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Archive for November 1st, 2019

After his graduation from Harvard Law School, Michael Bowen worked as a trial lawyer for thirty-nine years before retiring in 2015.  He focused on franchise and distribution disputes, but found time to assist in representing the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team in complex litigation over a proposal to put a maximum security prison across the street from County Stadium, and to represent numerous pro bono clients, including one who had been sentenced to death.  His career in fiction began with the 1987 publication of Can’t Miss, a “gently feminist” (St. Louis Post Dispatch) novel about the first woman to play major league baseball.  It continued through publication of one political satire and nineteen mysteries, culminating in 2019 with False Flag in Autumn, a follow-up to 2016’s Damage Control (“ . . . consistently delightful . . . . Bowen’s ebullient antidote to election season blues . . . . ” Kirkus Reviews).  During his legal career he also wrote numerous published articles on legal and political matters, and co-authored the Wisconsin State Bar treatise on the Wisconsin Fair Dealership Law (paperback and movie rights still available).  He lives in Fox Point, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee, with his wife Sara, who is also a Harvard Law School graduate and a published lecturer on Jane Austen and Angela Thirkel.  www.michaelbowenmysteries.com

False Flag in Autumn

INTERVIEW

Q:      Congratulations on the release of your latest book, False Flag in Autumn.  To begin with, can you give us a brief summary of what the story is about and what compelled you to write it?

A:      False Flag in Autumn asks why there wasn’t an “October surprise” before the 2018 mid-term elections, and whether there will be one before the presidential election in 2020.  It features Josie Kendall, whose memoirs will not be titled Nancy Drew Goes to Washington, a manipulative Washington apparatchik who is engaging, ambitious, cheerfully cynical, and (as she puts it) not possessed of “an overly delicate conscience.”  A rogue White House aide has tabbed her for the role of unwitting pawn in 2018’s planned October surprise, which leads to her being caught up in the more nefarious scheme planned for 2020.  Knowing that the stakes are high and could quickly get personal, Josie will have to decide whether to keep her head down and pray that the prospective victims die quickly and without too much pain, or to venture outside the Beltway bubble where the weapons are spin, winks, and leaks, into a darker world where the weapons are actual weapons.  She ends up on the side of the angels although, Josie being Josie, these angels play a little dirty.  I decided to write it because, after a lifetime as a reasonably savvy political junkie, I spent 2016 making one wrong prediction after another, and I wanted to see if I could at least imagine something weirder than what was actually going to happen.

Q:  What do you think makes a good political thriller?  Could you narrow it down to the three most important elements?  Is it even possible to narrow it down?

A:      The single most important element of a political thriller is heart.  The protagonist has to care about something – country, cause, ideology – larger than himself or herself, and the reader has to care about the protagonist and at least one of the potential victims.  As Lenin said, “The death of millions is a statistic.  The death of a single human being – that is a tragedy.”

The second indispensable element is believable action.  A punch in the mouth hurts; you don’t just shrug it off.  People don’t exchange snappy patter during fistfights. Most people have no idea of whether they could fire a gun at another human being, and in combat situations they don’t act like robots (or like Hollywood action heroes – but I repeat myself).

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The third critical element is human weakness, shared by the protagonist with other characters.  The protagonist should have at least occasional doubts, make serious mistakes, and perhaps shiver a bit at times when he (or, in this case, she) looks in the mirror.

Q:      How did you go about plotting your story?  Or did you discover it as you worked on the book?

A:      I firmly believe that plot flows from character.  I had detailed portraits of my main characters in my head before I typed the first word of the story.  Characters being true to themselves will go a long way toward shaping the plot because, after all, the plot is basically what the characters do, and well thought out characters won’t behave randomly.

I had the basic premise in my head before I booted up my computer.  I didn’t prepare a chapter-by-chapter plot outline, but I did work out a reasonably detailed synopsis of the plot in the initially successful pitch that I made to the first publisher I approached.  At the same time, twists and turns inevitably developed, and the plot evolved as I dealt with them.  I think it’s important for writers not to have too much of an ego-investment in their initial conceptions.  You know things that you don’t know you know, and that knowledge will bubble to the surface as you solve basic problems – e.g., after twenty pages of talk, I need an action scene pretty soon – that come up while you’re telling the story.

