Interview with Ted Cohen
Unfinished Business: Pursuit of an Antarctic Killer
Theodore Jerome Cohen
Reviewed by Richard R. Blake for Reader Views (08/10)
Today, Tyler R. Tichelaar of Reader Views is pleased to interview Ted Cohen, who is here to talk about his new novel “Unfinished Business: Pursuit of an Antarctic Killer.”
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. He 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.
From December 1961 through early March 1962, Dr. Cohen 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. He recently published the novel “Frozen in Time: Murder at the Bottom of the World” based upon that expedition. Now he is here to talk about the follow-up to that book “Unfinished Business: Pursuit of an Antarctic Killer” which is Book II of The Antarctic Murders Trilogy.
Tyler: Welcome, Ted. It’s great to have you back. I was so fascinated by “Frozen in Time: Murder at the Bottom of the World” that I can’t wait to hear the “backstory” associated with the writing of the second book. For starters, when did you decide to turn “Frozen in Time” into a trilogy? It didn’t sound like you even knew what you would next write about when we last talked.
Ted: You’re correct, Tyler. I didn’t have a clue as to what I was going to write about next when I published “Frozen in Time.” But then, I started getting calls from family and friends, demanding to know what happened between the time “Ted Stone” returned to the University of Wisconsin-Madison in March 1962 and when he received a postcard from Señora Maria Barbudo, the widow of the man with whom Stone had been trapped in a crevasse in February 1962, during a Chilean expedition to the Antarctic. Now, as you know, in a post-modern novel, I felt no obligation to wrap everything up and put a bow on top. My youngest daughter was particular incensed (in a good-humored way), and I told her, “Hey, some home assembly is required. You fill in the blanks.” But she, her husband, my other daughter, and her partner wouldn’t let me alone. So I decided to satisfy their curiosity and do a second book. But because that book, “Unfinished Business: Pursuit of an Antarctic Killer,” would necessarily have to stop when the postcard was received, a third book, at the least, would be required. Hence, the idea of doing a trilogy, which I call “The Antarctic Murders Trilogy.”
Tyler: Do you think it necessary for people to read “Frozen in Time” first before they go on to “Unfinished Business”?
Ted: I tried to make “Unfinished Business” stand on its own. But truth be told, I think readers will do themselves a real disservice if they don’t read “Frozen in Time” first. It would be like coming into the Patrick O’Brian novels (These are the Aubrey-Maturin series about the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. TT) in mid-stream. You miss a lot by not starting with Book 1.
Tyler: Just what is the “Unfinished Business” that the title refers to?
Ted: Good question. “Frozen in Time” leaves the reader with a lot of questions. And not without reason. There are many loose threads in the novel that are left hanging. And some of these are addressed in “Unfinished Business,” not the least of which is how Captain Muñoz will avenge the death of his good friend, Commander Barbudo.
Tyler: In interviewing you about your first novel, you told me that all the characters were based on real people. Is this novel also largely based on real people and events, or as a sequel, did you decide to let your imagination run wild?
Ted: I’m afraid that in the second novel, I created many new characters. As I’ve said previously, in fiction, there are no boundaries. So, I just thought about the people I’ve known, those I’ve met in life on a casual basis, and so forth, and plunged ahead.
Tyler: Will you tell us about the murder that happened on the naval base in Chile when the novel opens?
Ted: Actually, there are two. And they are horrific. They were meant to get the reader’s attention. I needed to show a side of Captain Muñoz that the reader didn’t see in “Frozen in Time,” and so, I tried to write the introduction so the story took off at Mach 3.
Tyler: Captain Roberto Muñoz, of course, is introduced in “Frozen in Time.” Will you tell us a little about him and his role in the book?
Ted: The captain is very complex. He was born to a poor couple that worked for a rich mine owner, a man named Larenas. This man took Roberto into his home and raised him as a son. He also saw to it that Roberto got into the Chilean Naval Academy. Larenas ran one of the biggest cartels in Chile, and dragged Roberto into a life of crime. But after Larenas’ death, Roberto tried to break away and focus on his naval career. Because of his background, he struggled within the Navy, which never accepted him as “one of their own.” The death of his good friend and former student, Lieutenant-Commander Cristian Barbudo, sends him over the edge. I won’t say more than that…I don’t want to spoil the story for those who are interested in reading the book.
