Skip to contents
SunLit Interviews

Pondering the what-ifs during his drilling career led a Colorado author to let them play out in his novel

Decades in the energy industry and a stint as a teacher informed J.A. Turley's approach to mixing technical subjects with accessible storytelling

Author J.A. Turley.

J. A. (John) Turley is an engineer by education and experience.

He and his family lived across the U.S. and in the UK before settling in Colorado in 1998. After retirement, he took up writing fiction. His entry “Body Shots” won the 2008 Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Mystery award, and he has been writing and publishing ever since. Turley taught petroleum engineering at Marietta College before joining a major energy company, from which he retired in 2001. 

The following is an interview with J.A. Turley.

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit


What inspired you to write this book?  

During my early career, as a drilling engineer, I was the technical person in charge of drilling exploration and production wells in the Gulf of Mexico. Each well the company drilled yielded proprietary information about the geology and the kinds of fluids (oil/gas/water) discovered in the well. If the proprietary data showed we’d found nothing but salt water, the well was called a dry hole, and the costs were never recovered. We might even give up and never drill another well in that area. But when the proprietary drilling data indicated we’d found significant quantities of oil and gas (called a discovery), I couldn’t wait to get to the office and turn over the hard-copy data files to senior management, where there would be zero thought about walking away from the area.

So, why did I write the book? Because my imagination in those days had me asking myself what would happen if somebody on my rig, or on one of my colleagues’ rigs, stole such proprietary data, or changed the data, or exchanged the data files, with larceny in mind.  

And as my career grew, with increasing technical and management responsibilities (including a few years as manager of worldwide drilling), I would occasionally recall my hypothetical concern for the security of such costly, difficult-to-obtain, exploration well data. 

“The Hole Truth” by J.A. Turley.

After I retired, I took up writing, joined critique groups, attended conferences, and learned there are differences between technical papers and fiction story arcs, and between spreadsheets and emotional dialog, and between hiring experts and creating credible and memorable characters. 

I wrote mysteries. Different topics. And since I’d spent my entire career in the oil-and-gas industry, with a hypothetical mystery I had to solve, I wrote a drilling-related mystery, which I called “Dry Hole.” That rough-draft manuscript become The Hole Truth, which I published in 2019. The book is fiction, except for the parts that aren’t.

Who are your favorite authors and/or characters?

For easy reading, I’m always ready for the next Lee Child book, as I admire his writing style and his masterfully created character Jack Reacher. Further, my wife and I lived in the UK for almost a decade, where we discovered and joyously follow English writer Jeffrey Archer, the master of twists and turns (i.e., Heads You Win). Additionally, some writers hook me on content and won’t let go, i.e., Jesmyn Ward (Salvage the Bones). As a new writer myself, I read debut books, some of which are outstanding. Good example —Dearest Audrey: An Unlikely Love Story, nonfiction by Eve Sprunt, Ph.D.

Why did you choose this excerpt to feature in SunLit?

The excerpt opens with a prologue view of a road-rage death, and then snaps to the opening chapter where Tony, a Colorado School of Mines engineering professor, learns about his new summer job, managing the drilling of an offshore exploration well. The story is in first person, Tony’s POV, so the reader is carried along as Tony discovers the foundation for his new job—a potpourri of challenges, surprises, disappointments, and conflicts, all under a cloak of confidentiality and suspicion—and something about an unrelated road-rage death. Clues? Red herrings? The whole truth about Tony’s summer job will be hard to come by—because it’s at the bottom of a 20,000-foot deep hole in the Gulf of Mexico.

What was the most fun or rewarding part of working on this book?

I had the privilege, decades ago, of a three-year professorship teaching petroleum engineering. Each new concept I took to class was met by capable students who started each day with no clue about the topic. I learned that some “got it” immediately, while others needed to hear it twice, or three times, with examples. But even my slowest-to-learn engineering students were much better prepared to absorb such topics than were my non-technical friends, neighbors, and family.

While writing my engineering-related story, I visualized my reading audience as readers of mysteries, including my writing colleagues and friends and neighbors—a general cross-section of the people I know. My goal was to write a character-driven story that all readers, especially avid readers of esoteric technical mysteries, could follow, appreciate, and enjoy. To write and publish the book was rewarding.  But the positive comments I’ve received to date are what made it fun. 

What was the most difficult section to write in this book? Why?

While readers vicariously take up residence with the protagonist, and soon get to know other players on the rig, the well is drilled deeper each day.  The protagonist (on the rig), and his boss (in the office), and each reader of the book are the only people who have reason to suspect data from the well might be targeted—and then, only after the well has been drilled. Everybody else in the story, whether loveable or despicable, whether or not a suspect for a possible crime not yet committed, is destined to either live or die, a choice made by the author . . . or, maybe, somebody else.  

What was one interesting fact you learned while researching this book?

Drilling a well is a complex technical and management venture. Yet, my characters were forced to discover that when bullets fly and people die each needs to either depend on, contribute to, or hide from, in-depth investigative work by the police, the FBI, and federal indictments.

What project are you working on next?

I’ve published two books (narrative nonfiction and nonfiction) about what caused BP’s April 20, 2010, Macondo blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. Now, with the 10th anniversary looming ever closer, I am currently trimming and combining the books (inside a single cover) for all readers, but especially to ensure that every member of the newest generation of oil-and-gas students and experts reads the story, knows the truth, heeds the warnings, and benefits from recommendations made. The working title is “Macondo 2020” . . . to be published in, yep, 2020. 

Buy “The Hole Truth” at BookBar

Excerpt from “The Hole Truth” by J.A. Turley