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Interview: September 21, 2007

September 21, 2007

Journalist and author Emily Benedek recently published her debut novel, RED SEA, which chronicles the investigation --- spearheaded by an Israeli Special Forces commander, a counterterrorist expert and an American reporter --- into a major terrorist attack.

In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, Benedek explains why she chose to write this book as a work of fiction, even though its information came from one very real source, and discusses the various inspirations behind her characters. She also compares and contrasts writing fiction and nonfiction, shares her thoughts on the current state of homeland security and names a few of the figures --- both literary and otherwise --- who have helped shape her work. RED SEA concerns an investigation into a terrorist attack that slowly uncovers a plot for an even greater catastrophic attack. The back story regarding the book, however, is almost as fascinating as the novel itself. You originally made contact with an Israeli counterterrorism expert whose story could only be told as a novel; the result is RED SEA. Why did the expert insist that his story be told as fiction? And, even as fiction, did you have problems bringing it to publication?

Emily Benedek: My source never insisted it be written as fiction. It’s just that I saw, when we first sat down to a formal on-the-record interview with a tape recorder, that he changed. He wasn’t speaking as freely as he had before. I could tell he felt constrained. The man was still operating at the highest levels in the Israel Defense Forces and in the international community, and I understood without him saying anything that speaking on the record at the level of detail I would have expected would be well-nigh impossible. So I was the one who suggested fiction. I was very sensitive throughout about keeping his identity secret --- sometimes this required late manuscript changes. But I was happy to comply. I respected him a great deal and was very grateful that he had given me the access he did. This guy is a hero. He put his life on the line many times without hesitation. I felt lucky to be able to learn from him.

BRC: There are a number of memorable characters in RED SEA, most notably Julian Granot, a “retired” Israeli Special Forces commander, and Marie Petersen, an American freelance journalist. Given your own extensive background in journalism, did you infuse Petersen’s character with much of your own life and experiences, or did you draw from others instead?

EB: I would say both. I’ve been a journalist for many years, so when I wrote about how Marie went about her business reporting stories, I did it from my own experiences. I was also an athlete in high school and college, and Marie is an athlete --- but more accomplished than I! Marie is influenced on this score by an FBI special agent and SWAT operator, Jennifer Coffindaffer, whom I followed for a year and wrote a story about. She could do 10 pull-ups from a dead hang with 25 pounds around her waist. Before I met her, I decided I had to be able to do 10 pull-ups --- but forget the extra 25 pounds!! I got to five or six almost dead-hang pull-ups before injuring my wrist! Anyway, we worked out together, and I did fine, except for the pull-ups. She whupped me. In the FBI, or rather, with the SWAT guys, pull-ups are everything. It is a weird obsession with them, the mark of toughness. But what could I do? Clearly she was the better woman! In terms of competitiveness in an organized sport, I was also influenced by a real woman named Marie who is a 6’2” blond Swedish competitive equestrienne and a former teacher of mine. She showed me what tough is. I was riding a young, crazy horse then who tried to kill me every day. After surviving that, writing was a cinch! Marie taught me about keeping one’s composure under fire.

BRC: There is an interrogation scene almost midway through RED SEA that is riveting and unforgettable. Was this something that you witnessed as a journalist, an event that was described to you, or a scenario that you constructed from imagination?

EB: My source explained to me the principles of interrogation, and I made it up from there. Originally, I had the FBI agent, Morgan, hit the suspect, but then I spoke to a real FBI agent who was doing some interrogations in Iraq and he told me he never hit anyone --- that it was counterproductive. He told me he got more from a pack of cookies from a vending machine than from any physical brutality. So, because I wanted to stay as truthful as I could to reality, and because I respected this FBI agent, I rewrote the section and no longer had Morgan slug the guy, rather, punch the wall in frustration. I needed him to hit something because I wanted to keep in the little joke I’d already written, which Marie makes later when she sees the bruise on Morgan’s hand. Of course, the FBI guy gets nowhere with his efforts. It’s Julian who knows what he’s doing and breaks the guy psychologically --- with kindness.

BRC: Could you tell our readers about your own background, particularly in journalism? What are some of the publications for which you have written? What are some of your favorite articles among the ones you have worked on? Will you continue to freelance as a journalist, or do you intend to keep writing novels and other works on a full-time basis?

