INTERVIEW WITH LOU BERNEY

Lou Berney has created a stand out mix of genres in his latest, November Road. The story deals with two people who meet on the road after the Kennedy assassination. Charlotte Roy, a housewife leaving her alcoholic husband, and Frank Guidry, a New Orleans  mobster who realizes he played a part in the murder and knows the mob will want to cut loose ends. The two develop an intense relationship as they head west while Barone, one of the mafia’s most efficient hitmen closes in. We got to talk to Lou about the book and mixing genres.

November Road: A Novel Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: November Road is a unique book. It is a mix of genres set to a particular week in history that one of the protagonist was unknowingly a part of. What was the first part of it that entered your mind and how did you build on it?

Lou Berney: The book started with the idea of two very different lives colliding – a big-city mafia lieutenant and a small-town mother. I was interested by the notion that we all play different roles, and that by changing roles we might actually change who we are.

MPS: Was there a particular reason you made Guidry cajun and not Italian?

LB: I wanted Guidry to be a little bit of an outsider – a little bit removed and more independent than your typical mob guy. And I also wanted him to have the kind of easy charm that very distinctive to New Orleans and Louisiana.

MPS: Charlotte is a different kind of character for you. What did you enjoy about her as a writer?

LB: I loved how Charlotte developed into a forceful, fearless kind of character. It was always in her, but to see it come out as the pages flew by made me happy. And I really liked her sense of humor, which developed over the various drafts. I didn’t imagine that she would have a lively sense of humor when I conceived her, but she quickly informed me otherwise.

MPS: What did you want to get across to the reader about that week after the assassination?

LB: The assassination was such a detonation, a seismic event in American life. Everyone was affected in one way or another, and often profoundly so.

MPS: Barone is an interesting take on the hitman character. How did you go about constructing him?

LB: A lot of trial and error. I didn’t want Barone to be a cliche. I wanted him to be a fully realized and complex character, but also one who is a scary, relentless killer. Giving him his own point of view and a character arc of his own, a key relationship with another character, made him come alive for me.

MPS: What was the most interesting thing you found in your research?

LB: The morning of the assassination, in his hotel room in Fort Worth, JFK casually mentioned to Jackie that it wouldn’t be hard at all for someone to kill the president. A killer would just need a high-powered rifle and a a spot high in a building,

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INTERVIEW WITH HELEN CURRIE FOSTER

Helen Currie Foster’s latest mystery to feature Texas lawyer Alice MacDonald Greer, Ghost Next Door, starts with her small ranch being invaded by drones and escalates when a food writer is murdered during the first barbecue cook-off her town of Coffee Creek is putting on and the killer has her sights on her. With her gal pal, Red, she is out to unravel this very fun, Texas-flavored mystery. Helen was kind enough to take a few questions from us about the book.

Ghost Next Door Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: With this mystery, you delve the town of Coffee Creek. What did you want to explore with that?

Helen Currie Foster: The Hill Country is beginning to change, but local flavor remains strong. The landscape itself demands character in the people: they’re either dealing with drought or flood, are either baking or freezing. As Molly Ivins put it, “Texas! –land of wretched excess!”

Bland suburbanization continues its inexorable march west, but people still love places like Coffee Creek: the feed store, the post office where everyone picks up the mail, Friday night lights with the bats darting after the bugs and the PTA frying burgers and selling hot dogs…… AND big sky, live oaks, limestone, and secret springs.

MPS: What I really enjoyed about the book was the relationship between Alice and Red. Where you wanting to say something about female friendship?

HCF: Alice knows she’d never have moved to Coffee Creek, much less begun to belong there, without Red. Red’s a long-time friend who lured Alice (at the lowest point of Alice’s existence) out to Coffee Creek to start over again. Alice loves Red because Red speaks truth, declines to put up with any of Alice’s introverted angst, and honors her own deep Texas roots. Red has Alice’s back; Alice has Red’s. Red’s game for adventure, even (or especially) for danger. She also says yes to frivolity. Alice knows she needs Red. Alice’s friendships with Red (and Miranda) are crucial to her survival.

MPS: Cooking, especially barbecue plays a big part in the story. Did you do any kind of research for this?

