Q. What was the seed? What made you write this novel?
A. The concept for Smoke came to me some years after the war in the 1970s between the FBI and elements of the mafia controlling the stevedoring industry on the East Coast. An employee of ours, who turned out to be a soldier for a mafia capo, disappeared. The word was he’d assisted the FBI, and they’d put him into the witness protection program to save his life.
I wondered what would happen if one day someone in his situation got an anonymous letter that said only, ‘I know who you are’. What would his life become? Particularly if the anonymous antagonist began to use fear of disclosure as a tool to manipulate him into a really, really bad situation.
Q. But the mafia doesn’t figure in Smoke.
A. No. But the witness program, and the menace of rogue bureaucratic power does. And what if the man in the witness program was a foster child with no living biological parents, or other relations, but did have brains and grit? How would he handle it? From that thought the plot just took off.
Q. So you intended identity to be the prevailing theme from the start?
A. Yes. Identity is fascinating to me and I suppose everyone who’s given it a second thought. This fit very well with the letter idea, since the poor guy who gets the anonymous letter doesn’t even have an identity anymore – or at least not one he can admit to. How much of who you are is what your are? And…, what would it be like? Alone, isolated, exposed suddenly to a vicious, invisible, threat -- violent death probably imminent. I have met people, adults, who have come to understand that they’ve lost their sense of identity, under far less dire circumstances.
Q. There are two wonderful women in Smoke. Did you model them after anyone you know, or know of?
A. Not really. I just like women. The two you’re talking about are no doubt composites of women I have known, and I hope I did them justice.
Q. There is a mythic feeling about the novel. The journey of a hero and so on…
A. Yes. Myth is important to this novel. Smoke is a journey, one among the classic journeys in mythology. The hero goes forth and faces challenges that would be insurmountable if he, or she, weren’t of heroic stature. The hero may survive to return, but if so, he’s changed and would bring back something that is new both to himself and to others… if he returns.
I grew up reading Edith Hamilton and Joseph Campbell, and there’s no doubt they influenced me. Everybody should read their books.
Q. Without revealing anything of the shocking and totally surprising denouement, what is the protagonist’s strongest suit?
A. Integrity. I think Smoke is a thought-provoking novel. What happens to the main characters, especially the protagonist and the two women in his life during the action, is what could happen to those among us fortunate enough to live a rich life. Well, hopefully a little less difficult. Here is deceit, villainy, sex, power, betrayal, greed, fear, pride… all closing in on the basic issue, integrity. And that ties back to identity.
Q. After your time in the army, you’ve been operating ships all your life. What are you doing writing?
A. I was writing before anything else! I vaguely recall lying on my stomach in front of the fireplace at what must have been age eight or nine, writing out stories. I’ve always wanted to write.
Q. What formal training have you had?
A. Beyond having a split major in college between physics and creative writing, nothing. But I pay a lot of attention to what I read, and I read all the time.
Q. And why shipping? You worked your way up from trainee to CEO over the twenty years you worked for the first company, and then founded your own.
A. As happens with so many of us, it was coincidence. In this case, a little freakish. Plus, I lacked confidence in my ability to support myself, and eventually a family, with writing.
Q. What do you mean, freakish?
A. My dad and another man in the same town were both captains in the navy, with identical names and nearly identical addresses. The fellow was in shipping and he sold me on joining him as soon as I got out of the army.
Q. That is a little freaky. But what finally got you writing?
A. Well, the first company grew enormously and finally sold. My family and I were exhausted by all that, so I dragged them to Snowmass, Colorado, where we’d skied frequently. We spent over a year there, catching up with each other, and I began to experiment with writing. I had the germ of Smoke in my mind, and outlined the story, drafting some of it.
Q. And then?
A. I founded a company to do essentially the same thing that I had been doing before for others, but this time my wife and I were the owners. Fortunately, our children were old enough for her to work full time, and she, being a Norwegian, has shipping in her genes and we did quite well.
Q. So, what’s next?
A. I am working on a sequel. Since the end of Smoke opens a large vista, the profusion of ideas is almost overwhelming. It’s great fun.