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Interview: September 17, 2010

Picking up where he left off with HOSTILE INTENT, Michael Walsh is back in action with EARLY WARNING, the second installment in the Devlin series that follows a top-secret NSA operative as he tries to track down a ring of radical insurgents who will stop at nothing short of destroying the United States. In this interview with’s Joe Hartlaub, Walsh addresses the social and political issues that inspired his latest novel, elaborating on the possibility of a terrorist attack in Times Square and the ethical dilemmas that face contemporary journalists. He also muses on the importance of Western philosophy, offers advice to the federal government, and unveils his future plans for the mysterious and elusive Devlin. The heart of the plot of EARLY WARNING is a devastating attack on Times Square and the covert response of the United States in the form of the National Security Agent who is code-named Devlin. It was chilling to read the book in August 2010, given that nearly three months before, an attack on Times Square was almost successfully carried out. Considering that EARLY WARNING was written well before the attack, you were remarkably prescient in your prediction. What informational sources did you use while writing the book that enabled you to predict so chillingly what (almost) occurred?

Michael Walsh: My imagination, based on what is still one of the likeliest attack scenarios. I used the Bombay (Mumbai) Massacre of November 2008 as the template and then let things develop from there. The manuscript was finished well before the abortive Times Square bomb attack, and, of course, in EARLY WARNING the attack succeeds, and the devastation is horrendous. In writing this sequence, I wanted to dramatize the sudden effects such an attack --- which includes a car bomb on 42nd Street, a subway bomb and gunfire across the Square --- would have on ordinary people: who lives and who dies is very much a matter of chance.

BRC: While Devlin is a remarkable character, one gets the sense in EARLY WARNING that the response to the attack on Times Square was not all about him. I was particularly impressed with Francis Byrne, the NYPD captain whose motto “first through the door” made him a first responder in the truest sense of the term during the early moments of the attack. Is Byrne modeled after anyone in particular? And will we see him, or his brother Tom, in any more novels?

MW: Frankie Byrne was the central character in my first novel, EXCHANGE ALLEY, and has long been one of my favorite characters. He and his FBI agent brother, Tom --- who hate each other for reasons that will be clear when you read the first novel --- are two Irish brothers with a shared sense of tragic destiny, and I have the distinct feeling they'll both be back in the next novel in the series, OCTOBER SURPRISE, which will appear in 2011. After all, they still have a lot of unresolved issues.

BRC: EARLY WARNING is anything but a by-the-numbers thriller. While there is plenty of action, explosions, fisticuffs and gunfire, you quote Marcus Aurelius and Vladimir Lenin (with devastating effect, I might add), namedrop Charles Martel, and connect the dots between political politeness and correctness and the gradual deterioration of culture and society. In some ways it reminded me of ATLAS SHRUGGED, given that it is in equal parts a dramatic work and a political treatise. How difficult was it for you to balance out the action, if you will, with the information while you incorporated your premise through the thread of the narrative?

MW: If people want to read it politically, that's their right, of course, but first and foremost the Devlin series --- there will be at least five in all --- is meant to be a ripping yarn. I'm always amused when I get criticized for putting various un-PC sentiments into the mouths of my characters as if they were my own sentiments. But fiction isn't a documentary, nor is it a thinly veiled memoir, the way that so many "novels" are these days. I wrote one novel, AND ALL THE SAINTS, in the first person of Owney Madden, who was the last of the great Irish gangsters in Prohibition New York and a die-hard Tammany Democrat --- neither of which I actually am in real life. In the end, you have to let your characters talk and, believe me, talk they do. Your job as a novelist is not to force the dialogue but to transcribe it from the way your characters actually talk.

Marcus Aurelius, the father of Stoicism, is, in a sense, an offstage character in the Devlin novels, and Devlin's own ethos owes much to the Roman emperor. Each major section of all the Devlin novels has been and will be preceded by an apposite quotation from Marcus. I've seen Devlin criticized for not being "likable," but being likable isn't his job; he's the guy on the wall, keeping watch and, when necessary, taking out the trash. If that's political, so be it.

If you really want to know what EARLY WARNING and the Devlin novels are, they're throwbacks to what the Victorians called "novels of sensation," books in which people who are in high emotional states are thrust into extraordinary events…how well they handle the situation determines who lives and who dies.

BRC: It is obvious from reading EARLY WARNING that you had the benefit of an education in classical Western culture. Who, in your opinion, is the most important philosopher of Western civilization of the past two centuries? And what, in your opinion, was their most important work?

MW: I've been a musician all my life, and I graduated from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., which then, as now, was devoted to the education of a well-rounded musician, not just a practice-room demon. I'm also a voracious reader. In my novels, I try to bring all the strands of Western civilization --- which to me is obviously not a dirty word --- to bear on the story at hand in order to contextualize it. The greatest tragedy of the past half-century has been the dumbing-down of the American educational system, which means that a significant percentage of our population is functionally illiterate; they get offended now when someone uses a word or reference they don't understand, instead of being embarrassed by their own ignorance.

As far as philosophers are concerned, I'd like to push the timeline back a little farther and name John Milton. Not only is the AREOPAGITICA one of the cornerstones of our First Amendment, but PARADISE LOST is probably the greatest single articulation of the battle between good and evil ever written, filled with wisdom and literary insight on every page.

BRC: One of the sub-plots of EARLY WARNING involves the use of ciphers. Codes and the like have been used practically from the beginning of mankind, including some of the more notorious ones featured here. How long have you been interested in ciphers? What sparked your interest? And do you devote any time to attempting to solve or break some of the ones that have defied interpretation?

