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Interview: September 10, 2004

September 10, 2004's Suspense/Thriller Author Spotlight team (Carol Fitzgerald, Joe Hartlaub and Wiley Saichek) interviewed Raelynn Hillhouse, author of RIFT ZONE. Hillhouse talks about her life in Germany during the 1980s and how her experiences there parallel those of her protagonist, Faith Whitney. She also discusses her views on the fall of the Berlin Wall, reveals some disturbing information concerning airport security in the post-9/11 era, and describes the huge buzz surrounding her debut novel. Your background is fascinating. How many of Faith Whitney's experiences in RIFT ZONE are based upon your own?

Raelynn Hillhouse: More than I ever will admit! The first chapters when Faith is recruited to spy for the East Germans is lifted almost directly from my life, but toned down to make believable fiction. I was living in West Berlin in the mid-1980s and one day I got a call from the East --- and those were very rare because there were less than a dozen phone lines between both halves of the city of 3 million. It was Egon from the League for International Friendship, the Stasi-front organization that was sponsoring me to study in the East that fall. (Think CIA-USIA.) Egon wanted me to help the League by lugging an allegedly broken Xerox machine from the East through Checkpoint Charlie to his special repairman in the West. He wasn't asking me to smuggle it West, but to openly transport it there. After that, he was sure he'd be able to help me get the special visa I wanted that would allow me to cross freely between East and West. His request raised more red flags than a May Day parade on Red Square, particularly since to use a copier or even work near one you had to have a security clearance. Somehow Egon managed to get through to West Berlin via phone almost every day and at almost the same time. The man clearly had connections.

We went through a crazy dance for months. My visa would get approved, then mysteriously revoked. I stalled. And I stalled. The Stasi was not an organization that took rejection well, so I figured it was best to play hard to get. I came up with every possible reason that I wanted nothing to do with that darn copier. For every excuse, Egon had a work-around:

• Repairs too costly? No problem. Egon offered Western cash to foot the bill --- forget that West German Marks were forbidden to him. Forget that no organization was allowed to keep petty cash in Western currency --- not that they could ever get a hold of the scarce resource.

• Too heavy? Not an issue. Egon would personally drag it to the border. Too heavy on the Western side? Egon knew just what to do, even though he had never been allowed to travel to the West: cross at Checkpoint Charlie instead of my usual Friedrichstrasse because there was a taxi stand just across the Western side. Hmm…

• Worried the guards would think I was stealing State property? No worries. Egon would write a note to the border guards (as in Stasi border guards) explaining that I wasn't really stealing state property, but doing the League a favor. Yeah, right.

I managed to dodge them until they took a new approach with me. However, in RIFT ZONE, Faith isn't so lucky.

BRC: As you were smuggling did you envision writing a book about your experiences? Were you keeping notes?

RH: Never. A good smuggler doesn't talk about her experiences, let alone keep records. I've lived in apartments in Berlin where I had no doubt that the Stasi visited from time to time and looked things over. I'd walk into the place and get the creepy feeling that someone had been there and then I'd find some small thing amiss that confirmed my suspicions. Notes weren't a good idea.

BRC: Why did you decide to write a novel rather than a nonfiction book about your experiences? Do you anticipate writing a nonfiction account in the future?

RH: I'm too young to write a memoir! Writing fiction is more challenging and more interesting for me. I want the freedom a novel gives me to explore new things and different characters. A lot of people have assumed that Faith was a thinly disguised version of myself. We share some similar experiences and traits, but Faith is her own distinct character.

BRC: In RIFT ZONE realities keep shifting. Just as Faith Whitney is more and less than what and who she appears to be at the beginning of the book, different alliances in the book change and shift, some subtly, some abruptly, some deceptively, as the Byzantinian plot to assassinate Mikhail Gorbachev unfolds. How did you research the relationship between East German and Soviet intelligence, whose principals, while ostensibly allies, often worked at cross-purposes with each other?

RH: I already knew a lot about the subtleties of Soviet-East German relations from my time in Berlin. Now that the organizations are gone (or supposedly the organizations are gone --- though I don't think anyone is convinced about the demise of the KGB), many sources are available in memoir form and on the Internet. I researched the specifics for RIFT ZONE in four different languages.

BRC: What sparked your interest in Russia and Germany?

RH: I remember as a child that there was a large blue pamphlet with very foreign Cyrillic letters on it laying around in the engineering department of my parent's company. Even the paper felt foreign. I was intrigued and wanted to learn more. It must have been sometime in junior high when I wrote the Soviet Embassy and they sent me a box of booklets and pamphlets with pictures of Moscow and the more exotic Central Asian republics. I was hooked. (And it also didn't hurt that it was perceived as a very forbidden, very evil place --- just what I was looking for as a bored kid in the rural Ozarks.)

My route to Germany was more conventional, through language study.

BRC: What were your feelings when the Berlin Wall came down?

RH: Very mixed. While I was overjoyed at the prospects of freedom for the East Germans, I was very worried about what would happen to them as they rushed headlong into Western consumerism and as the social structures they'd known for forty years were suddenly ripped away. I was also quite concerned that they would become second class citizens in a united Germany --- and they have. Nearly fifteen years and $1.5 trillion of investment later, the former East remains a depressed area of Germany with some twenty percent unemployment --- twice the national average. Many of the unemployed are chronically unemployed and have been so since the early 1990s. The population has decreased 10% as the young people have fled for better prospects in the West. After the initial euphoria wore off, it hasn't been the joyous reunion that everyone had wanted, but quite the contrary.

