Author Interview #132: the Folks at Fifty-Eight by Michael Patrick Clark
Author Interview with Michael Patrick Clark
Why did you choose this particular story?
Some claim there is nothing new or interesting left to write about The Cold War. I disagree. The truth is, for all those thousands of Cold War espionage stories that largely focused on a physically-partitioned Germany, many of the most audacious and significant events occurred before The Berlin Wall was even thought of.
The story of how Russia came to develop the atom bomb, in so short a period, is a good example. Although a few of those involved in coal-face espionage were named, prosecuted, and widely reported on, and stories abound of individual spies stealing individual secrets, it is remarkable that no one has previously used the strategic-level plot as background for a best-selling espionage and conspiracy novel.
Part of this is due to the enigma that was pre-internet, pre-Gorbachev, Russia, and the paranoia of its leadership; making in-depth research virtually impossible. Part is due to the understandable reluctance of western politicians and security chiefs to acknowledge the damage caused by political in-fighting and bickering incompetence.
For all of that, perhaps the most compelling reason lies in the refusal of either side to publicly admit the true extent of their own lies, hypocrisy, and shameless opportunism.
What was unique about the setting of the book and how did it enhance or take away from the story?
The Folks at Fifty-Eight is set in occupied Europe and The United States, during the immediate aftermath of The Second World War. As espionage novels go, this is a somewhat unfashionable period. At this time there was no Berlin Wall, no KGB, no STASI, and, in a Cold War sense, no acknowledged belligerence between the former Allies. If there was a ‘phoney war’ prior to WWII, then this was The Cold War’s ‘phoney war’.
At the time, the United States and Britain were largely in the grip of post-war euphoria, while mainland Europe was gripped with both the fear and reality of Stalin’s rapidly-descending ‘iron curtain’. This temporary ‘state of flux’ allowed the ‘men in grey’ to plot and scheme, and me, as a novelist, the freedom to take so many little-known facts and weave them into a truly fascinating espionage and conspiracy novel.
What specific themes did you emphasize throughout the novel? What were you trying to get across to the reader?
Apart from the constant blurring of fact and fiction, the overriding theme is one of a decent man’s gradual descent into corruption. If there is a motto, it is ’don’t trust anyone’ no matter how well-intentioned they appear. Everyone in the book has a guilty secret, everyone has a selfish agenda, everyone has a price, and no one is as they appear.
Are the characters real and believable? Can you relate to their predicaments? To what extent do they remind you of yourself or someone you know?
The Folks at Fifty-Eight is based on a true story. The backcloth of little-known fact, is interwoven with the fictitious thread of an espionage and conspiracy thriller, with obvious parallels to the Faustian legend. I have intentionally altered the backgrounds and descriptions of certain key characters, but kept the story historically accurate, with personalities, motivations, and activities as close to the truth as possible.
For example. . .
Marcus Allum (Hammond’s boss at The State Department) is based on Frank Wisner; the ‘handler’ of defector Reinhard Gehlen, who ran an Eastern European spy network for the U.S. Wisner was a former OSS chief in the Balkans, a manic depressive who later became head of CIA covert operations.
The character of Daniel Chambers (The sinister manipulator of both Allum and Hammond) is based on Allen Dulles. The former President of the Council on Foreign Relations later became the longest-serving head of the CIA.
The character of Morton Simmonds (The FBI agent from whom Hammond finally discovers much of the truth) is based on Indiana State graduate William King (Bill) Harvey: the senior FBI agent who headed up almost two-hundred-and-fifty agents, in a largely unsuccessful purge of the Federal Government and White House.
History records that Lavrenti Beria was, arguably, Stalin’s most infamous henchman; a mass-murderer, and serial rapist, who controlled Stalin’s terror apparatus from his third-floor office in The Lubyanka. Perhaps less known is that Beria was also an espionage genius, who devised and implemented one of the greatest espionage coups of all time.
How do characters change or evolve throughout the course of the story? What events trigger such changes?
On the whole, I have received some fantastic reviews, particular when it came to characterisation, and I would like to thank those who have given up their time to provide feedback and encouragement. However, one or two of the critics felt the ending was flawed, because they felt the hero, Hammond, does something out of character. This was the most disappointing criticism I received, because I tried, throughout, to show how Hammond’s values are slowly and inexorably compromised. Given that progressive degeneration, the ending should not have come as any great surprise, and lest anyone forget. . . this is the first book in a trilogy. There will be plenty of time and opportunity for salvation or a change of heart.
In what ways do the events in the books reveal evidence of your world view?
The problem with conspiracy theorists is they have a bad name. Today, any pronunciation of the words ‘conspiracy theory’ can only be accomplished with a glance to the heavens and the eyebrows raised. When I refuse to take the word of any government at face value, I find myself apologising at the same time, and yet, whenever we turn on the television or pick up a newspaper, we are constantly bombarded with evidence of various high-level and government conspiracies.
That is not to say I adhere to the rantings of the ‘lunatic fringe’.
No, I don’t believe the Wall Street Crash was the work of The Council on Foreign Relations. No, I don’t believe that America faked the lunar landings. No, I don’t believe the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks were the work of the CIA and MI5. No, I don’t believe that Elvis is alive and living in South America with Adolf Hitler.
