1.Tell us a bit about yourself – something that we will not find in the official author’s bio?
I have had—and still do have—an unusually rich existence. For much of my life, I ran daily and worked out regularly. That ended when I came down with lung cancer in 2015 followed by chemotherapy, radiation, and removal of the upper lobe of my right lung. For several years, as I recovered, I wasn’t able to exercise. Then, last February, I tried again and succeeded. Now I am able to lift weights for two hours every other day.
I knew at age six that I was a writer, but I tried to escape that fate. I trained as a composer, even took a BA in music, and wrote reams of scores. Then I tried acting and dancing. I was always drawn back to writing. Meanwhile, to earn a living and support my family, I became a spy. I stayed in the intelligence business until I retired as early as I could in 1991 so that I could write full time. I now have five books (novels and short stories) and seventeen individual short stories in print with another book due out in July.
My training as an actor led to one of my major occupations these days, public speaking. I do frequent readings from my books, a class on fiction craftsmanship, and three different presentations drawn from my thirteen years on and off in Vietnam. The most popular of those describes the fall of Saigon which I survived, escaping under fire after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of the city.
I am a loner and live alone, but I had a partner for over twenty years. She died on March 31. I will be grieving for the foreseeable future.
2. Do you remember what was your first story (article, essay, or poem) about and when did you write it?
I started writing when I was six years old, but I don’t remember the first thing I wrote.
3. What is the title of your latest book and what inspired it?
My latest is Secretocracy, published by Adelaide Books on 30 March 2020. What inspired it was the event at the center of the story, the harassment of a federal bureaucrat because of his refusal to fund an illegal operation. That actually happened to me. I was on assignment at the intelligence staff under the Director of CIA. That was the group that finalized the intelligence budget before it was sent to Congress. I rejected funding for a highly classified program being promoted by the president on the grounds that it was illegal and violated treaties with other nations. I was banished to a warehouse with no work to do in hopes that I would resign—if the government fired me, I could sue and bring the whole story out in the open. I outlasted the president then in office. When a new president was voted in, I was exonerated.
Because the program in question was highly classified and because I don’t know if it was ever executed—when I returned to my parent agency, the National Security Agency (NSA), I lost the special clearances I’d had for that project—I’m reluctant to say which administration was behind it.
Secretocracy was written before the Trump administration came into power, but when I saw how Trump was operating, I realized that the story had to be set in the Trump era. Trump did precisely what is described in the novel, stripping clearances from and/or firing intelligence officers who reported facts that the president did not like.
4. How long did it take you to write your latest work and how fast do you write (how many words daily)?
On average, my books take me fourteen years each to write. That’s partly because I am always working on several books at the same time. But Secretocracy took fewer years. I had largely finished my other projects, especially Last of the Annamese, and I had more time to devote to Secretocracy. Besides, the book took me captive. I was so intrigued with the protagonist’s work and private life and how they came together at the end that I couldn’t stop working on the story. Frankly, I wanted to know how it would end. So Secretocracy took me less than ten years to write.
5. Do you have any unusual writing habits?
I have no idea whether my way of writing is different from other novelists. And my writing routine changes from day to day. When I am deeply engrossed and anxious to know the outcome, I sometimes write for fourteen hours straight. Days when I’m otherwise occupied, I might not write at all.
I don’t follow the prescription I have read from many writers, that is, to do a detailed outline then fill it in with writing. Instead, I write as the story reveals itself to me. I know that it is my unconscious that is leading me, but it feels as though it is a voice from outside myself.
To wit: I experience writing as if I am nothing but the transcriber and another being, maybe a muse, is dictating the story to me. I put myself into a meditative state and let the story take me. First comes the moment, usually something from my own memory, that captivates me. It is the crisis, the crux of the story. Then I let my imagination wander though what must have happened to bring that moment to be. Then I ponder what must have happened afterwards. I write it all down.
Once I have a draft, I stay in the meditative—or right brain—state for one or two more drafts. Then I put the text away to cool so that I can return to it fresh. That cooling period could be as long as a year. When I return to the text, I deliberately stress the rational—left brain—approach, trying to read the text as a disinterested party would. I check sentence, paragraph and chapter lengths and unity. I study word choices, variability in sentence structure, balance between chapters, overall design. Does the climax come at the right time? Are the resolution and aftermath in the right place?
For the next draft, I return to the meditative-right brain posture and read for emotional and aesthetic effectiveness. I continue shifting from right to left brain, meditative to rational, as I revise more drafts. When I am finally persuaded that the work is as perfect as I can make it, I farm I t out to my writing partners—other published authors whose judgment I trust—for feedback. The entire process can take as many as ten drafts.
When the story is coming to me, I don’t know how it will end. I only learn the culmination when I write it. But it’s also true that my stories are fiction in name only, as critics have noted. The main events I write about really did happen. I change the circumstances and personalities involved, but the truth remains.
6. Is writing the only form of artistic expression that you utilize, or is there more to your creativity than just writing?
As a young man, I dabbled in acting, dancing, and music as possible professions. As a spy, I became proficient in seven foreign languages. One result was a sensitivity to subtleties of meaning in words, phrases, intonation, and syntax. Over time, other vocations fell away as writing became the dominant force in my life. But two interests other than writing remain .
I take great pleasure in public speaking, an outgrowth of my training as an actor. In ordinary times, when no pandemic is restricting public life, I do presentations or readings four to eight times a month.
