Author Keith Raffel joins Southern City Mysteries today. He has two books out in the world--Dot.Dead and his most recent mystery/suspense, Smasher. Raffel has done many different things in his life, from serving as counsel to the Senate Intelligence Committee overseeing the secret world of the CIA, NSA, and others, to starting a software company in Silicon Valley. Now he uses those experiences to spin tales for his readers. What follows are just a few questions I posed to Raffel, and the answers he was so kindly willing to give...
KR: Of course, Ian Michaels is just like me – only younger, smarter, more courageous, richer, and more attractive to women. Seriously, Ian is not me. Instead, while I’m writing, I try to become him. I try to react as he would, reason as he would. I do incorporate the emotions I’ve felt into the book, but not the incidents of my life.
Still, no matter how much I protest, people just don’t believe my heroes are not me. I had a friend read a manuscript for me recently. I asked her for comments. She said everything was fine until page 180. I asked what happened there. She said, “I know your wife and that’s the page where you started cheating on her.” “It’s fiction,” I said. “The narrator is not me.” I couldn’t convince her. If we lived in Puritan times, she’d have me walking around with a scarlet letter on my T-shirt.
ME: Which book was more satisfying to you, your first achievement, Dot Dead? Or your second, Smasher?
KR: Dot Dead is a straight-ahead whodunit. Ian Michaels comes home to find a woman stabbed to death in his bed and quickly becomes a suspect in her murder. I tried to do something more ambitious in Smasher and twist together four story strands. First of all, a billionaire is trying to steal away a company from the protagonist, Ian Michaels. Second, his wife Rowena, the book’s other hero, is trying her first murder case. Then, Ian’s mother is hounding him to get her aunt the credit she deserves for a breakthrough discovery in particle physics. And finally, a black sedan runs down Rowena on an early morning run; the police think it’s a hit and run accident, but Ian knows better.
Where does all that leave me? Dot Dead is like a first love. It will always have a special place in my heart. Smasher is my current infatuation. Don’t make me choose!
ME: While most of us accept digital breakthroughs as the norm these days, they are still pretty amazing in Silicon Valley and the world of your protagonist. How do you keep the balance in your books--between technical information and the average reader?
KR: I try to deal with the technology so that techies nod their heads when reading and non-techies don’t feel like skipping anything. Technology is in the background of the book, not its focal point. Much more than the technology itself, I’m trying to convey the ethos of Silicon Valley – how people act, what’s important here. Silicon Valley is a company town in the same way L.A. is. The former has start-ups, the latter has Hollywood. I want to give readers insight into a setting and the characters who live there.
KR: My primary motivation in writing is to entertain. When I picture someone reading Dot Dead or Smasher, I see her or him on a beach chair or in an airplane seat.
But I do have a more subtle, secondary motivation. Like Ian Michaels in my books, I’m both a Silicon Valley guy and a Jew. Both parts of my background infuse the books. When Dot Dead starts, the hero is obsessed with making tens of millions from stock options he's been granted by the start-up where he works ninety hours a week. Didn’t Mary Poppins say, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down?” In the course of the two books, I try to “slip in” the notion that pursuing justice, belonging to a community, and establishing a loving relationship just might also be goals worth striving for. (I think in Silicon Valley that’s called heresy.) I am contrasting the schizophrenic values I myself have lived with: Ian Michaels's first obsession reflects the ethos of Silicon Valley and the second set of goals reflects Jewish values.
I’ve had evangelical Christians, Catholic nuns, Moslems, Buddhists, and Hindus tell me they loved what I’ve written. They like learning a little bit about Judaism and, of course, there’s a universality to the journey Ian is on. I doubt any religion would say a single-minded quest for money and material success was more important than justice, community, or family.
ME: What's next for Ian Michaels? Is there more after Smasher?
KR: I’m not writing an Ian and Rowena book now. I wanted to write a few standalone thrillers and then get back to Ian and Rowena. There’s unfinished business there. Dennis Lehane is about to bring back Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro after eleven years. I sure hope it’s not that long for Ian and Rowena.
ME: Do you plan to break away from your own experiences and write even further from your comfort zone?
KR: When the Cold War was cooking, Berlin was where Americans and Soviets would rub up against each other, a place of intrigue, a place where the end of the world might begin. That made it a great setting for thrillers. (See, e.g., Berlin Game by Len Deighton, one of my favorites ever.) I figured the equivalent place today had to be Jerusalem, right? So in the summer of 2008, my then nine-year old son and I visited the Holy City to do research. We did everything from crawling through ancient tunnels and to eating falafel at outdoor cafés. I’ve submitted a manuscript set there to my agent which he loves. Now he’s finding a publisher who does, too.
Thanks for the great questions, Michele. This was fun!
Thanks to Keith for a great interview. I love it when an author gives interesting and honest answers. Well, as honest as you can expect from a Cold War hack, right? :) For more on Raffel and his books, check out his website http://www.keithraffel.com/ and his blog, Dot Dead Diary. Raffel also blogs on the Inkspot blog with other authors you will recognize.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I have read Dot.Dead [and really enjoyed it] but not Smasher. It is on its way to my mailbox via TheBookDepository.com.)