Tyler: What about the two new characters you introduce, Captain Mateo Valderas and Lieutenant-Commander Antonio Del Río? What are their roles in the book?
Ted: Well, they’re certainly “good guys.” They work for the Chilean Navy’s Office of Internal Affairs. They are smart, sensitive, and dedicated. Readers will discover that Muñoz and Valderas have known each other for many years, which only adds to the tension in the book. Valderas and Del Río were sent to Arica, where Muñoz’ ship, the Lientur, is being repaired, to solve what at first appears to be a single murder that took place in the Fleet Warehouse. And in the course of doing so, they are led back to the robbery described in “Frozen in Time.”
Tyler: Ted, you’ve published three books now in about a year’s time. Are you that fast of a writer, or did you spend years working on them and just decide to publish all of them now?
Ted: No, I write quickly once I get an idea . . . sometimes up to 5,000 words a day. I go into this intense, focused state where the words just flow from my mind to the keyboard. This is not to say that the language and syntax are perfect first time out of the gate. I am constantly writing and rewriting. I number each day’s version with a different number so that I always can go back and grab old material. I keep pads of yellow stickies all over the house so that if I get ideas, even in bed, I can write them down before I forget them. Eighty percent of “Unfinished Business” was written in ten days. But then, it took another month of getting beaten up by my wife, Susan, my Developmental Editor, Dr. Virginia Smith, and some good friends, CDR. William Lee and Charles (Kit) Purin (whom I have known since the 4th grade), before the book was ready to send to AuthorHouse.
Tyler: Your first novel, “Full Circle: A Dream Denied, A Vision Fulfilled,” as well as your second, “Frozen in Time,” are based on your life’s experiences. So, in fact, you were writing large parts from memory. This wasn’t the case with “Unfinished Business,” which, for all intents and purposes, is almost pure fiction. Given this as background, was “Unfinished Business” easier to write? Did it go together faster?
Ted: That’s a terrific question. The answer to both of your questions is YES. “Unfinished Business” was by far the easier to write. It came together very fast. If you look at both “Full Circle” and “Frozen in Time,” you will see that they are heavily footnoted. I was determined to be precise about the facts I incorporated in those books. They did, after all, describe my life at different times, at different places, and under different conditions. In writing those novels, I insisted on strict authenticity. Hence, every fact was checked, double-checked, and footnoted. In many ways, they qualified as “historical novels.” “Unfinished Business,” on the other hand, is pure fiction. As such, in writing it, I could do just about anything I wanted, within reason. I say “within reason” because the book, after all, did have to mesh with the storyline already embodied in “Frozen in Time,” given that it fills in what happened between March 1962 and March 1965. There were facts that had to be checked, to be sure, but still, not in the quantity that characterizes my first two novels.
Tyler: Ted, as a writer myself, I find it fascinating to hear what the process is of different writers, so I’m curious to know more about your remark that you number each day’s version of what you’ve written. Can you explain that a bit more—are you talking about paper copies or computer documents? Don’t you just go in and edit the same file each day?
Ted: I start each day with the last computer file I saved on the previous day. The first thing I do after opening the file is change the date and the sequential number on the file name. That way, I can go back, if there’s a need to, and recover a paragraph, say, that I deleted a week earlier . . . a paragraph that I suddenly recalled and decided once again to incorporate in the book I’m writing. My file names look like this:
xxxxx - Cohen, Theo - Unfinished Business - 7-1-2010 v32
The “xxxxx” will be replaced by the Book Identification number eventually assigned to my book by AuthorHouse, once the book is under contract.
This is a good way to ensure that nothing is lost in the creative process. By the way, I keep a duplicate set of files on a memory stick just in case my harddrive suffers a failure . . . G_d forbid!!!
Tyler: I understand the murder is linked to someone who wants to settle “unfinished business,” meaning old scores. Can you tell us more about this person’s motivation as the villain of the novel?
