FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Where did the idea for Wasted come from?
Years ago, my job entailed reading the newspaper every morning for ideas that might become long radio news stories. At the time, the drug trade flourishing in south Florida was wide open, and more than a few young, college educated non-criminal types viewed it as a quick way to get rich. Colombia was the mother lode of great marijuana at that time, and Miami was the place to sell it off to distributors. This was prior to the major gangs taking control of trafficking. I read one article after another about these bold and foolish adventurers who were caught or killed trying to run a load of pot into the southeast for an easy fortune. They viewed it largely as a business venture with some extra risks. I viewed it as a dangerous crime. Some made it and made a name for themselves; many did not.
So how did you get from those factual events to fiction?
A co-worker and I started speculating how these people got involved in drugs and how they might go about pulling off a run to South America. The problem seemed to me to be making the connection for the buy down there and then the sell up here. These people were willing to take risks, but I doubt if many knew what they were getting into. A main character who is in way over his head is a good main character. So it went from there.
Did you know how it would begin and end before you started?
Oh yes. The Atlanta night-life scene was a perfect place to spawn this kind of caper, and the kind of characters who would get sucked into it. At the time, I knew people who would seriously consider making a run of this type. Like Jack Player, they'd have thought of it as a personal business decision of no great consequence rather than an incredibly dangerous and morally bankrupt thing to do.
On the serious side, the book runs on themes of greed, loyalty, and desperation. Themes require payoff. These are characters who think making a run for a quick score is a great idea that will solve all their problems, and of course, underlying that is the metaphor of drug use as a way to avoid the most difficult and central problems of our lives, the ones that few people every truly resolve.
How did you come up with the title, Internal Security?
That title is a word play on two major themes of the novel. The first is that emotional strength, or internal security, is essential for an individual to tackle life’s harshest challenges. To exercise character when it really counts takes a certain amount of self-assurance, an inner strength that comes from weathering adversity. In this case, the main character is a reporter who must summon all his reserves to report an unpopular story that most citizens would just as soon ignore. Secondly, internal security is the phrase used to refer to national security when a nation state faces threats from within.
Is there a message in that novel that you want readers to grasp?
Certainly, I hope readers grasp several messages in reading the book. First and foremost is that of the epigram, that when a major injustice is committed, the victim is not the only one who suffers loss of humanity. The one who commits the injustice also is diminished, made wretched by his own actions. In America, we are responsible for what our government does. As a free society, turning a blind eye does not make injustice okay and it doesn’t make injustice go away. Sometimes, it’s our duty to stand up and oppose a wrong, especially if taking that stand is unpopular.
How much of Internal Security is realistic?
This book is mostly realistic. It veers off that path only when the main character survives a few harrowing spots and faces less severe consequences for actions than he would in real life. For example, he is briefly imprisoned for a significant security violation that would typically keep him in jail for years. Occasionally, the need for action requires that some things happen faster than they would normally. Also, I have one evil character who exceeds the normal boundaries of realism. But then, don’t most villains?
If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in that book?
I wouldn’t change much about this story. I felt it necessary to keep it moving at a fast pace and to sacrifice detail at times. Details that add texture and depth to characters appeal to me personally, and usually I write that way, but it was necessary to make this book read more quickly and stay under one hundred thousand words because the story is so broad in scope. One day I’d like to have the luxury of doing a massive work with far more character development in which length is not a concern.
What was the hardest part of writing it?
The hardest part of this book was dealing with the brutality of the acts done by our own government in the name of national security and the relative indifference of our citizens to that brutality. So many Americans choose to ignore the reality of our security activities throughout the world, such as our involvement in secret prisons and black operations, all of which we implicitly support through silence. Real people get hurt in the real world, and I didn’t want to treat that pain our government sometimes inflicts as an easy thing to dismiss or as an inconvenient sideshow.
Think of the euphemism, “collateral damage.” What an inhuman mangling of honest language that phrase is. People get blown to bits or burned to a crisp when zealots with weapons are given free reign. No matter what uniform they wear or what cause they serve, brutes who trample over non-combatants and abuse innocent civilians are still brutes. They just plain don’t care about other people and those lives; don’t care about the damage they do. Every time a fanatic, or a President, says “let’s go to war” and we acquiesce without serious forethought or debate, lives are ruined.
