Q: How did you become a writer?
A: Every writer begins by being an enthusiastic reader. I was one of those kids who brought a big stack of books home from the library. As a teenager, I discovered espionage novels and a world of action and adventure. In journalism school, I learned to write clearly and concisely. That training is the reason my books are a little shorter than the traditional novel, but the action moves along at breakneck speed. After college, I spent my cubicle years writing training materials for airline pilots. The work was interesting, but it didn't stimulate my creative side. To do that, I needed to create my own world of engaging characters and compelling plots.
Q: How did you write your first novel?
A: I decided to claim the first hour of the day as mine—no morning news, no work issues, no elaborate breakfasts. I set up a modest writing space and dedicated my first hour to writing a spy novel. That hour soon became the best hour of my day. I enjoyed the freedom of exercising my imagination, creating my own world of adventure and intrigue. Some mornings, it was hard to break away to commute to my job in the real world.
Q: Did you have an outline?
A: No outline, just a basic idea. I wanted to reinvent the genre, to write stories about a real-sounding guy, a photographer for the CIA who would like to remain low-key, but finds himself in danger anyway. The first book would introduce the character and document his transition from obscure tech to reluctant hero. My first idea—there was no plot yet—was a kind of mystery: "He takes pictures of a Russian cargo ship, and now they want to kill him." I knew the Why, but I had to invent the rest.
Q: How did you do that?
A: I knew I had to start with some kind of action—Shakespeare taught me that. So I sat down that first morning and typed, "The watermelon saved my life." From that first sentence, I knew I would write in the first person, and that my novel would be unlike any I had ever read.
Q: The watermelon is pretty unusual. How did you think of that?
A: I had been a speech minor in college, so I was familiar with the technique of grabbing the audience with a provocative first statement, something that makes the listener sit up and say, "Tell me more." Fortunately, I had more to tell, and the novel grew from that unlikely beginning.
Q: How difficult was it to write like that?
A: For me, it was surprisingly easy. I had learned the technique of "extemporaneous speaking"—making things up as I went along—and telling my young son bedtime stories helped me hone my craft.
Q: Bedtime stories?
A: That's right. All I needed was a starting point, something to spark my imagination. I had David give me an animal, a place, and a color. He would say something like, "A blue kangaroo, on the moon," and that was enough to kickstart a story.
Q: But bedtime stories are a long way from an espionage novel.
A: Yes, they are, but they're both a matter of telling a story to a particular audience, and keeping that audience entertained. So, for that first draft, I simply made things up as I went along, asking myself, "What happens next?" and trying to come up with interesting answers. One thing led to another and before long, I had a draft of a real novel.
Q: Did you do much rewriting?
A: Not right away. I set the draft aside and continued reading other people's books.
Q: What made you pick it up again?
A: Boredom. I got tired of novels that read like technical manuals or travel guides. I was looking for a more human story, and I found it in my dusty draft. I also found quite a few bad chapters, so I knew what needed cutting or fixing.
Q: What needed fixing?
A: Some of the plot, and all sorts of facts. The KGB had changed its name. Digital photography had replaced film. Also, the Internet had replaced the library as a place to do research. Easy access to interesting details sparked new ideas. Apart from fixing facts, I realized I wanted to take the reader along as my photographer sat through mission briefings and completed parachute training. The behind-the-scenes approach allowed me to introduce new characters, and that made the story more human.
Q: You say, "my photographer." Did he have a name?
A: Not right away. Naming a fictional character is a lot like naming your child. It's an important decision, and one that takes some thought. I knew I wanted a name that could be used formally—the full name—but shortened when he was among friends. I also needed a name that made him sound like a regular guy, someone you might know. After some research, so the name fit his age, I decided on Matthew, or Matt.
Q: Where did Danner come from?
A: I needed a strong two syllable name and I settled on Danner. I had one reason for liking the name that sounds a bit hokey now: Danner is just one letter away from Danger. So far, I haven't found a way to work that into a book.
