Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Novel Road Interview: Greatest Hits

      
This interview cracked me up. It was the first of The Novel Road interviews. If you never had a chance to read it, now's your chance.

  The best thing about these interviews was the "Sure, I'd love to do your interview" from authors, agents, editors and publishers I admire. When an author like Brian Haig says yes to an interview, it's like Christmas in November. Think of it. I get TWO Christmas'... Actually I get 32 Chistmas' - 31 interviews and one regular old Christmas. What makes it so special to interview these talented people? It's because I can't wait to see their answer to my questions. What will they be like? Will they give me half hearted answers, or worse still, will a publicist be doing the answering while the real author is in Tahiti? How will I know I'm getting the real thing? I mean, after all, Brian just released another bestseller "The Capital Game", so why would he make the time?

     When you read Brian Haig's answers, you'll why. You will also know that his character Sean Drummond is alive and well and visiting The Novel Road today.


    First, a little bit about this extraordinary man from his website...


        "Brian Haig spent 22 years on active duty before retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1997 and going into private business. He graduated from West Point in 1975, and was commissioned an infantry lieutenant. His first posting was an infantry battalion in Germany guarding Pershing Missiles, followed by three years as an infantry company commander at Fort Carson, Colorado, before he was selected as an intern at the Organization of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, working in the Current Operations Directorate on the Lebanon peacekeeping operation.

        The Army sent him to Harvard for a master's degree and a specialty in military strategy. For the next three years he was the global strategist on the Army staff, responsible for helping formulate the regional warplan for Southwest Asia, and the global warplans against the Soviet Union, translating military requirements into the DOD budget, and advising the Army's senior leadership on global issues. After a tour in a Bradley battalion in Germany, he transferred to Seoul where he spent three years as the Special Assistant to the Commander-in-Chief of the United Nations Command and Combined Forces Command, the commander of all American and Republic of Korea forces in Korea, where his duties included drafting a new theater warplan, and devising a new military strategy regarding North Korea for the post-Cold War era.

       His final four years on active duty were as the Special Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, preparing all speeches, briefings, public statements, and congressional testimonies, as well as advising the Chairman on strategic, global and Asian regional issues.

      After he retired in the Summer of 1997, he became a Director, then President of Erickson AirCrane, manufacturer and operator of the world's largest heavy helicopter fleet, and then spent a year as President of International Business Communications, a B2B internet company for the sale of aviation parts.

      His first novel, Secret Sanction, was published in the Summer of 2001, and was a national and Washington Post bestseller. His second novel, Mortal Allies, was released in Spring 2002; his third, The Kingmaker, in January 2003; and his fourth, Private Sector, in September 2003. Secret Sanction has been optioned by Nicholas Cage and his production company for a future motion picture. He now writes full-time, and works as a Fox News Military contributor.
He has a Bachelor of Science from the United States Military Academy, a Masters in Public Administration from Harvard, and a Masters in Government from Georgetown University. His military awards include Airborne wings and the Ranger tab, two Legions of Merit, and the Distinguished Service Medal.


     He lives very happily with his wife and four children in New Jersey."

                                 

I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did! 

                                                       

Me:  What was the first thing you ever wrote that told you "I can do this"?

Brian Haig

Brian:  I wouldn't say it was anything I wrote.  I read a few big bestselling books by other authors, and they were so dreadful, I said, "Hey, I think I can do better than this goombah ... or at least as badly."  And the more I talk to other authors the more I learn that they shared that same experience.  Of course, you have to be careful and not name the books because their book might be the one that lured you into the trade.  But thinking it and actually doing it are obviously different things.  Now, every time I meet a new author and they say something like, "I read all your books.  Man, they were the inspiration that brought me into writing," I just smile, knowingly.  Life is funny.  It always comes full circle.

Me: Talk about editing your first book.  When did you know to stop?
Brian:  It's a little like that old joke: I love slamming my head against the wall because it feels so good when I stop.  But the truth is, like most novice writers, I didn't edit that first one nearly enough.  I had a strong theme, and a compelling story in mind, and I just raced through it. It took about 3 months, start to finish.  Oh sure, there were a few regrettable mistakes that I missed--one character had thick, connected eyebrows that were described as perpendicular to his lips, for example.  And a lot of really helpful readers made sure to bring that to my attention in emails.  That, however, wasn't the big problem.  The big issue is, I wasn't critical enough about things like dialogue and character development, the stuff rookie writers often get wrong. 
Now, here's the thing: that first book has to be great.  Don't let this scare you; though it should.  First, it has to run that ugly gauntlet of agents and editors.  Second, it has to flirt with your publisher so much that it entices them to spend a big gob of money on that first date--money in advances, money for marketing, cash for publicity.  And then it has to convince readers to spend their kid's college education on your future books.  So edit until blood runs out your forehead.

