Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Connick, author of Trapped in a Hall of Mirrors, which is based off his life working with the NSA and SAVAK. Read the Q&A below!
Q: How long have you been writing?
A: The short answer is since September of last year (2015). That’s when I started writing my novel, “Trapped in a Hall of Mirrors”. I’ve been a voracious reader all of my life and I promised myself that when I retired I would write a novel. That’s exactly what I did late last year. I actually had no plans on publishing this novel, I simply wanted to write one. However, I got lots of encouragement from the few people I shared it with, and especially my wife, and so I actually did get it published. Much to my surprise, especially as it’s my first novel, it’s gotten very good reviews and has sold quite well. Apparently, I can actually write – I’m really pretty amazed!
The longer answer is that I’ve been writing all my life. However, it’s been “business” writing. When I worked with the intelligence community, I had to write voluminous reports. When I transitioned my career to becoming a management consultant – again, I had to do lots of writing and learn how to communicate complex ideas clearly and skillfully. Between all the reading I’ve done and the business documents I created, I somehow learned how to write a novel. It’s certainly been a non-traditional way to do it, I know!
Q: What inspires your writing? Do you have a muse?
A: I’ve always loved to tell stories. I don’t really have an external muse, as such, just a yearning to write stories that I enjoy and that others seem to enjoy reading, too.
I’m still frankly astonished when people come up to me and tell me how much they enjoyed reading my novel. I’m shocked when someone asks to have their picture taken with me. I’ve actually been interviewed twice on television about my novel! I must admit that all of these kinds of incidents are really reassuring to me, and they help motivate me to continue writing whenever I start to doubt my ability to craft stories that people will actually want to read.
Q: Tell me about your debut novel, Trapped in a Hall of Mirrors. What was the original idea behind it?
A: The title page contains a line that really summarizes its driving idea: “A Novel Based on True Events”. The book actually starts out as a fictionalized autobiography of me. Its protagonist, Stephen Connor, is a fictionalized version of me. Like Stephen, I grew up and was raised in San Francisco, worked with the NSA at their headquarters in Fort Meade, MD, and consulted with the SAVAK in Iran. I also lived and worked in Vienna, Austria. So I’m really telling something of my own story in this novel. Many of the characters in it are real people and I’ve sometimes even used their real names. Others are based on real people but have had their names changed. Finally, some were completely fabricated by me. However, once Stephen gets to Austria, the novel starts to becomes highly fictionalized. Unless he got himself into a whole lot more trouble than I actually did there, it would have ended up being a pretty boring book! Nevertheless, the entire book is historically accurate and I think very true to life.
Which brings me to the secondary purpose for my writing this book – I really wanted to write a realistic spy novel. Most of the spy novels I read are extraordinarily inauthentic. The protagonists are supermen, their weaponry ridiculous, and their descriptions of the way the intelligence community is actually run are completely absurd. I really wanted to create a story that was based on reality. My protagonist is quite flawed, naive, and makes some pretty foolish decisions. He accidentally stumbles into some very devilish situations. The KGB completely misinterprets his activities. That’s what the intelligence world is really like – spies stumbling around in the dark trying to make sense of what they see and likely misinterpreting quite a bit of it. I also tried to give readers a feeling for the bureaucratic nature of the management of the intelligence community.
Q: How has the time you spent consulting with the SAVAK influenced your writing?
A: Again, the portion of the book that deals with the protagonist’s time in Tehran is all based on what really happened to me while I was there and what was going on in Iran at that time. The Shah was about to fall from power and no one realized that was going to happen. Iran was really a fascinating place to live at that time. I really tried to give readers a feel for what life was really like in that country during that time period.
Q: You have traveled and lived all over the world. What have been your favorite and least favorite places? Why?
A: My absolute favorite city is Copenhagen. It’s a beautiful place and the Danes seem to be incredibly happy and extremely friendly people. I also am in love with Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean. I’ve visited there on three different occasions and have found it to be the closest thing to a tropical paradise that I’ve ever encountered. A bit of trivia – the picture of me on the back cover of my book was actually taken on Grand Cayman Island.
My least favorite place? That would have to be strictly a matter of degree, because I’ve always found something to enjoy in every place I’ve lived or visited. If pressed, I guess I’d have to say Greenland was my least favorite place. That’s because the sole part of it that I visited was a US Air Force Base that was fairly primitive in its amenities – and it was COLD!
FYI: here’s a list of the countries I’ve either lived in or visited: Austria, Belgium, Canada, Cayman Islands, Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, France, French Polynesia, Germany, Greenland, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Namibia, Netherlands, South Africa, United Kingdom, and the United States.
Q: Are you currently working on any writing projects? If so, what can you tell me about them?
A: So many people have asked for it, so I’ve now started work on a sequel to “Trapped in a Hall of Mirrors”. It will be called “Funhouse Mirrors” and will continue to follow Stephen Connors’ CIA career in Vienna. This book will be almost totally fictionalized in contrast to the highly autobiographical nature of my first novel. Nevertheless, I am continuing to strive for realism and it will be very historically accurate. It will also continue the tradition of the first novel in trying to convey the ongoing sense of confusion and misunderstanding that permeates the real intelligence community. Working within it really is like being trapped in a hall of mirrors!
Q: What is something you want the world to know?
A: Life is wonderful if you are willing to take risks to fully live it. I have certainly been blessed with luck and good fortune, yet I also think that much of what I have accomplished has been due to a sharp focus on goals and plain old hard work. If you really want something, take the risk to actually work towards getting it and I think you will be amazed at what you can accomplish.
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