MW: I mention a number of famous ciphers in the book, including the Beale Cipher, which supposedly points the way toward a buried treasure. But the most significant one is the so-called "Dorabella" cipher, a series of squiggles that are variations of the Greek letter "E" written by the composer Sir Edward Elgar (whose music figures prominently in the Devlin series) to a young woman named Dora Penney, whom he later profiled musically in his first great work, the "Enigma Variations.” In the novel, I offer my own modest suggestion of a possible meaning for the code and invite the readers to do the same.

BRC: One of the more interesting comments made in EARLY WARNING is that the First Amendment does not include an exception for treason. And indeed, two of the more interesting characters are a media mogul who is looking to bring down the current administration (in the book) and a beautiful, if unethical, news anchor who works for him. It seems, however, that ever since the release of what are now known as The Pentagon Papers that military secrets are considered by the press to be free fire targets, at least as long as they are American military secrets. Where do you think that things went wrong? And what litmus test would you propose to balance the need for the public to know against the need for the U.S. government to hold military and other matters secret?

MW: There are two issues here: one is the legality of publishing military secrets, and the other is the acquisition of those secrets. The Pentagon Papers case was correctly decided by the Supreme Court --- the government is forbidden from enjoining publication or any kind of prior restraint. Period.

Dealing with the consequences, however, is another matter. One could argue that any journalist who acquires classified information and publishes it is essentially acting as a "fence," like Mr. Peachum in THE BEGGAR’S OPERA. And if a crime has been committed in the acquisition, then it can be prosecuted. What's changed, as the JournoList scandal showed, is that today's journalists are often committed partisans, acting under the cover of "journalism" in order to pursue a partisan agenda.

Not everything needs to be published. Journalists --- and I used to be one --- need to give very careful thought to the matter, but they probably won't.

BRC: On a related note, who, in your opinion, is a contemporary journalist that really “gets it,” so to speak, who is tough but fair and does not permit a political agenda to affect their reporting?

MW: I'm afraid I can't name a single one. In fact, I think most of them are proud that their political views influence their reporting, for the above reasons.
BRC: This is a bit of a follow-up to a question that we posed the last time we interviewed you, which was, “If you were granted absolute power to run things, what would you fix first?” A year later, has your answer changed? If so, in what way? And what would be the second thing you would fix?

MW: Well, I see the government still hasn't taken my advice, so I continue to think that reorganizing the CIA, eliminating the Department of Homeland Security (a useless, cumbersome, redundant bureaucracy that does nothing to keep us safe) and converting the FBI into an American version of MI-5 are all good ideas. I'd also start recruiting field agents on the South Side of Chicago and other tough urban areas instead of on Ivy League campuses so that we would have people in the country who know how to sense danger and survive on their feet. And I'd hire every computer geek, nerd and hacker for the NSA/CSS and give them one simple mission: take down the jihadist web sites by any means necessary, coordinate massive denial of service attacks on the enemy's electronic infrastructure and take out their communications.

BRC: Has your writing schedule changed at all since you wrote HOSTILE INTENT? And did you approach the creation of EARLY WARNING any differently from the way you have written your previous work?

MW: Not really. I tend to write at night when it's quiet and the phones have stopped ringing and go until about 4:00AM. Most of the creative works comes away from the keyboard, when I can clear my head and let the story float into consciousness --- that's the writing part of the process. The stuff at the computer is typing.

BRC: On a related note, whenever two or more authors are gathered, there is rarely a consensus regarding outlining a proposed novel as opposed to taking an idea and running with it, wherever it may go. Which way did you proceed with EARLY WARNING?

MW: The late Paul Horgan, who won two Pulitzer Prizes, once gave the best advice on this subject: "I always knew the first sentence and the last sentence of every book I ever wrote before I started writing," he said. Sometimes I make a few notes, but in general each book starts with a vivid idea, scene or sequence that will be --- or should be, if I've done my job right --- paid off at the end. That through-line is what gives a book its structure. Then all you have to do (laughs) is execute it.

To that end, allow me to quote the late Saul Bellow. We were at a small dinner party in Boston together, and he was asked about the writer's process. "It's like being a worker on the Empire State Building," he said. "You go work every day, get up to the 94th floor, walk out on the beam, drive your rivets and never look down. Then you go home, come back the next day and do it all over again."

BRC: What have you read in the past year --- fiction or nonfiction, for pleasure or information --- that you would like to recommend to our readers?

MW: Alas, I don't have much time for reading for pleasure, but right now I'm working on James Ellroy's BLOOD’S A ROVER and Nathanial Philbrick's THE LAST STAND, which is about the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Custer has a special fascination for me, and one of these years I'm going to do something about it, literarily speaking.

BRC: What can we expect to see next from you? Given the ending of EARLY WARNING, there are a number of threads that you could pick up and run with in what we might call the Devlin series. On the other hand, you could launch a new series involving one or both of the Byrne brothers, or, for that matter, Danny Impellatieri. Any of these characters could easily support a series of their own…so many worthy characters and not enough books. Do you have any difficulty choosing one character over another for feature treatment?

MW: They'll all be back in OCTOBER SURPRISE, which will conclude the story arc that began with HOSTILE INTENT. I've got the basic idea for the fourth installment already in my head and am working on the fifth installment now. Danny, the hot-stick helicopter pilot who's Devlin's chief combat ally (although they've never met), has proven surprisingly popular, and his relationship with the widowed Hope Gardner will deepen in the next book. We'll also see what happens to the evil Skorzeny, poor, crazy Amanda Harrington and, of course, Maryam. The story itself revolves around...well, I can't tell you yet. But I can guarantee it's going to be a wild ride.

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