Another euphemism this book challenges is “water boarding.” It's not “water boarding”—it is drowning. The act is literally drowning a fellow human being to a point just short of death, and doing it over and over again, thinking it produces a positive result. It doesn’t. Any information it produces is dubious at best. It destroys bodies and minds in the worst possible way and there is no true justification for that. The consequences are real and ruthless, and they are often visited upon the most helpless among us who want no involvement in causes or geopolitics. It is self-serving to think that these terrible practices are only performed on bad people. The facts prove otherwise.
As for writing about this topic, every book with serious intent takes an emotional toll to write, and this one was no exception.
Did you learn anything from writing this book and what was it?
Every book, every story, I learn more about humanity and how I perceive the world. I also learn more about my own inclinations as a writer and how I can deliberately break through limitations by hard work and imagination. The writer’s brain is a limitless thing and we are always able to exercise it in ways we never thought possible. The process is magic itself. Endlessly fascinating.
Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
My interest in writing goes all the way back to my teenage years. I first published at eighteen—a poem in a university literary magazine and I never looked back. I remember very clearly the day I decided to write this book. I was reading a thriller by an extremely successful writer, and the book advocated unrestrained violence and murder by a security agent if he even assumed it might be in the nation’s interest. I put the book aside in utter dismay that so many of my fellow citizens have come to accept this type of action, and fiction, as legitimate national policy.
Sorry, but that’s just comic book stuff.
If you believe it is okay for our country to allow that, then you condone the worst actions by the worst people in history. Hitler thought he was killing and maiming all those people in his country’s best interest, as did Stalin and Mao. The people who were tortured and died under those leaders still suffered pointlessly, just because someone with power thought they should. And the minions who committed those heinous acts were destroyed also. You can’t shoot or torture or burn someone in the name of anything without also damaging yourself. The act itself is self-destructive and soul destroying. Talk to any war-ravaged veteran and you’ll learn that quickly. Yet a whole body of comic book style fiction attempts to glorify and romanticize the perpetrators of such acts as heroes. They’re not heroes. They are tools and victims of a misguided national policy. It’s not “water boarding”; it is drowning. It’s not “enhanced interrogation”; it is torture. Brutality in the name of anything is still just brutality when you cut through the explanations.
Who is your favorite author and what is it that strikes you about their work?
Trying to nail my favorite author is pretty near impossible. There have been so many writers through the years who have captivated me for extended periods of time and then I move forward in life and discover others who speak more directly to me at a particular moment. From Fitzgerald to Lawrence to McCarthy, the list goes on. Currently, I’m drawn to the work of Dennis Lehane—not his earlier detective stuff, but his best stand alone works, which are wonderful. The honesty of Larry Brown was always arresting and distinctive, and I wish he'd lived longer. Mary Hood writes a spectacular short story.
Overtly literary work is less and less interesting to me over time, because so much of it now is about stylistic fireworks. It seems too much of writers showing off for the sake of showing off. I still love most everything I re-read by Hemingway and Steinbeck. Some of the recent work by Stephen King is very good. I don’t like the horror genre which makes him too easy to dismiss, so I didn’t read him for years and years, but his command of characters at this stage of his career is truly something.
Tell us your latest news.
Getting my books out there and making people aware of them is my main focus right now, and it takes a great deal of time and energy to promote a work if you’re not well known, and I’m not. I like to think my books deserve a wide audience, but only readers can decide that and make it happen. I hope people appreciate them enough to create word of mouth.
Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
Right now, I most want to gain a larger audience, same as every writer. Though I’ve been writing my entire adult life, all that work hasn’t yet translated into widespread awareness. It’s such a slow process to build a following and a career in this field; we’d all like to find a way to speed up the whole thing. I just want more people to know about my writing and give it a try. If a reader enjoys what they read, I trust they’ll recommend it and pass it on to their friends and family. I’m not the best at promotion and publicity. Let’s hope the novels I write do a better job at getting known than I do.
Do you advise writers to try the traditional route to publishing, such as querying agents and publishers? Or do you recommend the new avenues like Amazon and Print on Demand?
I spent too many hours of my life chasing the traditional literary magazines and the corporate publishing way of doing things, and so much of that effort was largely wasted. Sending queries and manuscripts to people who won't read them is just plain foolish. When a prestigious magazine or publisher receives tens, or even hundreds of thousands, of submissions per year, you won't be read. It's that simple. The world of big New York publishing is a world of personal connection, not a level playing field. The plain fact is, that world is not open to new or unconnected writers, which is about 99% of us. Once you get there, if you get there, it’s like arriving at an empty station. You discover the destination was not worth the trip.
