Friday, June 20, 2014

Interview With Author Brett Battles

Several years ago, shortly after joining LibraryThing, I received an advance readers copy of the book The Deceived by Brett Battles. This book was the second in a series of thrillers about professional “cleaner” Jonathan Quinn (after the spies and assassins have made a mess of things, it’s Quinn’s job to clean up behind them or, as Battles puts it: “In the espionage world, some secrets need to stay buried; that’s when you call Quinn”). I violated one of my cardinal rules and read the book, even though I hadn’t yet found a copy of The Cleaner (the first book in the series). I never read series books out of order. Never. But I did. Though reading the books out of order was a definite mistake (rules are made for a reason!), reading The Deceived was definitely a good choice because Battles quickly became one of my favorite thriller authors. Oh, that first book that I read, The Deceived, won the Barry Award for Best Thriller in 2009.

To date, Battles has written eight novels featuring Jonathan Quinn along with several short stories and a novella (more on that later). In my LibraryThing reviews, every single Jonathan Quinn novel has received at least 4 stars. And I gave the most recent novel, The Discarded a perfect 5-star review:

After seven novels, a novella, and several shorts stories, readers have learned much about the world that “cleaner” Jonathan Quinn and his associates inhabit. Thus it took a fair amount of skill for author Brett Battles to craft a story that felt both fresh and which left the reader wondering what precisely was at the heart of the story’s mystery. The introduction of a new character (seen briefly in a previous story) also helped to further flesh out the backgrounds of some of the characters. In many ways, this book was perhaps even more character-focused than others in the series (though there was plenty of action), because so many of the most memorable moments dealt with the interactions and relationships of the characters to one another (and their profession). One particular moment involved a conversation between two characters, one teasing another about his love life. The conversation struck a chord because it just felt so … real … or maybe, right for who those characters are. Perhaps the best way to say it would be that Battles has done such a good job of bringing his characters to life that the long-time reader will likely feel almost a part of their group and will nod their head in agreement as a character does or says something, perhaps unexpected, but absolutely consistent with what we’ve learned of that character’s persona.

I also really enjoy the “world” that Battles has created; the way in which the espionage world is treated, in many ways, like a business, with internal rules and rivalries not terribly dissimilar from what you might expect to see with Apple and Google, for example (only with guns). And (slight spoiler alert) I have to give Battles credit for keeping this story limited it its scope; not every thriller needs to be about saving the world from the next terrorist attack or preventing the next war. The Discarded was yet another great entry in the Jonathan Quinn series (but absolutely do not read the books out of order).

The Quinn novels (in order; note that Shadow of Betrayal was published in the United Kingdom as The Unwanted):


The novella and short stories:

Plus two short stories featuring Orlando (one of the prominent characters in the Quinn series):


If you like thrillers and you’re not reading the Jonathan Quinn series, you’re doing yourself a major disservice. These are very, very good books about a very interesting character written by a very talented author.

In addition to his Quinn novels, Battles has also written several standalone novels (including the young adult novel Here Comes Mr. Trouble), a two book (so far) series featuring protagonist Logan Harper (Little Girl Gone & Every Precious Thing), and his post-apocalyptic Project Eden series (6 books so far) about biological terrorism. I’ll admit that I haven’t read all of Battles’ books (I know, I know, shame on me), but Project Eden has been a terrific series for which I eagerly await each new volume.

Besides “just” writing great books, Battles is also one of those authors who actively interacts with his readers. And in this way, via Facebook and other social media, I’ve become his friend (at least I like to think that we’re friends and in more than just the “Like” on Facebook sort of way). I know that he’s shared with me in ways that if I told you, he’d likely send Quinn and associates after me…

Battles is one of the new breed of authors that has elected to self-publish his books. And it was as a part of his efforts to promote his books that he asked me and several other readers to help form his “street team” to help him promote his books and get his name out. Given how much I like the books (never mind such simple things as friendship), I was more than happy to help. But as anyone who reads this blog knows, I’m not exactly great at self-promotion, let alone third party promotion. Sure, I can write reviews of books (see my reviews on LibraryThing, including my LibraryThing reviews of Battles’ books), but that is of limited value (and I’m not that impressed with my own review-writing skills). Thus, when thinking about how to help promote Battles’ books and what would interest me as both a reader and writer, I remembered an idea that I’d been kicking around in one form or another for years: An in-depth interview with an author with questions that would (hopefully) be of interest to fans of that author’s work.

And Battles graciously (and I do mean graciously, as you’ll see by the length of the interview) agreed to an email interview that we conducted over the course of a few weeks earlier this spring. I’ve tried to avoid spoilers in this interview, but in order to address some questions that I’m sure readers have, that hasn’t been entirely possible (though I’ve tried to “disguise” things a bit for those who haven’t read the books yet). Please stop by Battles’ website and read his official biography.

Q: You’ve just published The Discarded, your eighth novel featuring protagonist Jonathan Quinn. I don’t want to include any spoilers, so instead of asking about the story itself, let me start by asking you about where the Jonathan Quinn character came from?

A: Quinn came from several places. First would be from my love of espionage fiction that was fueled in my youth by Alistair MacLean, Jack Higgins, and, of course, Robert Ludlum. I wanted to write my own, but I wanted to come at it from an angle that was not the norm. The second is a question that has always been in my mind: “What happens after?” In other words, what happens after the car accident, the blow up argument at the café, the mugging, the assassination? I don’t think the story ever ends there. In fact, for me, that’s often where it begins. So out of that came Jonathan Quinn, a man whose job it is to make the bodies disappear and covers up crime scenes so no one knows what happened. A Cleaner.

Q: Why do you think readers have become so attached to Quinn? What is it about the character and his exploits that keeps readers coming back (or writing to you to demand the next Quinn book before vacation)? [Ed. Note that I would ever do such a thing; nope. Not me.]

A: I’m not sure I’m the right person to answer this question. I don’t know what keeps people coming back. I know what keeps me writing the stories, and that’s the characters — Quinn, Orlando, Nate, Liz, and now Daeng. The moral dilemmas they face, the situations they maneuver through, and their own relationships to each other.

Q: When writing a Quinn book, how important to you is it to advance the characters and their relationships as compared to just telling a gripping story? Is there a tension there?

A: It’s very important, and I think it’s impossible to write one without the other.

Q: When you wrote The Cleaner, the first book in the Quinn series, how well did you know the character? As he’s evolved over the course of 8 books, has he surprised you or changed the direction of where you needed to take the series or the other characters?

A: When I wrote The Cleaner, like standalones and all first books of series, I don’t start off knowing a lot about my characters. They develop as I write the first draft. By the time I’m done, I hopefully have a much better handle on them so that when I go back for a rewrite pass, I bring them into line with who I’ve discovered them to be. Hope that makes sense. I had a pretty good handle on Quinn by the end of The Cleaner, but I also had no idea I was writing a series. It was a friend who suggested that it was just the first book. Over the course of the eight books, the Becoming Quinn prequel, and the various Quinn/Orlando short stories I’ve learned a ton more about their personalities, their pasts, their goals. In some ways it has all surprised me. They are these multi-dimensional characters who at times seem to have a mind of their own. Love that.

Q: In the early stories, Quinn’s background is a bit of an enigma, with little bits and teases. Again, how well had you thought out his background when you first started writing? Did any of that change over time?

A: The best way I can describe it is that I had a feeling what his background was, I just didn’t know very many details. As they’ve come out in the other books I don’t think any of it has really change where I though he was from physically/emotionally/mentally. That said, I had no idea about some of the things that had happened in his youth until I wrote them in Becoming Quinn.

