Interview with Theodore Jerome Cohen
Frozen in Time: Murder at the Bottom of the World
Reviewed by for Reader Views (04/10)
Today, Tyler R. Tichelaar of Reader Views is pleased to interview Theodore J. (Ted) Cohen, who is here to talk about his new novel “Frozen in Time: Murder at the Bottom of the World.”
Theodore Cohen, PhD, holds three degrees in the physical sciences from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and has been an engineer and scientist for more than forty years. From December 1961 through early March 1962, he participated in the 16th Chilean Expedition to the Antarctic. His communications lifeline to the world was ham radio. At the time of the Expedition, his U.S. call sign was W9VZL; today, it is N4XX. The U.S. Board of Geographic Names in October, 1964, named the geographical feature Cohen Islands, located at 61° 18' S. latitude, 57° 53' W. longitude in the Cape Legoupil area, Antarctica, in his honor. Dr. Cohen has published more than 350 papers, articles, columns, essays, and interviews, and is a co-author of The NEW Shortwave Propagation Handbook (from CQ Communications). His first novel, “Full Circle: A Dream Denied, A Vision Fulfilled,” was published by AuthorHouse in 2009.
Tyler: Welcome, Ted. I’m happy that you could join me today to talk about your new novel. First of all, the book’s title, “Frozen in Time,” relates to its setting in Antarctica. What made you decide to pick such an obscure or at least unlikely setting?
Ted:Good question! It’s certainly a place on Earth that’s not in the forefront of everyone’s mind. But I think that given its foreboding nature, it is one about which many people have an intense curiosity.
After I published my first novel last September, I really had no intent on writing another book so soon. But in mid-November, 2009, about the time that Antarctic expeditions were beginning their last-minute preparations for the trek south—remember, the seasons in the southern hemisphere are reversed from ours—I literally woke up one morning with the thought: what about writing a novel having to do with the 16th Chilean Expedition to the Antarctic . . . the one in which I participated? I really don’t know what triggered the thought. The novel began years ago as a short story that I wrote in the Antarctic and that I intended to submit to “Playboy” magazine when I returned to the United States. Unfortunately, the manuscript, which had been written in longhand on the back of some blank radiograms, was lost on my trip back to the States. Perhaps the idea just sat in my mind for fifty years and finally moved to the “top of the stack” in terms of things that I needed to finish! In a way, the whole idea to do the book may not have been that much of a conscious effort on my part but rather, the bubbling up of unfinished business started decades ago.
Tyler: What about the historical events that are the basis for the novel drew your interest since they are also probably obscure events to most readers? Even with your personal interest in them, why did you think they would fascinate your readers?
Ted: I don’t know, for sure, that the events will fascinate my readers. I hope they will, but I’ll have to wait and see what they say. Every reader brings a different perspective to the book he or she is reading . . . a different background, different set of expectations, different educational level, and so forth. What one reader sees, another may miss. One may read a novel on one level, while another may see the things at a completely different level. We know, for example, that books such as “Alice in Wonderland” and “Gulliver’s Travels” can be read on several different levels. So again, it will be interesting to see what my readers think.
That said, in direct response to your question, this novel contains, by pure chance, three incidents that, as we were going to press, occurred in real life:
- In the novel, there’s an incident involving orcas. Earlier this year, a trainer at Sea World was killed by an orca.
- In the novel, the theft from the Central Bank of Chile occurred in the aftermath of the largest earthquake ever recorded by man, the magnitude 9.5 Chilean Earthquake of May, 1960. Early this year, Chile experienced another devastating earthquake, though this one was of magnitude 8.8.
- In the novel, ships of the Chilean fleet experienced rogue waves. Earlier this year, a cruise ship was hit by a rogue wave in the Mediterranean Sea and sustained significant damage.
In a way, you might say that although the incidents in the book preceded these recent events, the events in the book were “ripped from the headlines.” So, the intensity and implied “immediacy” of events that occurred fifty years ago, I think, bring a certain excitement to the book and will help the reader relate to the experiences described.
Tyler: Can you tell us about your research for the book? Since you were familiar with the setting and events, did you need to do much research, and how did you decide what details to include and where to deviate from history?
Ted: First, I had my detailed journal, which I started keeping in September, 1961, and in which I made entries daily . . . sometimes twice daily. I also kept newspaper clippings from Chilean newspapers, and, of course, took lots of 35mm photographs. These materials provided the basic information I needed to flesh out the plot.