EB: My first big article was a cover story for Rolling Stone magazine about the TV show "Miami Vice." I was working at Newsweek at the time and got a chance to report a story about a dispute over land between the Navajo and Hopi Indians. I then got a contract to write a book about the subject and left Newsweek. I wrote another couple of books and lived in the Southwest and wrote for various publications there and even some TV news. I returned back to New York and did some freelance pieces for The New York Times, Details, NPR and then back to writing some pieces for Newsweek. In 2001, I did one about Israeli counterterror experts. That’s what led to my meeting my source for RED SEA. Interestingly, I had already written about terrorism --- an article about the Oklahoma bombing, and I had written about hacking and cyberterror, all of which proved useful to me in writing RED SEA. I probably will write some more nonfiction pieces, but I really prefer to write fiction --- it’s so much more fun! Although, I must say, I learned how to write by writing nonfiction. And I learned about life by being a journalist.

BRC: RED SEA is your first novel; you have, however, published three other books, two of which deal with American Indians and the third with your own spiritual journey. Between fiction and nonfiction works, which do you prefer writing? Which is a greater challenge for you? Does your method of writing vary appreciably between fiction and nonfiction?

EB: I don’t feel there is really much difference in the way I go about writing fiction or nonfiction. I do the same amount of research. But instead of writing about real people and worrying all the time about whether I portrayed them exactly right --- Did I really understand what they meant to say? --- in fiction, I can trust myself more. Also, in writing fiction --- or rather, thrillers --- I had to simplify my writing. No more high-falutin’ words. Of course, now I’m itching one day to write some “literary fiction” so I can sneak back in a few fancy words. But for now, I miss Marie and Julian and Morgan and I need to get them in trouble again and see how they work things out!!

BRC: If tomorrow you were put in charge of United States Homeland Security, what is the first step you would take to make the U.S. more secure? EB: Hire a platoon of Israeli advisors, led by one guy I happen to know. BRC: On a related note, one of your characters in RED SEA indicates that the United States, as a society, will have to soon ask itself how far it is prepared to go to obtain intelligence for security purposes. In your opinion, how soon will we need to do that? Are we there already? And what do you, personally, think the answer should be?

EB: We need to do it now. But we won’t even start to discuss it and really labor over it until there is another terrorist strike, which of course is a shame. Are we prepared to open our backpacks before entering a mall? Why do we scream bloody murder about profiling before we understand what it entails and that it is not racial profiling --- because racial profiling won’t work. The Germans just stopped a plot to attack German and American sites in Germany and the main suspect was a Caucasian native-born German who had converted to Islam. If they’d used racial profiling, they wouldn’t have stopped him. Good old-fashioned police work (with a little help from American electronic surveillance) did the trick. We’re going to have to be smart. We need to talk about how many tools we’ll give law enforcement to track down possible terrorists and stop them before they do their dirty work. And we’re going to have to give up some freedoms, but we already have. We can’t carry liquids on planes.

BRC: Where, in your opinion, will the next successful terror attack against the United States take place: Land, sea, or air? Or all three?

EB: I have no idea. I just know this: It will be a surprise, it will come when we least expect it and everyone is going to say afterwards, "Why didn’t we…(fill in the blank) to protect ourselves against this?"

BRC: What are you working on now? Will readers see the characters from RED SEA again?

EB: Yes, Morgan, Marie and Julian are going to try to interfere with Iran’s development of the bomb. And Obaidi is going to be responsible for some dirty twists!!

BRC: What was your writing schedule like when you were writing RED SEA? Were you working on other projects, such as newspaper and magazine articles as well, or did you devote your full attention to completing your novel?

EB: Full attention to novel. Sit down in a.m. and write until it’s time to stop.

BRC: As a journalist, you are used to working under tight deadlines. Did the discipline you acquired as a journalist help --- or perhaps hinder --- your writing of RED SEA?

EB: I was never a daily journalist. I did write for some papers, but as a freelancer, so daily newspaper deadlines never made their way into my bones. I mostly wrote magazine articles, and they take some time. I’m very disciplined. I think some of it is from competitive sports. Some of it is just practice. When I wrote my first book, I didn’t know what I was doing. I played an awful lot of Solitaire on the computer. That book took four years!!

BRC: Was there anyone who was your primary inspiration for entering the world of journalism? And what authors, in any genre, have most influenced your novel writing?

EB: I always loved magazines because they told the story behind the story. As a kid, I was very impressed by David Halberstam as well as the reporting of the Watergate case. My uncle, Earl Silbert --- a former assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia --- was one of the original prosecutors of the Watergate burglary. So, that story seemed personal. Fiction writers who have been very important to me at various times are Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy, Raymond Carver and John le Carré.

BRC: If you weren’t working as a writer or journalist, what would you be doing?

EB: I love to write. I can’t really imagine not writing. If I weren’t a writer, I’d probably be a painter or a photographer.