Tropic of Fear
asked by Nick Stuyvesant of Stuyvesant & Hoagland, August 22, 2005.]
Tropic of Fear, like your last thriller
League of Shadows, has a strong sense of place. How do you go about your research?
Have you visited the countries that serve as settings in your thrillers?
I prefer to use countries that I’m familiar
with. For Storm Track and League of Shadows, I used settings
in Italy, where I’ve traveled
extensively and often, but I also chose some locations that I’d never
seen. In Storm Track, it was Malta and Tunisia, and in League
of Shadows it
was Suriname. So I do extensive research. Most people would assume that a writer
uses the web. I prefer printed sources, in part because the material on the
web is so easily accessible to everyone that I’m looking for something
less easily found. Which doesn’t mean I don’t google certain topics.
If you look at my website for example, and click on “Extras” for
each novel, you’ll find pages that are based on images. Some I’ve
taken myself, but others come from the web. So you can do research, including
finding photos of locations, with great ease these days. I know when I wrote
Storm Track, that sort of material was not yet available. So I used
Geographics, illustrated books from libraries and scholarly studies, often
What inspired you to write Tropic of
Tropic of Fear is a novel that combines
revolution (in a Latin American setting), the concept of war games as a means
of disaster prevention, and the ecology of dams, particularly large ones.
I went to graduate school in Berkeley, just after the wild days of the late ’60s.
So, while I missed out on many of the events that made Berkeley a hotbed of
protest, the atmosphere was still in the air. I saw police throw protestors
through glass windows of stores, I saw crowds being tear-gassed, and I also
saw women dancing topless in Sproul Plaza, seeking the right to do what men
do–take off their shirts when they’re playing in the sun! And I
also remember watching Costa-Gavras’s movie “Z,” which won
the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1969. The movie deals with
government corruption, and conspiracy in Greece, but by the time I
was writing, years later, I'd forgotten that it was set in Greece and pictured
a Latin American setting in my mind. So I’ve
always wanted to write a novel with that type of atmosphere. And through the
years certain novels also kept that drive alive. In the dedication, I mention
three authors who inspired me–Conrad,
who published Nostromo in 1904, perhaps not often read today, but
a tale of high adventure set on the South American seaboard during the turmoil
of a revolution; Graham Greene, for The Power and the Glory from 1940;
and Robert Stone’s
A Flag for Sunrise, published in 1980. There’s a homage to each,
well disguised I think, in the novel.
What about the war games that take place in the novel?
They’re not the sort of war games
that most people think of when they hear that term. It’s not soldiers
out on maneuvers, but more of a think-tank exercise. In the acknowledgments,
I thank a clinical professor of surgery, Dr. Martin E. Silverstein, an expert
in international disaster and emergency management issues. I met him in Tucson
several years ago, at a gathering of the Society of Southwestern Authors. He’s
worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency—this is all prior to 9\11—and
with quite a few other organizations, including the State Department and international,
federal, and state medical units dealing with trauma and the effects of fear.
We talked at one point about collaborating on a book, but didn’t follow
up on that. But our discussions planted the idea in my mind of using risk
control and a disaster prevention project as a major element of the plot. I
simply transferred the concept to Paraguay during a period of
dictatorship and popular unrest.
What about your interest in the environmental
effects of dams? How did that come into play?
When I researched the history of
Paraguay—its long series of dictators, the fact that the country served
as a haven for Nazis after World War II, the Mennonite presence, and so forth—I
came upon the large dams, some already built, some in the planning stages.
By the way, one feature that I share with the male protagonist in Tropic
of Fear, Walter Stanek, is
that we both had fathers who worked in construction on large dams. (And I
also share something with the female protagonist, Diane Lang. We're both
professors of language, although she teaches German and my field is Italian.)
At any rate, dams intrigued me. My
own university, the University of Arizona, has a strong department of hydrogeology,
so I thought, well, I can use that as the occupation for Stanek. And you
can't build a dam without an environmental study.
At one point
in the novel, Walter talks about some of the factors you have to consider
when you construct a dam. People have to emigrate out of the flood plain;
wild animals have to be captured and relocated, but many are left behind
where they starve to death on little islands or in trees, or they drown;
you lose agricultural products--any unlogged trees, for example, but also
crops, and sometimes rural industries are lost as well. The loss of natural
vegetation can cause problems with precipitation. Rainfall gets altered,
water evaporates from the reservoir, occasional flooding occurs, the velocity
of the water in the river that feeds the dam changes--and that's both upstream
and downstream. So aquatic life is affected. And there's usually an accumulation
of sediment that changes the turbidity of the water. It's fairly complicated.
The whole situation results
in a lot of controversy. And for that maybe I was influenced, in part, by
my reading of Edward Abbey, in particular The
Monkey Wrench Gang, a great novel that depicts what I'll call
natural man (eco-terrorists for some) fighting against concrete. At
one point early on in the novel, one of the characters, a guy named
Seldom Seen Smith, kneels down on Glen Canyon Dam and prays for an
earthquake to destroy it . Right that minute if possible! And then,
in his prayer, he remembers what the river and the canyons used to
be like before the dam was built. It's a great passage. So all those
things captured my attention.
