Michael Walsh is a familiar name to National Review Online readers. And if he isn’t, David Kahane, his Hollywood-liberal alter ego, is. Walsh is the author of a new thriller, Shock Warning, the third of a trilogy, which he discusses with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Three books in, do you get tired with your lead character? Or do you get overly attached to him? Do you know him better than you know yourself?
MICHAEL WALSH: I think I’m still getting to know Devlin, who, by definition, is a mysterious sort of chap. He’s the orphaned son of two intelligence agents, who watched his parents die in the 1985 Rome airport massacre and who was raised abroad and off the grid by the control agent who just might have been his mother’s lover. He’s the perfect spy — anonymous, adept at languages and weapons, technologically sophisticated, and lethal in a fight. “Devlin,” in fact, isn’t even his real name — it’s simply the code name by which he’s known to the three people with high enough security clearances to operate him: the president, the secretary of defense, and the director of the National Security Agency — who just so happens to be his “stepfather.”
He’s let his guard down only once and allowed himself to fall in love with an Iranian operative named Maryam, about whom he knows next to nothing — and he doesn’t want to know. He never runs a security check on her. Imprisoned by circumstances, Devlin sees Maryam as his one chance at freedom and at a normal life, and how well that relationship works out is one of the through lines in the first three books — the “Skorzeny Trilogy,” named after the bad guy. But with at least two books left in the series, there’s still a lot of Devlin left to explore. He is very strange, though.
LOPEZ: What does Devlin have that Jack Bauer doesn’t?
WALSH: That’s a good question. I’ve never seen a minute of 24. Writing non-stop doesn’t leave one much time for television.
LOPEZ: How much research does it take to be writing about nuclear medicine and things?
WALSH: Nuclear medicine was easy — I had a heart attack in the middle of writing the second book in the series, Early Warning, and as part of that process I’ve spent some time being irradiated for stress tests. You know the old saying: Write what you know.
There’s a prolonged sequence in the Department of Nuclear Medicine at a major Manhattan hospital in Shock Warning as the cops desperately search for a hidden radioactive device, which ought to scare the hell out of everybody, since if you’re going to plant a suitcase nuke somewhere, a hospital’s as good a place as any.
LOPEZ: Why reference 9/11, an open wound? And as for future attacks: Can’t you fiction writers give New York a break?
WALSH: It’s hard to write books about international terrorism without acknowledging 9/11. And while most of America — including, sadly, the residents of New York City — may have forgotten the horrors of that day, the intelligence agencies and, most especially, the NYPD certainly have not, and they play a prominent role in both Early Warning and Shock Warning.
One of the major characters in both novels is Capt. Francis X. Byrne of the Counter-Terrorism Unit. Frankie and his evil brother, Tom (now deputy director of the FBI), appeared in my first novel, Exchange Alley, at lesser ranks. If I had been an NYPD officer from Queens, I might have been a lot like Frankie — minus the rococo personal baggage, of course. Who knows, I may spin him back off into his own series down the line; the readers certainly seem to like him.
But lest you think that the “Devlin” books are New York–centric, not so. Hostile Intent opens in Edwardsville, Ill., and moves back and forth across the country and to Europe, where Emanuel Skorzeny plots the destruction of the West from his redoubt in the old abbey of Clairvaux, now a maximum-security French prison housing Carlos the Jackal. Early Warning’s main action sequence is an all-out Bombay-style assault on Times Square, which I wrote well before the failed Times Square bombing attempt, but includes an opening chase through Budapest and a fateful meeting in that same city at the end. (I also propose a solution to the “unheard melody” of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, just for cryptological fun.) And Shock Warning mostly takes place in California, Azerbaijan, and Iran, which is where the good end happily and the bad unhappily, more or less.
Plus, there are loads of Washington, D.C., scenes, as we chart the maturation of the president, Jeb Tyler, as he masters the intel game and tries to beat back a reelection challenge from the charismatic Angela Hassett. Shock Warning ends on Election Day, but don’t ask me who wins because we won’t find out until the next installment.
LOPEZ: Who is Jake Sinclair and what is he doing hating on Twitter?
WALSH: Jake Sinclair is the media mogul to end all moguls — and an adamant opponent of President Tyler. He’s also vain, untrustworthy, duplicitous, dishonest, corrupt, vindictive, and malevolent — in other words, not a thing like anybody I know from 40 years in the media. He’s also stupid — like many news-biz execs of a certain age, he’s uncomfortable around technology, mostly because he can’t use it himself. So things like Twitter are a complete mystery to him.
LOPEZ: Does Devlin read Michael Ledeen?
WALSH: No, but I do, especially about Iran.
