Bookpleasures welcomes as our guest T.L. Williams author of Cooper's Revenge, Unit 400: The Assassins and Zero Day: China's Cyber Wars.
Norm: Good Day T.L. and thanks for participating in our interview.
Please tell our readers a little bit about your personal and professional background.
T.L.: How are you? First I’d like to thank you for hosting me today. It’s such a great opportunity to reach out to your readers. I’m originally from Ohio but now live in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida with my wife Carol. We have two children, Colin (Cary) and Carly (Joe) and four, soon to be five, grandchildren.
I spent most of my adult life working as an Operations Officer for the Central Intelligence Agency. From 1980 - 2009 we were in and out of Washington, D.C. but for years lived in Asia, Europe, Central Eurasia and the Americas.
It was an exciting career, and we often found ourselves in the midst of history-making events. After I retired I spent several years as a private contractor, doing specialized training for the Agency and Department of Defense.
Norm: How did you get started in writing? What keeps you going?
T.L.: I wrote professionally as an Intelligence officer for thirty years, but that’s not the same as writing a novel.
I was so busy during my career that I didn’t have the time or energy for creative writing, but when I retired I knew that it was something I wanted to pursue. I realized that I needed help getting started, and that’s when I discovered the Long Ridge Writer’s Group which has since become the Institute for Writers.
They offered an online course in novel writing and paired you with a published author who served as your mentor as you worked your way through the course modules. My mentor was Mary Rosenblum, a science fiction author of some renown, who was a great help getting me started.
As for what keeps me going? Sometimes I feel that writers don’t so much choose to write, but rather are compelled to write. Although most of my writing is fiction, I weave in a lot of cultural and national security-relevant information with the hope that it will sensitize my readers to these issues, and give a kind of vibrancy to the settings of my stories.
T.L.: When you assess the risks facing our nation, cyber espionage has to be right up there with other critical threats.
The Chinese have proven to be tenacious in their cyber attacks against our country. It’s highly unlikely that China would ever get into a conventional war with the U.S. given our superior military capabilities, but they have been able to wage a pervasive cyber war against our country for years with relative impunity. Because I speak Chinese and lived in China for years, it was a natural subject to turn to.
Norm: What purpose do you believe the story serves and what matters to you about it?
T.L.: My novels are always meant to entertain, but in this case, truth and fiction are not far removed. I’d like the everyday person, who hasn’t thought much about the impact of Chinese hacking on our national security, to come away from reading this book thinking that the U.S. has to do more to protect our cyber infrastructure.
That effort has to be a national priority, but it really comes down to individuals getting smart on the subject and taking the right steps at home and in the workplace to secure our cyber future.
Norm: How did you go about creating the characters of Logan Alexander and Li Jiang? As a follow up, are they based on anyone you know and how much of you is in the character of Logan?
T.L.: Logan came into being about five years ago, shortly after I finished training a group of Special Forces operatives. He was originally cast as a navy SEAL. Although I never served in the military, I grew up on military bases and throughout my career worked with, and supported, the military.
I also lived in Iran in the late-seventies where I was working for Bell Helicopter on an Iranian military base. So I had a lot of material to work with when I developed my first novel, Cooper’s Revenge, which deals with Iranian support for terrorism, particularly through the use of IED’s.
I figured at some point that Logan might morph into a CIA officer, which was natural given my own experience. I wouldn’t say that the character is autobiographical. There some elements of my personality and professional background in Logan, but he’s really a composite of many of the CIA and military professionals that I have known over the years.
Li Jiang is a fictional character. Over the decades that I spent in and out of China I had the opportunity to observe Chinese culture first-hand and interact with Chinese of every stripe, whether it was rubbing elbows with the masses as I bicycled around Beijing, or serving as a note taker for President Reagan in the Great Hall of the People during his visit to China.
Norm: How much of Zero Day is realistic?
T.L.: In many ways the book is very realistic. Anyone who knows anything about China knows that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General Staff Department’s 2PLA and 3PLA are responsible for military and SIGINT intelligence.
The Ministry of State Security is the civilian agency responsible for intelligence and counterintelligence operations. But, rather than point the finger at them, I made Li Jiang a Public Security Bureau (PSB) officer because the PSB is so pervasive in Chinese life and it is highly probable that, on some level, they are doing what the book purports.
Norm: What challenges or obstacles did you encounter while writing your book? How did you overcome these challenges?
T.L.: The CIA did not want this book published. It took 16 months to obtain CIA’s approval to publish Zero Day. I made two trips to Washington to defend the book and went through several stages of appeal, before the Publications Review Board agreed to let me go forward. That was probably my greatest challenge.
Norm: Do you agree that to have good drama there must be an emotional charge that usually comes from the individual squaring off against antagonists either out in the world or within himself or herself? If so, please elaborate and how does it fit into your novel?
T.L.: Internal struggles, existential threats, a foreboding antagonist, these all create dramatic tension. In this book, the antagonist is more a nation than an individual.
China’s incessant cyberattacks pose the existential threat. Pitting Logan against
China creates even greater tension because one gets the sense that it is him against this monolith. Of course there are antagonists - Pan Chengong is one, armed with a degree from Stanford, and determined to destroy the U.S. economy - but they are just tools of the Chinese government.
Norm: You divulge a great deal of information concerning the Chinese in Zero Day. Have you ever been threatened by the Chinese or for that matter, anyone else because of the information you divulge?
T.L.: I am very careful to stay within the constraints imposed by my secrecy agreement with the U.S. government. That’s why my books are submitted to CIA’s Publications Review Board for approval. My novels tend to be very realistic, and some have suggested that I get awfully close to the line of what is permissible and what is not. I would not do anything to endanger CIA sources or methods.
As for the Chinese, I have never been overtly threatened by their security personnel, although like many foreign diplomats in China, I have experienced their surveillance.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your novels?
Norm: What is next for T.L. Williams?
T.L.: I’m currently working on a novel dealing with ISIS recruiting in the U.S. As we have seen over the last couple of years, there have been ISIS-inspired attacks against the Homeland, that have resulted in deaths and injuries. I have been exploring those conditions that drive seemingly normal people to such abhorrent behavior. And believe it or not, Logan Alexander is going to loom large.
Norm: Is there anything else you wish to add to our interview that we have not covered?
T.L.: Just to thank you again for hosting me today. It’s been a pleasure being with you.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your novels.