TJC: It’s always a pleasure to chat, Gary.
PBR: You certainly are a prolific writer. I commented in my review of your latest novel, House of Cards: Dead Men Tell No Tales, you always seem to educate while entertain. Tell us about how you go about deciding on topics and research your books, and the process of how then you interleave the story into the factual occurrences?
TJC: To answer your question, I have to go back to 2006 and the commencement address my eldest daughter, Missy—whoops, could she be the ‘Missy Dugan’ in the Detective Louis Martelli books? Naw . . . any resemblance to persons living or dead, and all that—gave to some high school graduates. Missy chose the subject of serendipity and the role it plays in people’s lives. And so it is with me. I would have to say that the selection of a book’s topic, or even before that, the decision to write a book, resulted from pure serendipity . . . an accidental discovery or awakening to something, perhaps the germ of an idea that had never occurred to me before.
The idea to write something about a person who returns to playing a musical instrument, for example, the violin, after a 50-year hiatus came from my own life’s experience. The result was the novel Full Circle. The decision to write Frozen in Time resulted from the fact that I had been having my 35mm slide collection converted to the jpg digital format. Included among them were a ton of pictures I took on a trip I made to South America and Antarctica during the austral summer of 1961-62. Seeing them again stirred up old memories, and voilá, I decided to create another novel. By the way, Frozen in Time had an earlier incarnation, some 50 years ago. I originally wrote it as a short story while I was working in the Antarctic at Chilean Antarctic Base Bernado O’Higgins. There were times when terrible storms would shut down our exploratory operations on the offshore islands for days at a time. Never underestimate the power of boredom to spur you into doing something . . . anything . . . to keep busy. Unfortunately, the manuscript for that story, which was in handwritten, was lost during my return to the States.
Now, as you know, Frozen in Time is a post-modern novel. And it made a number of readers very uncomfortable, not the least of whom was my younger daughter, Stephanie. Wow, another character found in the Detective Louis Martelli books. This has got to stop or my own family is going to sue me! <laughter> Anyway, Stephanie kept calling and calling, wanting to know what happened to Captain Muñoz and the treasure stolen from a branch of the National Bank of Chile. The only way I could get some peace in my life was to write what became Books II and III of the Antarctic Murders Trilogy.
As for Death by Wall Street, this novel was my way of telling a story of FDA corruption and SEC incompetence that had bothered me for more than 4 years. At issue was the refusal by the FDA in 2007 to approve a drug for end stage prostate cancer despite a strong recommendation for approval from an FDA advisory committee. In 2009, I worked as a private investigator and researcher for a man who was doing a story on how two doctors on the advisory committee had worked to delay approval for what eventually turned out to be 3 years. He also delved into how seven hedge funds benefited from the delay. The story can be found at www.deepcapture.com and is titled “Michael Milken and Dendreon”. [Full disclosure: I own shares of Dendreon.] In any event, writing Death by Wall Street was a catharsis, of sorts, for me. At least I got to kill off three of the bad guys.
Which brings us to House of Cards. I have been continually amazed by the fact that despite the destruction heaped on Main Street by Wall Street in 2008 and the wholesale destruction of middle class wealth brought about the financial meltdown that this country experienced, not one person from a major financial institution has gone to jail. Think about it. Not one. During the S&L crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, 1500 bankers went to jail. Where is our Department of Justice? Where is the Securities and Exchange Commission? One gets the feeling that we have the best government that money can buy. And ours has been ‘bought’. Or better, bought off. And the more I thought about this, the angrier I got. Until one morning, I woke up, and there was the germ of an idea for a book, House of Cards. Mix in a little intrigue—for example, what really was behind the 1000 point Dow Jones Index meltdown in May, 2010?—and you have, I think, the makings of a good mystery/thriller. But I’ll let your readers be the judge.
As for weaving truth and fiction, that’s something I attribute to my scientific and engineering background, plus my research abilities. It’s almost second nature for me, now . . . to take a subject and weave a tale around it that incorporates both fictional and real elements. It’s all a matter of knowing the subjects about which you’re writing and being able to work them into the narratives or dialogues in believable ways. By that I mean, writing in ways such that someone knowledgeable in the area being discussed would have difficulty separating fact from fiction. I still recall how members of my family called me for weeks following the publication of Full Circle, which is semi-autobiographical, to ask, “Did Mom really say this?” or “Did Dad really do that?” I can’t tell you how many hours I spend on the phone unraveling fact from fiction for them.
Well, I apologize, Gary. You asked me what time it was, and I told you how to make a watch.
PBR: It seems to be a process you have mastered. Do you feel your scientific reasoning is a gift for adding credibility to your stories?
TJC: No question about it. I have three degrees in the physical sciences and have worked in communications/electronics since 1966. I received my first Amateur Radio license in 1952, and today, hold an Amateur Extra Class license with the callsign N4XX. I also spent some time in the Army, the Corps of Engineers, to be exact. Because I worked as a research scientist and consultant in the defense, homeland security, and anti-terrorism communities for decades, I’ve been exposed to technologies that span a broad spectrum of real-world applications. And, of course, I’ve been writing for the popular, scientific, and engineering literature since the 1960s. Included in those writings is some fiction, believe it or not. So, when you combine all these things together, I think you can begin to see why the novels I write read as they do.
