Monday, August 15, 2016

Interview with debut mystery novelist Michael Connick

Author Michael Connick is helping me kick off a new week. We’re chatting about this Cold War spy novel, Trapped in a Hall of Mirrors: How the Luckiest Man in the World Became a Spy.

Michael Connick was born in 1947 and raised in San Francisco, CA by a fairly well-to-do family. His grandfather was actually the highest salaried person in the entire city and his mother was an English war bride from WWII. As a young boy he traveled extensively with his family all over Europe. Upon leaving college he began working in the computer field as a programmer on some of the earliest commercially successful mainframe computers. His jobs in this field took him all over the US, Europe, and the Middle East. While living in Iran he worked for the Shah's pre-revolutionary government as a consultant to the Secret Police: the SAVAK. During a career spanning much of the Cold War he also served as a consultant to various branches of the US intelligence community. Now retired and residing in the little college town of Huntington, WV, his love for writing compelled him to create his first novel, a strongly autobiographical work entitled "Trapped in a Hall of Mirrors". This novel has been featured in the Huntington Herald-Dispatch newspaper and Charleston's WOWK TV Channel 13. It will be the first in a series of Cold War espionage novels featuring the novel's protagonist: Stephen Connor.

Welcome, Michael. Please tell us about your current release.
During the height of the Cold War, a naive computer nerd working first for the NSA, and then for the CIA, dreams of becoming a clandestine intelligence officer. After a very successful tour of duty in Iran, his new boss, the Vienna CIA Station Chief, is calling him the “luckiest man in the world”. Nevertheless, he's managed to accidentally attract the enmity of the KGB, the malevolent attention of an East German seductress, and the absolute hatred of a psychopathic KGB mole at the heart of Austria's counter-intelligence agency. Will he be lucky enough, or skillful enough, to survive all these forces now converging to destroy him before he ever has a chance to realize his dream?

What inspired you to write this book?
My “bucket list” always included writing a novel after I retired. I retired in 2015, and so I then wrote my first novel, Trapped in a Hall of Mirrors. In addition to that, I've always been frustrated by how unrealistic most spy novels are today. Most of the heroes in these books are virtual supermen, and the tradecraft, weapons, and tactics used in them are often absurd. Since I actually worked with the intelligence community for many years, I felt that I could portray what it's really like to work in this field much more realistically. In fact, much of Trapped in a Hall of Mirrors is autobiographical and based on actual events in my life. I really did live in Iran during the time that the Shah's regime was collapsing, and I did work with his Secret Police. I really did live and work in Vienna when it was the spy capital of Europe. I tried to portray these fascinating times and places with accuracy, and to even mix in a little humor, too. The result is my first novel: Trapped in a Hall of Mirrors.

Excerpt from Trapped in a Hall of Mirrors:
One Saturday morning I was sitting in a local coffee house near my apartment enjoying some sweet pastries and coffee, and reading the International Herald Tribune. It was about the only English language newspaper I could easily find in Vienna and I really relished reading it. It had been providing news to American expatriates since the 1920s. Hemingway even mentioned it in his 1926 novel “The Sun Also Rises”. I felt very Hemingway-esque whenever I read it. It had become a ritual for me to have coffee and pastries along with the International Herald Tribune every Saturday morning.

The coffee house was crowded, as usual for this time of day. So, I wasn't all that surprised when an attractive young woman asked if she might join me at my table. She did so in English. I assumed she must have noticed my American newspaper.

She said with only a slight German accent: “Excuse me, may I join you?”

“Please do,” I replied, and rearranged the contents of the table to make room for her. She took off her winter coat and hung it up on a hook on the wall. She stuffed her woolen cap into one of its pockets.

She looked to be in her early twenties. She was extremely petite; probably not much over five foot two inches in height. She was dressed like a student with a black and white skirt, black tights, black winter boots, a colorful blouse, a tan leather vest, and she had short blonde hair. She had an extremely delicate figure and appeared quite feminine and very attractive. She was carrying a copy of one of the local newspapers, the Wiener Zeitung, and what appeared to be a large sketchbook. She placed them both on the table and hailed a waiter. She ordered just a coffee.