HCF: Oh, yeah. A lifetime of research. I’m deeply competitive when it comes to brisket. So competitive that, unlike in Ghost Dagger, where I did share a character’s recipe for Scottish pastries, I didn’t share the character M.A.’s recipes in Ghost Next Door for the dry rub or the mop she uses on her prize-winning brisket, or for the secret technique that keeps it juicy and not burned on the bottom. Like many others, I’ve spent decades pursuing the perfect brisket, whether mine or someone else’s. An all-time best was the brisket taco with the “green sauce” from a food truck on the courthouse square in Fort Davis…EPIC. I will share the recipe for that green sauce on the website.

As to the Coffee Creek Cook-Off, the town adapted the actual Lone Star Barbecue Society Rules.

MPS: One of things that makes your books work is how even characters that are just on a few pages pop. Do you have an approach in writing every person Alice encounters?

HCF: Yes. Even when characters get bit parts, they play an important role in the plot. Alice pays attention to them, watches them, listens to them. She picks up key clues from them. So they must be as alive, as vivid, as any main character—but they have less time to make that impression!

Characters reflect people I’ve met, worked with, been scared of, been enchanted by. Real people. Like the south, the southwest revels in its characters. The guy at the garage, the old man who loads hay at the feed store, the plumber planning to start a commercial venture with marijuana, the clerk at the post office—they revel in their independence, they expand into their own stories, they’re comfortable in their own skins. They don’t try to look like everyone, or talk like everyone.

MPS: As a writer, what has made Alice a character worth coming back to?

HCF: Great question. Alice isn’t perfect. She’s insecure, introverted, critical. And she’s driven. As a lawyer she feels absolutely compelled to finish what she signed on for, what her clients need done. She’s sometimes short-tempered and hasty, because she’s infuriated by people who try to intimidate her or her clients. I admire her strong sense of justice. And you know, Alice loves mystery novels…I have to admire a fellow mystery-lover.

 

SUPPORTING THE BLUE: REAVIS WORTHAM TALKS ABOUT WRITING, THE ADVANTAGES OF AGE, THE LAW, & HIS LATEST NOVEL

Reavis Worham’s latest in his Red River mystery series, Gold Dust, has the folks who keep the law in nineteen sixties Central Springs, Texas, and their families off in different directions with plots involving a CIA experiment, modern cattle rustles, and a fake gold rush. On October 9th Reavis will be at BookPeople with Melissa Lenhardt (Heresy) to discuss their books, but we grabbed him ahead of time for a few questions.

Image result for reavis worthamMysteryPeople Scott: What aspects of the sixties did you want to explore in Gold Dust?

Reavis Wortham: The initial idea came from the true story of a CIA experiment in 1950 called Operation Sea-Spray, in which a supposedly benign bacteria was sprayed over the city of San Francisco in a simulated biological warfare attack. A number of citizens fell ill with pneumonia-like illnesses, and at least one person died as a result.

So as usual, I wondered, “What if?” What if something similar happened to the tiny northeast community of Center Springs at the end of the 1960s, that complicated decade full of war, civil unrest, and space travel? As in all my novels, I thrust normal people in abnormal situations and watch how the characters respond to an unexpected world of challenges. What happens if someone starts a gold rush in Northeast Texas while at the same time cattle rustlers murder a local farmer in a completely separate incident? How does law enforcement separate these crimes that might be connected?

I’ve heard stories of gold buried and lost in Lamar County, and after the novel came out, I learned of a real gold mine near Chicota, Texas.

So after wandering around a bit with this answer, the truth is I wanted to explore the ultimate question of what Constable Ned Parker would do if his family faces this personal danger from a government he trusts, while at the same time an entire world of mystery swirls around the community. I honestly didn’t know he’d load up with an old friend and head for Washington D.C. to find out who was responsible for nearly killing Top, but I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Gold Dust (Red River Mysteries #7) Cover ImageMPS: You’re near the end of the decade. How has it affected Center Springs?

RW: Small towns are like small pools or stock tanks, with little exposed on the surface, but if you could peer underwater you’d find an entire hidden world full of beauty and danger. I think of that tiny community as a vortex, the swirling center of situations that involve the characters that have grown through the seven Red River novels. We’re all impacted by our decisions, and oftentimes, the decisions of others.

As I said earlier, the 1960s were packed with significant events that come in from the outside world and involve people who only want to live their lives with as little trauma and drama as possible. When outside influences impact those farmers who live off the land, they respond with force. Center Springs wants to be left alone, but when the world intrudes, it changes the community a little at a time, drawing them into life beyond Lamar County.