Now remember, Tyler, in fiction, there are no boundaries, no limits. And as was the case with my first novel, I intended this book blend truth and fiction in such a way that even a reader who knew me well would have a difficult time separating the two. I simply started with the truth, and let the story evolve in accordance with the plot that I had established. You might find it interesting to learn that in the case of my first novel, “Full Circle,” I received calls from my sister for weeks after the book was published, asking questions such as “Did Dad really say that?” or “Did you and Dad really do that?”
In the case of “Frozen in Time,” with the exception of the UW-M professor and his two graduate students who I accompanied on the expedition, all of whom are alive and well, today, no one else really knows what happened. This being the case, I am free, as it were, to take the story where I want to take it for maximum impact and enjoyment.
Further to your question of what details to include, given that my background is that of a research scientist, and given the extraordinary amount of information available on the Internet, there was no end of information available for use in the novel. So, yes, I did have to be selective. My intent was to provide the interested reader with additional background and pointers, in some cases, to addresses on the Internet.
Finally, for those who are now using eBook readers (e.g., Kindle, Nook, etc.), I am attempting to push the technology to the limit. If readers will pull down the Kindle or EPUB (on Kobo.com) versions of “Full Circle,” for example, they will see that the footnotes are rendered as endnotes in which the Internet addresses are “hot.” If readers’ eBook readers have Internet connectivity, they will be able to access the material cited. In this way, my novels in the eBook format are “media rich,” and they maximize the use of the technologies employed.
Tyler: How long did it take you to write this novel?
Ted: I wrote the first draft in three weeks! But like a lot of jobs, this was one of those 80%-20% efforts. I got 80% of the work done in 20% of the time it actually took to get the book on the street, and then, spent the remaining 80% of the time doing the last 20% of the work (rewriting, editing, proofing, etc.). I’ll tell you this, Tyler . . . those were three of the most intense weeks of my life!
Tyler: Wow! Three weeks. That is fast, but I guess because it was gestating fifty years, it just really had to pour out. So let’s get into the gist of the book’s plot. Who is the main character and what is at stake for him?
Ted: That’s a difficult question to answer. My character, Ted Stone, is used primarily to tell the story. Certainly, he comes of age in the process, but he comes “innocent” and unencumbered to the novel, with no major problem that protagonists are required to have in the classical five-part modern novel. As time goes on, Stone comes to learn certain things that put his life at stake. The plot now turns to whether or not he will survive, whom he can trust with the information he has, and whether or not justice will be served.
There are others that also can be considered “main characters.” These include Professor Ethan O’Mhaille, Ph.D., and his two graduate students, Grant Morris and David Green, all of the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Captain Roberto Muñoz, Lieutenant Commander Cristin Barbudo, Chief Warrant Officer (CWO) Raul Lucero, and Chief Petty Officer (CPO) Eduardo Bellolio of the Chilean ocean-going tug Lientur; and First Sergeant Leonardo Rodríguez.
Tyler: Of course, most thrillers have danger in them, usually created by the criminals and the danger of humans struggling with one another, but how does the weather and the environment of Antarctica add to the plot and the suspense in “Frozen in Time”?
Ted: Nature, manifested in terms of the wildlife, the weather, and the environment, all pose threats to the expedition. In a real sense, then, Nature is a non-human antagonist.
In the case of the wildlife, orcas and leopard seals are a danger to anyone caught on the ice. Why that is so is explained in the book. The weather, of course, is invariably bad . . . high winds, rain, sleet, and snow are almost a daily occurrence. As for the environment, especially on the water, icebergs, 90% of which are under the surface, pose a constant threat to ships. The Antarctic probably is one of the most dangerous, if not the most dangerous, places to work on the face of the Earth. Given this fact, the weather and environment play a crucial role in how the plot unfolds.
Tyler: Ted, the mystery and intrigue of your thriller plot makes it a novel, but you also have maps and graphs and your own photographs included in the book, which are unusual additions for a novel. Do you think “novel” is sufficient to describe the book’s genre, and how did you balance the line between writing fiction and creating factual details that fit into the book without being obtrusive? It seems like that would be a real balancing trick, yet one you did very well, especially since our reviewer here at Reader Views, Richard Blake, really raved about all the fascinating background information of the story.