Me: Tell us about your agent and why the match is perfect.
Brian: Well, you have to understand that we met on a blind date.  A friend of mine was in New York at a fancy dinner, and was seated beside a beautiful blonde lady, who, in the course of conversation, mentioned that her husband was a book agent.  So my opportunistic friend mentioned that he had a friend out in Oregon who had just finished a manuscript, and being a very nice lady, she didn't throw up in his lap, but instead said, have your friend mail it to my husband and I'll make sure he looks at it.  I mailed it the next day and, coincidentally, her son had just hung up his guitar after years cavorting around America with a rock band, and started work with his father.  It was his first day. So this manuscript rolls in with a nasty maternal favor tag on it. And the boss of the Agency hands it to his son and probably looking somewhere between pained and guilty, and somewhat relieved, says something like, "Your wonderful mother did it again.  Be sure to include a few merciful comments in the rejection letter."
Fate is funny.  Anyway, Luke turned out to be all that, and a bag of chips.  What makes him a great agent?  The same stuff that makes a great friend, which he now happens to be.  He's loyal, he's honest, he's punctual, and he's a great businessman, which is important because I'm greedy.  He is brilliant and witty and charming and well-mannered, all of which is important because I'm not.  After all, somebody has to be pleasant and likeable when you're meeting with publishers.  Also, he's hard-wired to be well-humored and nice which is another important quality, because most writers are neurotic, insecure ninnies, and I'm not putting myself above my fellow craftsman.  Writing, like beauty pageants, is putting your talent up on the block, nearly naked on full display.  And while most critics are probably nice people around their families and neighbors, they change when they get a book to review: how fun it is to show the world they're smarter and more discerning than the stupid writer.  The agent has to pick up the pieces afterward and say insincere yet inveterately optimistic things like, "Oh, what do they know?" or my favorite, "Let's see them write a book," as if that matters.  Luke does all that more sincerely than most.
Me: You show a tremendous connection to your subject matter, as evidenced by your crisp dialogue and characters.  Talk about your research.
Brian:  Thank you, Doug.  Actually, I've had a fairly adventurous life, so research hasn't been much of a problem, yet.  I was a career army officer.  I lived overseas nearly fifteen years, traveled voraciously, three tours in the Pentagon, and the Army let me do things I never even dreamed of when I was a young sprig at West Point.  Afterward I was the president of two companies where I got some insight into the business world, although not expertise, which is why I am now writing books.  You know what they say; those who can, do. Those who can't write about it.  For further proof, read the New York Times editorial page. 
So far I've been able to draw on those experiences.  Also the internet is an amazing tool for facts and esoteria.  Besides, it's fiction; the whole point is to make stuff up.
Me:  I'm a huge fan of your novels.  Sean Drummond is an incredible character.  After six books with Sean, Alex Konevitch and Jack Wiley appear.  How much of a gamble is it to create a new character?  Did 'first novel' release nerves appear when you unveiled Alex and Jack?" 
Brian: Again, Doug, thanks.  That's very kind.  Here's the thing.  I love to write.  And I particularly enjoy books that are funny, or at least witty, so that's the kind I try to write.  The Drummond books are first-person.  So that's one kind of writing, one kind of perspective, one kind of humor.  Drummond is the congenital American wiseass  I'd like to believe he's very funny, and thus, his sarcastic asides and insistent manly flaws lend personality to the plot.  Third person is a very different kind of challenge.  It's a totally different style, one that allows a broader perspective, and faster pacing, but also enforces a separation between the reader and the character.  I really wanted to tackle it, and along comes my friend, Alex, with a real-life story just begging to be told.  If you've read The Hunted, which is inspired by his true story, you know what he experienced was truly a whopper of a tale.  Was I nervous or concerned about moving away from Drummond?  No, I'm not all that bright.  Besides I have very nice readers, like you.  Then I had read so many news stories about companies profiteering and trying to rip off the Department of Defense while we're fighting two wars, that I really wanted to do a book around it.  And if you've read Capitol Game, you'll understand why it had to be written in third person. So The Hunted and then Capitol Game required me to adopt a new style of writing--how to unroll a plot without losing the wittiness that I think my readers enjoy.  So it's a different kind of wit. More subtle, more sly, more satirical than Drummond's corrugating tongue.  Some Drummond fans didn't like it; most did. 