She then looked at me, smiled a radiant smile, and asked: “Are you an American?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Oh, I'm simply mad about everything American,” she said excitedly, and then gave a slight laugh.

“Oh, would that include me, too?”

She laughed more heartily now and said: “I'm sure it will.”

With that, it all started. She told me she was a German from Berlin and was studying architecture at the University of Vienna. She wished more than anything to move to the United States someday, probably to New York City. She was filled with questions regarding everything I could tell her about what life was really like in the US.

Like most Europeans she seemed to have absolutely no idea of just how large the US really was. She talked about a two-week trip she planned to take there next year that would need to cover impossible distances in that time frame. I tried to make her realize just how ridiculous her planned itinerary was, and she eventually laughed at what she then realized was her own naivety about the true size of the United States.

The more we spoke the more I found her to be charming, energetic, intelligent, very attractive - and very young. I was thirty-two, then. She told me that she was twenty-two. Her youthful energy and exuberance made me feel positively ancient.

She then told me: “I want to go to the Schoenbrunn Palace today and make some sketches of it. Have you been there?”

“Many times,” I said.

“Wonderful,” she positively gushed. “Would you be my guide? I've never been there before.”

Well, this was getting interesting. Was she really just looking for a little help? I was pretty old for there to be any romantic interest on her part. Did she have some ulterior motive? Did she think I would be able to somehow help get her to the US? Damn, I was getting so suspicious in my old age! Maybe she's just enjoying being with an American.

What exciting story are you working on next?
A sequel to Trapped in a Hall of Mirrors titled Funhouse Mirrors, which follows the further adventures of my protagonist, Stephen Connor, as he completes his assignment with the CIA Station in Vienna, Austria. There Stephen will act as a case officer running an agent inside the Bulgarian Embassy, and deal with a very important Russian defector who brings with him information that could result in an all-out war between the US and USSR. I've just finished the first draft of this book and am now in the editing phase. I hope to have it released for publication this fall.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I have been writing my entire life, although “Trapped in a Hall of Mirrors” is my first work of fiction. During my career working with the intelligence community and the Department of Defense, a large part of my work involved writing reports. These reports had to compellingly communicate complex information and issues in a very readable form. When I left the classified world of work, and became a management consultant, I still needed to write reports and recommendations that were clear, concise, and convincing. Over the years I refined my ability to do so. After retiring, I then translated these communication skills into the realm of creating fiction. Of course, I have been a voracious reader of both fiction and non-fiction books all of my life. This exposure to so many great writers certainly helped me in transitioning into a fiction writer. The results have been very gratifying. So far, all of the reviews of my first novel have been very positive.

Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I write every weekday for at least two hours. I average about 2,000 words a day.

Since I've retired, I also volunteer my time with a variety of local organizations. I'm a Patient Volunteer with the local Hospice, and visit Hospice patients in their homes. I'm the Firearms Docent (guide) at a local museum and lead tours of visitors, students, and teachers in the Firearms Gallery of the museum. I also volunteer at a local hospital. Finally, I compete in Action Pistol and Rifle matches in three states and have even shot in state championships. So, as you can see, I have a very busy retired life!

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I write sitting on my couch in my living room in front of a 55” HDTV that's connected to two different computers. I have my feet up on an ottoman, and use a Bluetooth keyboard on my lap to write and/or edit using these tools from this very comfortable position. It works extremely well for me, and although I look lazy, I'm really quite productive. (Note: I've included a picture of my writing using this setup)

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
An FBI agent. In college, I was a pre-law major so that I could either become a lawyer or use my law degree as an entree into the FBI. Alas, just like my novel's protagonist, the Vietnam War disrupted my plans, and so the both of us ended up working with the intelligence community instead.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
Life is wonderful if you are willing to take risks to fully live it. I have certainly been blessed with luck and good fortune, yet I also think that much of what I have accomplished has been due to a sharp focus on goals and plain old hard work. If you really want something, take the risk to actually work towards getting it and I think you will be amazed at what you can accomplish.

If you want to be a writer, then write! If you hate it, throw it away and write something else! You can only really learn how to write by actually writing.


Thanks for visiting today, Michael!

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