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Author Talk: April 17, 2009


April 17, 2009

Inspired by both a ski vacation and the earliest indicators of the current U.S. economic crisis, Mark T. Sullivan's TRIPLE CROSS centers on the wealthy patrons of an exclusive resort who are taken hostage by terrorists and put on trial for crimes against humanity. In this interview, Sullivan discusses the kind of research he performed to create the very realistic financial scenarios portrayed in the book, and sheds light on his decision to make three teenage triplets the heroes of the story. He also describes how his previous career as an investigative reporter helped to hone his skills as a novelist, explains why mysteries and thrillers are his genre of choice, and shares details about two projects currently in the works.

Question: How did you come up with the idea for TRIPLE CROSS?

Mark T. Sullivan:
Near my home in Southwest Montana, set high in the mountains, there’s a gated, high-security, ultra-private ski and golf club for the super-rich and powerful. They’re the only ones who can afford it; at one time you had to have a liquid net worth of three million dollars to even be considered for membership.

Some of the wealthiest people in the world have homes in the club. And sports legends. And celebrities. Until recently, the place was owned and run by something of a slippery character, a master of self-promotion, and, it turns out, financial subterfuge, all of which made him and the club interesting enough to someone like me.

But it wasn’t until a few years ago, when I was skiing at Big Sky, which abuts the private resort, that I had the first inkling of the story that would become TRIPLE CROSS. I was high up on Lone Peak, looking down into the club, and the suspense writer in me thought, What if a place like that was attacked? Why? The questions excited me (always a good thing), but I had no immediate answers, so I stuck the idea on the back burner.

At the same time, on the basis of articles I was reading in the foreign press and discussions I was having with friends who work on Wall Street, I was becoming convinced that there was a lot of shady activity going on in the U.S. financial markets. Specifically, I came to believe that not only was it possible to manipulate the markets, but that they were being manipulated on a regular basis by everything from the terrorist attacks on 9/11 to leveraged betting on questionable mortgage-backed securities to the rising price of oil. It seemed an interesting premise for another thriller, but I could not put the pieces together in a way that satisfied me. So I put it aside too and set about researching a true story of World War II for a possible book project.

Two months later, I was on a flight back from Italy, exhausted from two weeks of interviews and travel. I was half asleep, trying to imagine the ways I’d tell the war story, when the attack on the private ski resort just sort of barged its way into my subconscious, quickly followed by the realization that an attack on such a club stocked with some of the world’s wealthiest people would undoubtedly have an immediate, harsh effect on the stock markets.

I came fully awake and started writing right then. By the time I landed in Montana twelve hours later, I had the gist of TRIPLE CROSS down on paper.

Q: The capitalists take it hard in the story. Are you anti-capitalist? Anti-rich?

Far from it. I work for myself. I believe in taking risks, in personal responsibility and in America as a place where you can forge your own dreams and make money doing it, as long as you do it legally and ethically.

In the story, however, the self-proclaimed anti-globalists who attack the club are most certainly against capitalism. The negative portraits of the men who are put on trial in the novel I’m sad to say were drawn from real events and trends in American business during the first eight years of this century. I’m even sadder to say that most of the illegal activity described in the novel pales in comparison to the scandals, swindles and market manipulations that have come to light after the 2008 stock market crash.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that there are several noble capitalists in the story, Paul Doore and Aaron Grant in particular. They are examples of wealthy businessmen who have earned their fortunes legally and ethically.

Q: Why did you make fourteen-year-old triplets the heroes of the story?

There are actually five “heroes” in TRIPLE CROSS: Mickey Hennessy, the Jefferson Club’s security director; his two sons, Connor and Bridger, and his daughter, Hailey; and Cheyenne O’Neil, an FBI financial crimes specialist. They each have an important role in unraveling the deep mystery behind TRIPLE CROSS.

But certainly the triplets, in effect, steal the show. I think it’s because I enjoyed writing about them so much. At the time I was first drafting the novel, I had three boys living in my house, my own two sons, and my nephew. Two were fourteen, and I spent the year listening to their banter and the way they thought, sometimes terribly naïve, sometimes very wise, and too often impetuous. So, in my mind, there had to be some countervailing force to two fourteen-year-old boys in the book, so I added a sister. I was also lucky that one of my closest friends has triplets and I was able to pick his brain as to how they would likely interact in given situations.

That said, I was shocked when the triplets started doing what they wanted in the novel, and floored when they started fighting back against the terrorists. It was completely unexpected and unplanned for. I was like a dad arguing with his teenagers and getting nowhere when they first picked up the guns.

Q: The stock markets and investment instruments are very much part of the plot of TRIPLE CROSS. What kind of research did you do to create the financial scenarios described in the novel?

I’m lucky that two of my closest friends from childhood grew up to be very smart guys with a combined forty years of experience in high finance. They and some other smart guys, including one who had a Ph.D. from Princeton in econometrics and math theory, helped “game” the story, including the likely effect the trials would have on the equities and futures markets.

Any mistakes or leaps of logic in the story line are purely mine.

Q: Mickey Hennessy is a complicated guy.

Really? I see him more as someone with simple needs and extraordinary skills who is thrust into a very complicated and dangerous situation. Mickey’s really one of the good guys, someone who had a hard fall in life but managed to lift himself up from it, and go on. By the time we meet him, he’s pretty much trimmed his desires in life to maintaining the safety of his children and his relationship with them, performing his job to the best of his abilities and, someday, to meet a woman he can fall in love with. Everything he does in the novel are based on those three overriding desires. Oh, and he does want to be rich. Or at least, rich enough to retire someday.

