The title of my latest book is Berlin Walls, the fourth book in the Cold War Thriller series from Coffeetown Press. In Berlin Walls, CIA officer Karl Baier returns to Berlin to exfiltrate a KGB defector just as the Wall is going up. The world of Cold War espionage is about to change forever. As if that wasn’t difficult enough, Baier’s German-born wife asks him to help get her family out of East Germany at the same time.
Karl Baier is the protagonist in each of the Cold War spy stories in this series, which begins in the months immediately after the end of World War II in the ruins of Berlin. His adventures then take him to Vienna on the eve of the signing of the State Treaty ending the occupation of Austria in 1955 (The Hapsburg Variation) and Budapest during the Hungarian revolt and Soviet invasion in 1956 (The Budapest Escape).
I was initially attracted to mysteries as a graduate student working on my Ph.D. in European History. When I needed a break from all those history books, I took to reading mysteries and fell in love with the novels of Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald. Throughout my 35 years working for the CIA, I harbored the dream of writing my own stories and finally broke through with one set against the fall of the Berlin Wall, which I experienced during my assignment in the city between 1989 and 1991. I followed that with a three-book private detective series set outside Chicago, where I grew up. Later, my memories of the many times I had visited and lived in Berlin and Europe brought me to the first spy thriller, Tears of Innocence, and the Cold War series that followed. I draw on my years of experience as an analyst, diplomat, and senior executive at the Agency and my background in European—and especially German—history for these novels, a writing experience that allows me to blend two of my greatest passions: history and intelligence.
I am definitely a pantser. I usually start with little more than a general idea and an opening scene, and then I find that my characters tend to take over the story. I have to confess that I find working on an outline a bit daunting and, frankly, too much work. I really have only a vague idea of where the storyline will go eventually. But I also find that to be a much more enjoyable creative process. And things rarely unfold as I had initially thought they would.
I would not say that the characters disappoint, but they often do not act as I thought they would—or should. Raymond Chandler never had his great hero, Philip Marlowe, become romantically involved with anyone he met while working on a case because he feared it would compromise his integrity, something that made Marlowe good enough for anyone’s world and the best man for his own (to paraphrase the master). And yet, in the third book of my P.I. series, the protagonist, Bill Habermann, does just that and ends up with the woman at the end of the book. I had to sit back and ask myself how the hell that happened. In the current Cold War manuscript I’m working on, Karl Baier has an affair with a Turkish woman. However, in the real world, an intelligence officer wants to avoid putting himself in such a vulnerable and compromising situation. And Baier is happily married! But in the real world, people do not always act rationally and responsibly. No one is perfect. But it is also the author’s obligation to ensure that there are consequences when something like this happens.
The best book I have ever read? That is perhaps the toughest question on this list. And I am going to cheat by breaking that down into separate time frames. It’s how I respond to the question of the great American novel because each book reflects a different stage of our country and its culture and how those have evolved. I begin with Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, then move onto Henry James’s The American and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. From there, I select Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. Granted, there are no spy novels on this list. Still, I can always say that I find the novels of Charles McCarry, especially The Last Supper and Secret Lovers, as the finest in that genre.
My advice to anyone starting out in this field, or thinking of becoming a writer, is to read and then read some more and more again. I find that critically important in developing your own voice because you will find writers who speak to you more so than others, often because of how they have come to learn their craft and how to express themselves. You have to be careful not to become too imitative (my initial attempts at writing detective fiction read like the work of a Raymond Chandler-wannabe). Still, it will really help in finding your own voice, one that you are happy to put on the page and tell your story.