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Author Talk: October 23, 2009


October 23, 2009

Silicon Valley software entrepreneur turned thriller writer Keith Raffel once again explores the ruthlessness of corporate life in his second novel, SMASHER. In this interview, Raffel discusses how he transitioned between his two careers, and shares some of the imaginary and real-life influences behind the characters in his latest book. He also compares publishing a book to starting a company, sheds light on some of the less-than-glamorous aspects of life as an author, and reflects on how his hometown of Palo Alto, CA has evolved over the years.

Question: How did you get into the crime fiction racket?

Keith Raffel: Way back when I had just one kid and before I started my company, I found myself with some spare time. I signed up for a mystery writing class at the University of California extension taught by Margaret Lucke. We did a classroom exercise and --- poof! --- I had the beginning of a novel. You write what you know and what I knew was the entrepreneurial culture of Silicon Valley. In writing my Silicon Valley mysteries/thrillers, I try to capture the Valley's zeitgeist, the monomania focused on bringing the next great product to the market and making millions along the way.
Q: What have you given up to write?

KR: At one time, my main extracurricular activity was betting on the ponies. For six months way back in the eighties, I pretty much lived up at Lake Tahoe. But then I got a job in Silicon Valley, got married, had kids, and took up writing. No more Runyonesque adventures at the track. What else? I don't go to the movies like I used to, but who does?
Q: What’s your reaction to the publication of SMASHER?

KR: I’ve been told by literary veterans that the hardest challenge for an author is not to get published --- it’s to stay published. So once Midnight Ink accepted SMASHER for publication, I was delighted. Now having seen the reviews and blurbs, I’m ecstatic.
Q: Are you ready to see SMASHER as a movie?

KR: I went down to Hollywood after DOT DEAD was published and talked to agents and producers. It was fun to play what if. Now, though, a team with a track record has done an outline of a script for SMASHER and they’re talking to my agent. Stay tuned. It’s still an incredible longshot, but I’m willing to take a chance on the success going to my head.
Q: You've worked in Silicon Valley for over 20 years. Did you base any of the principal characters in your books on people you knew?

KR: I write fiction. My friends are a relatively sedate lot. Nevertheless, I’m accused all the time of basing characters on one of them. One neighbor insisted that Dr. Dubitzky, Ian’s doctor, was based on her dentist --- whom I didn’t know when I first wrote about him. On the other hand, the character of Isobel Marter in SMASHER is partly based on a real person: Rosalind Franklin, who played a key role in the
discovery of DNA. But Dr. Franklin was an x-ray crystallographer in London in the 1950s and Professor Marter was a particle physicist at Stanford in the 1960s.
Q: What authors influenced you?

KR: I've been gobbling up mysteries since grade school. But I think the biggest influence of all was the movies of Alfred Hitchcock (the French would call him an auteur) where ordinary people find themselves caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Movies like The 39 Steps or North By Northwest where the hero finds unexpected reserves of grit and moxie.
Q: How have things changed since writing became your full-time gig?

KR: When I had a day job, I would write first thing in the morning and last thing at night, and on weekends and especially on airplanes. Whole chapters of DOT DEAD were written on cross-country flights. Maybe the reason airplanes worked so well was that I wasn’t distracted by email or the Web. I’ve definitely learned my productivity goes up at least 2X when I write untethered. So now, when I’m working on the first draft of a manuscript, I walk over to a nearby café where I don’t have Internet access, get loaded on green tea, and float into a fictional world for five hours.
Q: Anything bug you about being a full-time writer?

KR: Yes! My friends and neighbors sometimes ask me if I’m going to get a “real job” or even worse, what it’s like being “retired.” I wonder if people ask Stephen King if he’s going to get a real job? Being an author is wonderful, but it’s work. When I’m working on the first draft, I go to my “office” (i.e., the local café) every day. I have an Excel spreadsheet I use to set goals and chart my progress against them. Then there’s editing, doing publicity, setting up book tours, talking over business with your agent and publisher, researching the next book, reading proofs…. I could go on and on. Come to think about it, being an author is more than full-time work.
Q: What similarities were there in starting a company and getting a book published?

KR: More than you'd think. In starting a company, you need to find investors who believe in you, who will back your vision, and will put millions of dollars to work on making it a reality. Except that the money at stake is a lot less, that's pretty similar to finding a publisher. In both, you need to believe in yourself and what you're doing because there will be incessant attacks on your ego. Venture capitalists turned down Google and fifteen publishers turned down John Grisham's first novel.

Here's another similarity: Entrepreneurs are extremely generous. When you call another entrepreneur and ask about a prospective hire or about what it's like to have a certain venture capitalist on your board, you get the unvarnished truth. The odds against success are long enough, and we need to stick together. When crime fiction writers get together, it's the same "us against them" fellowship you see among entrepreneurs. They suggest agents, publishers, conferences worth attending, etc. In addition, even best-selling authors like Marcus Sakey, M.J. Rose, Steve Berry, and Cara Black were willing to take the time to read SMASHER and write terrific things about it. I’m very grateful.
Q: You grew up in Palo Alto in the heart of Silicon Valley. How has Palo Alto changed?

KR: First of all, it wasn't Silicon Valley where I grew up. It was the Santa Clara Valley, sometimes called "the Valley of Heart's Delight." Orchards abounded. My mother used to dry apricots in the backyard every year. I went to Palo Alto High along with the children of janitors, school teachers, and founders of Hewlett-Packard. People didn't always lock the front doors. My parents' first house cost under $30,000. Of course, the orchards have been replaced by tilt-up buildings. The town is filled with software and network executives. Few houses can be bought for under seven figures. Palo Alto is exciting, dynamic, and the center of world technology, but excuse me for waxing a little nostalgic for the good old days.

© Copyright 2009, Keith Raffel. All rights reserved.

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