BRC: Forgery, weaponry and cultural differences are just some of the subjects readers learn about in RIFT ZONE. How much of this information was first-hand and how much was researched?

RH: Two out of three were first-hand. I lived in East and West Germany for over six years and in the Soviet Union for probably six months if you pieced it all together, so I was intimately familiar with the cultural aspects of the novel. And I was a professor of East European politics.

I'm also personally acquainted with various forgery techniques. In the US, I've forged driver licenses and in Europe I've forged visas. When I was growing up, I used to hang around my family's company, which produced etching and other plate-making equipment for newspapers. At one point, the FBI requested they notify them of each sale because they'd found that some of the equipment was being used to counterfeit twenty-dollar bills. I knew exactly how it was done.

I learned more than I should ever know about making bombs from one of the world's leading explosive experts when it comes to field operations. Jim Froneberger is a former Navy special ops officer trained in explosives ordinance disposal or EOD. A native Oklahoman, Jim was the head of the Australian EOD school for a couple of years and he was project chief for the cleanup of Kaho'olawe, the Hawaiian island that was formerly used for target practice by the Navy. I first flew over to Maui to meet him and to receive my first lesson in explosives. He made such an impression that, shortly after our lunch, the character Max Summer was introduced into the storyline.

Jim was a blast to work with --- literally and figuratively. I could throw a problem at him, depriving him of a key component he needed to build a charge and he would come back with a brilliant work-around. I can safely say that the bombs in RIFT ZONE have all been field tested.

BRC: Your life now seems to be relatively calm and sedate when compared to some of your previous occupations and experiences. Do you ever miss your old life? Do you ever yearn to go back to it?

RH: Oh, yeah. But that's the beauty of writing. I get to go back and relive those experiences and new ones. And without giving any specifics that could send John Ashcroft and his friends my way, I will admit to keeping certain skills sharp. I do around a hundred flights a year and crossing through airport security is akin to crossing a border checkpoint. In the post-9/11 era, I know that it's possible to fly without ever showing any form of identification, to fly on invalid tickets, to gain access to confidential passenger data and even to cut private deals with federal security employees in front of their supervisors during screenings. And some of this can be done during Level Orange alerts.

Sources tell me of individuals who have successfully carried explosives through airline security. Personally, I would never do that, though I had a close call once one day this spring. I checked in for my flight and was heading toward security when I remembered I had forgotten to take a blasting cap out of my purse. Fortunately, I had enough time to dash back to my car.

BRC: It sounds like there is a back story behind the dedication of RIFT ZONE. Can you share with us what the dedication refers to?

RH: The first year I was living in Germany I decided to travel alone to the Soviet Union. In an overseas phone call, I told my mother about my plans. I remember the conversation quite vividly when my mother said, "It's too dangerous. You're not going. And not by yourself --- I'm going with you." So my mom came over from the Ozarks to travel with me on my first trip to Russia. The only problem was that it was at the height of Reagan's saber rattling and our visas were denied. We went to the Soviet consulate in Bonn to see what we could do. After waiting forever under a big bust of Lenin glaring down at us, we were told that nothing could be done. I pleaded with a middle-aged apparatchik in my best Russian, explaining how far my mother had come to fulfill her dream of visiting Mother Russia. Something I said apparently touched him and broke the stone-cold bureaucrat's demeanor. Within a few minutes, we had our visas and we were off to Moscow.

BRC: Did you face any initial stigma of being a woman writing a novel in a male writer-dominated genre? What advice do you give to aspiring writers (male or female) who would like to write espionage thrillers?

RH: When I first met Brian Callaghan, the editor who acquired RIFT ZONE, he had read the first half of the book and he was expecting to meet a very different person. A man. Some of his first words to me were, "But I thought you were a guy." Then as he tried to excuse himself, he tried to explain, "You write like a guy." No comment.

As to advice for aspiring writers of espionage thrillers, write what you know about and do your research. And above all, have fun with it!

BRC: What writers have had an influence upon you and your work?

RH: John le Carré, Robert Ludlum, Graham Greene, and Tom Clancy.

BRC: There has been a huge buzz about RIFT ZONE. Can you share some stories about this with our readers?

RH: In May the Wall Street Journal broke a story about a new trend in publishing --- women writing spy thrillers. I was one of four women included in the piece. Right after that I was driving to the airport, thinking about how much more could have been said in the article. So from the airport, I called my friend Gayle Lynds, who was also featured in the Journal, and invited her to write a longer article on the subject as a guest on my blog at Publishers Marketplace. She wrote a wonderful piece, "Why Chip McGrath Was Wrong," in reference to the former New York Times Book Review editor who had recently written an article yet again declaring the espionage novel dead. A-yet-to-debut author goosing the NYTBR got a good deal of attention from the industry and the article was picked up by Publisher's Lunch, Ms. Magazine Online and several blogs. (It probably didn't help my chances of getting a review in the NYTBR anytime soon!)

BRC: Do you anticipate writing novels in a modern setting, or do you plan to focus on historical thrillers?

RH: As long as I'm having fun and exploring new topics along the way, I'll write about it.

BRC: What are you working on now and when can readers expect to see it?

RH: I'm working on two projects right now. One is a sequel to RIFT ZONE about the back-story of the biggest political upheaval of the second half of the 20th century: the collapse of communism. The other is a story centered on the last battlefield of the Cold War --- Afghanistan --- and the Cold War's most chilling legacy --- Islamic terrorism. I'm currently playing around with setting part of this one in the present. We haven't gone to contract yet, so I don't know which one will be next or when it will fit into the publishing calendar.