Interview: July 11, 2013
Critically acclaimed author Ben Coes returns with his latest Dewey Andreas novel, EYE FOR AN EYE. When Dewey uncovers the identity of a mole embedded at a high level in Israel’s Mossad, it triggers a larger, more dangerous plot. Bookreporter.com’s Joe Hartlaub talks to Coes about the inextricable relationship between political fiction and real-life politics. A former White House speechwriter, Coes has a wealth of insider knowledge, and shares his anxiety about the future of international relations --- especially considering the superstate into which China is developing itself. He also talks about the recent Snowden scandal, and what it means as far as the government's ability to become Big Brother in the future. But while the political frontier may seem grim, Coes's enthusiasm for writing fiction is boundless, and he reveals how he makes his characters and stories come to life.
Bookreporter.com: I finished EYE FOR AN EYE, your latest Dewey Andreas novel, about five minutes ago, after reading the last two paragraphs seven times. The book touches on the 800-pound gorilla that no one wants to mention or even think about, namely that China has been happily buying up United States treasury bonds, and, as a result, the U.S. is at the financial mercy of a country that is not necessarily an ally. Fao Bhang, China’s minister of state security, attempts to use this fact as leverage to get the U.S. government to cough up Andreas. What sparked this plot idea? And was the story laid out the way we are seeing it here from the start?
Ben Coes: As with all my books, EYE FOR AN EYE is built around current events. I really think the best plot ideas exist in our current world, mainly because I think there are so many troublesome challenges facing the U.S. and the world.
The China debt issue is a big one. We are vulnerable because of the idiots in Washington --- from both parties --- who are too concerned with their own political careers to make hard choices, as average Americans must do every day. China has huge leverage over us --- not a good place to be --- and it’s only going to get worse. There is a line in EYE in which the U.S. Treasury Secretary says: “China has already invaded --- but instead of weapons, they fired money.” This reflects my view: China has a long-term strategic vision for their ultimate power, and they’re executing that strategy by inserting themselves across the globe through economic and cyber tactics. It scares the hell out of me.
As for the plot, it revealed itself as I was writing it. I try to put Dewey into situations and then I let him guide me as to what he would do. So no, it wasn’t laid out --- I think outlining, at least for me, lessens the spontaneity, which is important in a thriller.
BRC: Since you raise the debt issue, you’ve obviously had some thoughts about it. Care to share when you think the Chinese will cash in their chips and what you think the result will be?
BC: I don’t know. I don’t think even China knows. That’s the scary thing. China is building an overwhelming economic, technological and military infrastructure right now, and once they have it, they will have unprecedented power. China is becoming stronger in so many ways. If they’re a good people, we have nothing to worry about. In fact, maybe China will end up being our ally in the fight against radical jihad, which is obviously another huge issue. But what if China is not a force for good? What if Tiananmen Square is what China is really all about?
BRC: One of the most intriguing instruments that I’ve encountered in a thriller novel this year, and maybe in several years, is the lie detector that the Chinese possess. Does this really exist? If so, who has it in the real world? If not, is it something that’s in the developmental stage? Or did you think of it and design it yourself? If so, how sound is the science behind it that was presented in the book?
It’s based on several high level sources with some purely made-up embellishments sprinkled on top. China is not alone in their work on a lie detector project. The U.S. is as well, and has been for years, though the effort has been somewhat off and on due to various legal and privacy concerns, of which China has none. Also, some inside U.S. intelligence believe China stole --- via hackers --- a great deal of our research on this project. They will beat us on this, unfortunately.
However, one big thing to also realize is that, despite various attempts, a foolproof method has yet to be developed. What worries me on this one is the obvious fact that governments could employ such a device to replace the legal system and move toward a 1984-ish system in which machines determine what is the truth.
BRC: EYE FOR AN EYE touches on current events in another very timely manner. Much of the success or failure of Dewey Andreas’s rogue mission against Bhang hinges on information, not only for Andreas but also for those who are aligned against him and, as it develops, each other. The acquisition of such information, or intelligence if you will, in the form of who is doing what to whom and where it’s being done occurs via electronic means, but also through the use of double agents, who have been employed in such matters for as long as there have been countries. Again, given the study you gave such matters, you must have some thoughts about Edward Snowden, whose story unfolded as EYE FOR AN EYE was being readied for publication. Could anything have been done to prevent this breach of security? How bad do you think the damage to U.S. intelligence really is?
BC: The harm Snowden has done is multi-level, but it seems to me there are three primary scars this awful episode will leave on American intelligence.
First, Snowden’s leaks show how utterly pathetic American safeguards are when it comes to our secrets. U.S. government officials, who were supposed to have been monitoring the government’s relationships with contractors like Booz Allen, should be fired for their total incompetence. We should also punish and discipline Booz Allen, the firm Snowden worked at as well as the people at the firm who authorized this wackjob to have such unfettered access to top secret information. One would think after Wikileaks the government would have learned a lesson or two. The buffoonery and laziness of government bureaucrats never ceases to amaze me.
Second, the leaks show how reliant we have become on for-profit, private companies like Booz Allen to do our work for us, often times critical work that should be government work. Because of this reliance, we have no clue as to who has access to our secrets. We hire one of these “security” firms, then wash our hands of it. They’re just trying to make money, so they’ll hire anyone, even a low-level, uneducated, certainly unqualified dirtbag like Snowden. The most surprising thing is that it hasn’t happened sooner.
