December 2, 2012

Feast on This: An Interview with Stephen Parrish

My writing partner, Stephen Parrish, and I are hanging out at each others' blogs today.  Steve has recently published a new book, THE FEASTS OF LESSER MEN, and I wanted to interview him not only because the book is fantastic but also because of his unique perspective on Cold War espionage.

After you read his interview, I encourage you to hop over his blog where he is interviewing me in conjunction with my book giveaway.

* * * 

Germany, 1990: The Berlin Wall has fallen. East and West Germany are discussing reunification. After four and a half decades of cloak-and-dagger intrigue, the Cold War is coming to an end.

Not for Jimmy Fisher, a plans clerk in the American 111th Infantry Division. Fisher black markets cigarettes, steals valuables from the dead, and takes advantage of every weakness he identifies in each living person he meets. Which makes him the perfect target for foreign agents seeking to buy documents.

Forced to make life-or-death choices in an ever heightening conflict between his personal safety and the security of his country, Fisher flees to the Vosges Mountains of France with a woman he trusts. In time he learns that love is worthy of a greater conviction than is loyalty to one's country, and that abstract symbols and arbitrary boundaries are not worth dying for.


Wendy: It’s obvious from the book that you have extensive military experience.  What inspired the book and were there any experiences you had that were particularly profound or illuminating (about life, the world, human nature or whatever)?

Steve: I had the extraordinary fortune, from a writer’s perspective (misfortune otherwise), to be actively recruited by the most notorious army spy ring since World War II The Feasts of Lesser Men is fiction, but it capitalizes on my experiences as a foreign-stationed soldier during the Cold War.

The approach technique I described in the novel is fundamentally accurate: you target men who need the money and can be compromised.  You ask for little things first.  You conceal a big stick.  By the time the target realizes he’s in trouble it’s too late; he has already committed espionage, sometimes unwittingly, and there’s no turning back.

That’s what I most wanted to convey, of all that I learned: the people in my unit who are presently serving up to 36 years are not monsters, they’re casualties of masterfully crafted psychological warfare.

Also that it’s easier, it turns out, to steal Top Secret documents from the U.S. military than it is to snatch a high school class ring from Zales.

Wendy:  What do you consider the root cause of this? To summarize one basic idea in the book, the main character Jimmy Fisher says you make a soldier miserable in all areas of his life and then give him a security clearance. Is it as simple as that?

Also, there have been times when concerned citizens have made attempts to demonstrate security weaknesses by committing crimes themselves such as various hacking groups getting into government sites or the 82-year old nuclear activist breaching the site where weapons-grade uranium is stored. Do you consider this a valid or acceptable form of civil disobedience?

Steve:  I don’t believe in civil disobedience except under extreme circumstances.  Administrators of secure installations—including military document vaults—should routinely employ breachers and hackers to test security.  Imagine how fun that job would be.

As for why men spy on their own countries (there are virtually no such things as infiltrator-spies, outside of fiction; all modern-day spies are traitors), I’ll cite the rationale argued by my boss, who died in prison serving a life sentence:

1.  It’s easy money.  My boss made more than a million dollars, obviously tax free, by videotaping documents in the privacy of the vault he managed.  Not counting occasional travel, which he enjoyed anyway, I estimate becoming a millionaire cost him about twenty hours of his time, total.  In Feasts I made protagonist and narrator Jimmy Fisher definitively opportunistic, and thus a good target for approach.

2.  The army demands more of its soldiers than it rewards them.  My boss was a Vietnam veteran who felt unappreciated for his years of service and sacrifice.  Jimmy Fisher feels like a bottom dweller.

3.  This is the big one: Selling secrets to the enemy won’t hurt anyone; it’s all just a game.  My boss was absolutely convinced of this, and had some good arguments—arguments I gave to the bad guys recruiting Jimmy Fisher.

Wendy:  Being that you consider the people in your unit to have been “casualties of masterfully crafted psychological warfare,” how do you feel about how things turned out for them? Did the punishment fit the crime?

In the book there is peril at every turn in Jimmy Fisher’s world of spying. How closely would you say your fictional world resembled the reality of the spy ring you were made aware of?

And while there was a lot of menacing there was a startling lack of car chase scenes, explosions and no “Bond” gadgets! So, am I correct in assuming the spy racket is not nearly as sexy as Hollywood makes it out to be?