The community is scarred from those intrusions, but holds on to the past in many ways, because these were people who survived the Great Depression, WWII, Korea, and are enduring Vietnam. They still raise their own crops, slaughter cattle and hogs for food, and often wear the same style of clothes year after year. They’re hardened even more by the end of the decade, but still hold dear those same senses of family and community they’ve always possessed.

MPS: You brought retired Texas Ranger Tom Bell back. What does he bring to the ensemble?

RW: I left Tom Bell wounded and dying in Mexico at the end of The Right Side of Wrong. Since then, I haven’t been to a signing or speaking event that someone didn’t ask if he was ever coming back. Tom proved to be a favorite character who has his own following and I realized he needed to return from the dead.

He has many of the same moral values as Ned Parker, but he’s darker, more experienced in the outside world, and will step over that gray line between right and wrong when necessary. He’s tough, smart as a whip, experienced in more ways than we have yet to realize, and full of surprises. Tom is that guy who watches, waits, and when necessary, responds in a way that most true Texans appreciate, dispensing justice without remorse, because it’s the right thing to do.

MPS: Ned and Tom, the oldest characters, handle themselves the best. What does age give them over the younger folks?

RW: They handle situations due to their experience as lawmen. The younger characters are on a learning curve, and sometimes hesitate to make dramatic decisions, whereas Ned and Tom will do what’s necessary to protect family and freedom. They’ve already made the mistakes younger people are yet to experience, and operate with that knowledge in the back of their minds.

MPS: You have at least four plots running that the reader follows without any problem. How did you approach those spinning plates?

RW: There are four? Dang. I hadn’t thought of it that way. Honestly, I write these novels without an outline, and simply follow the characters as they stumble through life. When a plot line diverges, I’ll follow it to see what happens. Each chapter is a surprise for us all. I guess if I had to examine what I do, I’ll simply say that by the time I finish a chapter that follows one character or plot line, I want to see what the rest are doing, so I’ll just “change the channel.” It’s satisfying to know that readers can progress without getting lost. That means I’ve done my job.

MPS: Many of your characters are in law enforcement. What do you want to get across about that profession to the reader?

RW: I have a simple philosophy. If you don’t break the law, you won’t find yourself in opposition with those who wear a badge.

Growing up, my grandfather, Joe Armstrong, was the constable in Lamar County Precinct 3. I heard from my parents and grandparents from day one that law enforcement officers were my best friends. I know friends and family members who have been police officers, sheriff’s deputies, U.S. Marshals, and judges. They are all that stands between us and anarchy.

Just look around and see how quickly things can go bad. I support the blue, and though there are always bad apples, or terrible mistakes, these men and women who wear badges have my utmost respect.

 

INTERVIEW WITH MELISSA LENHARDT

Melissa Lenhardt’s Heresy is a smart and fresh take on the western outlaw tale. Several different women from several backgrounds escape the lot post-Civil War life on the frontier has cast them and become outlaws, dressing up as men and conducting well executed robberies. Told through diaries and interviews with historians, Heresy is western shoot em’up with poignancy as it examines “herstory” and female friendship. Melissa will be joining Reavis Wortham (Gold Dust) at BookPeople on October 9th to sign and discuss their books. We were able to get some questions to her early.

Heresy Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: Heresy is such a unique story in so many ways. How did it come about?

Melissa Lenhardt: The simple answer is I saw the trailer for the Denzel Washington version of The Magnificient Seven and while being impressed with the diversity, I wondered why they didn’t go a step further and include women. Which of course led me to say, I’ll write an all-female version. The long answer is that during my historical research for Sawbones, the lack of historical information about women and their experiences was glaring. I wanted to write a book that compared women’s versions of historical events with the official historic record, and in doing so challenge the idea that women were bystanders and played a very little part in the creation of America.

MPS: How did the choice of using diaries and interviews to tell the story come about?

ML: I assumed I would write the story from one point of view as I did with Sawbones. I realized pretty early on that wouldn’t work. There were too many characters, too many points of view that needed to be shared to tell the full story. By staying firmly in one point of view I would be doing to my marginalized characters – a former slave, a woman struggling with her sexuality and her place in the world – what historians have done with women writ large. So, I knew I had to have multiple points of view. I chose to tell the female points of view through journals and an oral history because that is how women’s history is discovered. Of course, I had to have the “official record” as well, to highlight how the truth of a thing is manipulated into myth.

