Monday, December 18, 2017

Interview with thriller author Heath Daniels

Novelist Heath Daniels helps me kick off the week. We’re talking about two of his thrillers, Three Kisses and Day of Judgment. The novels fall into categories that include international intrigue, adventure, diversity, tolerance and acceptance, and fast-paced action.

Heath Daniels is a pseudonym for a semi-retired university professor who began writing fiction seriously when approaching retirement. Because he continues to write and publish professionally, it is preferable to use a pseudonym so that readers of both his fiction and his professional writing are not confusing personas.

He grew up in the Southwest US in a family of modest means, working-class blue collar. He was definitely a “fish out of water”, but developed strong convictions about respect for others, their religions, ethnicity, race, and the greatness of diversity. Spiritual convictions developed below the surface, but did not emerge in full force until about the same time as becoming a committed writer of fiction that entertained but also subtly informed and conveyed his feelings.

Being the first in his family to attend a university while having parents and other extended family members who did not appreciate higher education, did not help the situation. It did start the focus on the need to use his brain and creativity, rather than manual labor, to develop a career. It’s a good thing he was “too smart for his own good”, as many family members described him, because otherwise he would not have been able to earn a living and support a family.

After a bachelor’s degree and a year working entry level in a profession, the universal draft of the 1960s was about to attempt to make him into a foot soldier. His adept efforts allowed him to enter the US Air Force as an officer in a professional “desk job”. Six years on active duty gave him the first significant opportunity to travel internationally with an assignment and travels throughout Latin America. Later continuing into the Air Force reserve while pursuing other career paths, he was assigned to Headquarters US Air Force in the Washington, DC, area which provided many insights that found their way into the books.

Meanwhile, pursuing a PhD and a career, while also raising a family, he put fictional writing on hold, but thoughts lingered in the back of his mind. Some 25 years later, his academic career took a major turn when he began taking positions internationally, wherever interesting job offers came his way. The positions in different European countries, and especially in the Middle East gave great insights into themes that found their way into the books. Some three years ago, he semi-retired and moved part-time back to the Southwest US where he grew up. Currently, he lives part-time in northern Europe and part time in the Southwest US, while devoting more time to fictional writing and also continuing work for a European university part time.

Welcome, Heath. Please introduce us to your novels.
Day of Judgment is the sequel to the first book Three Kisses, but is written to be read as a stand-alone story.

In Three Kisses, al Qaeda uses Russian medical technology to infiltrate an exact duplicate of a US Army officer of Arab-American descent for nefarious purposes. The doppelganger is discovered by a coincidence by a fellow colleague, a Marine Corps officer, who takes matters into his own hands rather than have his private life discovered. Two young Arab-American men of Yemeni descent are duped by a self-designated Muslim imam to cooperate in the plot, but are caught up. Action moves through Mexico, Cuba, and Iraq while US intelligence and law enforcement personnel unravel the plot.

In Day of Judgment, would-be terrorists infiltrate a mosque in the Washington, DC area as a base from which to silence US intelligence-gathering activities. They find willing young men among disaffected Palestinian-Americans, including two who have lived the good American life in bucolic southwestern Virginia, but had that life disrupted by local hoodlums. An unlikely group of a brilliant, young, Arab-American-Muslim attorney; an equally brilliant young Islamic theologian and University professor; the commander of U.S. Marine Corps guards at a sensitive location; a gay “middle American” Arabic language specialist; and a nurse and artist are brought together unwittingly to help unravel the plot. A select group of US intelligence and law enforcement personnel not only discover the perpetrators but also discover other Arab plots to foster unrest in the Middle East.

What inspired you to write these books?
As described further in the afterword to Three Kisses, in the 1980s while watching a TV program about the Soviet Union infiltrating a duplicate of a US Army officer into the US for nefarious purposes, the thought popped into my mind that this would make a good plot for a book. Family commitments and career put the idea out of my mind, but it lingered in the subconscious. Fast forward to New Years 2006, when I was living in the Middle East, the idea resurfaced with the change that al Qaeda would realistically be the perpetrator with the help of a Russian. The idea was kicking and screaming to come out and I would have no until I started writing. As time went by, the original theme from the old TV show became the thread that moved the plot along, but other inspirations popped into my mind to write a fictional story of intrigue, adventure, and action, but one that conveyed a message of diversity, tolerance, acceptance, and prevalence of good over attempted evil.

When I finished the first draft of Three Kisses, I thought my writing career was over. After all, I was no longer young. The characters from Three Kisses tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘you are not finished with us yet’. The result was Day of Judgment, a title with a double meaning of judgment by the U.S. judicial system as well as a major premise of Islam. Key characters, most of whom did not know each other before, moved up in their careers and lives and settled around Washington, DC. Along with other characters, they began unraveling another type of plot to infiltrate the US from the Middle East, and involve unwitting Arab-Americans. Again, intrigue, adventure, and action, but conveying a message of diversity, tolerance, acceptance and prevalence of good over attempted evil.