Q: Is it true that fictional characters become real to the writer?
A: They are to me, because I know how they think and feel. Every character I create has a purpose, and the major characters each have a specific agenda. Some characters want to help Danner, and some don't. Once I know what a character is trying to do, I can imagine his or her appearance and start to listen to how that character speaks.
Q: What do you mean by "listen"?
A: I don't write dialogue by tapping on the keyboard. I imagine myself in the scene, watching Matt and listening to what he and the other characters are saying, and how they say it. Their speech reveals their background and education, even their emotions, when they're allowed to show them. It's great fun to discover a new character. It's like meeting an interesting stranger. Of course, some of the strangers Danner meets want to kill him.
Q: When do you write?"
A: I still write in that quiet morning time, before I have to deal with the everyday issues that take me away from the story Danner is trying to tell me.
Q: What do you mean by that?
A: I write in the first person. That means Danner is telling the story, describing the surroundings and the action. He's telling me the story, and I'm writing it down. Creating and maintaining that mental picture takes concentration, so I need to write when I can avoid interruptions and distractions.
Q: Do you try to write a certain number of words every day?
A: I don't have a specific quota. I try to write a significant piece of action, sometimes an entire chapter. Often that takes more than one day. I write for two or three hours, until I run out of ideas or the real world demands my attention.
Q: It sounds like writing a novel is a lot of work.
A: Some days, it feels like work, but it's an exciting process, especially when I can avoid pesky details until the rewrite. Most days, I feel like I'm reading a new book from one of my favorite authors. I can't wait to find out what happens next.
Q: You really don't know what's going to happen next?
A: Oh, I have a general idea, but each chapter presents a new situation or an interaction with a new or existing character. Conditions are changing. Danner is learning new information, and he's presented with new problems to solve. It's my job to invent interesting problems and entertaining solutions.
Q: How do you organize your books?
A: A book begins with a bit of action, something to catch the reader's attention. After that, each book has three basic parts: the briefing, the training, and the operation.
The CIA briefer describes the upcoming operation: target, objectives, and personnel. Danner has had enough field experience to anticipate problems, but he keeps his concerns to himself. I do that by showing his thoughts in italics: Oh great, another foolproof plan.
After the briefing, Danner receives some sort of training and tries out the latest gadgets. Some of the gadgets are practical and useful; others are not. I get to have a little fun here, inventing gadgets like the ED6R, an escape device that looks like a rocket-powered pogo stick. Matt thinks the ED6R looks like something Wile E Coyote would try to use, so there's room for some humor. Humor is how Matt deals with stressful situations, and one way I keep the reader entertained.
With training over, Matt moves into the actual operation, where the elaborate plans and fancy gadgets encounter real world problems and he's forced to improvise. Once Matt is in the field, nothing is easy or funny, because easy makes for a boring story, and funny eases tension.
Q: How do you decide what goes into a chapter?
A: I have a general idea of what is supposed to be happening. For the ED6R chapter, I came up with a basic description of the action, something like, "Matt trains with an escape device he doubts will work properly."
Given the basic idea, I use the journalist technique of Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How.
The Who is Danner, and the people he encounters. In this example, What is the situation: Danner is in training. Exactly When isn't always important, but I try to mention the season, especially if weather is part of his training. Where is usually the CIA training facility known as the Farm. Why is simply, "Because it will help you complete your mission." But the real fun, the part where I can make the story entertaining, suspenseful, or even a little humorous, is the How. To describe How, I need to exercise my imagination, and that's the best part of writing a novel.
Individual chapters move the story along or introduce characters. I try to make each chapter a complete story, with a beginning, middle, and end. I often begin by having Danner describe the location. Then one or more characters give him information, usually something that's going to present a problem. Matt figures out a solution, but the chapter often ends with a hint about the next problem. That's a technique we sneaky writers use to keep the reader awake and interested.
Q: Forgive me, but your writing process doesn't sound very organized.
