Thursday, March 12, 2015

Render Harmless - a Cold War thriller by Marc Liebman

Today I am hosting a fellow Fireship Press author, the wonderfully prolific Marc Liebman, whose erudition combined with imagination produced a whole series of authentic Cold War themed thrillers.  Today he joins us to discuss Render Harmless that was released about a year ago.

1. Your novel is a hefty 500+ pages.  Some publishers would recommend breaking it up into series.  And yet, Render Harmless is already a part of a series, book #2 in fact.

Actually, there are nine novels envisioned in the series.  The working titles are as follows listed in chronological order in terms of Josh Haman’s career:
·         CHERUBS 2 (which should be released in March or April 2015
·         BIG MOTHER 40 (Released in September, 2012)
·         RENDER HARMLESS (Released in March, 2014)
·         INNER LOOK (with Penmore Press, guesstimate is that it will be out in the fall, 2015)
·         MANPAD

All but MANPAD have been written.  Some of the manuscripts are closer to being ready to be sent to a publisher than others.  And, there could be more.

2. When people hear about the Cold War, they automatically think of the USA and the former USSR. Many forget that there were so many other players.  I wouldn't call them minor, because even someone inconspicuous can cause a lot of damage.  But there were the Basque separatists in Spain and the IRA in Ireland. 

I grew up in West Germany in the fifties and sixties.  At the time, there were many terrorist groups operating in Europe, the most famous ones were Brigate Rossi in Italy, IRA in Ireland and the U.K, ETA in Spain and Baader-Meinhof in Germany.  This doesn’t include Black September, Hamas, Hizbollah, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Fatah, Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, etc.

In the novel, Red Hand’s ideology was different than any of these because they were one part anarchist and one part National Socialist a.k.a. Nazi.  Add in support by Stasi and later in the book by Fatah, and you have a very evil mix, worse than any of the others I listed.

Along with the Palestinian groups, ETA, Baader-Meinhof, Brigate Rossi, the IRA were funded and supported (weapons, intelligence, documents, safe havens, etc.) by the NKVD nee the KGB or their proxies in East Germany or Bulgaria.  The IRA got a lot of money from the U.S. and Canada and some from the Soviets.  Money flowing from of the Arab states along the Persian Gulf also made its way to these groups as well as those that focused their attention on the plight of the Palestinians.  Don’t get me started on this subject!

3. There are so many unsophisticated, even cartoonish potboilers set against the backdrop of the Cold War.  How do you keep yourself a cut above them while maintaining broad appeal?

I think there are five elements in the stories that make them different and enjoyable to read.
·         The characters themselves are different and unusual people.  For example - post-war Germany was divided in many ways.  Many thought that Hitler wasn’t so bad.  Others found him to be really evil.  So there are characters in RENDER HARMLESS who represent these types of viewpoints.  The character Louis Ferman is a real person and I used his name because he had a major impact on my life. I had a friend in the Royal Navy who’s father regained his title in the same way John Osborne did!

·         The books are in the correct historical context.  What I do is spend the time to wrap the story around events that occur at the same time.  Throughout each book, there are historical details that readers should find interesting.

·         From a military viewpoint, the plots and details make the tactically and operationally correct.  I try to explain each term and put in context to help the casual reader understand what is happening.

·         The events/scenes have either come from my life/Navy career or from events I knew about, e.g. the scene in the Navajo in which they had a runaway heater.  That actually happened to me and we almost put the airplane in a farmer’s field because we were afraid it would blow up….  How we got the heater to cool down was what we figured out.  At the time, the Piper Operating Handbook solution to a runaway heater was pull the circuit breaker and turn off the switch!!!

·         The stories are told from both sides and there are real people doing real things for real reasons on both sides.  By doing this, I try not to stereotype characters.

4. You use references to military equipment, various firearm, plane and helicopter models.  I'm fairly savvy in that regard - for a girl - but some passages almost sound encoded.  Do you think an average reader knows what those items look like?  Do you think it would be helpful to create a visual glossary?

We took the glossary out of RENDER HARMLESS because we needed to get the page count down.  However, in both BIG MOTHER 40 and CHERUBS 2 and every other book I write, there will be a glossary.  As I noted in question 3, I try to put the terms in the context of the story and have them explained in dialog by the character.  It is not always possible to spend a couple hundred words explaining a term or concept.

I’ve discovered the most difficult thing to write for the layman are radio conversations that involve many different people.  Whether it is air-to-ground or air to air, the average layman doesn’t understand the basic structure of transmission/readback and terminology.  That’s problem one.

Problem two is that through radio communication, the crew or the people on the ground or both maintain what is known as situational awareness or SA.  Without SA, bad things happen, i.e. you drop bombs on the good guys, fly into mountains, etc., etc.

So, trying to give the reader the sense of all the moving parts that are going on it is a real challenge.  For example, in a combat rescue you have five major players – (1) the pilot who was shot down; (2) the helicopter coming to rescue the pilot; (3) the planes flying close air support for the rescue helicopter; (4) the on-scene rescue commander; and (5) the controllers in the airborne or ship based command and control center.  Every one of them has a role, everyone has to communicate and several of them are being fired upon at the same time, often by different weapons….  Net net, it can get confusing in a hurry.

As the author, I can oversimplify it so much that a knowledgeable reader will think, this is BS and the author doesn’t know what he is talking about.  Or, I can go a bit overboard and confuse the casual reader.  The right answer is someplace in the middle and it depends on the scene.  If given the choice, I lean toward providing more detail with context.

However, as I said in my answer to question number three, this operational detail which puts you in the pilot’s seat (assuming we are talking about a flying scene) is what makes my books exciting to read good .  The reader gets to share the experience, fear, emotion and humor.

5. In your acknowledgements you mention your wife Betty. The two of you have been married for four plus decades.  Congratulations on such a long stretch!  How long has Betty known of your dream to become an author?  And how long did you let your first novel ferment inside your head from conception to submission?

Betty has known about me wanting to become an author for years.  I’ve written freelance articles and been a magazine editor.  It doesn’t pay well!  Raising kids, working full time and restrictions on what I could write for publication all held me back.  My first attempt at a novel was started in 1988.  I never finished the book because I didn’t know what I was doing.  I tried again in 1993 and finished it.  I put it aside for about six months and re-read it.  It was O.K., but I didn’t know what to do to improve it.

Fast forward to 2006.  I decided that I was going to write a novel based on my experiences flying combat SAR and special operations in Vietnam.  So I created what became BIG MOTHER 40.  Since I was working full time, I wrote in hotel rooms, on planes and on Saturday and Sunday mornings.  Writing the first draft took me about a year.  Polishing, adding scenes, taking out passages, took another six months. 

By January, 2008, I started looking for an agent to rep the book.  I sent queries to 19 agents, five asked for the first 50 pages or three chapters and then the whole manuscript.  None decided to rep it.  When asked why not, they said they weren’t investing in new authors due to the recession and they were trying to understand what the e-book was going to do to their business model.

That’s when I started sending queries to small independent presses.  I lost almost a year because I signed a contract with a publisher who waffled back and forth as to whether or not they would publish fiction.  Finally, I told them either to publish it or release me from the contract.  About that time, through a friend, I found Fireship.  Toward the end, I knew I was going to get contracts from two presses, but Fireship came through first and I signed the contract for BIG MOTHER 40 on Valentines Day, 2011.

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