You mentioned teaching. Does that have any
relationship to what you're writing?
Well, what I write is heavily influenced by
my everyday job. I don't think it's necessarily very noticeable in my novels,
but I am influenced by the authors I teach. I'm a specialist
in the Italian Renaissance—something that's clear from my academic
books—but I teach the whole range of Italian culture from prehistoric
times down to the present. Let me give you one example of how I use
Italian literature in my thrillers. Unobtrusively, I hope!
In my last novel, League
of Shadows, I described
a funeral attended by Nick Ferron, the protagonist of the contemporary story.
Well, almost every time we find a funeral in a movie, the director sets the
scene on a gloomy, rainy day, with everybody standing under their black
umbrellas. I marvel actually that that cliché is still so heavily used. It's
Instead, I decided to use a Dantesque
technique, a rhetorical figure called litotes, where you describe
something as the negative of its contrary. By itself that definition is hard
to understand, but basically what it means is: you describe something by what's
lacking and that makes the lack yet more emotionally effective. In canto 13
Dante describes the area of hell where suicides are punished. And he starts
out by saying there are no green leaves, no smooth branches, no fruit, and
so forth. I'm also reminded
of his description of Mastro Adamo in canto 30 of Inferno. Master
Adam is a counterfeiter who suffers from dropsy. He's thirsty,
his lips are parched, and all he can think about is what is not there—little
streams flowing down from green hills, cool and soft with moisture.
So, with that technique in mind, I described
the funeral in these words, if you'll let me quote a passage:
As Ferron stepped out of the
Lowell's car, the incongruity of events overwhelmed him. The sun was too
bright and yellow, the sapphire sky too transparent. Not a cloud in sight.
No black umbrellas under lowering skies, no endless drizzle, no smell of
rotting autumn leaves, no sere grass between the headstones, no time-worn
inscriptions on crumbling vaults, no chill wind keening out of the north.
The grass was neatly trimmed, the flowers cheerful, the granite slick and
shiny. Even the graveside ceremony presided over by a Methodist minister
seemed prosaic and mundane. And then the wind picked up, and the minister's
words, like drifting leaves, were carried away by the breeze.
Even the image of leaves for souls is Dantesque.
I'm thinking of canto 3 where the souls are waiting to cross Charon's boat.
But the passage also reflects two other fourteenth-century Italian poets, Petrarch
and Cino da Pistoia. Both of those guys have what I'll call very romantic lines
in sonnets lamenting death. Cino talks about visiting the tomb of his beloved
and then he says something like "le alpi passai con voce di dolore." "I
crossed the Alps with a cry of grief." In poem 267 of Petrarch's Canzoniere,
the first sonnet after Laura's death, he concludes by saying that while she
filled him with hope and desire, the wind bore everything away. So those are
the sources for the last sentence I quoted earlier. I doubt a single reader,
anywhere in the world, will realize that the funeral description was influenced
by all those authors. But that's how my teaching and my reading all play into
the writing of my thrillers. No one should notice!
A final question: We've talked about several
of the novel's distinctive features, but haven't said much about the characters,
other than what the two protagonists do for a living. Any comments on how you
I think I recall talking about characters and
character profiles when we discussed League of Shadows last year.
But maybe I can say something in general terms about the characters in Tropic
of Fear. First, I wanted to be attentive to readers, both male and female.
So I made sure I had two protagonists, a man and a woman, with the added benefit
of a possible romance in a difficult situation. Two characters who start out
not liking each other but are forced by outside events, external threats, to
work together. That in itself, of course, is not very original, but I do hope
the reader enjoys how the two protagonists work out their relationship.
then, since Walter and Diane are both academics, fish out of water where
violence is concerned, I wanted a rougher character, someone whose cruder characteristics
would contrast with their manner. And that's where "Dink" Denton came into
being. A more flamboyant character. Some of the things he says, however,
particularly the vulgar comments he makes about life, actually derive from
the ideas of Gabriele D'Annunzio, an early twentieth-century Italian
author. D'Annunzio was influenced by Nietzsche and, in turn, influenced the
Fascists. He thought you should live life with gusto. Life has
to be seized, with violence if necessary. So Dink has a speech or two that
seems fairly crude and low class, but the origin is
much more lofty and literary.
Two other characters I really enjoyed creating
are the villain, Colonel Ibarras, and the trauma surgeon, D. Benjamin Harrington.
So I hope readers enjoy them as well, though they're quite different. I hope
that answered your question, at least in part. Let me conclude by once again
thanking my readers for their support. I write with their pleasure in mind,
and if I succeed in satisfying them, I'm happy with my work. And the next thriller
will be better yet! That's the goal.
All material may be freely used.