MPS: Did it present any challenges in the storytelling?

ML: Lord, yes. This book was technically the most difficult book I’ve ever written. Telling one story from three divergent points of view, with one told fifty years later, was a challenge in and of itself. Making sure the timeline worked across all versions, but also allowing for different perspectives, different memories, without confusing the reader with too many contradictions. When I finished I thought, “That sucked. I’m never doing that again.” But writing something that challenges you, that pushes you to your creative limits is a bit like childbirth. You swear you’ll never go through that pain again but then you hold your baby in your arms and think, “Yeah, it’s worth it.”

MPS: I enjoyed the fact that the robberies had more of a heist feel than just running in and shooting like a lot of other western bandits.

ML: Before I started writing I thought it would be more of a heist book, like Ocean’s Eleven in the Old West (this was before Ocean’s Eight was announced as a movie). But, my mood and the mood of the country changed drastically six days after I wrote the first word and I knew that I couldn’t tell a lighthearted story. It just wasn’t in me. There was a moment in time when I thought it was going to be about vengeful women cutting a swath of destruction across the West. That idea was way too on the nose for this era. I found a happy medium, I think, in the final story.

MPS: Were there any books and movies in your mind when you were writing it?

ML: It was pitched as Thelma and Louise meets The Magnificent Seven, so those two, obviously. The Magnificent Seven in an obvious way, a gang trying to right a wrong and the final big battle between the good guys and bad. But, I think Thelma and Louise is the bigger influence on Heresy. Thelma and Louise are running from a patriarchal system that is trying to catch them, to control them, a system that will judge their reactions to assault more harshly than the assault itself. Along the way, these two very different women become platonic soul mates, two halves of the same whole. Neither could survive without the other. Friendship, loyalty, and family in its purest form. I wanted to capture that platonic love with Garet and Hattie’s relationship. Really, the entire book hinges on it. Thelma and Louise is the greatest platonic love story ever told, and I strove to capture that essence in Heresy.

INTERVIEW WITH GEORGE PELECANOS

George Pelecanos’ The Man Who Came Uptown is a book partly about books. Its protagonist, Michael Hudson, has come out of jail with a love of books and a hunger to get his life straight. His goals are threatened by the man who got him out, PI Phil Orzanian, who threatens to put him back in if he doesn’t help him in his sideline of robbing pimps and drug dealers. While Michael struggles to escape the situation, we also see how he escapes his day to day through reading. We caught up to the author of our Pick Of the Month to talk about his book and books in general.

The Man Who Came Uptown Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: One of the reasons why this is going to end up as one of my favorite books of the year is that it looks at the power of books. What did you want to explore about that?

George Pelecanos: I’ve been doing reading programs and leading book club discussions in prisons and jails for many years.  I’ve seen first-hand how books can broaden minds and make people happy. Beyond that, this one was personal for me.  Without going into unseemly detail, I was pretty rudderless when I was young and I saw trouble. Then a teacher turned me on to novels.  It changed the direction of my life.

MPS: Some of my favorite moments is how Michael interacts with a certain title he’s reading. How did you approach those characters moments?

GP: The novels that Michael reads force him to look at his life, and how he leads it, differently.  Willy Vlautin’s Northline, for example, teaches him the importance of small kindnesses. It causes him to forgive someone at a crucial moment in the book.  The implication is that reading can make you a better person because it takes you into the minds of people you might otherwise never have met. “Try to understand each other” is the important Steinbeck quote in the book.  Obviously those words impact Michael Hudson.

MPS: Phil Orzanian is an interesting antagonist. He has an Elmore Leonard quality to him. While I want Michael to get out from under him, he doesn’t come off as a villain and more like a guy who has been playing with fire for too long. Has there a certain idea you had in mind when constructing him?

GP: At the end of the chapters where Ornazian and Thaddeus Ward commit crimes, their internal monologue is always about the anticipation of seeing their spouses or children.  There are few pure villains in my books or in my screen work. People do bad things but they often rationalize the reasons for their behavior. Ornazian deeply loves his wife and kids, and he also robs drug dealers and pimps.  Both sides of him exist at once.

MPS: True Grit is one of the books Michael escapes into and you’ve mentioned it in interviews as a favorite. What makes it such a great book to you?