Me: After three strong male characters, are you thinking about a strong female protagonist?  If so, please describe her for us.
Brian: I have to be very careful here. One of the things reading has taught me is that real men don't write real women all that well--or vice versa.  I mean, when I read a female author presenting a male protagonist, the guy just ends up too sensitive, too caring, too introspective to feel genuine; you know, like how women wish men were.  Alas, that's not how the creator made us--we're pigs.  Shallow pigs, actually.  We love boxing and football: we think they're beautiful and graceful.  We know Nicholas Sparks is a pussy.  Hugh Hefner, for us, is right up there alongside Picasso and Rembrandt for them; he's an artist for Godsakes. Why can't they see that?  And male writers tend to create these idealized women who are needy, a damsel always in need of a good manly rescue, the weaker, fairer, more squeamish sex.  Or they go too far with opposite strokes, and create a rugged, crotch-scratching he-man trapped in heels and a short skirt.  There are mysterious subtleties to each sex that tend to elude the other. That's what makes it interesting.  Also dangerous.  I mean, over fifty percent of marriages end in divorce, and God knows how many that stay together are suffering mutually-inflicted PTSD, which is a warning about how well we know each other.
I always try to include a female in my books.  I approach it the same way I do fire.  Or maybe the same way I got through two years of calculus in college; I didn't really understand it, I just regurgitated the derivative and differential formulas and prayed they fit the situation. Like throwing darts in the dark.
But would I try to build an entire novel around a woman protagonist?  Sure, I'd love to.  I'd also like to find the cure for cancer and the secret to world peace.
Me: This question courtesy of Jeff Hall: "I'm a short story-ist.  Writing a novel is a like crazy long marathon, only harder.  How do you maintain a clear sense of that first passion that inspired you throughout a lengthy word journey?"
Brian: Well, Jeff, in a word, greed.  It just so happens that my selfish stingy publisher withholds the final check until I'm done.
Okay, that was a joke ... or not.  In truth, I have found it harder to keep the stories as short as they are.  I'm lazy, you see, and it was a huge revelation when an editor once advised me, you know it's easier for you to edit a 100,000 word transcript than a 200,000 word one. Ever since then I've kept looking for ways to be more clever, more artful, more economically concise.  John Grisham is a master at this.  He can tell you more about a character in a paragraph than most writers tell you in a chapter.  The key is not insulting your reader.  Don't tell them too much.  Construct the right phrase and assume they are worldly enough to fill in the details. 
I think it is impossibly hard to write a short story.  So much to get done in so few words.  I used to be a speechwriter and I spent far more time trying to think up a memorable one-minute toast to the prime minister of Japan than a full-blown forty minute speech for a college graduation.  What I'm saying is, that short-story thing, I don't know how you do it.  I really don't.

Me: You get to have lunch with any author, throughout literary history to present.  Who would it be, and why?
Brian:  Were I more erudite--or more out to impress you--I suppose I'd puff pompously on my pipe and suggest Henry James or Hemingway or JD Salinger. You know, someone who walked upright into the canon of literary greatness.  But why lie?  I know this is heretical and culturally scabby, but I think most of the famous dead guys we had to read in school wouldn't get past a modern publisher's turnstile.  They were too wordy, too didactic, not clever or entertaining enough.  Shakespeare and Homer and Twain are magnificent exceptions, naturally.  Good writing should entertain and communicate first, and impress second.  Anyway, I'm not sure any of the ones I mentioned would be fun guys to have to lunch with.  Henry James invented the snobbish bore and would probably order something embarrassing and French, like fois gras, then ripple his nose when I ordered a big fat greasy cheeseburger, which, to me, is the pinnacle of Western Civilization.  Hemingway had some obnoxiously disturbing manhood issues, and would probably stick me with the bill and brag to all his macho buddies about it.  As for JD Salinger, I'm probably one of the phonies he railed about in his book. We did go to the same private school, the very one he wrote about running away from in Catcher in the Rye.  Hell, I liked it there.  I fit right in, too.
But I would like to have, not a full lunch, but two minutes with Keats, just long enough to break his nose for composing Ode to a Grecian Urn, which once caused me to get an 'F' in the eleventh grade, because not only did I not understand a word this rhymy goombah was jabbering about, I just couldn't believe that anybody wrote a poem to a kitchen pot.  My paper, if I remember right, was titled Ode to an Idiot. 
So I'd probably pick an amalgam, sort of like Two-face in the batman series--half Nelson DeMille and half Vince Flynn.  Both are great guys and charming company.  Nelson is as funny and interesting in person as his characters are in his books.  Plus, he's very, very smart and generous; ie, now there's a guy who would pick up the bill.  And Vince is just an all-round class act.  Nobody, and I mean, nobody does more to help new writers break into the business than these two, and that says something.
And I can't get enough of their books, albeit for very different reasons.  Vince is a master plotter.  He has points he wants to make, large, bold points about politics and national security and he's incredibly well-read and smart as hell, and he weaves those points into his plots in immensely entertaining ways.  Nelson also tackles large issues and powerful themes, but the topic of human character, human foibles and ambiguity, are more central to his books. Put the three of us together and we could have a really neat conversation about knitting and laundry detergents.
The only dilemma is how would you meld those two--horizontally or perpendicularly?  Seriously, both of them would wretch if he ended up on the left.  But who'd get the top and who the bottom? 
It's too weird to even think about. Next subject.

