseen. Their design and production manager, David King, does a great job creating the covers, and I know Reagan Rothe and the other BRW staff also give input. There’s a real art to designing a cover. Reader polls show that cover design is one of the most important factors in selling a book. The cover must be interesting, convey the genre and mood, and entice the read to open the book. I think it’s usually a mistake for authors to design their own covers. I would not ask a designer to write an important scene for me, so why should I dictate their art?
Did you learn anything during the writing of your recent book?
I become a better writer with every book. I think that’s an important lesson for new authors. Malcolm Gladwell posited that 10,000 hours of study in any field is necessary to become an expert. I think there’s a literary equivalent for that. I’ve written over 600,000 words in novels and probably a couple hundred thousand more in short stories and narrative nonfiction. The more you write, the better you become, and if it’s focused writing, you learn from your mistakes. I read books on craft, listen to podcasts, attend conferences, participate in a critique group, and rely on beta readers. If you listen to criticism and learn the craft, you will get better. A corollary to that is finishing your novel. Completing plot and character arcs are tremendous learning experiences. It’s one thing to have a good idea and start a book, and another to structure your idea properly, flesh out characters, and make it all work together. The best thing I’ve learned is to finish what you start.
Have you written any other books that are not published?
My agent recently submitted two books to publishers. Blood and Powder is a nonfiction account of my journey from the World Trade Center on 9/11 to fighting terrorism in Afghanistan. Battling bureaucrats and terrorists, a special agent pushes DEA into war and makes the first narco-terrorism arrest—forever changing how terrorists are prosecuted. It’s Blackhawk Down meets The Good Soldiers. My agent also submitted Shaking, a small-town murder mystery. Battling bipolar disorder, Emily Miller lands her dream job as a reporter and returns to her New England hometown, but when her brother becomes a suspect in a gruesome murder, she must identify the killer to save her family, her job, and her life. It’s Sharp Objects meets The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. I hope both books will find a home and be published in 2022.
What did you edit out of this book?
Because most of Furious takes place on a boat, I wanted to write scenes in other locations to provide readers with background information and give them a change of scenery. I wrote a dozen flashback scenes about pivotal moments in Dagny’s history, but a literary agent told me they took her out of the moment. I was afraid if I used too many flashbacks or made them too long, I would reduce the tension. I cut most of them out and shortened the ones I kept to a paragraph or two. Keeping brief flashbacks gives the reader background they need and does not hurt the pace.
What are your top 10 favorite books/authors?
What book do you think everyone should read? Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand. It’s a wonderful argument for individualism and capitalism. It could have been written about 2021.
How long have you been writing?
I started writing and illustrating stories when I was six or seven years old, and I didn’t stop until my mid-twenties. Then I entered law enforcement and did not write fiction for 25 years. I retired in 2017 and I’ve been writing full-time since then.
What kind of research do you do before you begin writing a book?
Each of my novels covers different subjects, and they all require study. I do most of my research when I’m outlining the book to ensure my concepts, plot, and scenes make sense. I use the internet for most of it. People have uploaded videos of most places to YouTube and viewing them is almost as good as being there. Google Maps and Google Earth are also wonderful tools. I visit locations when possible, and I always discover something new.
Most of Furious is set on a Beneteau Oceanis Yacht 62. I visited the U.S. Sailboat Show in Annapolis, which I believe is the largest sailboat show in the world, and I spent half a day exploring that yacht. I’m very thankful that Beneteau was kind enough to answer my questions and give me access.
What do you think about the current publishing market?
There has never been an easier time to have your work published, or a harder time to attract readers. There are 2.5 million new ISBNs issued every year and probably a multiple of that in digital-only books. It’s easy to self-publish, but hard to stand out among the competition. I encourage authors to avoid shortcuts and make sure books are as good as possible and properly edited before they publish.
Do you read yourself and if so, what is your favorite genre?
I read between 50 and 70 books every year. I’ve always read thrillers, but I consume many genres and plenty of nonfiction. When I mentored a kid in the Big Brothers program, I told him to read one nonfiction book per month. If you do that for a lifetime, you will give yourself an unparalleled education.
Do you prefer to write in silence or with noise? Why?
I listen to classical music when I write in my office. My favorite is Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I also like John Williams and movie soundtracks that match what I’m writing. Some of my favorite Spotify mixes are Jóhann Jóhannsson, Hans Zimmer, Game of Thrones, Fantasy Board Gaming, and Classical Adventure. I prefer some background noise, so I’m able to write anywhere.
Pen or typewriter or computer?
I wrote by hand as a child and with a typewriter before home computers became commonplace, so I’m confident when I say computers are the most efficient tool.
A day in the life of the author?
I’m most creative in the mornings after coffee, so I write until the early afternoon, and then I spend the rest of the day dealing with the business of writing. I prefer creating stories, but no one will read them if I don’t market my work.
Do you have any advice to offer for new authors?
Have at least a vague outline of your plot, then write your first draft without pausing to edit. Try to get the entire story on paper before you critique it. Getting to the end quickly helps keep your characters alive and your story cohesive. Don’t worry about the quality of your prose or the depth of your characters. You can fix everything during editing.
What Makes a Good Story?
I often hear authors, agents, and editors talking about plot versus character. It’s an unnecessary debate because both are important. Literary fiction relies more on character development and genre fiction generally has stronger plots, but both elements need to be present to create a memorable experience for readers. If you can write a high-concept plot and populate your book with unique, larger-than-life characters who change during the story, you will have a hit.
What is your writing process? For instance, do you do an outline first? Do you do the chapters first?
I think all authors land somewhere on the spectrum between strict outliners and people who write by the seat of their pants. Before I begin writing, I must have a solid grip on the concept, meaning I can explain what the story is about in one or two sentences. It must be something unique and interesting. I also need to know the ending. I can’t write without knowing what happens with the main plot. Then I write a detailed outline containing at least the major tent poles in the story. I make sure the book fits into three acts. Sometimes I followed the genre-specific beats in Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, by Jessica Brody. I guess that makes me a serious outliner, but I also give myself the freedom to make changes as I write. Once characters begin to speak to me, I often alter how they handle situations and interact with each other. I also add and delete scenes as the book takes shape. It’s important to not be too rigid when following an outline. I try to be open to new ideas.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
I don’t like the term, “aspiring writer.” If you’re writing, you’re a writer whether or not you’re published. Many bestselling authors wrote numerous unpublished works before they were discovered. There several common traps writers should avoid. There are no shortcuts. Take the time to learn the craft by reading outstanding books, taking courses, attending conferences, taking part in critique groups, and writing every day. Also, learn the business of writing, which has changed dramatically in recent years. You need to be professional when dealing with agents and editors. Another trap is self-publishing work that is not ready. Many writers who can’t get representation or find a publisher decide to publish themselves. Seek outside criticism to make sure your work is ready for the world. If you choose to self-publish, submit your work to three levels of professional editing and hire a cover designer who understands your genre.
What can we expect from you in the future?
Thrillers, thrillers, and more thrillers. I love the genre and plan to write it as long as possible. I also have a nonfiction book coming out about the first narco-terrorism case, but it reads like a thriller.
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