Welcome to my stop on Timothy Jay Smith’s The Fourth Courier blog tour!
With thanks to Kelly @ Love Books Group Tours for arranging the following interview with Timothy Jay Smith…..
For those who don’t know already, could you tell us about yourself and your book(s) please?
I’m an expat American who has lived in France since 2005, first in Paris for eight years and now in Nice. Working and living overseas, and traveling extensively, are not new to me. Raised crisscrossing the States pulling a small green trailer behind the family car, I developed a wanderlust that has taken me around the world many times.
En route, I came across the characters who are in my stories. Polish cops and Greek fishermen, mercenaries and arms dealers, child prostitutes and wannabe terrorists, Indian Chiefs and Indian tailors: I hung with them all in an unparalleled international career in which I maneuvered through Occupied Territories, smuggled a banned play from behind the Iron Curtain, represented the U.S. at the highest levels of foreign governments, and stowed away aboard a ‘devil’s barge’ for a three-day crossing from Cape Verde that landed me in an African jail.
All of those adventures have contributed to the settings and stories in my novels. The Fourth Courier, set in Poland, is my third published novel. Kirkus Reviews called my first novel, Cooper’s Promise, “literary dynamite” and named it one of the Best Books of 2012. A Vision of Angels, which unfolds against the backdrop of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, won the Paris Prize for Fiction. A fourth novel, Fire on the Island, set in Greece and next in line to be published, took the Gold Medal in the 2017 Faulkner/Wisdom Competition for the Novel.
My books are generally cast as literary thrillers or mysteries. I like to write what I like to read, and that’s relatively fast-paced stories but not all action, which have depth and verge on being literary. I also like my novels to bring some awareness to an issue of social importance. So I take an event or threat—a thriller plot—and examine what it means through the eyes of the people it affects.
In The Fourth Courier, a nuclear smuggling operation gives the reader an insight into how, in 1992 at the very end of the Cold War, families in Poland coped with the country’s collective hangover from communism. In A Vision of Angels, I look at how the lives of four families become interwoven by a suicide bomb plot in Jerusalem. Cooper’s Promise is the story of a soldier’s redemption through a tale about human trafficking.
Where did/do you get your ideas from?
I’ve had lots of adventures and met lots of characters to draw on, but that’s different from coming up with the idea for a story itself. The Fourth Courier goes back a long way for me. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and Solidarity won the first free election in Poland in over sixty years. In the same year, Mikhail Gorbachev introduced new cooperative laws in the Soviet Union, which was an area of my expertise. I was invited to the Soviet Union as a consultant, which led to my consulting throughout the former Soviet bloc, eventually living for over two years in Poland.
At the time, there was a lot of smuggling across the border between Russia and Poland, giving rise to fears that nuclear material, too, might be slipping across. While on assignment in Latvia, I met a very unhappy decommissioned Russian general, who completely misunderstood my purpose for being there. When an official meeting concluded, he suggested we go for a walk where we could talk without being overheard.
I followed him deep into a forest. I couldn’t imagine what he wanted. Finally we stopped, and he said, “I can get you anything you want.” I must have looked puzzled because he added, “Atomic.”
Then I understood. In an earlier conversation, there had been some passing remarks about the Soviets’ nuclear arsenal in Latvia, for which he had had some responsibility, and apparently still some access. While my real purpose for being there was to design a volunteer program for business specialists, he assumed that was a front and I was really a spy.
I didn’t take him up on his offer for something atomic, but I did walk away with the seed for a story that germinated years later when I decided to write a novel set during that period in Poland.
Are any of your characters based (however loosely) on anyone you know?
Of course. All the time. The question is, to what extent do I do it with each individual character?
In doing research in Warsaw for The Fourth Courier, I came across a man whose “jaundiced features appeared pinched from a rotting apple.” That brief encounter was the inspiration for my character, Billy. More profoundly, in the two years that I lived in Poland, I became close to several families, and have pieced together my fictional Polish family based on them.
People are amazingly complex. Writers soon realize that because so often we discover that we are writing about ourselves, or bits of ourselves we didn’t know were there. I see pieces of myself in many of my characters—good and bad, men and women, and especially the protagonists. I can’t imagine any writer not agreeing that we constantly plumb ourselves, usually not consciously, in almost every story and character we create. When I think about what a character might fear, or how s/he might torture someone, or what s/he might find annoying, of course it has to be organic to how that character has already been portrayed, but I also ask myself: what would I do? Or fear the most?
