Storm Track

Q & A

Was Storm Track your first thriller?

Storm Track was the first novel of suspense that I had published, but not the first one I wrote.

What motivated you to write in that genre?

At the time—this was in the early 80s—I'd just finished graduate school and was teaching at Loyola University of Chicago. I'd written a couple of literary novels and hadn't had much success in the marketplace. I read two books that were very influential on the course of my writing. The first was Dean Koontz's How to Write Best Selling Fiction. The second book wasn't published until several years later, but I recall finding it very useful. That was Lawrence Block's Write for Your Life. Koontz's book stresses writing what you like to read and doing a lot of reading. Well, I was already doing the latter, but not the former. He also has a list of popular authors at the back of the book and I started making sure I was reading more of their works. And I made a conscious decision to write spy thrillers. I enjoyed reading suspense, so why not try to write it?

What was your first of this sort?

My first suspense novel was a thriller called CLOUD COVER. I did the research for this largely in the Chicago Public Library. At the time they were storing their books in a warehouse in the Loop. The stacks were crowded, but I spent quite a few hours there and enjoyed every minute. It's one of the many libraries in my life that I owe a debt of gratitude to. And the work was quite a change from the my other research hours, which were spent on academic topics, mostly in the Newberry Library, where I was also working on a bibliographic team, and in the library of the University of Chicago.

For CLOUD COVER, I also took a trip to Yugoslavia, since the novel is set in what today is Slovenia and Croatia. I learned some Serbo-Croatian ahead of time, picked up a visa in Trieste, and took the night train to Ljubljana and later went on to Zagreb. I had also read a paper at an international conference in Belgrade back in 1979, where I saw Marshall Tito, by the way. He came to the conference center, surrounded by his entourage of bodyguards. Maybe that visit was one of the reasons I chose Yugoslavia as a setting for that novel. To a certain extent, the plot was prescient, since it deals in part with events that prefigured the eventual breakup of the country.

And what happened with the novel itself?

The novel got me my first agent, Jay Garon, now deceased. He was a so-called "superagent." Elizabeth Gage was one of his best-selling authors at the time, and not long afterwards he picked up a fellow by the name of John Grisham. He did a lot better for Grisham than he did for me! Or I should say, Grisham did a lot more for him than I could. In time, after Garon kept calling each new manuscript I sent him "terrific" with blockbuster potential and tremendous commercial appeal, and kept saying how he was sure he could get a "hard\soft" deal with one of the top publishers—and then did nothing, I gave up on him and severed the relationship. I've gone on through two other agents, but CLOUD COVER, unfortunately, lost its timeliness!

Wait another decade and maybe it'll be an historical thriller.

Yeah, right. There's always hope, isn't there.

Back to Storm Track, what about its history?

It wasn't one of the novels Garon called "terrific." In fact, he told me to put it on the shelf until he sold CLOUD COVER, which he thought was a better novel, and then we'd see about finding a publisher. I was too impatient and decided to send it out on my own. I eventually sold it to Walker & Company and then had Garon do the contract. But he may have been have been right. I might have been better off leaving that one in the drawer.

Why do you say that?

Well, there are some things I like about the novel, some set pieces, the use of certain settings, the background of the protagonist, who is a commercial oil-field diver, but I think the plot's more complicated than it needs to be. My first editor merely said my mind is byzantine, but I wish I could have simplified things a bit. My advice to the reader is to try not worry about all the different theories as to who might be behind the events that are taking place and to just enjoy the action and the settings.

You mentioned the research you did for CLOUD COVER, what did you do for Storm Track?

I had fun with Storm Track. I had already visited some of the settings as an undergraduate in Italy, when I hitch-hiked through the country, including around Sicily. But I had to do location research on Tunisia and Malta, in particular, and I also became a certified diver, which is no big deal, but it did provide for what I hope is greater authenticity for the dive scenes. I remember simple things like the shape of the air bubbles as they rose to the surface from fairly deep dives.

Where did you do your training?

By this time I was living in Tucson, teaching at the University of Arizona, and our divemaster took us to San Carlos on the Sea of Cortez, about 325 miles south of Tucson. I said the research was fun, but that was a rough trip for me. I came down with a migraine on the bus trip, missed dinner the first night, didn't take any Bonine the first day we dove thinking I'd never been seasick before so why now? But we had some strong waves. I dove sick and barely got through the first of the two test dives. Then, on the second day, I had a defective regulator and ran out of air when we happened to be deeper than we were supposed to be. I had to surface on my own, had to manually blow up my vest, which didn't have an auto-inflator like most of the others. I was out of breath, struggling to stay on the surface, and barely had enough wind to inflate it, and then on the swim back to the boat by myself my dive belt slipped off. I was too tired and didn't have the air to go down for it, so I swam in place over the belt for a half-hour until some other divers came along and were kind enough to get it for me. So all told that was a mini-disaster, but a good learning experience! My protagonist, Derek Stone, is a bit more proficient than I was!

But he suffers from headaches, too!

Yeah, I think I was trying to write them out of my system.

Did it work?

Unfortunately not.

Partial transcript of an Interview conducted August 25, 1993 by Miles Henderson. May be freely used.

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