The other abiding interest is music. As a child, I became entranced with what we now call classical music. I wore out 78-rpm records and taught myself to play the piano. In college, after a year of studying acting, I switched my major and took a BA in music. Now, many years later, I am the proud owner of a Steinway grand piano, a gift from my oldest daughter and the most beautiful instrument I have ever played. I try to play the piano every day. My favorite composers are Bach and Mozart, but most of their music is too difficult for me to play.
Meanwhile, as a government employee, I saw that I needed advanced degrees to further my career. So I went back to school part time and earned a master’s in government and a doctorate in public administration at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. In the process, I learned, through the writing of master’s and doctoral theses, to shape text in the academic style. Before I retired, I had been promoted to the upper executive ranks of the U.S. government.
7. Authors and books that have influenced your writings?
I have learned in depth from two books: John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction (Alfred A. Knopf, 1984) and The Elements Of Style by William Strunk, Jr., as revised by E. B. White (Macmillan, 1959). Both are short books; both are filled with wisdom.
8. What are you working on right now? Anything new cooking in the wordsmith’s kitchen?
I’m currently working on two novels. One is set during the 1967 battle of Dak To in Vietnam, a battle I was intimately involved in. The other is about a passionate affair between a man and woman in their eighties.
The latter novel has just undergone a major change in outlook. It is drawn largely from a relationship I had with a woman who died last month. It is now becoming a story of grieving during a pandemic.
9. Did you ever think about the profile of your readers? What do you think – who reads and who should read your books?
Occasionally my readers track me down and send me an email responding to my books. I know nothing about these folks, but their emails suggest that they are educated people.
Because so much of my writing is about Vietnam, many of my readers are people with connections to Vietnam. Men who served there in the military can connect with the events and locations I write about. Some of my readers are Vietnamese. One is a woman who escaped Vietnam after the end of the war and always writes to me in Vietnamese.
And more men than women read my books. I write men’s fiction. That said, I am proud that I have been able to write successfully from a woman’s point of view. Women who have read my The Trion Syndrome tell me that I got the outlook of a woman right.
10. Do you have any advice for new writers/authors?
Only write if you have to. Too often I run into people who tell me that they will write or have written a book. They don’t understand that writing is a lifelong vocation. I’m still learning the art and craft of writing and will go on learning as long as I live.
To learn to write, read. Never stop reading. Read the best writers and learn from them.
11. What is the best advice (about writing) you have ever heard?
Writing is not a casual pursuit. Don’t write unless you have to. Then be prepared to spend your life at it.
12. How many books you read annually and what are you reading now? What is your favorite literary genre?
I probably read twenty or thirty books a year. That’s because I’m a slow reader. I take the time to luxuriate in beautiful writing. And because I am a reviewer for two different organizations, I often read works that I would have otherwise missed. One example is A Quiet Cadence by Mark Treanor (Naval Institute Press, 2020), a novel about Marines in combat in Vietnam, due for publication in June 2020. The book accurately and meticulously portrays the grisliness of combat. It reawakened my Port-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) from my years on the battlefield in Vietnam. If that book hadn’t been assigned to me for review, I would probably have never known of its existence.
My favorite genre is men’s fiction, although I revel in any good writing, especially literary fiction which is my calling.
At the moment I am reading for review a novel called Don’t Shed Your Tears for Anyone Who Lives on These Streets by Patricio Pron, a translation from the Spanish.
13. What do you deem the most relevant about your writing? What is the most important to be remembered by readers?
Two aspects of my writing feel most important to me.
The first is realistic and faithful portrayal of the gruesome character of war. No living American has lived through war on our own land, and a tiny fraction of one percent of us have seen combat. As a result, we Americans fail to comprehend how hideous war is. That makes us more willing to commit our military to combat. I want people to know the ghastliness of war is so that they will consider carefully before dispatching our young men and women to the battlefield.
The other important aspect is the moral lesson that my writing tries to teach: helping others should be the top priority for all of us. Nothing is so rewarding as offering a helping hand. Nothing is more urgent than the needs of others.
I take comfort in the belief that my calling, writing, can help others. The stories I tell and the lessons inherent in them can offer readers a path to a better life.
14. What is your opinion about the publishing industry today and about the ways authors can best fit into the new trends?
This is a subject about which I know nothing. I’ve been fortunate enough to find publishers for my books. That is enough for me.
15. Writing is a solitary occupation. Are you comfortable having to spend so much time alone?
As a child, with an alcoholic mother and a father in prison, I learned that if I was going to survive, I had to depend on myself. I worked part time with a paper route, delivering packages from a drug store, as a clerk in a department store, to earn money to eat and clothe myself. I put myself through college working twenty hours a week at a great variety of jobs. When I graduated, to avoid the draft, I volunteered for the army. When my enlistment ended, NSA hired me and immediately sent me to Vietnam to provide signals intelligence support to army and Marine units in combat. I was there on and off for the next thirteen years. Self-reliance became the key to survival. Then, during the 1980s, I spent five years working with AIDS patients. Later, I helped the homeless and for seven years volunteered in a hospice.
Through it all, I knew that I was on my own. No one was going to help me. Those I worked with needed me but were in no position to do anything for me. It was up to me.
Through it all, I was writing. That was work I had to do alone. I found that being a loner was for once a real advantage. I was born to write. I was born to work alone.