It took me a long time to realize that the New York route means you sacrifice too much creative control of your work. You give up your ownership rights, and you lose too much of the earnings that should rightfully be yours. Most importantly, you sacrifice too much of your most precious commodity--time--in chasing people who are supposedly influential enough to boost your career. They aren't that influential and they won't help you. It is not about whether the work is good; it's about the money involved for the corporate owners and insiders. All in all, they charge too high a price for the ticket to that station. If you accept one of those extraordinarily one-sided contracts they force on writers these days, then you've paid way too much for a few inches of shelf space for a few weeks.
What about the option writers now have to publish at Amazon or elsewhere and opt for electronic distribution instead of print in bookstores?
I’m excited there is finally a real alternative. Developments in bookselling online are truly--forgive the cliche--revolutionary. Today, about half of all books sold, paper and digital, sell through Amazon. That is the biggest change in bookselling in at least a century. It's foolish to ignore that fact. Once you cut through all the bull about the threat to booksellers and to the culture of curated publishing, what remains is a sea change in the way people buy and read books. It doesn't matter whether I don't like it or you don't like it. It just is. And all that comes from a guy who still prefers to shop in a store and hold paper when he reads. Truthfully, the giant New York publishers and the chain bookstores don't deserve your concern or your loyalty. They're not saving culture or serving local communities. They are just business-crazed entities who don't give a damn about writers or readers.
So the traditional New York houses are no longer the best way to go?
It's not as if you have a choice of one or the other. I repeat, today the Big Houses won't give you a moment's thought unless everything about you and your work is perfect for them at a given moment. You must have a great connection or recommendation from an insider, notable representation from a major agency, a willingness to do absolutely everything their way, the right topic at the right moment. You must be a perfect match for an open slot on their annual list, and most importantly, you must be able to make a lot of money for them. Plenty of bad books see daylight in New York, because someone thinks there is money to be made, and only a small percentage of that dough goes to the writer, without whom there would be nothing to sell.
I chased the New York houses and avoided smaller and regional ones for a long time, because I thought distribution by the large houses was the only way to get read widely, which was true years ago. But doing it that way eats time—years in fact. We all have only a finite amount of it, and I got tired of wasting time on them. I’ll never waste another hour writing a fruitless query letter or waiting months, or even years, on responses from people who already have too much of a good thing on their plate. The sheer lack of professional courtesy offered by the old route is enough to drive any self-respecting writer into the Amazon camp. Unfortunately most writers are so beaten down by the time they get an opportunity, they are no longer self-respecting. They are so desperate they'll take any deal that's offered.
Occasionally someone breaks through--and that's literally one among thousands--and that writer is held up as an example of how great the system works for those with determination and talent. Sorry, but it's more a matter of luck and timing, things beyond your control. An honest agent will tell you this. Most won't.
So you don't care much for agents either?
It's not that there aren't some good agents. It's that you're overwhelmingly sealed off from them, because that's the way they want it. Most writers think it's about whether their work is good enough, or not. That's the wrong way to look at it. It's about how much money you can make them. Take a look at the website comments of agents and publishers today, and you'll hear the word "platform" over and over. They say you have to have a "platform" to merit representation and publishing by an important press. The translation of that is you need to have sold significant numbers of books on your own and you already have built a fan base. Then they'll talk to you. In plain writer language: "If you can make us money, then we'll talk. If not, you can't come to the party." Unless you are extremely successful and need help negotiating deals in the millions, you don't need an agent anymore, so why ask for unnecessary abuse?
What advice would you give a new author just entering into the publishing arena?
Do what's best for you, not someone else. Accept what you can do with it and what you can’t. Your options with the big houses, and even many of the small ones, are not very good. You’ll have to give up a great deal of self-determination to get them to pay attention to you. And all you’ll get for that is a few inches of a few bookstore shelves, for a few weeks.
Make the choices and take the steps you need to take to advance your own work—and don’t cede those decisions to someone else and assume they’ll act in your best interest. They won’t.
The sweet sense of relief that comes from controlling your own affairs is tremendous. Taking control of your own career and making decisions for yourself, rather than submitting that control to others is liberating in a way that brings an exhilarating freedom. I’ve never, in my entire life, gained anything from allowing corporations to control my destiny. I’ve only made steps forward by taking them myself. A few years ago, publishing outside the big houses was a minefield, because you were denied distribution in bookstores. Today, you can sidestep bookstores. Distribute on the internet where half of all books are sold. It’s no longer a minefield--it is the Fertile Crescent.