Cooper’s Promise is a good example of that. Cooper, a deserter from the war in Iraq who’s adrift in a fictitious West African country, would like to go home but can’t because he knows he’ll be thrown in jail—and he’s highly claustrophobic. So am I.
How do you pick your characters’ names?
I think character names are immensely important but I come up with them in many different ways. A name might pop into my head that seems suitable. In the case of some new work, I asked friends for their favorite Turkish names because I knew so few. For my bad guys, I often use the names of people I’ve met who were scoundrels. I always look up the meaning of first names. What I love is when I am tempted by a name and its meaning correlates with the character, good guy or bad.
The Fourth Courier is my big exception when it comes to my protagonist’s name: Jay Porter. I had just finished another project and didn’t want a break from writing. I already had my story and protagonist, but no name seemed obvious. So, I took my middle name and my favorite grandmother’s last name as a placeholder. I never settled on a replacement. As a name, Jay Porter is clipped, simple and masculine, and perfect for an FBI agent. So I kept it.
Can you share your writing process with us, in a nutshell?
The first thing is that I need to decide what I want to write about. I use all of my work—novels, screenplays, stage plays—to expose the reader/audience to something they may not know about. In The Fourth Courier, it’s that moment in recent history when communism collapsed and how people coped in the immediate aftermath.
Then I have to decide, what plot would best let me put a human face to that issue. And who would be my main character?
Once I have my main character and a notion of my opening and ending scenes, I’m ready to start writing.
Who are your top 5 favourite authors?
If you could meet any author, who would it be and what would you ask them?
If he were still alive, it would be Gore Vidal. He’s credited with publishing the first gay novel, and in doing so, tossed away any chance to continue his family’s political dynasty. He was courageous and intellectual, and I would have loved to have a rambling conversation with him.
In terms of living authors, I’d pick Omar El Akkad, author of American War. It’s a stunning dystopian novel about America’s second civil war (fifty years in the future) following the federal government’s prohibition on any further production of fossil fuels. The South, the producer of fossil fuels, and the North are back at war. In my novel A Vision of Angels, my protagonist is a war photographer trying to give a human face to the intractable Middle East conflict. To me, Mr. El Akkad’s novel gives a face to the future defined by climate change. A conversation with him would be fascinating on so many fronts.
Were you a big reader as a child?
Voracious but not nerdy about it. Each summer, my hometown library put out a challenge reading list for kids and I always exceeded it. I wish I had the luxury of so much reading time again!
When did you start to write?
I wrote my first stage play when I was ten years old. It was set during the Civil War, and one-by-one, a group of slaves, sitting around a bonfire, snuck off into the night while they sang Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen. Two years later, I started my first novel and showed what I’d written to my mother. She told me it was dirty. (A young couple was having a picnic on a blanket in a park when WWII bomber jets flew overhead? Dirty? I guess it was the picnic blanket.) I didn’t know what my mother exactly meant, but I knew dirty wasn’t good, and that rather crimped my writing habit for some forty years.
If you could re-write the ending to any book what would it be and what would you change?
Is there a book you wish you had written?
Previously I mentioned American War by Omar El Akkad. That’s the book I should have written. It reflects my own vision of the future plus it has many clever elements, such as cargo ships arriving with food and other aid to help America’s internal refugees and war victims. It’s a deeply disturbing reversal of America’s position in the world. In terms of the book’s ending, however, I would definitely not want to rewrite it. Until the last page, the reader can’t be sure what decision the protagonist will make. The narrative and character development has been so intense and finely crafted that her choice isn’t obvious and either choice is profound.
I don’t so much want to rewrite the ending of any book, but there are a few scenes in other books that I’ve always wanted to have my own take on. That’s not the same as rewriting them, which implies they weren’t good enough; but because they were so good, I want to take the same set-up and see if I can write something as powerful. One actually appears in The Fourth Courier.