Q: What prompted you to go back to the beginning and explore Quinn’s beginnings in Becoming Quinn ?

A: I had always been curious about how he was recruited into the business. In The Cleaner, I allude to it in a few paragraphs in an early chapter, but for several years I wanted to flesh that out. I had thought it would only be a short story, but when I wrote it I found there was so much more to tell that it became a novel, albeit a shorter one than others in the series. I’m really happy with how that turned out. So much so, I’ve been considering writing a Becoming Orlando companion novel. We’ll see.

Q: For me, one of the elements of the Quinn stories that I really like is the attention to and involvement of the secondary characters. Based on feedback from your readers, who has more fans: Nate or Orlando?

A: Oooh, good question. Probably Orlando. She’s actually my favorite. But Nate has one very powerful fan: my mom. She is always very concerned that he doesn’t get killed off.

Q: In an early story, one character suffers a grievous injury and then has to learn to live with a disability. Was that always the plan or had you thought of killing off that character? Have you had to do anything special to “get inside” that character’s head to write about life with a disability?

A: Second question first: Not really. It’s a pretty easy headspace to get in. Now to your first: Interestingly, when I started writing The Deceived, the book where the accident occurs, I had no idea what happened was going to happen, but when I got there it was naturally what needed to happen. There was never an intention of killing the character there. If you happened to get your hand on an early draft of The Cleaner, though — don’t try, you won’t be able to — this particular character was killed off in the first forty or so pages of the novel. Thankfully, I had a very smart editor who thought that was a mistake, and the character lives on to this day.

Q: What books are on Quinn’s bookshelf?

A: Quinn has eclectic tastes. He likes Graham Greene, Haruki Murakami, Tim Hallinan, and Stephen King. Oddly, his tastes are very similar to mine.

Q: Do Quinn and Nate hang out between assignments? Or do they work to keep their private lives separate (and for obvious reasons, known to those who’ve read recent books, the answer to this question may have changed…)?

A: In the mentor apprentice phase, they probably didn’t hang out during their downtime, but there would have been very little of that. After, probably a bit, but not as much as they could given that they no longer live in the same city.

Q: Quinn goes out to dinner one night, several weeks after finishing an assignment and with nothing new on the immediate horizon. Wine, beer, scotch, Perrier, Coca-Cola, or tap water?

A: Beer, definitely. A nice IPA like Bear Republic’s Racer 5, or if he’s in a smoother mood a Belgian Duvel. He’s also a hefeweizen fan. Like his tastes in books, he and I share favorite beers.

Q: Quinn really knows his stuff. He learned it from Durrie. But who did you learn it from?

A: I’ll never tell.

Q: You’ve created a very elaborate world of both governmental and freelance operatives with very specific ways that they interact and a seeming set of rules by which they play. What was the inspiration for this world?

A: Several things — the way government works, TV shows and books and movies from my youth, and, for a bit of a curve, the world of television motion graphic design. That’s the area I worked in before going fulltime author. It has a small organizations feed by freelance employees history that fit well with what I wanted to do.

Q: Have you ever heard from anybody who operates in that espionage world (or from a real cleaner!) and, if so, what have they said about the world that you’ve created for your characters to inhabit?

A: I haven’t… or maybe I have and can’t talk about it. Or maybe…

Q: Peter was always a bit of a … well, it wasn’t always clear whether he had Quinn’s interests at the forefront of his thoughts. How do you see the relationship between Quinn and Peter?

A: One of mutual respect. And your right Quinn’s interests aren’t always forefront for Peter, but then again, they shouldn’t be. Peter has an organization to run, and that is his main priority.

Q: One of your previous Quinn books ended with a cliffhanger. Describe the reaction from your readers when they reached the end of that book.

A: “ARGH!” [Ed. My reaction was a bit harsher; if I recall it involved lots of shouting and the throwing of various (mostly soft) items across the room.]

Q: In recent books, Quinn seems to have adopted a more introspective attitude, even spending time trying to find himself or escape his demons. Can you describe the thought process involved in that part of Quinn’s evolution?

A: Well, he is getting older, if you can call around forty old, and a lot has happened to him when he starts his self-evaluation that he never expected. So it’s only natural.

Q: In recent books, you’ve also forced Quinn to confront his background and introduced some elements of family into the stories. Talk about the process of transitioning a character from focusing solely on himself and his missions and having to think about others, including family.

A: Quinn is very good at his job because he sees details others miss and can make decisions quickly. But when his family is thrown into the mix, his focus is severely hindered, and he finds himself losing some of his objectivity. I loved taking him down that spiral. It was interesting to see how he reacted.

Q: I know that you’re a father. Do you find it easy or difficult to write about family relationships for Quinn and the other characters? Do you find it difficult to put fictional family members in jeopardy or are those emotions easily separated from real life?

A: I’ve never really had a problem with that. I’m pretty good at separating the two. That said, there are times when something I’m writing hits me emotionally hard. It’s not often, but when it happens, I always need to take several minutes to get back into the right headspace.

Q: If you had to name a favorite Quinn book and a favorite Quinn “moment” or “scene” what would they be?

A: Ah, but I don’t have to, do I?

Q: When you picture Quinn, Orlando, Nate, and others on a movie screen, who do you see?

A: I’ve been asked this a lot, and my answer changes over time. A younger Josh Brolin would have been great for Quinn, or even Nathan Fillion from his Firefly days. Orlando: Lexi Doig would be great, Maggie Q except she just did Nikita. Nate: Hmmm… Liam Hemsworth, perhaps. [Ed. I’ve used the links that Battles supplied with his answer.]

Q: If there were one or two characters from other thriller series that you’d like Quinn to encounter, who would they be? And how would Quinn fare in those encounters? Have you ever discussed any kind of crossover with any other authors?

A: Haven’t discussed any, and never really thought about it.

Q: What would be your elevator pitch to describe Quinn and the series to someone who has never read any of your books?

A: In the espionage world, some secrets need to stay buried. That’s when you call Quinn.

Q: So I’ve always wanted to ask this of a thriller writer: Just where do evil organizations get their henchmen? I’ve looked in the Yellow Pages but can’t find “Henchmen-R-Us” and Angie’s List doesn’t have a category for either henchmen or hired muscle. When writing a generic thug or bad guy, do you try to imagine how and why he finds himself in that position doing that job?

A: Everyone is the hero of their own story, and few, with the occasional exception, see themselves as the bad guy. I try to keep that in mind when I write those Quinn goes up against.

Q: When is Quinn getting his Australian Shepherd? Or is he more of a cat guy? Goldfish, maybe? [Ed. On his Facebook page, Battles has been posting lots of photos and video of his new Australian Shepherd puppy, Maggie; as the owner of an Mini Aussie myself, I have related to (and laughed at…) some of the things that Battles has written about life with his new household terror.]

A: An Australian shepherd will undoubtedly be showing up. If not in a Quinn book, somewhere else.

Q: So let’s turn our attention to your other series, Project Eden. Can you give us your elevator pitch for that series?

A: Humanity is on the brink of execution. And man is pulling the trigger.

Q: The opening sequence in the initial book with Captain Ash and his family was gut-wrenching. Was it hard to write?

A: I actually wrote that chapter probably a year or more before I sat down to write the whole book. It just kind of came to me one day, and I couldn’t stop until I was done. So, no, not hard to write, but I remember having this buzz of energy when I finished, and knew I’d hit on something that was going to pull at people.

