Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guests today James Rosen, an award-winning political correspondent who has covered the U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as well as congressional response to the wars; Curtis Harris, a world-renowned cancer research scientist who lectures around the globe; and James Ellenberger, a former senior official of the AFL-CIO with international labor contacts. All three have recently coauthored a thriller, High Hand, under the pseudonym Curtis J. James.
Norm: Good day, gentlemen, and thanks for participating in our interview.
How did you decide you were ready to write High Hand, and how did you divide the writing among you three? As a follow-up, did you work from an outline?
JR: As Curt and I became friends while playing squash, I told him that I wanted to write a book but that my job as a political reporter, along with other commitments, kept me from doing so. One evening, over beers after a spirited match, Curt said, “I outlined a book idea for you.” He handed me a three-page, single-spaced proposal. I thanked him and said I’d give it a read. Later that night, looking it over, I was surprised that this renowned scientist had laid down the skeleton of a spy novel! Amused, I put it on the desk in my study, with every intention of getting back to it. Over the next few months, each time we played squash, Curt asked if I’d done anything with his book idea; each time, I sidestepped the question. Finally, having been put off for the third or fourth time, the mild-mannered scientist, in a rare and brief display of mild pique, said, “If you’re not interested, I’ve got other alternatives.” That caught my attention.
I suggested that we start by writing a screenplay, which we could then turn into a novel if we wished. I thought we might rent a cabin in Virginia’s beautiful Shenandoah Mountains a few hours’ drive away; Curt suggested that we invite Jim Ellenberger, the third in our trio of squash pals, to join us.
A month or so later, Curt, Jim, and I spent three intense days in a Shenandoah cabin. We worked from early morning until late evening each day, breaking only for meals. By Sunday night, we’d sketched out 50 scenes with a marker on a giant notepad. Over the coming months, at each of our homes over dinner, we sat together at our kitchen tables and fleshed out the scenes. Only after crafting a 150-page screenplay were we ready to start writing the novel. We divided the scenes among the three of us, and we each began the more laborious and lonely task of transforming them into book chapters. As the draft chapters were completed, I edited Curt’s and Jim’s work and added it to my own in an attempt to create a single voice.
CH: We knew each other
initially as squash rackets players and became friends. We all were
experienced writers of nonfiction. Writing a novel seemed to be an
interesting challenge. I wrote the initial storyline including the
triad of main characters: Thomas Hawkes, the newspaper publisher with
longstanding CIA ties; his daughter, Lisa Hawkes, an agent for the
CIA as a NOC, that is, working without CIA protection; and her
ex-husband, Frank Adams, who is the top reporter for the newspaper
published by Thomas. And then as Jim said, we met, divided duties,
and then achieved one voice. We then had two professional editors
provide us with invaluable advice and guidance.
JE: Curt has well outlined how it came to be that the three of us decided to write a novel. The process of working out the details of who was responsible for what turned out to be a lot easier than I think any of us expected. The three of us have pretty divergent and varied backgrounds. But it was that diversity and range of experience that aided us in choosing and assigning writing tasks. All of us have extensive international exposure that ended up being reflected in the settings that are presented in High Hand.
Norm: What served as the primary inspiration for the book?
JR: My inspiration changed over time. What started as kind of a lark and a way to do something creative—and different!—with two quite interesting fellows became a more complex and serious endeavor. While the book has a trio of main characters, I latched onto Frank Adams, the journalist who tries to find out why someone tried to knock off a major presidential candidate, one who happened to be his longtime friend. As the storyline went through numerous evolutions, I was intrigued to see Frank displaying a kind of dual personality. He was plenty smart and perceptive, yet at the same time, the people closest to him—starting with his wife—were deceiving him. In the end, he figures it all out, but only after uncovering one disconcerting revelation after another.
CH: Intellectual fun! As a physician-scientist, my scientific and medical publications are nonfiction. Writing High Hand was an opportunity with my friends to use our creative imagination with fictional characters but within the context of actual geographic places and current events.
JE: Curt, as mentioned, came up with the original story outline. Looking back at the evolution of the story, the fabric of the tale and the plot of the mystery have changed substantially and become much more complex and intriguing. Each of us brought different strengths to the table: Curt in science, Jim Rosen in journalism and Russian affairs, and me in international intrigue and politics. I have either worked or been in close association with numerous trade union leaders who have gone on, usually at great personal risk, to distinguished political careers in their own countries.