In Gunther Grass’s The Tin Drum, there’s a scene where people who hold in their feelings go to café to slice onions which causes them to cry, and ultimately allows them to cry. This is the moment in The Fourth Courier where I recast that scene:
She started peeling onions, and listened to a Mozart sonata that Tadzu had memorized the prior spring. She remembered how the mourning doves had cooed on the window’s ledge as she listened to him practice. She peered out the window into the gelid twilight. When the weather warmed enough to call it spring, she would open the window and strew breadcrumbs on the ledge, hoping the doves would return. She imagined them, grey and plump, pecking at the crumbs, occasionally splaying their tail feathers in a gluttony-induced courtship dance.
Alina started to slice an onion. Her eyes stung, and she wiped away tears with the backs of her hands. Again she looked out the window, imagining the cooing of the doves. Of course she hadn’t heard them. Only silent snow steadily layered the ledge.
She cut into a second onion and wiped away more tears. Just as she hoped the doves would return, she worried they would not. All her hopes, it seemed, were only her worries reversed. She sliced another onion and another, letting the tears run down her cheeks.
Listening to Mozart, she cried.
Listening for the doves, she cried.
Listening to her own hopes, she cried.
If you wrote an autobiography, what would your title be?
In the Driver Seat
If you could invite any fictional character for coffee who would it be and where would you take them?
Odysseus. I’m a grecophile and insist on retracing his odyssey.
Who would I take somewhere? Alec Leamas to the lounge at the Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul. How much more fun than having coffee with John LeCarré’s best double agent in that seat of espionage during and post-WWII?
What are you working on right now?
I have two new novels underway. I’m working on the penultimate edits to Fire on the Island in which an arsonist threatens to burn down a Greek island village, which will put out of commission a Coast Guard station vital in the rescue of refugees crossing a narrow channel from Turkey. To try to prevent that, the FBI sends a Special Agent to investigate, who finds himself in a village wracked by conflicts, some dating back a hundred years, and any one of which might make someone want to destroy the village. I expect to deliver the final draft to my agent in mid-May.
I’m well into a new novel, The Syrian Pietà, set in Istanbul. In it, the CIA recruits a Syrian refugee to go deep undercover to—
I’m going to stop myself there because the idea is too good to share until it’s written. I already love this book and character.
I actually have two styles of writing: a story told from many perspectives, or a story told entirely from one character’s perspective in which the reader knows nothing more than the character. People have different names for the two approaches. I know them as an open mystery (the reader knows there’s a bogeyman in the next room but the protagonist does not) and a closed mystery (the bogeyman is revealed only when the protagonist encounters him).
The Syrian Pietà is a closed mystery, as was my novel Cooper’s Promise. It’s an enormous challenge to write a closed mystery because you have only one character to reveal information. Of course, the temptation is to tell instead of show, which is no challenge at all. In the movie world, one of the best examples of a closed mystery is Chinatown. Jack Nicholson is in every scene. In a novel, it’s a great way to get into a character’s head.
What do you generally do to celebrate on publication day?
What I do every day. Plus champagne.
How can readers keep in touch with you?
Is there anything else you would like us to know?
I would like to let your LGBTQ followers know that there’s a lot in my novels for them. Usually my protagonists are gay. In The Fourth Courier, he’s the CIA agent who teams up with the FBI guy. Like all my novels, the story turns on a gay plot point; it would have to happen differently in a straight situation. My novels are set in different countries, so the nature of the turning point is never the same, and instead reveals how homosexuality is regarded and treated in different places.
Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, Timothy 🙂
For International Espionage Fans of Alan Furst and Daniel Silva, a new thriller set in post-Soviet era Poland.
It is 1992 in Warsaw, Poland, and the communist era has just ended. A series of grisly murders suddenly becomes an international case when it’s feared that the victims may have been couriers smuggling nuclear material out of the defunct Soviet Union. The FBI sends an agent to help with the investigation. When he learns that a Russian physicist who designed a portable atomic bomb has disappeared, the race is on to find him—and the bomb—before it ends up in the wrong hands.
Smith’s depiction of post-cold war Poland is gloomily atmospheric and murky in a world where nothing is quite as it seems. Suspenseful, thrilling, and smart, The Fourth Courier brings together a straight white FBI agent and gay black CIA officer as they team up to uncover a gruesome plot involving murder, radioactive contraband, narcissistic government leaders, and unconscionable greed.
happy reading 🙂