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Interview: October 2, 2009

October 2, 2009

Michael Walsh is the bestselling author of four novels: EXCHANGE ALLEY, AS TIME GOES BY, AND ALL THE SAINTS, and the newly released HOSTILE INTENT. In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, Walsh discusses the origins of Devlin --- his government-op protagonist --- and elaborates on his writing process, including his unusual work hours and choice of background music. He also gives his two cents on the probability of the U.S. being attacked by terrorists again in the future, explains how --- if given the opportunity --- he would restructure the country's intelligence operations, and gives advice to readers considering careers in writing. HOSTILE INTENT, your new novel, is a no-holds-barred thriller that takes on politics and espionage with good old-fashioned, two-fisted action. It could take place any second from now and introduces Devlin, a hero for our age. He's a man who has a grasp of history and the talents, skills, ability and will to do what is necessary to preserve and protect the nation, particularly against those who would harm it from within. It is also very different from your previous novels. What prompted the genesis of HOSTILE INTENT and Devlin?

Michael Walsh: I've spent a good deal of my life in and around spies and counterspies, so when Gary Goldstein, my editor at Kensington, and I began to kick around ideas for a compelling new franchise, I came up with "Devlin," named after the shadowy, cold-blooded secret agent played by Cary Grant in Hitchcock's Notorious. I was tired of endless books and movies about the CIA --- perhaps the single most inept agency in the federal government --- so I made him an operative of the Central Security Service, an outfit that almost no American has ever heard of, and yet is a major part of the National Security Agency. The CSS is essentially the military wing of the NSA, so it's a good idea not to get in its way. Or Devlin's, for that matter.

BRC: The book opens with a horrific terrorist hostage situation on United States soil, one that is similar to the Beslan Massacre. Many people, including those now in the highest levels of the United States government, do not believe that a terrorist attack on American soil will happen again. What is your opinion, based upon the extensive research that you undertook while writing HOSTILE INTENT?

MW: Anybody who doesn't think something like this could happen here is smoking crack. We've just had an example of the continuing threat with the al-Qaeda terrorist cell in Denver, and an alleged plot to bomb the New York City subway led by an Afghan who got explosives training in Pakistan. Our guys are good, but as memories of 9/11 fade, they're being increasingly hamstrung by a legalistic mindset that says terrorism is a law-enforcement problem instead of a military problem. Eventually, we'll reap the consequences.

BRC: On a related note, I found HOSTILE INTENT to be incredibly timely, especially given the current efforts within the government to gut and hamstring the CIA. Based on your research while writing the book, what do you think will be the most immediate effect? Where do you think we are most immediately vulnerable in terms of a domestic terror attack?

MW: Attempts by the White House to change the culture of the CIA inevitably backfire, as George W. Bush discovered when he installed Porter Goss as DCI to clean the place up, and the Agency promptly retaliated with the Joe Wilson-Valerie Plame sting operation to make him look bad. But there are lots of other intelligence agencies that fly below the radar --- not only the CSS, but the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office and a dozen others - that don't get quite as much scrutiny by Hollywood or the media. Ether or mass-transit bombing or a school-hostage situation is probably the most likely to happen

BRC: It is the day after tomorrow, and you have been placed in charge of the intelligence operations of the United States and given whatever power necessary to fix it. What are the first three things you would do?

MW: 1) Divide the CIA into two separate agencies, one to collect intelligence and the other to skeptically and impartially analyze it. Right now, the same agency does both things, which is why one of the CIA's disparaging nicknames is "the world's largest self-licking ice cream cone." The other, by the way, is "the Langley Home for Lost Boys."

2) Eliminate the Department of Homeland Security, which is redundant and ineffective.

3) Turn the FBI into a real counter-terrorism outfit, much like MI-5 in Britain. Let the cops chase bank robbers and serial killers.

BRC: Devlin seems almost too good to be true, yet he seems very much grounded in the real world. Is there a real-world model for him? If so, did you have an opportunity to interview him while you were writing the book?

MW: No. I made him up. But I sure hope there's someone like him out there.  A whole bunch of someones, in fact.

BRC: HOSTILE INTENT is full of characters seemingly drawn from the real world --- many of them only thinly disguised --- who are involved in a number of conspiracies with a host of short and long-term implications for the United States and Western civilization. One of the most obvious ones is the nefarious Skorzeny, a brilliant and deranged European billionaire whose wealth and drive gives him the ability to influence the course of nations. There were several interesting aspects to Skorzeny’s personality --- his love of music, his taste in women, and his manic personality, to name but a few --- that made him particularly memorable. Are these traits, and others noted in HOSTILE INTENT, shared by Skorzeny’s real-world counterpart?

MW: What real-world counterpart? If there is one, he's in the eye of the beholder...

BRC: Within the last 80 pages or so, you lay out what is arguably a hidden history of the world and United States culture in the last half of the 20th century. It's a point by point enumeration of what might arguably be the collapse of civilization and how it has been hastened along. It was one of the high points of the book for me. Do you think that the events you enumerated have been by design, by happenstance, or a combination of the two?

MW: Does western civilization have enemies? You bet it does. I'm a great believer in Occam's Razor --- the simplest explanation is the one most likely to be true --- and not much given to conspiracies, but you also can't deny the fact that there's a malevolent element in our society that prizes anarchy and destruction. Sometimes it comes disguised as "progress," but in reality it's the same old animosity based on guilt, self-loathing and spiritual despair. What makes Skorzeny particularly dangerous is that he loves the culture but wants to see it die because the West is no longer worthy of its own heritage.