Q:      Tell us something interesting about your protagonist and how you developed him or her.  Did you do any character interviews or sketches prior to the actual writing?

A:      Since Josephine Robideaux Kendall was fifteen years old, she has wanted to work someday on the White House staff; to fly one day on Air Force One, working out talking points for the president to use in discussing a crisis that arose after the plane was in the air.  Her uncle says that her mind, like the rapids on Louisiana rivers, is fast but not deep, and she agrees.  She knows that she is smart but not (yet) wise, and that she is capable of serious moral lapses, but when they occur she confronts them honestly, without kidding herself.  I had developed Josie thoroughly in Damage Control, and in False Flag in Autumn I let her grow from the harrowing experience that she had in the earlier book as a result of her flippancy and misjudgments.

I prepared a sketch of her, but that was mostly for the benefit of the publisher.  I knew who Josie was and would be.  I didn’t do “interviews” with her.  That idea frankly never occurred to me.  On reflection, it would have been fun but I’m not sure it would have moved the ball very much.

Q:      In the same light, how did you create your antagonist or villain?  What steps did you take to make him or her realistic?

A:      The key to Hank Sinclair is that he’s book-smart but not gut-smart.  Washington is full of people like that (some of whom have run for president recently).  One of my law partners, who had worked on the staff of a governor and labored in that governor’s effort at a major party convention to get himself put on the ticket as the vice-presidential candidate, told me that the core, single-minded attitude of anyone on any elected official’s staff is “Can do.”  A staffer wants to accomplish whatever the candidate wants, regardless of what it takes, what the risks are, or whether it’s right or wrong.  Put that together with book-smart but not gut-smart and you get Watergate – or Hank Sinclair.  He doesn’t have to be evil.  He simply has to be useful to people who are.

Q:      How did you keep your narrative exciting throughout the novel?  Could you offer some practical, specific tips?

A:      The key to excitement is suspense, and the keys to suspense are foreshadowing and investment of the reader in the protagonist (or in whoever is in peril).  Action itself is very useful, but it is secondary to and derivative of suspense.  The reader doesn’t know what’s going to happen, and has to care whether one thing happens rather than another.  Once you’ve accomplished that, you can (as Raymond Chandler put it) have someone walk through the door with a gun in his hand.         It is very important to genuine excitement that action not be arbitrary, that it flow organically from the plot.  You can’t have your protagonist get into a fight just to prove to someone else (the leader of a gang of outlaws or terrorists that he’s trying to infiltrate, for example) that he’s tough or capable.  (That trope, by the way, was a staple of westerns and private-eye TV shows in the 1950’s and 1960’s.)      Finally, action has to conform to character.  Josie Kendall grew up in Louisiana and she knows how to handle firearms, but until she has to find out the hard way she doesn’t know whether she’d be any use in a firefight.  (Neither do I and, odds are, neither do you.)  As she says when considering options in a tight situation, no one will confuse her with Jack Reacher.

Q:      Setting is also quite important and in many cases it becomes like a character itself.  What tools of the trade do you use in your writing to bring the setting to life?

A:      The most important element of convincing setting is concrete detail.  In Vienna, lots of people ride bicycles at night.  In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, streetwalkers don’t ply their trade east of the Milwaukee River.  In Washington, D.C., everyone hates the Metro, locals have an aversion to tourists, and a lot of people who smoke hide their indulgence like eighth-graders sneaking behind the gym because the optics are bad and Washington is a city where people care about optics.  In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a key police force is the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff and his legions of deputies – and people are not particularly shy about smoking.

In a perfect world, an author can get to some facet of the essence of a particular place.  In the American south, generally, there is a sense of history, and in the American Midwest a sense of identification with a particular locale, that would seem alien to someone in, say, New Jersey or California.  In Washington, one such defining element is the perpetual tension between elected officials (especially presidents), who are viewed as transients, and the permanent government (or “deep state,” as some call it these days) that plans to run administrative agencies forever.  How do you figure out what that defining feature is for a particular place?  Three ways:  (1) live and work there for over a year; (2) marry someone from there; or (3) visit there for a while, keeping your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut.

Q:      Did you know the theme(s) of your novel from the start or is this something that you discovered after completing the first draft?  Is this theme recurrent in your other work?