A: It isn't, but it's an exciting way to write, and I can always fix problems during rewrite, when I take a more analytical look at the draft. I have to admit that "winging it" doesn't always work. For book three, The Pearl Harbor Pictures, I got halfway into the book and had to stop writing for a while. I wasn't sure I was going to be able to finish the book. It took a week to develop a plot that made sense and let Matt Danner emerge as the hero. Once I had the complex plot worked out—a terrorist attack on Pearl Harbor—I could go back to winging individual chapters, refining the How and finding ways to introduce plot twists.
Q: Why do writers like plot twists?
A: Because they keep a story unpredictable, and thus interesting, even suspenseful. Real life is full of plot twists. Why should fiction be any different?
Q: How are your Matt Danner novels different from other espionage fiction?
A: The Danner novels are personal stories that focus on a likable main character. The novels feature nonstop action, so they're easy to read and very engaging. The characters, the locations, even the gadgets are all interesting. And finally, Danner tells the story with a dash of humor, and that makes the books fun to read.
Q: You said a likable character. Why is that important?
A: As readers, we like a hero, and the best heroes are good people we can relate to. Jason Bourne is trying hard to reform, but he's a brutal killer. James Bond isn't going to sit down with us over pizza and beer. But Matt Danner likes pizza and beer. He's a nice guy, someone we'd like as a friend. When Matt is thrown into difficult situations, we want to see him defeat the bad guys and make us proud.
Q: Why tell the story in the first person?
A: Because the best, most compelling stories come directly from the storyteller, the one who has had the adventure and keeps you spellbound as the details unfold. First person means a focus on action. There is no jumping away from the action to a completely different sub-plot, so the reader is not left hanging, waiting to find out what happened next.
Q: Do you read other authors?
A: Of course. And some, like Alex Berenson, offer entertaining stories. But other authors spend too much time describing locations—I call them travelogues—while others focus on weapons or technology. I've grown tired of books that include every command it takes to surface a submarine or fly a bomber. I call these books weapons manuals.
Q: Why do you show us, with italic text, what Danner is thinking?
A: I can't tell the whole story with description and dialog alone—characters have an internal life, too. When we watch a movie, we see an actor's emotions by watching facial expressions and body language. We have a sense of being in the scene. In print, writers use italics to indicate what a character is thinking. When Danner thinks, This is a dangerous assignment readers learn something about his character by following his private thoughts.
Q: How can an espionage novel be fun?
A: Matt Danner can be a serious professional when he needs to be, but he has a sense of humor, too. The humor comes early in the book, before the action becomes too serious for humor.
Q: Your books feature female CIA officers who command an operation. Why did you do that?
A: Having never worked for the CIA, I can only assume they train competent women to become operations officers. Having worked with (and for) competent women, it was only natural for me to include women in the books.
Q: You stress competent, but characters like Inga and Abby are sexy, too.
A: When it's useful. It's part of their training. These women know when to turn on the charm and when to break an arm.
Q: You brought Inga back in book two. Why? And why did she have to play a bimbo?
A: First, I thought Matt and Inga had some unfinished business, something left over from their previous operation. Also, the CIA needed her to play a Western blonde bimbo, so Kim Jong-un would invite her to visit Pyongyang. But underneath the makeup and the gaudy appearance, Inga still controls the operation, and makes difficult decisions when she needs to.
Q: Why did you decide to make another female officer sexy and black?
A: You mean Abby, who uses sexy when she needs to, but carries the mental scars of a recent assignment. As for black, that was logical. Early in The Pearl Harbor Pictures, Danner is working in the Bahamas, so it made sense to have an operations officer who could blend in with the locals. By having Abby just back from a dangerous operation in Africa, I was able to make her a complex character while keeping her strong for the job at hand.
Q: How would you describe The Petrograd Pictures?
