Have you included a lot of your life experiences, even friends, in the plot? We’re all a conglomeration of the people we know, the places we’ve been, the books we’ve read. There’s no separating our life experiences from what we write about. But the brain is a marvelous instrument that takes in everything and allows us to regurgitate it in new ways, filtering it through our own personal lens.
I was greatly influenced as a writer by young adult books I read when I was growing up. One of the things I would be proudest to leave behind would be a really good young adult novel that takes that inspiration I felt so long ago, filters it through my own world view and perhaps allows me to influence young people the way I was so long ago.
I once began a book about the interesting characters I knew growing up in my hometown. Unfortunately, it is still my hometown. Somewhere along the way, I realized I could never publish such a book unless I either moved away or passed away.
How important do you think villains are in a story? There’s nothing better than a great foil. Because of my interest in world history and the sciences, I’ve set a number of my books during World War II. Hitler and the Nazis are perhaps the greatest villains history has given us. And because my books are often broad-based, involving world shaking events, they fit well with the all-encompassing nature of that terrible conflict. But there are other good foils in history, and I’ve used them as well. The book I’m currently working on deals with the legacy of Stalin, one good candidate for an even bigger villain than Hitler.
When and why did you begin writing? I can’t remember a time when I didn’t write. It started very early for me, at least partly because, as I’ve said, it was the family business, though one I resisted for many years. The very first thing I published was a piece of poetry while I was still in high school. The poets I’ve met are wonderful writers who know words better than anyone. But poetry remains the most difficult thing to get published. I’m fortunate I was able to check that category off at an early age, and that my interests lay elsewhere. Most poets get tremendous personal joy and satisfaction from writing in an area they are passionate about. It enriches their lives immeasurably, but it remains a nearly impossible talent to turn into a bankable profession.
What was the hardest part about writing this book? Because I like to move around in history, usually with several story lines, the most difficult part is making sure there are no errors in timing or historical setting. In one of my earlier books, The Last Titanic Story, a crucial plot element revolves around a reference in a diary from an earlier time period. When you move back and forth you have to be sure you don’t have some character reference that diary entry before it actually happens or give away its importance at the wrong time.
Did you learn anything from writing this book and what was it? I always learn a great deal from the books I write, largely because there is so much history and science in them. I keep notebooks during my research that fill hundreds of pages. One thing I’ve learned is that knowledge reinforces plot and characterization. I may find some fascinating tidbit of history that just begs to be integrated into the plot, and it may move the plot in new ways that I hadn’t thought of previously. Similarly, I’ve developed characters based on real people in history. In London Underground one of the characters who drives the plot is Dr. Alexis Carrel, who was a Nobel Prize winner in the early part of the 20th century. He performed the first primitive coronary artery bypass surgery on a dog in 1910. His tissue culture experiments in the 1920s and 30s paved the way for today’s tissue grafts and organ transplants. Carrel worked with Charles Lindbergh for almost a decade on various techniques driven by their shared interests in eugenics.
What is your favorite quote, by whom, and why? Ah, there are so many, but I have to go with Winston Churchill. Excepting only, perhaps, Shakespeare and Thoreau, Churchill left us so many wonderful quotations. It was his way with words that helped win the war and cement his place in history. Contrary to what many believe, his witticisms didn’t simply flow out of his mouth spontaneously. Churchill worked very hard at his speeches to make them memorable. He understood their importance. One of my favorite Churchillisms: “I like a man who grins when he fights.” You’ll find it in London Underground.
Who or what influenced your writing once you began? As I‘ve mentioned often, the writers in my family had an outsized influence. However, when I began to develop an interest in the out-of-doors and in the Adirondacks of New York State, I was influenced by Paul Jamieson, the doyen of Adirondack writers. He and Clarence Petty, a major environmental figure whose biography I wrote, had huge impacts on me. These two icons of the Adirondacks were contemporaries 45 years older than me. It was one of the great highlights of my life to get to know and call each of them friends. Clarence was the template for a character in my book Flypaper, based on an elderly guide in the region.
What do you consider the most challenging about writing a novel, or about writing in general?
Sitting down at my desk and simply putting in the hours. It was famously said that “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” It’s usually attributed to the great sportswriter, Red Smith. I’ve never actually found it that hard. I just would rather be out canoeing.
Have you ever had writer’s block? If so, what do you do about it? I think it’s probably best not to dwell on it. The thing that stops me more than anything else is some tricky plot element. What I’ve learned to do when this happens is get away and do something mindless and repetitive like cross country skiing or even driving. When your body is engaged in an activity that requires a certain amount of concentration, it seems to free up the creative impulse. I can’t guess how many times I’ve used this technique. I can’t explain how it works; only that it does.
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Genre – Thriller
Rating – PG
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