Q: The FBI is a big presence in the novel.

It is as it would be in a case like this.

For the most part, the FBI agents I spoke to about TRIPLE CROSS were helpful in making me understand the size and scope of law enforcement’s response to a take-over of a place like the Jefferson Club. I got very little help, however, from the National Hostage Rescue Team, which would be the first responder in a case like the Jefferson Club. For that I had to track down former members of the team, and they spoke with me only reluctantly.

Special Agent Cheyenne O’Neil is based on several FBI agents I’ve known over the years, and a business reporter I used to work with in San Diego who was remarkable in her ability to ferret out and expose white-collar crime. She’s one of my favorite characters in the novel and is really the one who figures out the nefarious double- and triple dealings behind the attack.

Q: The anti-globalist guerillas put seven of the wealthiest men in the world on trial for crimes against humanity in the book, and broadcasts them over the Internet. Where did that come from?

Isolation. When I thought about the Jefferson Club I always thought of it as this remote place that gets cut off from the world. But at the same time, I knew that General Anarchy and the Third Position Army had reasons to want to be in contact with the outer world without going through the filters of law enforcement and the media. They wanted to take their case directly to the people, where it would have the greatest effect.

A Podcast seemed the venue and I went with it, as well as the idea that everyone watching on the Internet would decide the fate of the men on trial. I wanted the reader to have the same uncomfortable experience as the characters in the book watching the trials. I wanted readers to have to decide for themselves whether they’d vote guilty or not.

Q: Some real left-leaning organizations such as the ACLU and the People For the American Way appear to be linked to the anti-globalist guerillas in the novel, or at least they seem to benefit from the attack.

Do they? TRIPLE CROSS is a multi-layered story of intrigue, disinformation and betrayal. By design, first appearances can be deceiving.

Q: Did you really sell all your equities after researching and writing the novel?

I did. I became convinced for a number of reasons that the markets were going to tank and I sold everything I had in my retirement and college education funds and went to U.S. Treasury Bonds long before the crash.

Q: Did you always want to be a writer?

Pretty much. My mother instilled in me a love of reading and writing at an early age. She always told me that being a writer was a noble calling. Then I won a school-wide writing contest when I was in the second grade and another in the fifth grade. I tried to convince myself over the years that I could do something else more practical with my life, but inventing stories and writing them down was the only thing I was ever good at. After a lot of soul searching I finally gave in and accepted it as my fate. I became a much happier person once I did.

Q: What are you reading these days?

Everything I can get my hands on, novels, books, magazine articles, poetry, screenplays, and many, many websites. The novels I’ve read and been impressed with lately include Dennis Lehane’s THE GIVEN DAY, Robert Crais’s CHASING DARKNESS, Gregg Hurwitz’s THE CRIME WRITER, and Tana French’s IN THE WOODS. I’m currently reading IN THE FALL by Jeffery Lent, an absolute masterpiece, devastating in its power. I’m in awe of it.

Q: What's your work schedule like?

Every book’s different. I wrote TRIPLE CROSS five to six days a week from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., producing five to ten pages a day. It took about a year to complete.

Q: TRIPLE CROSS would make a great movie.

Tell Clint.

Q: What’s going on with your true World War II story?

I’m finally putting the book proposal together. TRIPLE CROSS got in the way.

Q: How did your experience as an investigative reporter influence your work?

It taught me a lot about the way the world works and the thought process of people who break the law. I learned that no matter how heinous someone's actions might be, they always have a rationale for their deeds. They think they're doing the right thing. Being a reporter also taught me the importance of research and how to talk to people in a way that makes them comfortable enough to open up to me. I do a lot of reporting before I write, often immersing myself physically in a culture, but I try to follow E.L. Doctorow's advice to know enough about a subject to fire the imagination, but not so much that it throttles possibility. In the end writing fiction is a pack of lies well told. I try not to lose sight of that.

Q: In almost all of your novels you've got strong female characters, either as the heroine or in powerful supporting roles. Why and how do you manage to write so convincingly from a feminine point of view?

There are more women alive than men, so it's always made sense to me to have women play a prominent role in my books. As a narrative artist it's also liberating to write from a woman's perspective. I have to really think and go for the less obvious plot turns when a woman is the protagonist. THE PURIFICATION CEREMONY would have been a yawner if it had been written with a male hero. LABYRINTH would have suffered if much of the book had not been told from Whitney and Cricket Burke's point of view. And TRIPLE CROSS would have been a lesser book without the character of Hailey. As far as writing convincingly as a woman, I tend to believe that men and women are more alike than Oprah would like us to think. Women just tend to take their emotions into account much more often than men. I'm constantly reminding myself of that. And when I can't figure out what a woman would do in a given situation, I ask the opinion of the important person in my life, my wife, Betsy.

Q: Why thrillers and mysteries?

Those were the stories that came out of me when I sat down to write. I don't mean to be flip about it, but I think you're only capable of writing what naturally comes out of you. I'm an adventure freak in my personal life and because of that I'm attracted to stories where characters are pushed to their limits. Like Hemingway, I tend to think that people only reveal who they are and what they are capable of when they are forced to confront their greatest fears. Almost by definition that puts you in the realm of thrillers.

Q: What’s next?

I’m almost done with the first draft of THE EIGHTEENTH RULE, a new novel set in the world of high class thieves, the CIA and international crime lords. And I’m putting together a proposal for THE FORGOTTEN FRONT, a book based on an incredible true story that unfolded in the last days of World War II in northern Italy.

© Copyright 2009, Mark T. Sullivan. All rights reserved.

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