A: As the first book of the series, it's important for the reader to meet Matt Danner and come to appreciate his good qualities. It's also a coming-of-age story. Although Matt has been taking pictures for the CIA for several years, he's enjoyed the adventure without experiencing real danger. In this book, Matt's training and his risky experiences in the field turn him into a different sort of person, the same way combat turns a young soldier into a warrior. It's a very human story, told in a personal way.
Q: Where did you get the idea for a Russian cargo ship with a big secret?
A: I served in a Naval Aviation squadron that hunted submarines and flew over suspicious cargo vessels. The Russian ships always had nice paint jobs, but we never knew what they were carrying below decks. That got me thinking, "What are they hiding?" If you ask the right questions, interesting answers come from the imagination.
Q: Why did you make Matt Danner a photographer?
A: Partly because I've been a photographer since I was nine years old, and I've worked as a professional. But also, the CIA has a huge staff of technicians that support espionage operations, but no one writes about them. The techs are specialists who know how to plant bugs, open safes, and take pictures of the bad guys. With a few exceptions, these techs do their jobs without attracting attention or being arrested as spies. Matt Danner would like to work in the background, but the CIA sends him on photographic assignments that land him in the middle of a serious situation. Of course, serious is good—it makes for an exciting story.
Q: Tell us about Inga.
A: Inga is a mysterious figure, someone who introduces herself as a college girl during a flight to Europe. Matt finds her attractive, but he has been taught to be suspicious of attractive women. As it turns out, he has reason to be suspicious.
Q: How did you decide that a parachute was the best way for Danner to take his pictures of the Petrograd's secret base?
A: I got the idea from looking at a map. Northern Norway borders Russia, and the port of Pechenga is very close to the border. Using a wing type parachute, Danner could, in theory, jump from a plane on the Norwegian side, glide over the border to take his pictures, and float back to Norway. Of course, theory doesn't always work in the real world.
Q: Danner's parachute instructor is quite a...colorful character.
A: Meaning, he swears a lot. But then, so do most people in the military. I wanted Dawkins to sound like the men who trained and supervised me in the Navy, those crusty but competent men who knew how to get things done. At one point, I thought about sanitizing Dawkins' vocabulary, but he wouldn't hear of it.
Q: Your inside information about the CIA sounds very detailed. Did you visit the CIA or talk to employees?
A: No visit and no talks with employees. Everything about the inner workings of the CIA is a product of my imagination. I assume the CIA is similar to some of the large corporations I have worked for: they have some brilliant managers and a few dim bulbs. They formulate grand plans and make mistakes, except we don't read about the CIA's mistakes in the Wall Street Journal—for that, we have the Danner books.
Q: Where did you get the idea for writing a book about North Korea?
A: I watched a documentary about the place the West calls the Hermit Kingdom. It was such a bizarre and interesting place I knew it would make a great backdrop for a spy novel.
Q: Did you write your book before the movie The Interview was released?
A: Yes, although the Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un had been making nasty threats long before the movie was released.
Q: Your book isn't about the CIA trying to assassinate Kim Jong-un anyway, is it?
A: That's not the purpose of the mission. Danner and Tom Yamaguchi are mainly interested in gathering intelligence on the latest Musudan missile, the one with enough range to nuke Los Angeles. I hasten to add that this super missile doesn't exist—yet.
Q: Danner's partner, Tom Yamaguchi, is a Japanese-American. How did you think of that?
A: I wanted someone who was very different from Danner, a brilliant guy who's an expert with languages. Gooch joined the CIA on a lark, partly to defy his family's expectation that he become a surgeon like his dad. Thinking about the character, I imagined Gooch in pre-med at Stanford, a Californian from a Japanese-American family. As the relationship between Danner and Gooch developed in books two and three, I enjoyed writing dialogue that demonstrated mutual respect overlaid with good-natured kidding. Danner tells people,"Gooch is the smartest man I know," but needles him for hating Korean food.
Q: Why did you introduce Gooch as a buddy character?