Q: The closest comparison that I can think of to that scene was the beginning of David Morrell’s Testament (which may be the most disturbing thriller I’ve ever read). Have you ever read that book? What other novels have left an impression on you that may have influenced your writing?

A: Haven’t read Testament yet. So many books to read, sigh. Lots of books have left impressions on me… The Stand by Stephen King, 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, The Queen of Patpong by Tim Hallinan, and so many more. I guess you could say the books of Robert Heinlein and Issac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke were huge for me, too, as those were the books of my youth that helped fuel my desire to write.

Q: What was the inspiration for the Project Eden series? Stephen King’s The Stand obviously comes to mind (though without the supernatural elements). Do you enjoy post-apocalyptic fiction?

A: The Stand, of course. Love that book. There were many others… Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain, Robert Merle’s Malevil, and Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. And yes, I definitely enjoy the genre. A lot of great ones have come out in the last couple years. Hugh Howey’s Wool comes to mind, and D.J. Molles’ The Remaining series is another favorite.

Q: So what leads an apparently nice, well-adjusted guy to suddenly decide to plot the destruction of humanity and turn it into a series of novels? Bad mood? Indigestion? Vicarious revenge?

A: Ha! All of the above?

Q: It seems to me that your writing style in the Project Eden books is different from the Quinn books. Maybe more “sparse” or featuring shorter sentences and perhaps less detailed descriptions. Is that a fair observation? And if so, was that intentional on your part?

A: I’ve never really thought about it. It’s not intentional, if that’s the case. It just is. I think the major difference is that while both series feature multiple points of view, Quinn books are limited to seeing things through a few characters, while the nature of the Project Eden story necessitates a larger cast to get the full picture. Both are fun to write.

Q: Were readers of the Quinn books your target audience for the Project Eden books? If not, who did you perceive to be the target audience?

A: I didn’t actually write Sick, the first book in the series, with who it would appeal to in mind. I wrote it because I’ve always wanted to write an apocalyptic novel. I’ve found, though, that while there is crossover between the two series, there are definite fans who fall either in one camp or the other.

Q: The Project Eden series has a lot of characters. What do you do to keep track of all of those characters (for example, background details; you’d hate to have a characters eyes accidentally change from blue to green)?

A: I’m good on the eye color because I seldom mention it. Otherwise, they all stay pretty straight in my mind.

Q: Similarly, you’ve made it a habit in the Project Eden books to reference the Project’s facilities via letter and number combinations. Do you have a giant map in your house with all of these facilities penciled in? And how much of that groundwork did you lay before you started writing or do you add what you need as and when the story calls for it?

A: I have to take time now and then to think things through. I have an over arching knowledge of how it all works, and then add what I need based on that. As for that giant map, I’ll never tell.

Q: Did some of the secondary characters (and their storylines) fight their way to more prominence as you were writing? I’m thinking, in particular, of the characters in India.

A: Absolutely. I always knew Sanjay in India was going to be important, but he’s grown even bigger than I thought. Robert on Isabella Island comes to mind, also, as does Belinda, the girl whose been keeping a journal of events.

Q: I’m sure that you get asked this fairly frequently with regard to the Project Eden series, but have you mapped out where and how you intend to take the series and bring it to an eventual conclusion? Or is it still an evolving story?

A: I have ideas, but still evolving some. Depending on how things go, the next one will be the last or second to last. I’ll see as the story plays out.

Q: As a follow-up to the previous question, when you first started writing Project Eden, how far down the storyline had you thought? As you’ve written, has the story veered from the directions that you’d initially intended?

A: Well, when I wrote Sick, I wasn’t even sure I was going to continue it as a series. Before I released it, though, I had decided it would continue. The story has stayed fairly on course, with a few slight deviations. What, you asked. That is information I’ll keep to myself for now.

Q: Which characters and storylines seem to generate the most interest from readers?

A: Ash, of course. Martina and her friends. And I get several emails about minor characters, wondering what’s going to happen to them. I always find that surprising.

Q: What sort of research did you do to try to get your “end of the world” scenario to feel plausible?

A: I think I’ve been researching it since I was a teen when my curiosity about world plunged into chaos developed. I’ve read a ton of fiction, and a lot of non-fiction (books and magazine articles) on the subject. It’s all been stirring around in my head and spit out Project Eden. Which, I should mention, it’s the only post apocalyptic story stirring around up there, so, you never know, more may be coming.

Q: There are a few games out (Plague, Inc. and Outbreak, to name just two) that allow the player to model a virus and try to kill of humanity. Have you played any of these games? Did you “win”?

A: I have not played either of those, but am intrigued. The game I’ve played to death (pun intended) is The Last of Us. It’s all about survival. LOVE that game.

Q: At the end of the one of the recent books, a major character dies. Had this been the plan for a while or was that simply where the story took you as you were writing it?

A: I didn’t realize that was going to happen until about halfway through the book, but that was where the story was going and made the most sense.

Q: Do you plan to spend some time telling your readers more about the background of Project Eden and, in particular, how they were able to recruit so many people to be a part of the Project?

A: If it serves the overall story, yes. Will remain to be seen.

Q: You have kids. What age do you think is appropriate for kids to begin reading this series?

A: Oh, I think sixteen and over would be okay. I mean, have you read some of the YA out there these days? So much excellent stuff, and some more dire and violent than Project Eden.

Q: How do you think Project Eden compares to the current crop of dystopian fiction that is so popular with teens and young adults?

A: (HA! I should read all the questions first. Kind of answered this in the last question)

Q: I know that in response to a question about the Quinn novels, you mentioned that few of the bad guys see themselves as the bad guys. Do you think that answer remains the same with regard to most of the guards and lower-level members of Project Eden? What about the ever-changing members of the directorate? How do you think that they view themselves?

A: I think many of the lower-level members are starting to question things, if not all out realize they are in the wrong. I think you see this happening in Dream Sky. The directorate, on the other hand, would be the true believers, thinking they are doing what’s right for humanity.

Q: Do you worry that either a scenario like you describe or a rogue bug could lead to the sort of epidemic that you’ve depicted? How realistic do you think an extinction-level epidemic is and what should we be doing to be sure that your scenario never becomes real?

A: God, I hope not! But I do think the possibility is out there. And what can we do? Well, I have my “go” bag complete with zombie killing implements packed and ready to go by the door. Doesn’t everyone?

Q: What happened to Quinn, Nate, Orlando, Liz, & Daeng when Sage Flu was unleashed? Please tell me that they were vacationing on a private island without a virus delivery system.

A: Alternate universes. They’re safe.

Q: In the most recent book, you tore up the outfield of Dodger Stadium. Are you a Giants fan or was that something you just wanted to do? (I’m a Pirates fan, so it didn’t bother me at all…)

A: I’m actually an Angels fan, but I live just a couple miles from Dodger Stadium (can hear the fireworks, and have to suffer through the game traffic), so it was a natural place to put it. I could actually walk over for research.

Q: You seem to have made an effort to be egalitarian in including people from all across the globe and from both genders in the leadership of Project Eden. Was this intentional? Does that create conflicts within the Project?

A: Well, Project Eden isn’t about male dominance or the protection of a certain race or nationality. It’s about restarting the human race, so to make that happen they’ll grab the best people they can, no matter who that person is.

Q: Once again, the obligatory question: If you were casting a Project Eden movie, who would you want to play the major roles?

A: Good question. I actually haven’t given it much thought. The first person to come to mind would be Thandie Newton as Chloe, if for no other reason than I might be able to meet her. Perhaps I should have left that last part off. Ash? Hmmm… Mark Walberg, maybe. Matt could be played by Brian Cranston. He would also be a good Pax.