Ted: As I said, the novel is half research, half novel. Half truth, half fiction. Its genre is ostensibly “adventure–murder mystery.” That said, I will tell you this: at least one reader took me aside, jabbed me in the ribs, and chided me on writing a “supernatural, dark mystery.” I know exactly why she said that, but I’ll leave it to my readers to puzzle it out.
The book is a post-modern novel. I know that it is unconventional; it was intended to be so. Frankly, I think most readers will, when they pick it up, delight in what they find and genuinely enjoy discussing the book with family and friends.
Tyler: Ted, some of the characters in the novel are not only real people, but people you knew while you were in Antarctica. Did you have any concerns about including people you knew in the novel, or was it just a fun thing to do?
Ted: The fact is, all of the people cited in the novel are or were real people. All, in real life, were good people. For the sake of the story, I had to turn some “to the dark side.” But I was warned long ago by another well-known, well-published author, crime writer Anthony Bruno, to avoid using real names of living persons . . . at least not without their permission. So, in “Frozen in Time,” all living persons are presented under fictional names with the exception of those in my immediate family, who gave me permission to use their real names.
Tyler: Have you been back to Antarctica since you were there in the 1960s? What about it do you find fascinating?
Ted: No, I have not returned. There is a legend to the effect that if you kissed the toe of a statue in the center of Punta Arenas, Chile, you will someday return. Given that, I guess I will someday make it at least that far! (Laughter) But seriously, I would love to return with my wife, Susan. I think the majesty of the Continent is absolutely beautiful…almost overwhelming. It probably is the last place on Earth relatively untouched by Man.
Tyler: Ted, in your publicity pieces, it states that “Frozen in Time,” besides being a novel, “explores why, though seemingly unfair, bad things happen to good people; how the battle between good and evil can change forever even the most innocent person.” Would you tell us a little more about how the novel demonstrates these ideas?
Ted: That bad things happen to good people is a theme that runs through many of my writings. The fact is that bad things happen to all people, good and bad. It seems unfair that bad things should happen to good people, but that’s part of life, as Ted Stone explains. He, of course, is an innocent victim of events in the story, and he suffers because of what happens in the novel for the rest of his life. There are other examples, but I don’t want to give away the plot, so I’ll just leave it at that.
Tyler: Are there other themes that run through this novel?
Ted: Well, in “Frozen in Time,” deception plays a major role throughout the novel, in Nature, in Man, and in Life. One example is the discussion of a deception used in the game of chess. There are other examples, many of greater importance to the story.
Tyler: Other themes?
Ted: Yes, among them being a respect for U.S. military personnel and their families. These people make a tremendous sacrifice, day in and day out, and I don’t think we recognize what a debt we owe them. You’ll find reference to this both in “Frozen in Time” as well as in “Full Circle.”
Tyler: Will you tell us a little about your last novel “Full Circle: A Dream Denied, a Vision Fulfilled,” and what are the similarities and differences between it and “Frozen in Time”?
Ted: “Full Circle: A Dream Denied, a Vision Fulfilled” was meant to pay homage to my parents and others—music teachers, high school teachers, one college professor, in particular—who made me what I am today. In a way, it’s a more typical modern novel, and so, it is totally different from “Frozen in Time,” both in form and function.
Tyler: Ted, we often think of the arts and the sciences as being separate from each other, so what made you decide to become a novelist, and do you think fiction has a role that can serve science?
Ted: Good question. I’ve been writing, professionally, for forty years. Writing a novel was unlike anything I ever had done, except, perhaps, in a short-story venue. But after returning to the violin after a fifty-year hiatus, and thinking about what had happened to me from the age of nine years, when I picked up the violin for the first time, the novel seemed the only vehicle by which to express the feelings of gratitude I felt for my parents and others for the gifts they had given to me.
And to the second part of your question, yes, I think the two can co-exist. I’d like to think that “Frozen in Time” is a good example of that. One of the reasons I write novels with extensive footnotes is this. For years, my wife, Susan, has asked me countless questions about the science she finds in the mystery books she reads. I’ll never forget the countless questions she asked me as she read “Jurassic Park”…questions about cloning, biotechnology, chaos theory, etc. The novel had no footnotes, provided no help to the reader, gave no indication as to whether or not what was being stated was fact or fiction. She was very frustrated while attempting to read that novel. When I started writing “Full Circle,” I vowed to help the reader understand some of the backstories associated with the music that was cited, with violin making, and so forth, because I felt it would provide a depth of understanding that would make the story “come alive” for the reader. I think I’ve succeeded because I noted one word in one sentence of Richard Blake’s review that thrilled me: “‘Frozen in Time’ is compelling reading combining the elements of conflict, suspense, intrigue, entertainment, and enlightenment.” [emphasis added]
I love that I could provide some enrichment as well as a good story.