GP: The story is fantastic, a rousing adventure.  The prose shines. The narrator is an optimist but the feelings invoked are of tragedy.  It successfully tackles the subject of the passage of time, which is the big mystery we all grapple with.  But mostly it’s the voice of Mattie Ross. Charles Portis completely inhabits her. I’ve read the book many times and it’s always a thrilling experience.

MPS: What were some of the books that had an influence on you as a writer?

GP: Many are mentioned in this book.  I continue to be an Elmore Leonard fan and marvel at what he left us.  Steinbeck, with his humanity, is still a favorite. James Salter’s Light Years left a big impression on me.  The best book I read this year was The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner. It had ambition and she achieved it.  By influential, I don’t mean to claim that I can write like any of these people. But I can have aspirations. My goal, always, is to be a better writer.

MPS: I have to ask on behalf of my customers and myself if Spero Lucas will be coming back in a new book down the road?

GP: I’d like to revisit the character.  If he knocks on that door in my head, I’ll answer it.

INTERVIEW WITH EDWIN HILL

Edwin Hill’s Little Comfort introduces us to Hester Thursby, a librarian who uses her research skills to find missing persons as a side hustle. Her latest job has her dealing with family secrets, false identities, and more than a few gunshots. Mr. Hill , who will be with Scott Von Doviak on September 22nd at 6pm at BookPeople, was kind enough to take some of our questions  in advance.

Little Comfort (A Hester Thursby Mystery #1) Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: How did Little Comfort come about?

Edwin Hill: Do you remember the Clark Rockefeller case? He was that guy who claimed to be a member of the Rockefeller family and married a successful business woman, and then went on the run with his daughter when everything unraveled. And it also turned out he’d murdered people.

I was fascinated by that story, and one day when it  was all over the news I sat down and wrote a scene about a guy who’d been impersonating someone (I wasn’t sure who) and needed to leave town. The character’s name was Sam (no last name) and I knew I wanted him to be a sort of Tom Ripley-like antihero. Like Clark Rockefeller, I also knew I wanted him to be someone who could charm his way into any situation. But that’s all I had, and that scene sat on my computer for about two years before I did anything with it. Once I started working in earnest, I added in a foil for Sam, and the protagonist, Hester Thursby, was born. Hester is a librarian at Harvard’s Widener Library who finds missing people as a side gig, and her case in this story is to find Sam. Sam doesn’t want to be found, and things go downhill from there!

MPS: I also have to ask how you came up with your protagonist’s name, Hester Thursby? It is almost from another era.

EH: When I am drafting a novel, it’s really easy for me to get distracted by, well, anything, so I name characters very, very quickly – otherwise I can lose hours “researching” on baby-naming websites. I’ll name characters after friends’ pets or people I know or just random names that come to me in a flash. Some of these names stick, and others I change later on in the drafting process. (For example, I wound up using the name Sam Blaine after my friend’s beagle.)

When I came up with Hester as a character, I didn’t know much about her besides that she was a single woman with a child so the first names that flashed through my mind – and this is so pretentious it makes me want to throw up in my mouth – were Hester, for the woman, and Pearl, for the child. I quickly (and I mean the next day) changed the girl’s name to Chloe, and then changed it again to Kate. I liked the name Hester, though, and it stuck.

When I first started drafting the series, I thought it would be lighter than it wound up being, and I played around with titles based on movies. One of the titles I considered was His Girl Thursby, and Hester’s last name was born. Of course, Little Comfort wound up being much darker than I planned, a psychological thriller rather than a traditional mystery, and the title no longer fit. But, again, I liked the full name of Hester Thursby and decided to keep it! (A few people have asked if Thursby is in homage to Floyd Thursby in The Maltese Falcon. Alas, no. Just a happy coincidence.)

MPS: The book deals with the past’s relationship with the present. What did you want to explore in that idea?

EH: There are three main characters in this novel: Hester, Sam, and Sam’s best friend, Gabe DiPursio. They are each haunted by things that have happened to them in the past, but they all choose to move forward in different ways. (For more on that, see this terrific review on BOLO Books

Some of the people in this book do really terrible things to other people, but I didn’t want that to be what this book was about. I wanted to be sure to separate the action of the character from the humanity of the character. Every person on earth has something good and worthwhile at their core, or at least that’s what I believe. When I focus in on that good, it makes the contrast of terrible actions and decisions all the more powerful.

MPS: This being a debut, did you draw from any influences?