Q: Can Captain Ash finally get promoted to Major? I mean, he’s done quite a bit lately and seems deserving. I’m sure somebody in the resistance would be willing to give him a promotion.

A: He’d never accept it. He doesn’t consider himself in the Army anymore, and, even if he did, he would be of the mind only someone else in the Army of the proper rank could give him a promotion.

Q: Please tell me that Captain Ash and the others don’t have to worry about zombies. I’m really tired of zombies.

A: He may have nothing to worry about, but the rest of us do. Remember: “go” bag. It’ll save your life!

Q: I also wanted to take some time to talk about the writing process itself. First, I note that you are a very prolific author. Did I mention that you’re a very prolific author? Or that you seem to write a lot of books each year? I mean with most of my favorite authors, I’m lucky to get a new book each year; maybe every other year. With you, if I don’t see a new book every few months I get angry/worried! How do you manage?

A: Writing is my job. So, with the exception of taking a needed break now and then, I sit down at my desk every day and write, just like others go to their jobs everyday and do what they do. Thankfully, though, I am also able to write fast, so I get a lot done in a short amount of time. And, finally, I think it helps that I’m very decisive in the editing process, meaning I don’t hem and haw over something that needs to be changed. I come up with a solution, implement it, and move on to the next issue.

Q: Do you ever worry about oversaturation when you publish frequently?

A: Not really. The though might pass through my mind, but quickly goes away. The only other option would be for me to stockpile books as I finish because I don’t want to decrease the amount I work. I’d go crazy.

Q: Let’s talk about the “nuts & bolts” of the writing process. Do you have a specific schedule that you keep to for your writing like a 9-5 job or do you write when you’re feeling creative?

A: I do, though I’m hoping to change it up a bit this year. For the past several years, I wake up very early — around 4 a.m. — and I’m writing by 5:30. This means I can finish up by somewhere around noon or so and have the rest of the day. The down side of this is that I need to go to bed early… 8:30, 9, and even the occasional 7:30. That does not make for a very active social life with friends. If I can pull it off, I want to move everything a couple hours and start writing around 7:30, which would still mean I’m done around 2, but would also mean I’m not hitting the pillow when all my friends are just starting their evenings. We’ll see.

Q: Do you write on a computer or with pen & paper? If on a computer, Mac or PC? What sort of software (e.g., just Word or do you use specialized writing software, such as Scrivener)?

A: I write on a Mac, and have for twenty years. Currently I use Word, kind of as a default. But I hear good things about Scrivener, and am hoping to check it out soon.

Q: Do you write at home or do you have an office (or a home office)? I seem to recall a post on Facebook once about writing in Starbucks?

A: I used to write almost exclusively at coffee shops, but about three years ago or so, I switched it up, and now write exclusively at home. Believe it or not, I write in my small kitchen on a butcher block cabinet that I can wheel into the middle of the room. Lots of light, with the bonus that the frig is only arm’s length away.

Q: Quiet room or a room full of music?

A: If I’m writing in public (coffee house, for example), I’m definitely listening to music. At home, I prefer quiet.

Q: And what does the puppy think of this writing thing? It gets in the way of walks and tummy scratches, I presume.

A: Still trying to work the whole new puppy thing into my writing schedule. She definitely demands attention, though has gotten used to me sitting in front of my computer for hours. Still, she is a lot more distraction than I’ve been used to.

Q: Who are your proofreaders and the people that you ask whether a plot point makes sense or whether you’ve described something satisfactorily?

A: I have a couple people I rely on. First and foremost is my editor Elyse Dinh-McCrillis. She does a very comprehensive copy edit/proofread, and also points out story issues I need to address. Brainstorming wise, if I run into problems as I’m working on the story, I turn to my friend and fellow author Robert Gregory Browne. We’ll spend a half hour or so on the phone and I’m usually back on course.

Q: Do you go back and read dialogue out loud to see if it “sounds” real? If so, do you read the dialogue with someone?

A: I basically read my whole book out loud as I do my final pass (dialogue and description), making sure it sounds right.

Q: Do you outline books before you start writing? If so, how detailed is your outline (I’ve heard of authors writing 2 page outlines and others writing 60 page outlines)?

A: No outline. I go in knowing what the story is about, probably have an idea where it will end (though this could change as I write), and might have a scene or two in mind. Writing an outline is death to me. I would be so bored writing the book after that. When I write it’s almost like I’m reading the story, too. That’s what I love.

Q: How many drafts do you normally do for each book? If multiple, are later drafts complete re-writes or are they more in the nature of editing the draft that you’ve already completed?

A: It varies. When I have a full draft (which might be two or three drafts to get there), I will do anywhere between two and four edit passes.

Q: When you sit down to write a short story, do you know in advance about how long the story will be? Is the writing process for a short story the same or different than for a full length novel?

A: No idea. In fact, sometimes I don’t even know if it’s going to be a short story.

Q: Do you keep a thesaurus handy to try to broaden your written vocabulary or is that something that just comes naturally?

A: Seldom ever look at a thesaurus. When I do it’s usually because I know there’s a word, but I just can’t remember it. I won’t say it comes naturally, though. It comes from decades of being a reader, and being fascinated by words.

Q: What do you do to script out action sequences? Do you make yourself maps of locations so that you can track the action? Do you work through fight sequences to see if they feel real (or possible) before putting pen to paper?

A: I do have to figure out logistics, but the map is, except on rare occasions, inside my head. The action I work out through writing, meaning I do have to go back and change things sometimes to make it all work correctly.

Q: How familiar do you need to be with the places that you write about? Have you visited all or most of the places that appear in your books?

A: I have visited a lot of the places I have used. When I first started out, I felt the need to visit almost everywhere, but as I’ve written more, and become more confident in my abilities, I have used places I have not been yet, after doing research, of course. The Internet is an awesome tool!

Q: What sort of research do you do before identifying and having your characters use a particular piece of technology, whether a particular gun or some other electronic gizmo?

A: I’d have to kill you if I told you.

Q: Do you have to make a special effort to compartmentalize your own ideas from thoughts that you get while you read other novels? Do you ever read other novels and find yourself thinking, “Darn, I wish I’d thought of that idea for one of my characters?”

A: To answer the second part, absolutely. But not usually in a disappointed way. I’m often in awe by other’s ideas. And do I compartmentalize? Maybe some, but it’s an unconscious act.

Q: Tell me about the publishing process. If I’m not mistaken, you’re one of the new breed of authors who have decided to self-publish. What led to that decision and how is it working out? What sort of surprises did you encounter? Would you recommend self-publishing to a new author or is it only for established authors?

A: I could write a whole article on this one set of questions. Don’t worry, I won’t. Yes, I am now what I like to refer to as an independent author. I was with Random House for my first five books, but due to changes in the industry and within Random House itself, we parted ways. I had a couple choices then: try to find a new publisher or try out the developing self-publishing route. I knew if I went with a new publisher, I would probably need to find a “day job” again, and that was something I did not want to do, so I decided to give self-pub a try. That was over three years ago and I haven’t looked back since. I absolutely love it. I’m my own boss, publish when I want, what I want, and looking how I want. I don’t think it’s only for established authors. Success will vary, but so will success via the traditional route. I’m not going to come right out and say every author should try it. There are too many variables. The individual author really needs to research the options and decide what’s best for them.

Q: Once you’ve finished a book (or at least you think that a book is finished), what is the process that you go through before it is finally ready for publication?

A: Copyediting, cover design, setting up pre-sale on Amazon, formatting the book in the various ebook formats and also for print on demand once the edit is down, upload, and publish. Very straight forward.