Tyler: You referred to “Frozen in Time” as “post-modern” earlier because of the added details. Do you have a preference for post-modern over modern novels, and if so, why?
Ted: Frankly, when I was writing both of my novels, I gave little thought to whether or not they were modern or post-modern novels. I just wrote in a style that I found comfortable and enjoyable. It was my developmental editor, Virginia Smith, EdD, who pointed out that “Frozen in Time” was a post-modern novel. It departs significantly from the traditional five-stage structure [for example, see Elizabeth Lyon’s book for fiction writers entitled “Manuscript Makeover” (TRT)]; has multiple protagonists, some of whom we don’t meet until we are well into the book; has multiple antagonists, both human and non-human; starts and ends at two different points in time, and…well, I think that’s all I want to say at this point. There are other differences between “Frozen in Time” and the traditional modern novel, but I’ll let the readers discover them for themselves.
Tyler: Ted, I’m curious what you enjoy reading, particularly in terms of fiction, and if you feel any other pieces of fiction have influenced your writing?
Ted: You may find this surprising, but I read little fiction. I love non-fiction, particularly biographies, adventure stories, and books involving investigations of the financial community. Examples of books I’ve read in the last year include T.C. Boyle’s “The Women,” Mitch Albom’s “Have a Little Faith”—he’s a terrific speaker, by the way—“Deep Freeze, The United States, the International Geophysical Year, and the Origins of Antarctica’s Age of Science” written by my good friend, Dian Olson Belanger; Harry Markopolos’ “No One Would Listen,” the story of the Bernie Madoff Scandal, and my current “read,” John C. Behrendt’s “Innocents on the Ice.” I went to graduate school with John, by the way, back in the early ’60s. I also read two ham radio magazines, one popular electronics magazine, and one music magazine for string players each month. So you see, my interests are quite eclectic, though that’s not unexpected, I guess, given my background. In fact, I’d say my writing was more influenced by my scientific and engineering background and by my reading of biographies and adventure stories than by any fiction I’ve read.
Tyler: You said earlier that you didn’t plan to write your second novel so quickly after the first one. Is that true of a third novel, or are you already working on another and if so can you tell us a little bit about it?
Ted: Ha! That’s the first question everyone asks me: what is the subject of your next novel? Frankly, I haven’t given it a thought. As was the case with both of my novels, I woke up one morning with an idea in my head. By the evening of the same day I had a rough outline, and by the next day I was off to the races. I’ll know the answer to your question when I wake up some morning with the answer.
That said, Tyler, you know that writing a novel is the easy part; marketing and selling the book are the hard parts! The number of books published each year in the United States numbers in the hundreds of thousands. [In 2005, the number was 172,000 (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Books_published_per_country_per_year#cite_note-Reuters-1 (TRT))]
Try and make your “voice” heard in that environment!
My book is self-published through AuthorHouse, so I don’t have a big publicity “machine” working for me. But I do have resources, including Reader Views, AuthorHouse, Amazon.com, and other avenues for marketing and sales. The challenge is to choose wisely so as to get the biggest bang for the buck. If anyone thinks they are going to “get rich quick” publishing books of any genre, however, my suggestion is that they not quit their day job just yet! (laughter)
Tyler: Very true , Ted, and great advice for all aspiring authors. Thank you again, Ted, for the opportunity to interview you today. Before we go, will you tell us where readers can go online to find more information or to purchase a copy of “Frozen in Time: Murder at the Bottom of the World”?
Ted: Thanks. It was a pleasure to talk with you today. Readers can find more information on my book’s site at Amazon.com, and Barnes & Noble.com and on my book’s page at http://www.authorhouse.com/BookStore/ItemDetail.aspx?bookid=71516
They also can view a video on the book at:
Thanks again, Ted. “Frozen in Time” is fascinating, and I wish you much success with it.