Excerpt from Three Kisses, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio:
That sure isn’t like Patrick, Frank thought as he finished. He’s so attached to Elsie he’d know to the minute when her plane’s due to land … and he bolted out of there without washing his hands.
[Frank] washed his hands, returned to his desk, got a cup of coffee, and sat up suddenly with a jolt, spilling coffee.
Wait!” he exclaimed to himself: That wasn’t Patrick. ….
He became aware they were staring at him as Felicia asked: “What’s wrong, Frank?”
He answered: “I just spilled coffee on my shirt, damn it. I’d better run wash it out before it stains.”
He rushed back to the men’s room saying to himself: Can think here a few moments. He pushed the liquid soap button, turned on the water, and began to wash the coffee stain with his fingers, thinking: That’s why answers don’t sound like Patrick. Someone’s taken his place and looks just like him. What’s he doing here? We’ve got lots of classified cutting-edge weapons systems under development. Is he after something classified? Yes, of course; he was in the classified safe. Did he torture Patrick to get the combination? Wait. No. He didn’t go until after I’d opened it. What’s Patrick working on? Maybe Termite, the deep penetrating tiny grenade to be used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Wait. Iraq. Afghanistan. Insurgents. God, al Qaeda’d love to get this. Al Qaeda? Arabs? Patrick’s Lebanese and Arab. They find some other Arab who looks like him? He can’t be on his own. A terrorist cell behind him? There’re sure enough activities on this base that lots of people’d like to get into. Foreign technology assessment unit’s a prime target; fighter planes and weapons the U.S. is reverse-engineering.
What now? Turn it over to Security Police or the Inspector General? What reason do I give? …. Tell ’em he’s acting funny and has classified material. Since when is it a security breach to act funny, especially if he has a cold?
Even if I’m right, Okinawa all over again. I report and I’m the one investigated. Didn’t find anything about me there except maybe a Japanese whore. Here they’d find lots. Not ready for career suicide even if I am pissed off at the Marines. Damn it, this’s a threat to the country; everything the family and I’ve stood for.
Won’t know what he’s up to unless I watch and follow, see where he goes. Wouldn’t do anything on base; must be taking it off-base. Must be driving Patrick’s car. Wouldn’t know my car unless he forced Patrick to tell. What’d he do with Patrick? Kill him? Dump him in the Miami River?
Call Fred. He’s a policeman. Take him out myself one-on-one if he’s unarmed, but what if he has back up? Wonder if he’s on duty today. Supposed to meet at the Serpent tonight, so not working then. Phone’s on my desk and can’t call from here. Find Patrick’s car, wait for this guy, and follow.
As soon as he went back to the office, he said: “I’ve got a meeting this afternoon and can’t go like this. I’ll have to go home and change shirts. I’ll take the things for the meeting and not come back until after, probably midafternoon.”
Felicia said: “See you later then.”
In the parking lot, Frank said to himself: Patrick’s car’s right up front where he usually parks. See if I can get my car closer ready to follow him.
After parking his two-year-old cream-colored Mercury Mountaineer nearby, he called and said: “Hey Fred, Frank; you on duty?”
“Need your help if you’re not too busy,” he continued.
“Someone’s made a double of a guy in my office and he has classified information; may be a terrorist,” he added.
“Yeah, sure, turn him in to the Security Police or IG,” Frank said with a smirk. “Might as well put on a pink uniform with a big sign saying I’m gay. Seriously, it’d be like Okinawa; the guy who reports gets in trouble.”
“In my car ready to follow him,” Frank continued.
He said. “Can you come quick? I may need back up.”
“Good,” Frank said, “your unmarked cruiser. Take 675 around Dayton towards the base. I’ll let you know where I am soon as something happens.”
“Great idea,” Frank concurred. “Luie usually works only mornings at the bakery and Paco’s off today I think.”
“See you soon!” Frank concluded.

