I saw a cartoon many years ago in The New Yorker magazine. In it, two women are at a party in a penthouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. One says to the other: “You know, there was a time when you came to a party like this and the most interesting people you met were those writing a book. Now the most interesting people you meet are those not writing a book.”
I’m one of those people who became “uninteresting”, i.e., a writer of books, late in life.
I was born and raised in San Francisco, California, more years ago than I care to count. I grew up there in an extraordinarily interesting time. I lived through the heyday of the hippies, Vietnam, and the sex, drugs and rock and roll revolution. It gave me a unique filter through which I have viewed life ever since.
For example, apropos of the time, I majored in philosophy because I wanted to find out “What’s it all about, Alfie?” (For those of you too young to remember, that was the title song in a movie named “Alfie” – a very sixties-ish comedy/drama about a fellow who lives a self-centered life until events force him to question his existence.)
As a career, I spent the next forty years teaching, both in high school and at the collegiate level. During those years, I read a lot, of course, but it wasn’t until the late nineties that I even began thinking about actually writing a book. I finished and published my first novel in the first year of the new century. It took me thirteen years to write another. Now that the Furies have been unleashed, I can’t stop writing.
First of all, I write in the mystery/thriller genre.
When I write, I’m not just trying to tell a good tale. It’s probably the immersion in philosophical thought at a formative age that pushed me to write stories that revolve around moral and ethical questions we all ask ourselves (or should ask ourselves) in life. (As I learned from Aristotle, “the unexamined life is not worth living”.) For example, my current novel, Kissed By The Snow, uses the war on drugs, and an FBI plan to end that war, to present a dilemma that hopefully makes us ask ourselves whether the ends justify the means. Given America’s recent history in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s a very topical issue. Similarly, my first novel, The Oath, dramatically asked the question whether we are bound to follow a particular law or rather follow what we think is the “spirit” of that particular law. Even though my novels make you think about topical ethical issues, they are still fun reads.
Learning the business of the Book Business is the bane of my (and I’m sure your) existence. Further, I’m sure we all have our own stories about “the business of books”, and I’m equally sure they are all very similar.
I published my first novel, The Oath, in the year 2000 (under the title These Violent Delights). It was at a time when self-publishing still had that “vanity press” stigma. I heard that in that particular year there were twenty-four million manuscripts out there. (I have no idea where that stat came from. It’s what I heard). Of those twenty-four million, only one percent got agents. And only half of those one percent found a publisher. Well … I got an agent. How ‘bout that? On my first try, for goodness sake. I’m the envy of all the English profs at the college where I’m working. I’m flyin’ high.
Well, six months go by and I still don’t have a book deal. I said to myself, “so what?” I didn’t write the novel because I wanted to be a full-time writer. Or because I thought I was going to get rich. I wrote it because I wanted to tell the story of Vietnam era prisoners of war and the brutality they endured for this country (just a wee-bit pre-John McCain). So I took the book back and “self-published”. This is pre-Amazon, pre-eBook. I was lucky that I knew someone who had statewide contacts in the “book club” business, so I spent about six months traveling that circuit and selling my book. It had a pretty good run.
One of the big benefits of self-publishing is you still own the book. So, when I quit my college job in order to write full-time, I actually had a book I could “re-publish.” Just before I finished my latest novel, Kissed By The Snow, I updated These Violent Delights; re-titled it to The Oath; re-covered it and re-published it as an eBook only. I wanted to use it as a “stalking horse” for Kissed By The Snow; i.e., to get my name in public in advance of the publication of KBTS. To date, The Oath has had over seven thousand downloads. Has it helped sell KBTS? Only time will tell.
As to the publication of Kissed By The Snow, I went the traditional route of trying to get an agent. Even though I had some minor interest (three agencies asked for the entire manuscript), no one finally took it. I understand the book business better now, so I can see why agencies are reluctant to take a chance on a first time novelist. I don’t blame them. The risk/reward ratio is not in their favor. I do, however, think that in this case they made a mistake. Virtually everyone who has read Kissed By The Snow raves about it (and they are not – all – my relatives). The same was true of The Oath.
As you can tell from my books, I’ve always had a fierce interest in history, particularly military history. I’ve read almost every book written on the American Civil War; the Vietnam War; great swaths of both WWI and WWII.
Most of my interest revolves around tactics. On all the battlefields I visit, and there have been many, I want to see what the people engaged in the battle saw, mostly having to do with topography, and why those so engaged did this rather than that.
I recently visited the Custer Battlefield on the banks of the Little Bighorn River in Montana, in preparation of writing my new novel about George Custer and his infamous Last Stand.
Kissed By The Snow
About America’s War on Drugs. I painstakingly researched the drug wars for years. I spoke to agents who were on the front lines of this war and who gave me insight into its complexity. I read just about everything ever written (or so it seems) on the cartels and the horrible violence that permeates life in Mexico because of drugs. I also learned a lot about the “business” of drugs.
Operation Snow Plow, a secret (some might say “clandestine”) FBI plan (some might say “plot”) to finally end the War on Drugs by any means necessary. The main character, Rob Kincaid, is a former Navy SEAL whose father, an FBI agent and the author of Operation Snow Plow, is murdered by order of a cartel boss. Rob Kincaid now runs a private security agency that takes on government jobs that wouldn’t exactly pass congressional oversight. Because of his dad, he has skin in the game, and his firm is hired to wreak havoc on the cartels and bring Operation Snow Plow to a successful conclusion. But as Kincaid gets into Snow Plow, he discovers it’s not what it seems, and he finds himself in a high stakes game of odd man out, where he has been targeted as the odd man.
Kissed By The Snow is the first title in the Robert Kincaid series. He’s an interesting character, and I look forward to getting to know him better in subsequent stories. But to tell you the truth, I’m feeling conflicted because I really fell in love with the protagonist in my first novel, The Oath. Maybe it was because San Francisco Homicide Inspector Tom McGuire was my first “hero” (am I getting too Freudian here?); maybe it was because he is more my age so I feel like I have more in common with him; or maybe it’s because he was very well received by my readers. In any case, because I started and finished Kissed By The Snow so quickly after I published The Oath, I casually changed protagonists having no idea how well Tom McGuire and The Oath were going to be received.
“I solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic …”
Forty years ago, two Naval Aviators took that Oath. Both were shot down over Vietnam and together endured years of brutal torture as Prisoners of War in the infamous Hanoi Hilton.
Four decades later, a series of murders of former Vietnam War protestors bring the two men’s lives together once again.
The Oath that once made them brothers-in-arms now threatens their very lives.