A: In book one, Danner makes a couple of references to the idea that he has friends at work. He's not the lone wolf operator we encounter in so many books. For book two, Gooch poses as a sound man for Danner's videographer, and has his own intelligence gathering responsibility. When I started writing some of the dialogue between these two characters, serious and bantering, I knew I had found a great pairing, a relationship that would continue into other books.
Q: Did you go to North Korea to research this book?
A: No way. I'm not fond of kimchi or brutal dictatorships. But thanks to the Internet, I didn't have to make up some of the more bizarre facts of life in North Korea, like it being illegal to wear blue jeans. The DPRK is an example of the adage, "You can't make this stuff up."
Q: Where did you get the idea for this book?
A: My wife and I took an amazing trip in a tourist sub in Oahu. I thought a submarine would be an interesting backdrop for a story. When I started the book, I didn't know how difficult it was going to be to create a plausible plot. Halfway through the book I realized I was going to have to think like a mystery writer.
Q: So, this book needed a more complicated plot?
A: Oh yes, mainly because the situation seemed so impossible. The tourist submarines operate off the south coast of Oahu, in the open ocean. Ford Island is a naval base located inside the island of Oahu. It's only accessible by a waterway controlled by the U.S. Navy, or a single bridge from Honolulu. If someone wanted to hold an important economic conference on Ford Island—the premise of the book—there's no way terrorists could hijack a sub and attack the island.
Q: How hard was it to figure out how someone could do that?
A: Very. The map and water depth charts for Oahu showed a tourist sub would have to sail about twelve miles, much of it through a guarded channel, to reach the island. Meanwhile, everyone would be looking for the missing sub. Even if I managed to place Danner on the submarine as a crewman, he would be one man against an unknown number of armed fighters. At one point I thought, "Matt will be stuck on the sub while the real battle takes place miles away." I wasn't sure I would be able to finish the book.
Q: How did you solve the problem?
A: I studied the maps. I slept, hoping my subconscious would come up with an answer. I took long walks, talking to myself, suggesting alternatives and novel ways to approach a solution. I kept asking, "What if..." Then one day I got it, at least the basic plan. I went back to my office to work out the details. Of course, the terrorist attack plan was only half of the solution. I also had to figure out how Matt's CIA team—the one that was supposed to remain in the background—could discover the plot and alert the security forces. Also Matt would have to play a central role in the discovery. More walking, more brainstorming. I was relieved when I got it all worked out, and I think the reader will enjoy how the complex plot unfolds.
Q: So, map study, combined with inspiration, right?
A: Right. On one of my walks, the phrase "Hawaiian war canoes" popped into my head. I knew I had to include them in the ending, somehow, and I'm very pleased at how that random idea worked out.
Q: Why did the CIA team have to stay in the background?
A: By law, the CIA can't operate on U.S. soil. In the book, the CIA decides to send a small observer team, in case the other security agencies miss something. Of course, they do, and Matt Danner saves the day, with help from the Navy and some very tough Hawaiians.
Q: You served in the Navy. Was it hard to write about another Pearl Harbor attack?
A: It was. Visiting the historic areas in Pearl Harbor left me with a deep respect for what those men and women went through during and after the attack. As a tribute, I included a group of Navy vets, submariners, as passengers in the tourist sub with Danner. At the height of the action, the old men displayed the same sort of courage they needed during their service.
Q: Does this book also include strong female characters?
A: Of course. The officer in charge of the CIA team is a man, but Matt establishes a back-channel relationship with a female Naval Intelligence officer. Also, an electronics tech named Nikki looks like an innocent teenage girl, but she carries a .357 Magnum in her beach bag and knows how to use it.
Q: Was it fun to write about Hawaii?
A: Not as much fun as being there, but yes, great fun. I tried to include aspects of the real Hawaii, the way of life the tourists don't get to see. Since Gooch is a talented linguist, I had him using Hawaiian words and phrases, and there's a short glossary at the back of the book.
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