Excerpt from Day of Judgment in Washington, DC:
After nightly news on television, Joe and Omar headed for their bedrooms. Suddenly they heard a loud noise.
Joe said: “Sounds like an explosion.”
Hearing sirens and seeing flashing lights of fire engines and ambulances out the window, Omar said: “It looks like over by 21st and R.”
Joe shouted: “How could I have been so stupid!”
“Huh?” Omar asked.
Joe replied: “I focused on explosives to bomb the NSA. He wanted them to set off in the bar.”
“Oh, shit!” Omar exclaimed.
“Remember Frank and Paco’re going there tonight with Brad and Jason,” Joe said putting on his winter coat.
Both rushed to the scene bundled for the clear cold night and were confronted by a policeman who said: “Sorry you can’t come any closer.”
Friends of ours were in there,” Joe said. “We want to get as close as we can to find out how they are.”
“I’m clergy in case I can help,” Omar added hastily.
“Oh, yeah,” the policeman said cynically. To Joe: “And who are you? The church secretary?”
“No,” Joe answered indignantly. “I’m a lawyer.”
“Oh, yeah,” the policeman continued. “You got ’em covered both ways. One saves their souls while the other gets their money and turns it over to the church.”
Joe retorted: “I work for a major U.S. government agency; I’m not in private practice. My friend here is an imam at the Islamic Center.”
The policeman asked: “What’re you doing here?”
“I’m an Islamic clergyman,” Omar said assertively. “I suspect not many Muslims were inside, but I thought I’d inform you I’m clergy as a courtesy in case I can help.”
Joe said: “I hope you’re not jumping to conclusions and engaging in ethnic profiling. We’re law abiding citizens who respect law and order. We expect to cooperate with the police.” Omar’s not a citizen, but oh well, he said to himself.
The policeman said: “Step aside. We’ll get you if we need you.”
Omar exclaimed: “That’s Frank!”
They moved closer watching EMTs load Frank’s stretcher into the ambulance. Paco, limping and with cuts on his face and neck, attempted to climb in.
One of the EMTs said out of Omar’s and Joe’s earshot: “Sorry, we’re using ambulances for those who can’t walk.”
“He’s my friend; I’ve got to be with him. He needs me and wants me,” Paco said pleadingly.
“Sorry,” the EMT said. “We make exceptions sometimes for close relatives and that’s not you.”
“But I’m a nurse; I can help,” Paco pleaded.
The other EMT said: “Hey, man, I understand; I have a boyfriend too, but rules are rules. Besides we really need the space for those who’re badly injured. If you’re a nurse, maybe give first aid to some others; we’re shorthanded.”
“That’s Jason,” Joe shouted.
“And that’s Brad,” Omar said seeing Brad with a large gash running down the side of his head and face.
Jason, too, attempted to climb into the ambulance and the EMT whispered into his ear.
He dejectedly said: “OK,” and walked away in a daze.
The female police officer saw him and directed him to the car with Chad and Paco.
Jason said to Paco: “You can’t go with Frank either.”
Paco muttered: “No.”
The car and ambulance with sirens blaring drove away.
Joe suddenly broke through the police line rushing to ask: “Where’re you taking them?”
“DC General,” she replied half shouting.
Joe quickly ran back to Omar and said: “Come on, we’re going to chase ambulances.”

What exciting story are you working on next?
The trequel has already been written and is being copy-edited with lots of tweaks. Many of the same delightful characters are brought forward a few years along in their lives and careers. They have moved to new locations that would be logical for the next phases of their lives. They were not attached to Washington, DC, in the first place. New characters come into their lives to deal with new challenges facing them. The issues of immigrants and refugees in the US are foremost and exacerbating in the midst of major political shifts in the country. Anti-Muslim sentiment also emerges as a theme. It should be available in 2018. Buy, read, and enjoy!

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
With hindsight, as a child in Junior High School (usually called middle school these days). From time to time, I fancied myself as a journalist and self-published very crude one-page “newspapers” to circulate. Later in university, in English classes that required writing papers, I wrote fictional short stories based on characters and the lore of the university campus. After a hiatus of many years, I finally came to view myself as a writer some ten years ago when Three Kisses came to life.

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?
No, not full time, but it is beginning to become more than just a part-time hobby. Because I am only semi-retired, I still do things for the university in Europe where I am professor emeritus, mostly collaborating on research writing and editing, all writing related, but a different type of writing. Also, I spend a fair amount of time traveling and just becoming a stereotypical retiree. Symphony concerts and theater take some of my time.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
Bringing life to characters. Creating their quirks, developing their personalities and involving them in activities and adventures.

Also bringing light onto otherwise obscure communities. All places, no matter how large or small, have much to offer and it is fun to describe them. Places like Russellville, Alabama; Lafayette, Virginia; Lackawanna, New York; Ruidoso, New Mexico, and upcoming Redwood, Texas.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A journalist. I worked three years on the high school newspaper. Growing up, I looked at schools that excelled in journalism, like the University of Missouri. Lack of parental support and finances, kept me to the university in my home town. It was a leading school in business administration, so circumstances took me there. As time went by, I repeatedly heard that accounting was about numbers. I always replied that not so. Accounting is about communication; the nearest other profession is journalism. Accountants prepare and communicate information, some of which is numerical. Like journalists but with more numbers. Not as much room for creativity as novelists, though.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
Please give me all of your thoughts, ideas, and feedback. I really like to hear readers’ thoughts and suggestions.


Thank you so much for being here today, Heath. All the best with your writing!

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