You see, that’s the problem for anyone who questions the world around them, or is sceptical of government and establishment rhetoric. They are immediately branded as ‘conspiracy theorists’ with all the associated vilification that such a title implies and generates.
The Council on Foreign Relations is a case in point. In the ninety-odd years since its inception, I believe the organisation has been good for American foreign policy and good for the general health of western economies. However, I also believe that, during that same period, certain individuals with selfish and specific personal agendas have succeeded in manipulating the organisation for their own ends.
Was there a basis for your story? A previous experience? Something else?
When I quit the computer industry and moved to Spain I did very little, other than swim, play golf, and drink Rioja. For a while that was great, but I soon discovered that I needed something to keep the wheels turning and the brain active, and so I began writing.
At first it was difficult, because I had to learn the craft, and that, literally, took years. When that was done, and I began my first spy novel, I had another dilemma: what to write and how to start? The first answer was easy; I wanted to write, à la John Le Carré, but that still left the question of how and where to begin.
And so, for my first spy novel, I employed a technique used by feature film directors. Start with the close-up of a face, and then slowly pan-out, until we can see the clothing, then farther, until we see the immediate surroundings, and so on, until we can see the complete picture. At each juncture I had to make a decision about the next revelation.
I began with a character: a young man. As I slowly panned-out, he became a British soldier. The soldier was sitting in a truck. The truck was in the middle of a battle. The battle was in a war. The war was WWII. The location was on the banks of the River Weser, in Germany.
The time was late 1944. . . I had my start.
The more I wrote, the more I needed to research. The more research I did, the more I learnt. The more I learnt, the more I developed both plot and background. The entire trilogy grew from that one face.
That book became the third part of The Etzel Trilogy: The Dreams of Etzel. Through my thirst for more and more knowledge, I was able to outline the second part, Hierarchies of Greed, and finally outline, develop, and write the first part: The Folks at Fifty-Eight.
What research did you have to perform to back up your story? Any research which really opened your eyes or gave you new respect for a topic or profession?
The research effort was massive. Not only did I have to learn about everything day-to-day 1946, but I also had to research 1946 occupied Europe and post-war Washington D.C. I also had to research Stalin’s Russia, and there is very little definitive material on that. You see, I wanted to write a book based on little-known fact, interwoven with a fictitious story of spies, sex, and sedition. I didn’t want to have Cold War and modern history buffs pull apart my story, or be able to ‘see the join’.
It was through my research on The Dreams of Etzel that I discovered the truth about the early Cold War period, and through that I developed both the espionage fact and espionage fiction forHierarchies of Greed and The Folks at Fifty-Eight. One effectively fed the other two.
As for opening my eyes. . . every successive day did that. I couldn’t believe how naïve and amateurish so much of the earliest western espionage efforts were, and how accomplished Lavrenti Beria was by comparison. It was a fascinating period, with larger-than-life characters, and I loved every minute of my research.
What is your method for writing a book? A certain amount of hours every day? A certain routine? Are you character/story builder or an outliner or some other method?
I write every day, sometimes seven days a week, and sometimes all day. Because there is, by necessity, such a high level of research, I usually sit down to write at eight a.m. If I haven’t got the words flowing by nine-thirty or so, I stop and move on to more research, or maybe start writing a blog article or something of that ilk. On top of that, and being an Indie published author, there is always so much to do that doesn’t necessarily demand creativity. Just fitting it all in is a problem.
How do you get past writers block or distractions like the internet?
I don’t. If I’m in the mood to be distracted, I’m probably not about to write anything worthwhile. I love writing, and so if I’m not in the mood to write, for any reason, I just go with whatever has caused that emotion. As for writers block; I have no idea what people mean by that. We each lack creativity at different times; that’s a human condition. I sometimes think that giving it a fancy title merely prolongs and exacerbates what would otherwise be a temporary blip.
Favourite book from childhood?
That’s easy; Shadow the Sheepdog, by Enid Blyton. I read it over and over again, and only stopped when the teenage years arrived and it became slightly embarrassing to admit to loving.
What’s on your desk? Can you see your desk? Describe what you see when you look around.
My desk is a clutter: computer, printer, keyboard, software, trinkets from my wife, telephones, pens and notebooks, coffee mugs, digital photo frame, Dictaphone, and a pair of binoculars. When I look out of my window, slightly to the left, I see the Atlantic Ocean and the cliffs of North Cornwall, all the way up to Hartland Point and out to Lundy Island.
If I look slightly to the right, I see cattle and sheep and goats and ponies, patchwork fields, and tourists by the truckload. If I look around the room I see my favourite painting by David Cartwright, of the charge of the Scots Greys at Waterloo, and bookshelves crammed with reference material and all manner of other books, discs, Arsenal memorabilia, and Dresden military figurines. There’s also a globe, a detailed map of the world, a music keyboard (I’m definitely gonna learn to play one day), a huge painting of men playing pool, picture of my wife, picture of mum, and a leather armchair that I like to slump into when I’m feeling precious.