Ted: Muñoz knows that CWO Lucero and CPO Bellolio from “Frozen in Time” played a part in the death of Commander Barbudo. He also knows that they were working with two other Navy personnel in Santiago. These are the people with whom he wants to settle the score.
Tyler: We talked last time about how your book was “post-modern” in its additional references, including maps and footnotes. Does “Unfinished Business” also follow that pattern?
Ted: Yes and no. How’s that for a straight answer! (laughter) There are maps in “Unfinished Business” to help the reader get oriented as to where the story takes place. But I significantly cut back on the footnotes. Some readers told me that they were distracted by the footnotes, some said they wanted endnotes, others loved the footnotes and said they enjoyed the “backstories” found there, etc., etc. Responses were all over the ballpark. As well, some readers didn’t like the fact that I italicized the dialogues in Spanish. You can never please everyone without becoming mediocre. I know that. So, “Unfinished Business” looks more like a mainstream novel. It has only a few footnotes, the foreign language sections (Spanish and some Portuguese) are not italicized—nor are the translations—and people will just have to go “with the flow.” I don’t think they will have a problem.
But to your second point, “Unfinished Business” also is post-modern. It ends at the same “point in time,” if I may use that term, as does “Frozen in Time” . . . when Ted Stone receives the postcard from Señora Barbudo. In fact, both Book I and Book II have almost identical Epilogues, including the postcard that Stone received. So, there’s still much that isn’t known. For example, we know that Captain Muñoz is taking care of Maria, we know that he still is in the Navy, but there still are a host of other questions left unanswered. Maybe they will be answered in Book III. (laughter) “Unfinished Business” is definitely post-modern. Readers hoping that the book will wrap everything will be disappointed. Sorry, guys and gals.
Tyler: Did you enjoy more or find it more difficult to write “Unfinished Business” compared to “Frozen in Time”?
Ted: With “Unfinished Business,” the only constraints I had were that the story was “bookended.” It had to start in March 1962 and finish in March 1965. And, of course, I had a host of characters already known to the readers. Other than that, I could start with a clean slate. It just remained to create some new characters, something that I really enjoyed. You can play G_d when you do this . . . make people anything you want them to be, control their actions, their interactions, where they go, what they do . . . whatever. And with two of my major themes being that bad things happen to good people and that deception is a major part of everyone’s life, you can imagine the fun I had.
Tyler: Have you started the third book? And if so, what is it called?
Ted: Actually, I wrote Books II and III at the same time. The third book, by the way, is entitled “End Game: Irrational Acts, Tragic Consequences.” Things got a little confusing, as you can imagine, trying to keep everything straight. But I had to make sure that I put “hooks” into Book II that I could exploit in Book III. If I didn’t write them in this way, I could end up not being able to reach back for characters and events that would be needed in Book III.
Tyler: So . . . when will we see “End Game”?
Ted: LOL As the doctor said to the short man on the examining table who was complaining about his stature: “You’ll have to be a little patient!” I’m sorry, that was too good to pass up. “Unfinished Business” needs time to “breathe.” It needs time to be appreciated for what it is, of and by itself. I think I’ll send “End Game” to the publisher sometime in October.
Tyler: Will you give us a little preview of what will happen in Book III of “The Antarctic Murders Trilogy”?
Ted: Well, in Book III, Ted Stone and Dr. Morris Grant, with whom Stone went to Antarctica in 1961, return to Santiago at the request of the University of Chile. Because of Captain Valderas’ investigations into the Arica murders, this causes Captain Muñoz concern. Eventually, everything comes together in a cataclysmic ending.
Tyler: Thank you for the opportunity to interview you today, Ted. Before we go, will you let us know what is your Web site and what additional information readers can find there about “Unfinished Business”?
Ted: Readers can find out more by reading the book reviews by Richard Blake for both “Frozen in Time” and “Unfinished Business” here at Reader Views, as well as viewing the neat video Reader Views did for “Frozen in Time.” They can purchase the book or find out more on my website: http://www.theodorecohennovels.com/index.php
Lastly, thanks for much for taking the time to talk with me today, Tyler. It’s always a pleasure to chat with you.
Tyler: Thank you, Ted, for the interview and I hope you’ll come back to talk to me again when “End Game” comes out.