Me: The publishing world is changing. Share your thoughts on what you think the future holds for authors.
Brian: About that, I'm not hopeful.  The major issue is consolidation--both in the shrinking number of publishers, and in the outlets that sell books.  While there are the occasional success stories about self-publishing, people also win lotteries.  For the most part it is impossible to compete with the marketing clout and shelf domination of the big houses.  Less publishers simply means less chances to get published.  They are businesses and they want the safe thing, the sure-fired bestseller which nearly always means the same guy who made the list last year, and the year before.  Nor is it necessarily their fault.  The traditional routes for marketing books are drying up.  Advertising costs too much money for such a low-margin business, unless the return is almost guaranteed to be enormous--in other words, a perennially huge bestselling author.  The free advertising route, via book reviews in newspapers and magazines are disappearing.  And the few that remain seem are an echo gallery--if Martin Amis or Margaret Atwood or Michael Chabon scribble on a napkin, reviewers all jump on it like flies on ... well, you get the point.  Independent bookstores are like unicorns.  Even Borders and Barnes and Noble are at risk of extinction, or at least a major hair cut.  The big discount retailers are taking over the selling business and believe me, that's not good for new writers.  The Walmarts and Sam's Clubs only stock maybe 20 or 30 fiction titles, not on merit, but the promise of huge sales, meaning previously bestselling writers, which is, of course, naturally self-fulfilling.  And ditto for kiosk sales in airports and train stations and drug stores, where again, they stock only 20-30 titles, and naturally, they tend to be the same ones you find in Sam's Club.  So if you're a new writer, without an established name, it's pretty bleak. 
That's why we see more and more celebrity-authored books on the market these days. If a writer has a carry-over fanbase and a backdoor pass to Larry King and the Today show, it's worth the freight in marketing costs.  It used to be that the perennial bestsellers had the courtesy to eventually die, and make room for others.  But on an even more macabre note, now the publishers just hire living writers to continue the books of dead authors, which puts a really perverse twist on the phrase ghost-writers.
Incidentally, this is really weird, but I just thought I should take this opportunity to mention that Steig Larson's writing and mine are eerily alike.  It's ... well, he comes to me in my dreams, and I know exactly what he wanted to write for his fourth book.  Just thought I should mention it.
Me: You're going to be co-writing two books with Vince Flynn.  It's becoming more and more common among established writers to co-write.  Why?
Brian:  The fad flows directly from what we discussed in the last question.  The big bestselling authors are a brand name in themselves.  Some, like Jim Patterson, are now virtually publishers unto themselves, and it's a lock--slap Jim's name on the cover, even 7 or 8 or 10 times a year, and it shoots right to the top of the list.  I should hate him for his disgusting success but I know how hard he works to keep up with that kind of production.  Yes, he has a brood of talented co-writers but I think his involvement in the books is a lot greater than most people suspect.  And incidentally, I just read that he made $78 million last year. That's fairly motivational, don't you think?
In Vince's and my case, we think it's fun.  Writing is a naturally solitary experience and it's a welcome break to have company.  Vince is a friend and I really enjoy his company and admire his writing.  We also 'click', if I may use that trite phrase.  Vince adores the Marine Corps, but that perversity aside, we agree on most things.  He told me he always wanted to start a second series, but he was worried that his Mitch Rapp series would suffer if he did, and he doesn't want to shortchange his readers.  I happen to be a really, really fast writer with a lot of time on my hands. 
The only unsettled issue is whose picture goes on the back cover. My position is we use his likeness and slap my name underneath it.  It's a good deal for both of us, really.  He gets a shorter name to sign into hotels with.  I get to be tall, dark, and really handsome.
Me:  Can you give me your 'must read' list
Brian:  Nelson DeMille, John Grisham, John Sandford, Vince Flynn, Elmore Leonard, and Henry James on the fiction front.  James is there because I sometimes have a difficult time falling asleep, and he's better than Ambien.  On the nonfiction side, everything by David Halberstam who got almost everything wrong, but did so with great certainty and a fine pen; and Joseph Ellis who got in trouble for making up things about his own life, but does much better with the forefathers; and David McCullough, who must live in musty archives, but the stuff he digs out definitely is worth reading.  I read the New York Times every morning so I can spit out my coffee, Time and Newsweek every week but I'm not sure why, Foreign Affairs (actually I just look at the pictures), the Economist (the best .. seriously), and The New York Review of Books, which I keep by the breakfast table as a substitute for the Heimlich Maneuver.  So it's all a nice mix of pleasure and casual masochism.

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       I'd like to thank Brian Haig for his time, and above all his humor. His newest novel "The Capital Game" is currently riding the New York Times Bestseller List and long may it stay there. This book should be on everyone's "Must read" list.