Q: Do you ever find yourself arguing with your editor over substantive points within a book?

A: On occasion. Sometimes she wins, sometimes — though not often — I choose to ignore her advice.

Q: Who does the covers for your books and how did you find that person? Do you have them read the story before creating the cover or do you just give the artist some base concepts to work from?

A: I use a couple different artists. My Project Eden books are done by Jeroen ten Berge. Found him because he’d done some great covers for my friend Blake Crouch. My Quinn covers are done by Robert Gregory Browne, who is not only a great author but also cover designer. I will talk to both of them before they start and give them any ideas I might have. Jeroen also reads the Project Eden books, so often comes back with something I hadn’t even thought of that’s even better than what I’d been picturing.

Q: Some writers seem very involved with their readers; others far less so. You certainly fall into the former group. Is it important to communicate with readers and, if so, why?

A: Absolutely important. I enjoy hearing what they have to say, and often keep in mind thoughts they’ve expressed when I write new books.

Q: Do you get more feedback about Quinn or Project Eden?

A: While Quinn is the more popular series, I definitely receive more emails and Facebook messages about the Project Eden Series. “When’s the next one coming out?” The PE fans are a demanding bunch … in a good way.

Q: Many authors refer to most characters by their surnames. With the primary exception of Quinn, you tend to refer to most of your characters by their given names. Was that a conscious choice or did that just feel natural when writing?

A: Not a conscious choice, just what felt right at the time.

Q: So when are we going to see you _________ [each reader should insert their own home town in that blank!] for a book signing?

A: Ha! Well, since I’ve moved to primarily ebooks, I don’t do a lot of signings anymore. I will, however, be at Bouchercon, the mystery book convention, in Long Beach, CA, in November. And I think I have a couple other smaller things lined up before then.

Q: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? Was that something that you yearned to do while working a regular day job or what is something that you came upon later?

A: I believe I told everyone who would listen I was going to write books when I was in fifth grade. The dream has been alive since then, just took me a while to get there. So, yeah, there was a lot of yearning.

Q: What was the earliest piece of fiction that you can recall writing? Did you take creative writing classes in school?

A: Sixth grade, Mr. Hodges’ class. He assigned us to write a story about anything we wanted. I wrote about two crime fighters in Hong Kong, and no, I had never been to Hong Kong at that time.

Q: I’ve seen a video of you talking to a writer’s conference about “drawer books”. How many “drawer books” do you still have out there? Have any of those books that you talked about been published? Will they be at some point?

A: I now have two drawer novels. The The Pull of Gravity used to be a drawer novel, but only because I’d just written it when The Cleaner was purchased so my attention went elsewhere. I don’t currently have plans for the other two, but may revisit them in the future. Both, though, would need a ton of rewriting.

Q: Looking back at those earliest novels, what has changed most in your storytelling and writing styles?

A: I think there’s been a natural growth and evolution as I’ve gained more experience. Also the more I’ve done, the more confident I’ve becoming with my ability to craft a story. Which is pretty much the equivalent of something anyone in any profession would acquire over time in their work, I would think.

Q: You’ve mentioned that you were involved in graphic arts before stepping aside to become a full-time writer. What can you tell us about your career before your become a writer? Were you able to use your interest in writing in your job?

A: I worked in television graphics for about twenty years. Yikes, that sounds like a long time when I write it out like that. I was a producer, which was basically a project manager. (My last job before I went full time writing was Executive Producer in the On-Air Design department at E! Entertainment TV.) I worked with graphic artists and animators who created IDs for television networks, graphics for commercials and TV promos. It was fun, worked with a  lot of great people who are still my friends. I wish I could do what they do. I am definitely not a designer, but working in that field for so long has given me a great sense of what is good and what is not, something that’s served me well when working with book cover designers now.

Q: Tell us a bit more about your background. Where were you born? Where did you grow up? How did you wind up living where you do now? College? Graduate school? Details, man, we need (want) details!

A: I’m California born and bred. Grew up in the Mojave Desert. In fact, I feature my hometown of Ridgecrest/China Lake in my novel No Return and in my Project Eden series. College? Cal State Northridge, go Matadors!

Q: Were you a jock? A scholar? The quiet kid? The geek?

A; Yes.

Q: I know you’ve mentioned several other authors with whom you are friends (Robert Gregory Brown and Blake Crouch come to mind). Who else makes up the author community with whom you associate?

A: Let’s see, someone I see a lot more than others, but consider all these friends — Tim Hallinan, Stephen Schwartz, Bill Cameron, Tasha Alexander, Andrew Grant, Sean Chercover, Gar Anthony Haywood, CJ Lyons, Alexandra Sokoloff, Zoë Sharp, and I could go on. What’s great about the thriller/mystery writer community is that we are all very supportive of each other and really enjoy each other’s company.

Q: When you’re not writing (or playing with the puppy), how do you like to relax? And besides the Angels, which sports teams do you follow?

A: Read, hike, lately I’ve gotten into playing videogames such as The Last of Us and Dead Island. Sports … 49ers in the NFL, Everton in the British Premier League, Lakers (though we are in a terrible down spiral) … those are currently the big ones.

Q: Do you read the book before you see the movie?

A: Sometimes, but not always.

Q: Tell us about the emotions you felt the first time you held the published version of one of your books.

A: Kind of a numbing excitement, like it wasn’t really happening.

Q: Tell us about the emotions you felt when you won the Barry Award for The Deceived. Do you get a cool trophy for you mantle?

A: Talk about numbing! There were several hundred people in the room and I was standing against the back wall next to my then Editor, Danielle Perez. When they called my name, I suddenly felt like I was wrapped in about a mile thick blanket of cotton. Everything became muffled and unreal. I barely remember making it to the stage, and have no idea what I said. The award was a beautiful plaque that included a color copy of my cover.

Q: You’ve mentioned your love of science fiction. Have you ever tried writing science fiction (beyond Project Eden)?

A: A little. And I’m sure to do it more in the future. I love the genre. Whatever I write will probably be set in the here and now, or the very near future, though. I’m unlikely to write a space opera (though I do enjoy reading a good one! John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series comes to mind.)

Q: How many times have you read Where Eagles Dare? (If you’re a real Alistair MacLean fan, I presume that you’re gonna be close to double digits…)

A: Hard to remember. I was really into MacLean when I was about 14 or so, and read everything I could then. I think my favorites were Ice Station Zebra, Bear Island, and Guns of Navarone.

Q: James Bond: Books or movies? And which movie Bond?

A: Yikes, I’m going to fail my writing community here, but … movies. And I’m a fan of the Daniel Craig Bond. Loved the new Casino Royale.

Q: Please, please tell me that you’ve read Adam Hall’s Quiller novels. Please.

A: Eh…

Q: Lots (maybe too many) of authors writing in the thriller genre, especially the espionage genre, tend to get very political in their books. Has the omission of politics been intentional on your part or was it just never relevant to the stories that you were telling.

A: They’ve never been a part of the stories I’m telling, at least not too much.

Q: The bio on your website suggests that aspiring writers jump out of a plane. Have you? More than once?

A: Three times. Twice tandem, and once on my own. Though that was over twenty years ago now.

Q: Have your kids caught the writing bug?

A: My youngest has. Plus she’s also an artist, so I see graphic novels in her future!

Q: Do you see yourself continuing to write at the pace that you’ve been writing for the last few years? For how long?

A: I do about four to five books a year right now, and see myself continuing at that pace for a few more years. Three, four, maybe. Then maybe I’ll cut it down to about three. We’ll see how that goes.