A:      I have had the basic themes of my Washington crime stories firmly in mind since I published Washington Deceased some thirty years ago:  Washington is a place where people do things – both good things and evil things – for reasons that would make no sense in (say) San Francisco or Chicago or Atlanta; and where, somehow, for some reason (the genius of the Constitution?  Divine providence?) messy compromises get worked out and the United States muddles through one crisis after another without catastrophe and sometimes in startling triumph.  Somehow a zeitgeist of depraved and sordid cynicism leads to people rising above their limitations and actually shocking themselves by doing what’s right for their country.

Q:      Where does craft end and art begin?  Do you think editing can destroy the initial creative thrust of an author?

A:      Let’s not kid ourselves:  in mystery writing, art and craft are basically the same thing.  We’re telling stories about good and evil, free will and determinism, logic and intuition, causation and randomness.  Such storytelling is an art if it’s done right (that is, in a craftsmanlike way), and it’s a waste of time if it’s not.  It’s an art if it engages the reader, which can be done only by those with a confident command of the craft, and it’s a flop if it doesn’t, no matter what literary pyrotechnics attend it.  G.K. Chesterton wrote that it may be a finer thing to be a lyric poet than to be a wit, but it’s a lot easier to pretend to be a lyric poet than to pretend to be a wit.  The same thing is true of writing mysteries and thrillers:  their art and craft is that they work for readers (or they don’t).  If they don’t, you can tell right away, and you know that neither art nor craft is involved.

In theory, of course is it possible for conformist or mindless or ideology-driven editing to negate the creative brilliance shining through an author’s work.  In over thirty years of publishing fiction, however, I’ve never had a bad editor.  Every editor I’ve ever worked with has done everything he or she could to bring out what was best in my work and to cast aside what detracted from its quality.  Hence, I’m more than a little skeptical about whether this theoretical possibility is ever realized in practice.

Q:      What three things, in your opinion, make a successful novelist?

A:      That depends on the definition of “successful”.  If a “successful” novelist is one who writes bestsellers, then the three keys are (1) knowledge of the target demographic; (2) willingness and ability to tell a fast-moving story using an eighth-grade vocabulary; and (3) a talent for developing fresh premises to hang those stories on.  If a “successful” novelist is one who gets critical acclaim in high-minded publications, then the three keys are (1) achieving first-hand or at least second-hand contact with the people, mostly in New York, who determine the orientation of those publications; (2) willingness and ability to tell stories that reflect that orientation; and (3) a talent for developing fresh premises to hang those stories on.  If a “successful” novelist is one who writes stories that he or she (and, ideally, others) can still read with pleasure twenty years after those stories were published, then the three keys are (1) an imaginative knack for asking “What if . . . ?” and then following the implications of that question to an emotionally satisfying conclusion; (2) a willingness to pound a keyboard until your brains fall out and a coherent narrative structure has taken shape; and (3) a talent for developing fresh premises to hang the resulting stories on.  Careful readers will notice a theme here.

Q:      A famous writer once wrote that being an author is like having to do homework for the rest of your life.  Thoughts?

A:      I don’t agree.  Homework is something you do, even though you don’t want to, because you don’t have any choice.  Professional writers do have a choice.  Anyone who could be an author could, if nothing else, sell fraudulent securities or successfully manage a house of assignation.

Q:      Are there any resources, books, workshops, or sites about the craft that you’ve found helpful during your writing career?

A:      The closest I can come – and it’s not particularly close – is Evelyn Waugh’s memoir A Little Learning.  Beyond that, the truthful answer is no.  I don’t mean to suggest that I’m so good that I couldn’t have benefitted from resources such as these.  I simply mean that I never consulted them.  Because I was practicing law full time, I had to either write fiction during the times when my partners were playing golf, or not write fiction at all.  Studying about how to write better simply wasn’t an option, because even my partners didn’t play that much golf.

Q:      Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers about the craft of writing?

A:      Two things.  First, unless you so fervently want to write that nothing I might say could possibly dissuade you, then don’t take up writing as a profession.  Effective fiction should proceed from an urgent inner need that cannot be satisfied except by written expression.  Second, believe in the stories you tell.  There are plenty of successful writers who don’t, and in general they are unhappy people.

 

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