EH: Sure!  Like most writers, I read all the time. One of the influences for this book is Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, but there are other influences as well. When I first wrote that scene I mentioned above, the one with Sam escaping town, I happened to read Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories. I was inspired by the way she mixed genres – mystery and literary – and was able to infuse so much humor into the Jackson Brodie series. She also really tore apart the structure of a “mystery” novel and made it something completely unique. I’m inspired by the humanity in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series. One novel that I read regularly (maybe because it’s short!) is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. She is such a craftsman, and is able to move through time so effortlessly in that novel. I like to read it to remind myself what’s possible.

MPS: You’ll be doing an event with us on the 22nd with Scott Von Doviak and another Boston native with a book set there. There is rich tradition of crime writers from your city, Lehane, Parker, George V. Higgins. What makes Boston great for crime fiction?

EH: I think there are a lot of reasons. Boston is a beautiful town filled with iconic landmarks, to start, which always makes for good storytelling. Scott, for example, makes great use of Fenway Park and the Back Bay area of Boston in his novel. Because his novel is set in three distinct time periods, he’s able to pull in many of those sites and neighborhoods, like Dewey Square, that have changed with city. Those details give his novel a fantastic texture.

New England has a varied landscape too, going from urban to rugged very quickly, which is one of the things I use in Little Comfort, where much of the action takes place in rural New Hampshire in the depths of winter.

MPS: What do you think is the biggest misconception of the city?

EH: When I think of Boston in the media, I think of crime (The Town), education (The Paper Chase), and rabid sports fans (Fever Pitch). But like most places, Boston has many sides.

One of the reasons I set Little Comfort in Somerville, was because it shows a different part of the metro area. Somerville (which used to be nicknamed Slumerville) is diverse, with people from all different backgrounds. It’s vibrant, and a very accepting and open community. And like many urban areas in the country, like Austin, Somerville is experiencing a boom, which is creating tensions between older residents and the new people moving in. I hope to explore that in a later book in the series.

At the same time, Somerville also has many of the elements that people think of when they think of Boston. It’s right next to Cambridge, so you still feel the glow of Harvard, but with a bit more grit. Whitey Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang was named for a neighborhood in Somerville. And the Boston Garden and Fenway are each only a T ride away. So maybe there is some truth in those media images!

SCOTT BUTKI’S INTERVIEW WITH TOM SEIGEL

Tom Seigel has come up with a great concept for his first novel, The Astronaut’s Son. It’s an engaging, fascinating work.

The Astronaut's Son Cover ImageJonathan Stein is, as the title suggests, the son of an astronaut, an Israeli man who died in 1974 before he was able to fly into space, the apparent victim of heart problems. Now Jonathan is ready to go into space himself with NASA, its first trip to the moon in 30 years, except he’s hearing rumors and stories suggesting his dad was killed to protect NASA secrets, possibly relating to former Nazis who worked for NASA.

And Jonathan thinks the reclusive Neil Armstrong, who Jonathan has been writing to his whole life without ever hearing a response, may know the answers to his many questions. Some of the questions Jonathan is encountering is coming from people who believe the moon landing was fake.

This is an especially impressive debut novel for someone who got an MFA in fiction writing after 20 years as a litigator. Tom served as both deputy chief and chief of the justice department’s Brooklyn Organized Crime Strike Force, prosecuting members and associates of La Cosa Nostra.

He agreed to let me interview him via email.

Scott Butki: How did you come up with this story?

Tom Seigel: The Astronaut’s Son was born in tragedy. It was 2003, and Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut, had died in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. I was struck, as I’m sure many were, by the fact that both Ramon and Judith Resnik, the first Jewish American in space, suffered the same terrible fate in two separate shuttle accidents. It felt like more than just a sad coincidence or very bad luck. It felt like an atavistic curse: “Let there be no escape.”

Then the notion that “flight” contained elements of both adventure and escape took hold, and I asked myself a question: “If the exodus story can serve as a metaphor for liberation of the oppressed, could the unique, peripatetic story of the Jews serve as a metaphor for the future of humanity in space?” Are we exploring the cosmos as mere intellectual pastime or because we know that another exodus will be needed? As I began to research, I learned about the secret government program (Operation Paperclip) that brought Nazi engineers to the United States after the war to work on rocketry. Many ended up at NASA. The idea of juxtaposing Germans and Jews at NASA captured my imagination, and after more years than I care to admit, my novel is finally ready for launch.