Q: Thanks, Brett, for taking the time to answer all of my questions!

I hope that after reading a little bit about Battles and his books, you’ll be interested in picking up a copy and seeing why I’ve enjoyed the books so much and why I was interested in doing this interview and writing this blog post.

And if that wasn’t enough to whet your appetite, how about this? I was able to convince Battles to give me five eBook copies of his novella Becoming Quinn. That novella explores how Jonathan Quinn became a cleaner and entered the shadow world in which he lives. If you’re interested in getting one of these copies, please leave a comment below (and be sure to include your email address and the format [.mobi for Kindle or .epub for all other eBook readers] you prefer). And after you’ve read a little Jonathan Quinn or Project Eden, stop back and tell me what you think.

Finally, I hope that Battles had even a fraction as much fun with this interview as I did. I’ve long wanted to try to do an interview like this. Too many author interviews are very limited in scope and the questions aren’t asked by fans of the author’s work. I wanted to try to ask the sorts of questions that I thought “real fans” would want to have answered; the questions I wanted to have answered. Hopefully, I’ve accomplished that goal. And who knows, maybe this will be the starting point for similar author interviews in the future.*

*Actually, after finishing this post, but before publishing it, I spoke to another author who has committed to doing a similar interview, probably later this summer!

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Thursday, June 5, 2014

Release of Taliban Prisoners in Exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl: Some Observations and Thoughts

Today I want to talk a bit about the prisoner exchange that secured the release of captured American Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. The preliminary caveat that I want to offer is that I don’t have all of the facts. And that caveat should be first in the minds of virtually everyone commenting on this situation. Instead, it seems that many commentators, especially those condemning the exchange and/or Bergdahl, are presuming either that they know all of the facts already and/or that the facts that they do “know” are all correct.

So let me offer these initial thoughts: First, we have to remember that Bergdahl is an American citizen. Whether he is a good guy or a bad guy, hero, traitor, or ordinary guy wearing the uniform, he is an American citizen and, as such, he is entitled to the same presumption of innocence that we are all entitled to. Did he go AWOL or desert his unit? Maybe he did. Maybe the evidence is overwhelming. But that doesn’t matter. At least not yet. Because until he is convicted of having committed a crime or offense under the Code of Military Justice, he is — he must be — presumed to be innocent. Isn’t that one of the core principles for which our soldiers put on the uniform?

Thus, when asking whether it was wise to trade Taliban prisoners for Bergdahl’s release, I don’t think that it’s fair to presume that Bergdahl was guilty of treason or even some lesser offense as we contemplate the merits of the trade. He was an American soldier, in captivity, accused but not yet convicted of having engaged in punishable conduct. Just because he was accused, should he be punished to lifelong captivity without the benefit of a trial or the opportunity to confront his accusers? We don’t subject even the worst criminals in America to that sort of treatment. For that matter, consider a bank robber wounded by the police as they try to apprehend him during the commission of that robbery. Do the police just leave the alleged bank robber to bleed out on the pavement? Or is the alleged bank robber rushed to a hospital, provided medical care, and after recovering, tried for his alleged crimes? Yes, I recognize that a bank robber is not a perfect analogy for a prisoner of war alleged to have deserted his unit; but it don’t think that the analogy is too far off, either.

Thus, to me the calculus is not whether we should have given up five members of the Taliban for the release of a soldier accused of a crime; rather, the calculus should be only whether we should have given up five members of the Taliban for an American solider being held captive. Now, that being said, it is of course fair to consider the relative value of the American soldier in comparison to those being released in exchange. Or is it? I mean, do we want to tell our soldiers that, if captured, we’ll consider trading for you, but only if we have the “right” prisoners to give back? If you’re a general or a great sniper, you’re worth more than a “mere” private? Is that the message that we want to send? Or should be simply be telling our soldiers that we’ll find a way to get them back? I think that’s the better message. Now, that doesn’t mean that we can’t consider whether a prisoner that we have is simply too valuable or too dangerous to return. But I think that question is independent of the question of who the particular soldier (or soldiers) being trade for are.

The next obvious question, then, is whether a prisoner exchange is a good idea, absent the particular characteristics of the soldier that we are trying to repatriate or the identities of those we might release. In all honesty, I’m not sure. There is a part of me that thinks “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” is a real rule that we should follow. And then there is reality. I guess that there is something different with an actual exchange of prisoners than with a pure negotiation. I think that when we say “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” what we really mean is that we’re not going to consider their demands in order for them not to try to attack or as a response to an attack. Exchanges of prisoners, especially prisoners of war and those involved in espionage, have a long history; it’s how wars have always been fought. And perhaps the distinction is to be found in the fact that Bergdahl is a soldier and not a civilian.

I also find myself looking to Israel for some guidance in this matter. After all, Israel has faced far more terrorism (and threats of terrorism) than we have. And when Israel releases terrorists as a part of a prisoner exchange, those terrorists aren’t being relocated half a world away. Yet Israel has a history of giving up enormous numbers of prisoners for a single captured member of the IDF, for the bodies of fallen soldiers, for information about missing soldiers, and even as an inducement to continued negotiations. (For more on Israeli prisoner releases, please see my posts Gilad Shalit and Israeli-Arab Prisoner Exchanges and Why Did Israel Release Prisoners in Exchange for Peace Talks, Why Did the Palestinian Authority Demand the Release as a Pre-Condition to Peace Talks, and Just Who Are the Prisoners Being Released?) Have those releases worked well for Israel? I don’t know. I’m not sure that they know, either. But it is a conundrum that they’ve had to resolve time and time again. No, we’re not bound to follow their lead, but it can’t hurt to at least take those actions (and their ramifications and repercussions) into account in making our own decisions.

A few more points about the notion of the exchange itself before I move on to a related topic: First, to those who say that making this exchange emboldens the Taliban or al-Qaeda to try to capture other American soldiers, I’d suggest only that I think that has long been a goal of those organizations and I don’t see how this exchange increases the likelihood. Might this put American civilians at greater risk elsewhere in the world? I really don’t think so. I think that our reaction to the capture of American civilians outside of a warzone would bear no proportionality to our reaction to the capture of an American soldier in a warzone. (In other words, we’d treat that as a terrorist attack and, I suspect, we’d act in far bolder, more aggressive ways.)

As to the concern that the members of the Taliban that we released will soon return to the battlefield against America, while I recognize and appreciate this concern, I’m not overly worried myself. If these five members of the Taliban are as bad as some have suggested, then don’t you think that we’ll be monitoring them pretty carefully? Hmm, perhaps they will even provide us the means to get closer to the current Taliban leadership. How do you know we haven’t “turned” one of these men or found some other way to “tag” them? My suspicion is that there will be very tight coverage of these men and Hellfire missiles awaiting their return to their bases in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Before leaving the subject of Bergdahl and the exchange, I can’t help but talk about some of the reaction. First, as I mentioned above, I think that it’s wrong to make presumptions about facts before we really know what happened. Did Bergdhal go AWOL or desert? It seems likely, but we don’t know. But what if he left his post because of abuse that he was suffering from those in his unit (and, no, I have no evidence of anything like that happening; I’m simply trying to recognize that there are always multiple sides to stories like this)? What if he was suffering from PTSD or some other mental illness? Would your feelings toward Bergdahl walking away from his unit be different (presuming that’s what happened), if we learned that he was suffering from mental illness instead of just being a bad soldier?We need to understand the full scope of the facts and events before drawing conclusions, especially life or death conclusions, hero or villain conclusions.