BRC: You were a music critic for many years, and indeed, music provides a subtle but very interesting backdrop to parts of the storyline in HOSTILE INTENT. Did you listen to music while you wrote it? And if so, what did you listen to?

MW: I always listen to music when I write. In fact, I make a kind of temp track that consists of pieces that will get me into, enhance and reinforce the creative mood and the emotional through line of the story. All of the pieces mentioned in HOSTILE INTENT are featured in my temp track, along with (of all things) a selection of Argentine tangos, some country fiddling and Keith Jarrett piano improvisations. Don't ask me how, or why, but it seems to work.

BRC: You have been critically acclaimed for your past novels as well as for several nonfiction works that have dealt with opera and classical music. Do you prefer writing fiction or nonfiction? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?

MW: At this point in my career, fiction. As I discovered in my first novel, EXCHANGE ALLEY, you can get much more fact into fiction than you can in nonfiction, and the delivery mechanism is much more fun for both the writer and, I hope, the reader. My next nonfiction book, which is currently Top Secret, has nothing to do with music.

BRC: You have a background in journalism and screenwriting, and in fact are working on a couple of screenplays now. How do you plan out your writing workday? Does it differ appreciably from what and how it was, say, 20 years ago? And --- given that you have been involved in journalism and creative writing since 1972 --- how has technology affected your writing? Do you miss the electric typewriter? Do you still use one? Or do you find the computer screen more friendly, creatively?

MW: I started in journalism as a night police reporter on the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle in 1972, and those lobster-shift working hours have stuck with me. Although I edit during the day, I never start any creative work until the sun goes down, and usually stop around 4 a.m., when the first truck goes past my house here in rural New England. On the other hand, I came to screenwriting very late --- I was 50, an age when most writers in Hollywood can't get arrested, much less hired.   Screenwriting teaches you to keep your story moving and not to dawdle, and it is, without question, the hardest form of creative writing there is.

As for technology, I embraced the computer the day it was invented and have never looked back at my old typewriter. I'm glad I learned to compose on the old Royal, but the word processor was God's gift to writers. The Internet, too, if you know how to use it, which mostly consists of what to believe and what not to believe.

BRC: On a related note, the technology used in HOSTILE INTENT is cutting edge, maybe even ahead of the curve. Are all of the electronic surveillance methods used in HOSTILE INTENT in use in the real world?

MW: Some, yes, although others are logical extrapolations of technology that already exists or is in the works. I've come in for something of a beating from some of the hostile Amazon "reviewers" who have mistakenly taken me to task for a reference to the Large Hadron Collider, but the fact is that it, and the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence project can and do enlist and link computers all over the world; heck, even the Sony PS3 game machines can use downtime to solve complex protein folding problems. One of the sad things about the death of newspapers and professional reviewers is that any author is now subject to comments from anonymous trolls with axes to grind.

BRC: You quote Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (writing as Sherlock Holmes) and Marcus Aurelius throughout HOSTILE INTENT. I assume that they have had some influence over your work and career. What other authors, if any, have influenced you over the course of your life?

MW: I'm an active Sherlockian and long have been --- Sherlockian societies are also great places to meet people in the intel biz. Marcus's brief essays and aphorisms are words to live by. Melville, Dickens and Thomas Mann are three of my favorites and have been pretty much since I was a teenager.

BRC: What books --- nonfiction or fiction, of any genre --- have you read in the past six months that you would recommend to our readers?

MW: I have to admit that when I'm writing, I don't read fiction. Years ago, I found myself sitting next to the late Susan Sontag, who was then working on THE VOLCANO LOVER while I was busy with EXCHANGE ALLEY, and our conversation turned to influences. When I said I don't read fiction while I'm writing because I might consciously or unconsciously steal, Susan laughed and said, "Oh, I steal all the time!" (You know the old saying --- "bad writers borrow, great writers steal.")  By which she meant, of course, that one can never learn too much about technique, and reading other writers you admire is the fastest way to internalize a new structural lesson. But I'm not as smart as Susan was.

That said, I've come to like Michael Connelly a lot. He's really got it goin' on with Harry Bosch.

BRC: Based on your own extensive experience as a journalist, screenwriter and author, what advice would you give to any of our readers who are contemplating a career in one or more of those fields?

MW: Someone once wrote that selling your first novel was like winning the lottery and that selling your second novel was like winning the lottery again. Assuming you have the talent (and you'll know it if you do), believe in yourself and never give up. EXCHANGE ALLEY got 25 rejection letters before it turned into a two-book deal at Warner Books. Regarding journalism, anyone can be a journalist, especially these days. Don't waste your time going to college to learn how to do it. Finally, regarding Hollywood, please understand that of the million scripts that get written every year, maybe 4,000 get optioned or sold and 40 get made. If you like those odds, Hollywood is for you.

But all these things take talent, along with an ungodly amount of sitzfleisch. If you don't have the talent, find something else to do.

BRC: I understand that there is a sequel to HOSTILE INTENT planned, titled BLACK WIDOW, that will be published in 2010. Do you plan to continue to feature Devlin in an ongoing series after that? Are you working on anything else?

MW: Well, we have to see how Devlin fares, but I certainly hope to bring him for a few encores. In fact, the plan is for each subsequent book in the Devlin series to treat some nightmare scenario that currently keeps our spooks up at night. In HOSTILE INTENT, it was Beslan and the threat of the EMP detonation. BLACK WIDOW --- named after the Cray supercomputer at NSA headquarters in Fort Meade --- opens with another oh-my-God sequence that will make you never want to go to...  well, you'll have to read it.

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