Continued from Part 1
Who is your favorite author/writer and why?
No favorites. There are a lot of authors I like or have liked or admired and for different reasons. For my own genre, political thrillers, I have always looked on novelist Nelson DeMille as a model. His writing is consistently witty and sophisticated, and he really knows how to plot a story and tell it well.
For my own reading pleasure I’m drawn to authors who not only tell good stories but teach you something new or give you entree into a world you didn’t know—involving science, or medicine, or law, or politics, or history, or whatever. I’m especially drawn to historical fiction. In recent years that meant an absolutely fanatical devotion to the works of the late Patrick O’Brian, specifically his twenty-volume set of novels set during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s involving the British Navy and his legendary main characters, Captain James Aubrey and surgeon Stephen Maturin. The series is a literary masterpiece, right up there with C.S. Forester.
In the nonfiction realm two of my favorite authors are Bill Bryson and Michael Lewis. They both are experts at tackling complex or unusual subjects, finding engaging personalities behind them, and spinning a riveting human tale—and along the way giving you an education.
Sometimes you can love a book, but not the author. Case in point, Kingsley Amis. I read Lucky Jim years ago and fell completely in love with it. Humor is so hard to do well, and this one really cracked me up. I so wished I could write like that. I read it several times and kept recommending it to everybody. But every other novel by Kingsley Amis I found utterly disappointing.
What is your process for writing?
Some novelists plan their work out in meticulous detail, writing extensive outlines. Others, like Stephen King, just sit down and start writing. I fall somewhere in the middle. I outlined my first novel in great detail, taping up something like twenty sheets of paper on my study wall that outlined every potential scene. It turned out to be an enormous waste of time.
For subsequent novels I developed the practice of writing a “treatment” of my idea first. That meant sketching out the general concept, the main characters, and the central conflict or conflicts, something about the locale and ambiance, and taking a shot at a possible ending. The treatment usually took up about twenty pages and would also usually include a few narrated scenes or two. I’d send the treatment to my agent and get his feedback. Sometimes the treatment died right there. (I still have a few of them around somewhere, languishing in a back drawer or on an old hard drive.)
But for the ones that worked, I would then plot out in some detail the first two or three chapters, and then start writing. As I completed drafts of each chapter, I would
then update my outlines of the coming chapters and start adding outlines of new chapters. I never bothered to try to outline anything beyond a few chapters. But I would take notes about various things like potential story conflicts, needed scenes, character development, and needed research.
Did I mention research? Even before writing the treatment I would likely have spent much time doing research on the subject. And in the days before the Internet, this often meant a lot of work, reading, and travel.
And the research inevitably has to continue as a project moves forward. A novel’s sense of realism and authenticity depends on solid research.
For my first book, Giant Killer, I spent a week In Washington, DC, collecting details on locations. I also spent a considerable amount of time trying to penetrate the mysterious history surrounding a very large and secretive private game preserve in the middle of New Hampshire called Corbin Park.
My second novel, The Russian Woman, required considerable research on the Gulag Archipelago and Russian politics during the Khrushchev era. I also spent an entire day on Long Island with a forensic pathologist. The research also took me back to Washington, DC, to do extensive research on physical details concerning the White House. I actually managed to find, hidden away and forgotten in an obscure drawer in the Library of Congress, a completely detailed blueprint of every room and closet, and every fire door in the entire White house. (This got me in some temporary trouble with the Secret Service.) The blueprint was a necessary part of the proposal made to Congress so it could vote for funds for the massive restoration of the White House that took place during the Truman Administration. (The inside of the mansion was complete gutted and replaced with a steel and concrete inner frame, and included several new layers of subbasements and two tunnels—one to the EEOB and one to the Treasury Building. I was careful not to use any material in the novel that might have given away vital details or information about matters like the fire alarm systems, etc.)
Seven Days to Petrograd, a historical novel, involved about nine months of research. I read dozens of books and wore my eyes out looking at microfiche files of old newspapers in the archives building of the New York Public Library. The research involved not only the historical period, 1917, but extensive investigation into many world leaders at the time and with Lenin and the people around him. I also had to do extensive research on the trains and the railroads of that era.
Riches and Honor required a lot of research on World War II history, and included a visit to the concentration camp, Dachau, outside Munich. It also required some intimate knowledge of Laos and Thailand. I was not able to get to that area personally, so I had to fake it. You can get away with that approach if you spend some time reading and talking to people from that area. That’s what I did, in any case.
The novel Prussian Blue included a scene in which the protagonist, who is afraid of flying, suddenly has to figure out how to land a Cessna when the pilot passes out. I took some flying lessons for this one, so I could write that scene with some feeling of authenticity. Research also included a couple of days talking to FBI agents and Federal Marshals in New York City, and sitting in on some arraignments in the courthouse.
Jupiter’s Daughter is a novel about genetic engineering, a subject that was in its infancy when I wrote the book. I knew virtually nothing about it when I started (I couldn’t even read the textbooks!) It took me months to get on top of this one, including a day with scientists at Fort Detrich, in Frederick, MD, and another several days with medical researchers at the NIH, in Bethesda, MD.
The research can be fun, of course, but it’s also time-consuming. One surprise in this area in general was how willing people turned out to be to meet with me and spend time talking about their areas of expertise.
When I’m writing that first draft, I try to take the view that the key is just to get the story down on the page, ASAP. The fine chiseling can come later. And that’s pretty much the way it goes, but I also find myself rewriting and refining scenes as I go along, so that even the first draft will read reasonably well. Thank God for computers and Word. My first two novels I typed out on a manual typewriter, so constant tweaking of sentences was not possible. My first novel went through four drafts, each on a different color of paper. And then, unable to bear retyping the story yet again for the final draft, I paid a typist $800 to do it for me.
With writing I have always ignored time completely. I might start working at noon or at midnight. Or even at 2 a.m. It usually takes a while to get rolling, so how long I sit at the computer is irrelevant. My goal in past years was usually to get between five and seven pages of readable copy down on the page every day once I had started the actual writing of a novel. That’s not a lot. Sometimes it would take a few hours, sometimes not long at all. And the pages can add up pretty fast if you do it every day. And I would usually come to the desk having already spent some time thinking about what I was going to write.
Have you ever cheated death?
I guess not. I’ve stared it down a couple of times, once at gunpoint in the jungles of Guatemala, and once at knife-point on the streets of New York, but I don’t think death got cheated. It can afford to be patient. It knows it’ll get you sooner or later.
I regret that I didn’t start my novel-writing career a little earlier. I wrote a lot of magazine articles in my twenties and thirties, but I didn’t start on my first novel until I was forty. It occurs to me that I was just not ready until that age. And it also occurs to me that most novel writing careers are very short-lived. But still…
What skill should every man have?
A man (or a woman) should have the capacity to rise to the occasion, especially in a crisis. My father had that ability, and I always admired it in him and sought to emulate it. He really did embody that old cliché, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. That’s why the small town I grew up in appointed him BOTH fire and police chief for many years. Neither job took up much of his time, but when the need arose, sometimes in life-threatening situations, he was out there leading the way.