Finally, and to me most troublesome, the Snowden leaks show that the U.S. government has the capability to spy on its own citizens in a way that is unprecedented. They might not be actively doing it, but they have the means to do it. I wrote about this in POWER DOWN. In that book, I named the NSA program “TIA” and speculated that the NSA was in fact listening, recording and monitoring all electronic activities of U.S. citizens, then storing this information in vast databases that, with a single judge’s permission, it could access later. I made it up, then received a note from someone at the NSA asking me how I knew so much. FISA warrants, the judiciary’s way of checking the NSA’s ability to access this data, are a joke.
The incremental, drip-by-drip encroachment on individual privacy and liberty by local, state and federal governments in America is something that all citizens should be concerned about. I don’t think we want our grandchildren to wake up one day in a world where their government can listen in on their phone calls, read their emails, control their healthcare decisions, determine whether or not they can own a firearm, what they eat or drink, how big their soda bottle is, etc. What happens when some politician like Michael Bloomberg decides to use these powers of investigation that the NSA has developed to enforce his own particular view of how people should be behaving? What worries me about the Snowden leaks most is not that we have become Big Brother at present, but rather that we now have the means and ability to be Big Brother in the future.
BRC: One of the characters makes an observation to the effect that China is a much greater threat to the United States than any terrorist nation or organization. Do you share that viewpoint as well? In your opinion, is there an even greater threat from another nation or group? And what do you see as the best course of action the U.S. can take against such a threat?
BC: The character actually says that China possesses a greater “capability” than radical Islam (al Qaeda, et al), and that is true. That is different than posing a threat. If China is a force for good, then they’re not a threat. My point is that if China decides to do something of an offensive nature vs. America, they could inflict many quantums more damage than jihad. Jihadists, at this point, are technological and military cavemen.
The one country that we should be more concerned with than China is Russia. They are actively working against the U.S. This is the subject of my next book.
BRC: One of the opening scenes has a regularly scheduled hockey game played at an extremely secure location with some very heavy political hitters on both teams. While the current occupant of the White House would not be a participant, for any number of reasons, has such an endeavor involving members of both political parties ever occurred, outside of your own creative imagination?
BC: Sports involving politicians and leaders from both parties absolutely happens all the time --- golf, tennis, baseball, basketball, touch football. It’s a great tradition in American politics. Sports should be non-partisan. One of my favorite lines in EYE is that after the president, a Republican, scores a goal, one of the players on the opposite team heckles him, yelling “Republicans always hog the puck!” to the laughter of both teams. Politics, like sports, should end with handshakes and mutual respect.
I worked at the White House. Hockey, to my knowledge, has never been played by a president, but I’m a hockey fanatic, I play in a men’s’ league, and what the heck, it’s my book, so I threw a pick-up hockey game in there. EYE presented me the opportunity to imagine a pick-up hockey game involving the President. I also tossed in the names of a bunch of my buddies from Boston who play hockey. Most of them can’t read, so I’m not sure they’ll appreciate it.
BRC: Speaking of creativity, each of your novels has enough characters, actions and plot twists to fill two or three books each. How do you keep that pace up? Do you ever find your creative energies flagging? If so, is there any one thing you do to recharge your batteries?
BC: Great question, and thanks. Who knows? I just enjoy writing and somehow, as in life, people pop into my writing and I take a liking to them and put them in and see where they go. I like to find characters and place them in situations, then allow them to show their personalities and take actions as I’m writing, without planning, because for me that makes them come alive. I believe if you overplan a book, a character, a scene, you rob it of its authenticity. I think my strongest scenes are unplanned.
I never find my creative batteries flagging because I don’t view writing as a creative thing; I look at it in a blue-collar way --- it’s a daily routine, hard labor, a struggle. The creativity comes in the process of the hard work because creativity isn’t a conscious thing --- it’s a gift.
In between pounding out words, I rely on my family, my dogs, friends, hunting, riding a motorcycle and travel. Beer and bourbon help, too. I try to live a really fun and full life outside of writing so that I can feel okay about the massive amount of solitary work involved in putting out a book.
BRC: EYE FOR AN EYE has Dewey racking up the frequent flyer miles. He is everywhere from London to Cordoba, from Beijing to Washington, and from Portugal to Maine and West Virginia. How do you go about selecting Dewey’s itineraries from book to book?
BC: I try to go to all the places in the book. At some point, I got smart and started to set them in nice places such as Buenos Aires and Paris vs. Islamabad. Purely selfish on my part.
BRC: You’ve acquired major accolades as a thriller author as a result of your Dewey Andreas novels. Are there any new worlds that you are looking to conquer, artistically or creatively?
BC: I’m working on a trilogy that I’m very excited about and I think readers will love. It will be in the thriller genre and unrelated to Dewey.
BRC: What books have you read in the past six months that you would recommend to our readers?
BC: Brad Thor’s latest, HIDDEN ORDER, is just flat-out high-octane and awesome.
Vince Flynn's THE LAST MAN is really a fun, well-written book. I think it's his best, though if you read it, you will be sad to think of the massive amount of talent that the world --- and the thriller genre --- lost.
DAMN FEW by Rorke Denver is an awesome, fascinating memoir by a former Navy SEAL, which really takes you into the behind the scenes of that secret world.
BRC: Given the ending to EYE FOR AN EYE, which I do NOT want to give away, what are your plans for Dewey Andreas? Will we be seeing more of him in the immediate future?
BC: St. Martin’s has already paid me for the next three Dewey books, so either you will see them or you will see my editor hunting me down with a machete.
I love Dewey --- he’s going to be around for a long, long time.