For example, Wim Kok, a Dutch union official who became prime minister of the Netherlands; Bob Hawke, an Australian union leader who became prime minister of Australia; Devan Nair, a former union official who became president of Singapore; Lech Walesa, a former Solidarnosc leader who became president of Poland; and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a metal worker leader who became president of Brazil. During my time at the AFL-CIO, the union federation worked closely with and hosted on various occasions visits by Soviet dissidents Andrei Sakharov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, as well as anti-apartheid leader and president Nelson Mandela. Fiction allows extraordinary opportunities to use life experiences in ways you never imagined.
Norm: Did you write more by logic or intuition, or some combination of the two? Summarize your writing process.
JR: Friends have often told me that I am a peculiar mixture of cerebral analytical approaches to life and much more emotional responses. For good and for bad, I am a quick decision maker, even on major decisions. I never understood that part of me until I read Blink, Malcolm Gladwell’s superb book about how we think without thinking. The two central premises of the book, to me, were that we analyze, digest, and store enormous amounts of information over time, often without being completely aware of it and that what appear to be quick, even instantaneous, intuitive decisions are often tied to this deep store of processed information.
To put the dichotomy more sharply: our analytical and emotional selves are in a frequent state of creative interplay. What seems purely intuitive or emotional often has a key analytical component, and what may appear to be analytical is shaped by our individual emotional makeup. As someone who has written professionally for many years, I came to understand that writing my share of High Hand revolved around this constant interplay of logic and intuition—and that, in fact, it was impossible to separate the two.
CH: I write by logic and plausibility. For example, the advanced technology described in High Hand, such as the xWave, is currently under development in government and academic laboratories.
JE: Logic and intuition obviously both play an important role in creative writing. Imagination, research, and reality must be woven into the process to make things believable and to give the reader a feeling of the characters, their action, and the settings that surround them. In a few cases, the scenes seem to write themselves; in most cases, writing requires hard work and a significant commitment of time and patience.
Norm: What purpose do you believe your story serves, and what matters to you about the story?
JR: On a purely personal level, as a journalist, I like that High Hand gives a sense of how reporters work out in the field. Especially now, when journalism as an industry is in tough financial straits and “the lame-stream media” is lambasted by right-wing politicians and TV blowhards, it’s important that people get at least a glimpse of how a reporter does his or her job. And the portrayal of Frank Adams in the novel is not merely a gloss, as the reader sees him wrestle with ethical dilemmas and make moral compromises.
While our book is a spy novel, I hope that it illustrates how journalists sometimes must make hard decisions involving their companies and their reputations and sometimes their families and even their countries. Thomas Jefferson said that no true democracy can survive without an unfettered press; today, with journalism truly fighting for survival, Americans should at least ponder what was one of his core beliefs.
CH: Obviously, fictional thriller/spy novels are primarily for entertainment. However, fiction can also stretch one’s mind to plausible scenarios. While we were writing High Hand, several of our fictional speculations became fact, for example, Russia becoming involved in Ukraine.
JE: High Hand afforded us the opportunity to write about some of the most important international relationships that affect the United States: the continuing dilemma of our posture toward a post-Communist Russia that has never stopped feeling threatened by the West and nervous about the aspirations of its own people, the vital role that journalism provides to policymakers and the public in the understanding of Realpolitik, especially in an era of drastic declines in newspaper consumption, and the pandering of politicians to the worst inclinations and fears of the public.
Norm: Where did you get your information or ideas for the book and how much of the book is realistic, including the high technology?
JR: Curt, with his deep scientific knowledge and deep curiosity, is almost solely responsible for the high-tech aspects of High Hand, centered on the cutting-edge consumer device, the bioWave, and its classified prototype, the xWave. My ideas came mainly from three sources: my career-long experience as a journalist who’s covered some of the biggest political stories of our time, my time as a Moscow-based correspondent traveling throughout Russia and beyond during a historic period when the Soviet Union was collapsing, and my more recent professional experience covering our country’s response to the September 11, 2001, terror attacks. This last period includes coverage of the policies driving the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the military veterans, many of them injured in body or spirit, of those wars; and the attempt to counter the unforeseen and devastating rise of the Islamic State.
CH: Ideas come from our creative imagination that are based in part on personal experiences and knowledge. Governments have a many-centuries-long history of spying on their real or suspected enemies. The tradecraft of the intelligence community has also used ever-increasing sophisticated technologies. The technologies described in High Hand are being developed by DARPA and at universities for multiple purposes—for example, the brain-to-computer technology is being used for controlling artificial limbs in veterans and others.
JE: High Hand reflects the combined experiences of three very different yet like-minded writers who wanted to share some of their ideas and backgrounds through the vehicle of a fictional story that weaves real-world events, technology, and facts into a tale of intrigue and suspense. Even in the use of fictional devices like the xWave (and the bioWave) and things like nanotaggats, we made every effort to reflect real-life technologies that are either in development or exist in different formats.