Scott: Which came first, the plot or the characters?

Tom: At least the protagonist came first. I wanted a Jewish entrepreneur (Jonathan Stein) to attempt a return to the moon, and I wanted him to wrestle with the ghosts of his past—his late father, a fictitious Israeli astronaut in the Apollo program, and the ex-Nazis his dad would have encountered. Questions about his father’s untimely death allow us to look back at that time through Jonathan’s eyes. I was not sure when I started writing what he would find, or whether he would make it to the moon. I also wanted Neil Armstrong to be a looming presence in Jonathan’s mind—a reluctant hero, a long-distance father figure and a one-way pen pal. Armstrong’s reclusive behavior and relative inaccessibility created space (no pun intended) for mystery and intrigue. The other characters also took shape before I had the plot finally worked out.

Scott: I realize this is fiction but I have to ask a question I am sure some readers will ask, namely, “Does NASA indeed have a checkered past, any employees who were former Nazis?”

Tom: The short answer is yes. In the 1960s and 1970s, Wernher von Braun was Director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, and Kurt Debus was Director of the Kennedy Space Center. Both men were not only Nazi party members but SS officers. And there were others. A few fairly recent nonfiction books detail this shady history of Operation Paperclip. Among them, I would recommend Michael Neufeld’s Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War and Annie Jacobsen’s Operation Paperclip. For years, the government whitewashed the history of its German rocket contingent. Their influence was so great that even today, the U.S. Space and Rocket Center (the official visitor center for Marshall), has a biergarten on Thursdays in the summer referred to as “Stein and Dine.” I have been amazed that more people are not troubled by the honors given to some of these (opportunistic to say the least) men.

Scott: What kind of research did you do and how did that go?

Tom: I read books about Operation Paperclip in general and the more prominent German scientists and engineers who were part of it. I also read about NASA’s history and astronaut training. Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time  helped me get a grasp of basic concepts in cosmology. The more entertaining research included surfing the Internet for outlandish lunar landing conspiracy theories. And of course, I watched Capricorn One. (Yes, I believe we landed on the moon, and so does Jonathan.)

Scott: I was glad you referenced Richard Feynman, someone I find fascinating. What do you think of him?

Tom: Richard Feynman is an American original, a Nobel laureate in physics with a thick outer borough accent who liked to play the bongos at strip clubs. He had a unique ability to explain physics to the uninitiated, much as Leonard Bernstein explained classical music to children. Feynman was charming, irascible and possessed of an insatiable curiosity. He, along with Neil Armstrong, served on the Rogers Commission, which investigated the Challenger disaster. I actually had something in an earlier draft that was meant as an inside joke about Feynman’s fascination with breaking dry spaghetti, but alas, it was left on the cutting room floor.

Scott: Why did you decide to get an MFA in fiction writing and write this novel?

Tom: I had the proverbial eighty pages in a drawer for years. I pulled them out sporadically and tinkered without much progress. I think the MFA program, in addition to improving my writing, served as source of concrete deadlines. I was also in my forties and ready for a career change.

Scott: How has your past work, including as a litigator, helped you as you made that switch?

Tom: I think being a former prosecutor has been very helpful to me as a writer. Prosecutors are storytellers. They have a cast of characters (witnesses) and have to construct a compelling and credible narrative for a jury. A prosecutor is also always on the lookout for the perilous plot hole. If you have one in your case, you can be sure that a defense lawyer is going to stick a finger in it and make sure the jury sees just how big the reasonable doubt really is. Having an imagining adversary (editor) on my shoulder while writing comes as second nature. Continuity, foundation and authenticity are important elements of any successful prosecution, and they’re pretty good for novels too. A challenge, on the other hand, is the artful use of nuance—great for fiction writing, deadly for a closing argument.

Scott: What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

Tom: Of course, I want them to be entertained, and while the book has its serious side, I would be delighted if they were to laugh out loud at least once or twice. The Astronaut’s Son is not a traditional whodunit. I won’t spoil the ending, but I hope they come away with meaty questions to chew on—about history, progress, ethics and the future. Small subjects like that.

Scott: What are you working on next?

Tom: As a former mafia prosecutor, more than a few people have suggested I write a book about mobsters. I’m in the middle of writing a second novel that is not about the mob, but it might have a few unconventional wise guys. I think the traditional mob genre, like the mob itself, is mostly played out, but there’s still room for a colorful goodfella or two.