PBR: An observation of mine is that you’re always “looking out for the little guys” – meaning I see you as a consumer advocate, a preacher of the truth, and definitely an enemy of big business, large government, and corrupt corporations. How would you describe your values on these subjects?
TJC: Good observation. They, whoever they are, assert that the United States if governed by the ‘rule of law’ . . . that our laws apply equally to all. Clearly, that’s not the case. Look at any newspaper or news show on television and you’ll see that the rich and famous are treated preferentially by our justice system. That’s not right. And when it comes to cheats, don’t get me started. It’s bad enough what Wall Street did to Main Street when it came to what happened in the mortgage industry and the 2008 meltdown. But then, look what happened. They took the bailout money, the so-called TARP funds, awarded themselves big bonuses, and, instead of lending money to homeowners and businesses, they used the money to speculate in the commodity markets. You have to wonder whether or not anyone in Washington even has an inkling how Wall Street functions. I know you’re laughing as you hear me say this because I don’t hold anything back in the novel. The language used, shall we say, ‘adult’. <laughter>
PBR: We were introduced to your protagonist Louis Martelli in your previous novel, Death by Wall Street: Rampage of the Bulls where he tore at the inner working of the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and the big drug companies. Now he’s peeling the onion of the mortgage banking industry. I feel you use Louis Martelli as an “ordinary Joe” allowing the reader to learn as he uncovers the layers of corruption. What other character traits do you tend to bring forth in his personality that makes him so enjoyable for you to write about?
TJC: He is an “ordinary Joe”, but one who’s seen more of life that most of us ever will. In House of Cards, we see—and I don’t want to give too much away here—that if his father had not interceded, Martelli could just as well have ended up in Rikers Island Prison for the rest of his life as any of the people he’s put behind bars. Given that as a teenager he was pretty much on this own, he grew up on the streets of New York City and Brooklyn. That being the case, he became pretty adept at pickpocketing, card hustling, and other ‘street trades’. So, he’s not perfect. But he has a big heart. He has a soft spot for the underdog, and is more than willing to stop and help someone, often giving them money to ease their burden. He’s a Samaritan of sorts, and carries the two silver dollars that his deceased father used to carry. My father always carried two silver dollars, the same ones my brother carries today. If your readers are interested in the backstory, they should look up the parable of the Good Samaritan. So, Martelli’s a ‘good guy’, watching out for the ‘little people’ and just trying to do his job as a NYPD homicide detective. And, oh, yes, he tries to be a good husband and father to his wife, Stephanie, and their two children, Tiffany and Rob, so we see some of his home life as well.
PBR: Is there someone that you know or is Louis totally created from your imagination?
TJC: Martelli is a creation of my imagination. That said, I lost a good friend in the invasion of Baghdad—Capt. James F. “Jimmy” Adamouski—who was piloting a Black Hawk helicopter that was shot down in the same way as I describe how Martelli was shot down in Death by Wall Street and House of Cards. I incorporated this incident into the story to honor Jimmy and all veterans. As well, you’ll note that fallen police officers are honored in both novels. The characters of ‘Sy’ the accountant and deputy coroner ‘Michael Antonetti’ in both novels are named in honor of very good friends of mine, who are motorcycle police officers.
PBR: I’d like to move on to a question about other authors. Who and what do you enjoy most in your reading? What authors do you particularly find most fascinating?
TJC: You may find this surprising, but I read little fiction. The last book I read was Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, which also addressed the events leading to the financial meltdown of 2008. I found it a fascinating read, though you do have to have some understanding of the mortgage securitization chain to fully ‘enjoy’ what Lewis has to say. But if you really want to know what happened, this is the book to read. I’ve finally started Mozart’s Letters, Mozart’s Life, by Robert Spaethling, which at almost 500 pages is daunting. But I love biographies, so I press on.
PBR: I know you have been a mentor for Theodore Prime. In what ways do you “give back” to those that are a part of your life?
TJC: Theodore is an exceptional person. I knew that even before I met him, just from knowing his mother, whom I met at the local gym. He is quite talented, as you know from reviewing his book of romantic poems, Burning Desire. It was my pleasure to serve as his editor. Now that the book is out, I’ve also worked with him on marketing it. My being a published author has resulted in a continuous stream in inquiries from writers around the country, mostly seeking advice regarding how to get their books published. I’d say much of my time in ‘giving back’ to the community is spent answering questions in this regard.
PBR: From what I know about you, the completion of House of Cards cleared your “work in progress” desk, but I may be wrong. What are you working on now, or have focused on as your next project?
TJC: No, you’re correct. For now, my desk is clear, and I’m free to roam the loft, practicing jazz on my electric violin. I promised myself that this summer, my teacher and I would focus on jazz. Come September, we both will be forced back into playing classical music, which I also love, andinto the rigors of preparing for the next concert season, which includes, among other things, a November performance of Elgar’s Serenade for Strings.
PBR: Well, we certainly wish you the best of success with all of your novels, and hope to have another opportunity to talk more in the future. Thank you again for spending some time with us today.
TJC: It’s been my pleasure.