Norm: What was the most difficult part of writing your book?
JR: On a purely practical level, just finding the time to write. And not just time in a quantitative sense but the right quality of time in which I could work in the right frame of mind and heart, at least somewhat free of the normal distractions of everyday life. More broadly, it’s been challenging, for a novel that we tried to make timely and realistic, to keep up with the rapid changes in current affairs and in journalism.
CH: The writing of High Hand was a wonderful creative challenge! We worked as a team to take advantage of our individual skills and experiences.
JE: Writing this book has been an incredible challenge in view of the fact that none of us had ever attempted a work of fiction.
Norm: What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your book?
JR: That it was possible for three people to write a cohesive and hopefully seamless novel!
CH: As mentioned before, several aspects of the story have evolved from fiction to reality, including the increasing Russian involvement in Eastern Europe and now the Middle East.
JE: I learned that I have some abilities that I didn’t fully realize and appreciate. Throughout my career I have written extensively about the world of work and the role of unions in advancing the condition of the real creators of wealth in our society. Writing fiction has opened other doors that I didn’t realize existed within me, particularly the ability to write creatively for both personal enjoyment and the sharing of that enjoyment with others.
JR: I addressed some of this in my earlier answers about inspiration and purpose. I think a fair amount of me is in Frank Adams, especially his attachment to Russia and Russians and his commitment to journalism. While I’ve never broken an exclusive story of the magnitude of Frank’s ultimate scoop in High Hand, I’ve been fortunate to have enjoyed a front-row seat on history-in-the-making, both in foreign lands and at home. Journalism has always been a romantic endeavor for me, one that combined opportunities for traveling, learning new things, meeting a wide variety of interesting people, chronicling history as it unfolds, and gaining at least some access to the inner workings of power.
CH: In the initial storyline of High Hand, the three main characters were entirely fictional. They were selected to complement our knowledge and experience. All three of us have traveled extensively in Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Jim Rosen is fluent in Russian and has the most experience in the former Soviet Union. This composite experience among us has given authenticity to the time and place of the venues depicted in High Hand.
JE: There are parts of all the characters that reflect the combined experiences that the three of us have encountered in real life. The three of us have visited or had direct exposure to virtually all of the places depicted in the novel.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about the three of you and High Hand?
JR: In addition to our social media websites devoted to the book, readers who are interested in my real-life journalism can go to McClatchy DC and search for “James Rosen” (including the quote marks). It will pull up some 800-plus articles I’ve written in the last eight years or so.
CH: In addition to our authors’ WEBSITE, we have a presence on social media, including Facebook and Goodreads.
JE: In addition to the
above, additional information on the three of us is available on the
web. For example, FOLLOW HERE for Curtis Harris.
For James Rosen, FOLLOW HERE.
For James Ellenberger, FOLLOW HERE.
Norm: What is next for Curtis J. James?
JR: It will be quite interesting to interact directly with our readers—not only at traditional book readings and other events but via the multitude of digital avenues afforded by social media. I am looking forward to an active and evolving interchange. I’m especially eager to hear from actual spies, current and former, who might have some dramatic and intriguing tales of their own to share!
CH: In addition to the promotional activities for High Hand, we have started writing the sequel, which will again be placed in current time and events. We will continue with the triad of main characters to intrigue the readers with the complexity of their interactions, emotions, and motives. In addition, each of these characters can become more or less prominent in the next and future novels!
JE: In addition to the above, we have written significant dialogue involving our characters that we chose not to use in High Hand. We have done extensive background pieces on most, if not all, of our characters. In many ways we have already a significant beginning to the second book involving Frank and Lisa.
Norm: As this interview draws to a close, what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answers.
JR: Who would you like to see play Frank Adams in High Hand, the movie?
JR: Kevin Costner. Or Denzel Washington. Both are my age but look much younger!
CH: Why did you select Lisa Hawkes as a strong character in High Hand?
CH: We wanted Lisa to be a dramatic and emotionally complex connection between her father, Thomas Hawkes, and her ex-husband, Frank Adams. She is also a highly intelligent female James Bond-like character! Today, women are frequently lead characters in thriller and crime novels. They are also the majority of readers of this genre. The readers of our next will need to wait until the sequel to learn more about the amazing Lisa.
JE: What would you like readers to take away from High Hand?
JE: In addition to feeling well entertained by our story, I would hope that readers come away from High Hand with a renewed appreciation of the hard work, dangers, and difficult decisions that reporters are faced with, day in and day out, in the performance of their vital work.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.