I’m truly disgusted by some of the comments that have come, primarily from those on the right. Is criticism of the exchange fair? Of course. Is the suggestion that President Obama made the deal because he hates America and wants to strengthen the Taliban fair? No. It isn’t. Is criticism of Bergdahl for allegedly deserting fair? Well, subject to finding out what really happened, yes. But is the suggestion, without any basis at all, that Bergdahl was a traitor who gave “aid and comfort” to the enemy fair? Again, no. No it is not. Like anything else, criticism that is measured and fair is totally acceptable; but over the last few days we’ve witnessed criticism that has been frightening in its vitriol.

Look, for example, at the treatment that Bergdahl’s parents have received. His father has been criticized for speaking Pashtun (or Urdu … I don’t recall). Really? That’s where we’ve descended to now? If you are simply capable of speaking the same language used by those who we are at war with (and of course, we’re not at war with all Pashtun speakers…), then you are in bed with the enemy? And the horror of the father of a captured soldier trying to do anything that he can, even empathizing with his son’s captors, in the hopes of finding some way of seeing his son again. How dare he! Even more ridiculous is the criticism of Bergdahl’s father for having a long scraggly beard. Recall that he grew the beard to honor his son. Yet to some on the right, including a Fox News host, his beard makes him look like a member of the Taliban. Funny, though, I don’t recall hearing that same Fox News host or others on the right say that the guys from Duck Dynasty looked like members of the Taliban; no, those guys have been honored and invited to speak to Republican and conservative groups. Yet Bergdahl’s hometown has had to cancel a welcome home celebration following an outpouring of hate directed at town officials.

But perhaps most troubling is the hypocrisy and flip-flopping that we’ve seen all across the right. Did we hear this sort of gnashing of teeth when previous Presidents released prisoners or war or terrorists confined at Guantanamo. No. Even crazier, though, is the extent to which Politicians and pundits have tried to ignore or erase their own statements, some from not too long ago, asking or demanding that President Obama do everything that he could to secure Bergdahl’s release. Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, said just a few months ago that he would be inclined to support just this sort of trade. Speaking to CNN’s Anderson Cooper in February 2014:

COOPER: Would you oppose the idea of some form of negotiations or prisoner exchange? I know back in 2012 you called the idea of even negotiating with the Taliban bizarre, highly questionable.

MCCAIN: Well, at that time the proposal was that they would release — Taliban, some of them really hard-core, particularly five really hard-core Taliban leaders, as a confidence-building measure. Now this idea is for an exchange of prisoners for our American fighting man. I would be inclined to support such a thing depending on a lot of the details.

COOPER: So if there was some — the possibility of some sort of exchange, that's something you would support?

MCCAIN: I would support. Obviously I’d have to know the details, but I would support ways of bringing him home and if exchange was one of them I think that would be something I think we should seriously consider.

Yet now that Bergdahl has been released in just the sort of trade being discussed (even the same number of Taliban prisoners)?

MCCAIN: The problem that I have, and many others have, is what we paid for that release, and that is, releasing five of the most hardened, anti-American killers, brutal killers, who are, by the way, are also wanted by the international criminal court for their incredible brutality, and the fact that within a very short time, if the past proves true, they'll be back in the battlefield putting the lives of Americans in danger in the future. And that's what most of us find incomprehensible, that the Taliban should be allowed to pick the ‘dream team,’ as my friend Lindsey Graham called it, and send them to Qatar, and obviously, they will be back in the fight.

At least CNN’s Jake Tapper was willing to call out Sen. McCain’s hypocrisy.

Or consider this from a press release issued in June 2013 by Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma):

Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier, was taken prisoner by the Taliban-aligned Haqqani network while deployed to Afghanistan in June 2009.  Sen. Inhofe supported this amendment that raises awareness of SGT Bergdahl’s capture to continue to maximize efforts to return him and reminds the Senate of one of the basic pillars of the Army’s Warrior Ethos: ‘I will never leave a fallen comrade.’

Inhofe added, “The mission to bring our missing Soldiers home is one that will never end. It’s important that we make every effort to bring this captured Soldier home to his family.”

Yet once the Obama administration followed Sen. Inhofe’s wish to “make every effort to bring this captured Soldier home to his family”, Sen. Inhofe changes his mind and rants against the prisoner exchange, blaming it all on President Obama’s desire to close Guantanamo:

Here we have, this is — you know, you've done a great job in characterizing this guy, Bergdahl but even if Bergdahl was not a bad guy and didn't desert, still it wouldn't make any difference.

You can't negotiate with a terrorists, and these five guys, just by their titles, Megyn, they are the five arguably the most dangerous of the 149 left in Gitmo. My personal feeling on this because I've kind of been trying to champion the cause of keeping Gitmo open now for longer than six years. And this is just one more step — I think if the president believes he can take the five most dangerous people in Gitmo and turn them loose, turn them back to the fight, then he can get rid of anyone and that's his obsession to close Gitmo.

So which is it, Senator? Should we have made “every effort” to bring Bergdhal home or should we have made “every effort” except those that you disagree with after the fact? One right wing website even seems to have forgotten that just a few months ago, in January 2014, it asked people to sign a petition to secure Bergdahl’s release. Unfortunately, there are far more of these sorts of reversals of position and offensive statements, many even more egregious.

I couldn’t fail to mention Fox News’ regular Keith Ablow (a “forensic psychiatrist” who loves to diagnose all sorts of mental ailments in those with whom he disagrees) speculated that President Obama agreed to the prisoner exchange because he “doesn’t affiliate with patriotism,” “wants out of America,” and “does not have the will of the American people, Americanism in his soul”.

For a vast collection of the sorts of previous claims in support of Bergdahl and efforts to secure his release followed post-release criticism, please see the following posts:

It’s hard to read those posts and watch the flip-flopping without becoming even more convinced that criticism from the right, once again, has little to do with actual substance, and everything to do with an opportunity to criticize President Obama who, it seems, must by definition be wrong in any decision he makes. I really wonder whether, if President Obama were to come out tomorrow in opposition to pedophilia, a whole new right-wing pro-pedophilia movement would be born.

In any event, there are some serious and important issues to be discussed and questions to be answered. But the knee-jerk need to criticize and the rush to reach judgments without all of the facts aren’t helpful for any sort of resolution. Do I think that the exchange was a good idea, notwithstanding who the Taliban members were or the allegations against Bergdahl? I think so, say 70/30 in favor. But I’m not sure and could be swayed in my views by sound arguments for or against. I suspect that only history will tell us if this was a good decision or bad. But history will do so with both 20/20 hindsight and most of the facts, both things that we are lacking today.

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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Spelling Bees and Poets Bring Out the Ugly

Let me start by quoting myself from my most recent substantive post: My Remarks at the City of Carmel’s Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony:

[I]t becomes our obligation to be sure that those sorts of bigotries, hatreds, and even simple mistrusts aren’t allowed to take root in our communities. Rather than denigrating people for how they look or dress, how they worship, or the music they choose to listen to, we should celebrate the differences we find around us. We must use those differences to make us and our communities stronger. And isn’t that really the core that has made America great for all of these years, anyway? E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.

So why am I quoting myself? Several related reasons, all of which occurred within close temporal proximity to one another, and which caused me to remember not just what I’d written previously, but brought to mind the core concept that I was talking about then and which I’ve focused on frequently on this blog.

First, over Memorial Day weekend, I received the following anonymous comment to my post More Stupid & Hate from the Right (posted last September):

You’re an utter moron and would never be able to engage in a debate on actual policies or supply hard data/demographic findings to prove any of your race baiting.