Steve: The punishment has to be harsh.  There’s no way to justify a light sentence for committing, or conspiring to commit, espionage.  However I believe the people serving sentences in this particular case should all be paroled today, and if given the opportunity I would testify at their parole hearings.  I knew the guy who recruited them.  I knew him well.  An FBI agent assigned to the case referred to him as “Der Meister,” and there you have it.

Peril?  I don’t know.  Some, I guess.  Not as much as my novel would suggest (it is, after all, a novel).  The greatest peril a spy faces is getting caught.

As for the Bond stuff, no, spying is not sexy.  Intelligence work, on either side of the fence, is exacting and tedious.  The biggest rush a spy experiences is the same as what a shoplifter experiences: leaving a building with something illegal in his pocket.

Wendy: One of the things you do masterfully in this book is how you build the character of Jimmy Fisher.  There are so many reasons to NOT like him and yet by the end of the book readers find themselves rooting for him.  What was your process for building Fisher and what was your goal for him as a character? What did you want to achieve?

Steve:  I wanted to invent a character who was definitively opportunistic, would do pretty much anything (petty) for sex or money.  At the same time, I wanted to make him likeable.  And—this was the challenge—I wanted to present him in first person.  The point of the latter was, describing someone else’s wrongdoings, no matter how objectively or even sympathetically, is nothing compared to having that person boast of those wrongdoings himself.  It took me a long time to get Jimmy’s voice.  I rewrote the early scenes many times until I had the mildly sarcastic wit I wanted.

Plotting his bad behavior was the easy part.  I just asked myself what I wouldn’t do.  The first scene, which can be sampled on Amazon, is a good example.

Wendy: When you decide to write a book, how do you typically approach it with regard to planning and then moving on to the actual writing?

Steve:  I don’t know.  I’ve published two novels, discarded two others, and am slogging my way through a fifth.   For reasons I don’t understand, this one’s the hardest, even though I know what to do at every step, because I always outline—which answers your question, I guess.  I can’t “pants” a story.

I think the answer is different for every writer and possibly for every story.  All I can say for sure is, just fill up blank pages with words, anyway it works for you, and if they’re bad words, exchange them later for better ones.

Wendy:  Another nice touch in the book is an “interlude,” a flashback perhaps, of three boys who are hiking. What did you have in mind when you did this section of the book?  Did you intend it to reveal more of Fisher’s character?  Or was there some other reason?

Steve: Actually I had two such interludes, complete stories in their own right, but deleted one because it was slowing the book down.  Honestly, I put them in (and took one out) simply because it felt right.  You have to trust your instincts.  You have to listen to your inner voice that says “this is right” or “this sucks.”  Too often we ignore the latter, and it gnaws at our subconscious; we don’t feel entirely good about something we’ve written.  When that happens to the writer, you can reasonably expect a similar reaction, or worse, in the reader.


Favorite meal?

A salad.  Crunchy vegetables with a vinegar dressing.  Afterwards, popcorn and a movie.

One book you must have if you’re stranded on a deserted island?

Some large compilation of American poetry, the larger the better.  I’d memorize it as I waited to be rescued.

Amazing wouldn’t-trade-it-for-anything experience?

Playing Barbies and doll house with my daughter.

Stand-up comic smackdown: George Carlin vs. Richard Pryor

George Carlin.  In his later years he became utterly brilliant.  Also, my mom always said I reminded her of him, my mannerisms and irreverance, even my looks.  I took it as a compliment.

Greatest thing since sliced bread?

Doritos.  If God exists, it’s because He made a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let the corn chips be gathered together unto one plastic bag.  And the evening and the morning were the second day.

Three things from your bucket list:

Someone once said, you know you’re old when you leave the house in the morning without the hope or expectation of falling in love.  I’m old.  I’ve done everything I wanted to do, all that’s left is to write about it.

Wendy: And to wrap up, what advice do you have for writers who are just starting out or who might be floundering and trying to find their way?

Steve:  In any given day, the only thing standing between you and your goals is a blank piece of paper.  Stop making excuses, and fill it.

Thanks so much to Steve for indulging me on the interview.  The FEASTS OF LESSER MEN is a wonderful book, well-written and an intriguing peek into the world of non-Hollywoodified espionage. Go get a copy!

And don't forget to stop by Steve's blog to see his interview with me.