The commenter didn’t challenge any of the racism that I pointed out in that post, but described what I was writing as “race baiting”. Apparently, pointing out actual racist statements, including statements directed at the ethnicity of children and beauty pageant winners is “race baiting”. It’s yet another example of the Orwellian world in which racism doesn’t exist except for those who talk about racism (much like it’s apparently a form of discrimination to tell people that they shouldn’t discriminate).

Then, a few days later Maya Angelou died and, as you can probably guess, some on the right let their hate boil over. For example, here are some excerpts from Debbie Schlussel:

Once again, Billy Joel’s lyrics – “Only the Good Die Young” – are proven true, as Marguerite Ann Johnson a/k/a “Maya Angelou” dies at age 86. Angelou was America’s most overrated crappy writer, all because she was Black … and a far-leftist. Angelou was a racist, America-hater, Jew-hater, anti-Israel, a close friend of Malcolm X, and a strong supporter of Cuba’s Fidel Castro. No, she actually hadn’t a clue why the caged bird sings since she supported the caging and the cagers all the way to her grave.

I was one of the lucky American kids who was never forced to read this Friend of Oprah cretin’s god-awful “writing,” the most overrated dreck on paper. Sadly, high school and college students all over America are forced to wade through her written bath of dung because it’s chic among the brainless radicals who dominate American education at all levels. It’s absolutely unreadable. The ugly empress–inside and out–definitely wore no clothing. And you probably don’t know this: the overrated, talentless hack, Angelou, was a madam and a prostitute, and an America-hater who left the country to go live in Africa and didn’t intend to return. But she came back, according to the book, “Maya Angelou” by Vicki Cox and Miles Shapiro, only because her good friend, Malcolm X, implored her to return to America, so she could help him attack U.S. racism in the United Nations and help him build the Nation of Islam, which he claimed was the civil rights movement.

Can you name a single thing this leftist radical, Angelou, contributed other than hate (and very bad “poems”)? I cannot. And even though she made an appearance at every violent, far-left, radical cause’s events, ignorant conventional wisdom heaps praise on her as some sort of “peace activist.” She was no such thing. Angelou spoke at the racist, Jew-hating bigot Louis Farrakhan’s 1995 Million Man March and was a strong supporter of his Nation of Islam. Given this, it’s disgusting that, in 2001, Bill Clinton appointed Angelou to the board of the U.S. Holocaust Museum just before he left office, so there could be no firestorm or examination of her appointment.

Maya Angelou did nothing good for America – not in her Grade A Gitmo Torture Material “writing” and “poems,” not in her many pretentious speeches and pronouncements.

But she’s being lauded today by the many liberal morons across America who worship at the altars of yoga, gluten-free, Priuses, and ADHD.

They like their gods empty.

Maya Angelou is one of those IQ tests pop culture presents us with all the time. If you’re a fan of Angelou, you failed miserably.

I hope she packed light because it’s very hot where she’s headed.

Maya Angelou, Rot In Hell.

(Emphasis in original; internal links deleted.) Note, for the record, that I also have some problems with some of the positions that Angelou took and groups that she supported. But that doesn’t diminish her role in American society and culture or the love and affection many felt toward her. I have no idea whether the allegations that Schlussel makes are accurate. More importantly, just because she was opposed to things that I favor or vice versa, doesn’t make me hate her or feel the need to let loose with the sort of venomous diatribe that Schlussel offers. When someone dies, I rarely (if ever) feel the need to go on the attack to denigrate that person’s life. The sort of dancing on the grave exhibited by Schlussel represents the ugliest part of humanity and is, unfortunately, a part of humanity that we’ve seen all to often recently.

Anyway, there’s more of the hate directed at Angelou that you can find online if you’re so inclined. What you’ll find, should you step into that cesspool, is a frightening degree of hatred expressed toward Angelou because of her “leftist” views linked with allegations of her own racism. But as I read the hatred directed at her, I find it hard to believe that at least some of the scorn comes not just from her being a liberal or leftist, but because Angelou was a black woman who was proud of her heritage and ethnicity, wasn’t afraid to talk about it, wasn’t afraid to associate with other powerful and important figures in the African American community, and wasn’t afraid to use her voice and her words to advocate for change.

Finally, last week two Indian-American children were the winners of the annual Scripps-Howard Spelling Bee. And, unsurprisingly, the response to to the competition generally and their victory in particular was not always as supportive or congratulatory as we’d like to see. Here are a few of examples of the sorts of tweets posted in response to the Spelling Bee:

@CalePie: Nothing more American than a good spelling bee.. Oh wait all the Caucasians are eliminated

@GarciaJerr: Why are the people in the spelling bee foreign?

@yaboyzac_uoeno: The kids in the spelling bee should only be AMERICAN.

@cz3ck: One year I wish an American kid could win the spelling bee

@heasal87: Why are there no American kids left in the spelling bee? I’m ashamed of our kind. Parents – step it up

@the_best_uhl_c: wow that blows the spelling bee ends with a tie thats so friggin un-American no wonder the kids that won it are Indian

@lino_and_louie: No American sounding names who won the spelling B. #sad #fail

@ehorne92: Why can’t an American ever be in the final four of the #spellingbee

And a bonus tweet that I really don’t understand:

@Nimibrown: If you’re Indian I’m cool with you winning spelling bees but don’t mock my American heritage.

These tweets were compiled by the Jeff Chu (and there are more than what I’ve collected here).

Of course, these responses are eerily and frighteningly reminiscent of the responses to the 2013 America’s Got Talent winner (Asian), the winner of Miss America 2013 (Indian-American), and other instances in which a person of color stepped onto a national stage (as detailed in that September 2013 post More Stupid & Hate from the Right).

Stop and think for a minute what these sorts of comments say about our American “melting pot”. It seems to me that there remains a segment of our population that draws a distinction between “real Americans” and, well, those who aren’t “real Americans”. To gain the status of being a “real American” you have to be white (and probably Christian, too, though I suppose most Jews would be included). Do we really have classes of American-ness, based on skin color or ethnicity?

It seems to me that racism is largely on the decline in American, especially among our youth. But, at the same time, the rise of social media combined with the growing prevalence of people of color taking an active role in our society has given those who still harbor racist or nativist views a platform to express those views. Then, as people who share those views seek them come out into the open, it appears to be a sort of liberating phenomena that triggers yet more racism (or bigotry directed at gays or Muslims or other minority group).

When we hear people express notions that suggest that someone who comes from a non-White or non-European ethnic background is somehow less American (or not “really” American), we need to explain, firmly, that all Americans — regardless of color or religion or ethnic background — are Americans. You are no more and no less American than they are; they are no more and no less American than you. Though if you are one of these people who thinks that people of color are somehow less American, then perhaps it is you, who simply doesn’t understand what our country is and represents, whose “American-ness” should be questioned. But those children? The ones who stood on that stage and spelled words correctly? If they are American citizens (and I presume that they are…), then they are just as American as you are, notwithstanding that their skin isn’t white, they have “funny names”, or they come from families that appreciate hard work and diligent study, perhaps in lieu of football or basketball.

Racism is declining. I hope. But it isn’t gone. It’s up to each of us to fight against it whenever, wherever, and however we can. Simply saying “no” when confronted by a racist remark is often a good start. I’ll conclude by further quoting my remarks at the City of Carmel’s Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony, once again:

We need each of you, each member of your family, each member of your neighborhood and our community at large, to help us achieve the goal of a community that respects people for who they are, helping people to “just get along”. For if we learn to respect one another then “never again” should never become a concern here in our City.


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