LOPEZ: You’re not kind to the New York Times in Shock Warning. Is that smart for a mainstream book author?
WALSH: Probably not, but the Times, for all its faults, is still the nation’s preeminent newspaper, and it’s exactly the kind of thing a man like Sinclair would acquire as a bauble and then misuse. If you’re referring to the contempt with which the Times is actually viewed by intel professionals (and thus expressed through some of my characters) . . . well, don’t blame the messenger.
LOPEZ: Why did you include Our Lady of Guadalupe?
WALSH: As a Catholic, I’ve long been fascinated by the phenomenon of Marian apparitions and the increasing frequency with which they’ve been reported. Early in Shock Warning, Devlin witnesses one in California City, Calif. — a monthly assembling of believers in the Mojave Desert who tote Polaroid cameras and photograph the sun at the moment the divine tells them Mary is appearing at the door of heaven, and then search the overexposed photos for signs and wonders. Such a thing actually occurs in California City, on the 13th of every month, when pilgrims from all over the world gather to experience a ritual much like the one I describe in Shock Warning.
LOPEZ: How did you go about writing a Marian apparition?
WALSH: For starters, I went out to the Mojave to experience it firsthand. I didn’t see the Virgin, but maybe that was just me. I also researched the history of Marian apparitions, about which the reader will learn a fair amount in Shock Warning, which re-imagines the apparition at San Sebastian de Garabandal in Spain in Chapter 13 and the Zeitoun apparition (see below) later in the novel. And of course I was fascinated by the technology — which really is in development — of using holographic projections to simulate miracles and perhaps thus destabilize whole excitable populations.
One of the subtexts running throughout all three books is faith, and not just in the religious sense. Field agents generally have to take a lot on faith, but Devlin takes nothing on faith. He is the ultimate empiricist, the prime mover of his own little universe — until in Hostile Intent he meets Maryam and decides, in a leap of faith, to accept her wholly and without reservation. (The fact that they meet during a gunfight in Paris just adds to the romance.) She’s also a strong character in Early Warning, at the end of which she’s on the trail of Skorzeny in central Europe.
(You can see Maryam and Devlin in action here.)
When we see Devlin again at the beginning of Shock Warning, his faith seemingly has been shattered, which accounts for the juxtaposition of the Marian subplot and Devlin’s own personal journey to greater faith and less understanding. Whether the miracles he experiences in the course of his journey actually happened I’ll leave to the reader to decide.
LOPEZ: How do you write some of the coarser language in Shock Warning on the same keyboard?
WALSH: It’s the old marriage of the sacred and the profane. As Milton said, “Good and evil we know in the field of this world grow up together almost inseparably. . . . And perhaps this is the doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evil, that is to say of knowing good by evil.” You can’t have one without the other, though I’m sure the nuns would cheerfully wash some of my characters’ mouths out with soap, especially President Tyler. My mother, too.
Interesting to note that Skorzeny, the world’s worst human being, never curses.
LOPEZ: Did you pay added attention when Coptic Christians were attacked earlier this month, after writing about their situation a bit in Shock Warning?
WALSH: You bet. In fact, there’s a chapter set in Kaduna, Nigeria, that depicts a horrendous clash between Muslims and Christians, and another in Cairo, at a Coptic church in the Zeitoun neighborhood, where millions of Arabs, both Christian and Muslim, claim to have seen Mary appear atop the church in 1968. Her second coming, alas, doesn’t end so happily for anybody. The ferocity of these riots is really something every American should know about.
LOPEZ: Is writing about religion a precarious thing?
WALSH: I don’t think so. All my novels are stories of compromised men and women in need of redemption. Frankie Byrne in Exchange Alley is a cop with a professional secret — who discovers that his own family contains a personal secret far, far worse. Rick Blaine, the hero of As Time Goes By, is still paying the price for something that happened in Manhattan at the height of Prohibition, which is why he’s hiding out in Casablanca and running his nightclub when the story opens. But he must answer the call of duty when one of the most important operations of World War II gets under way, dragging poor Captain Renault along with him. And the great Irish gangster, Owney Madden — the hero of And All the Saints — has the murders of seven men on his hands, a mother who wants to save his soul, and, in what I think is the book’s most wrenching scene, the only honest conversation he ever has with his sister as she’s lying dead in her casket. What’s the point of being Catholic if you can’t write about religion?
LOPEZ: What’s the secret to a good quick thriller?
WALSH: Getting the readers to keep turning the pages, especially at the ends of chapters. Never give them an opportunity to put the book down. The greatest compliment I get for the Devlin series comes from people who tell me they picked it up intending to read a few chapters and the next thing they knew it was four o’clock in the morning.
LOPEZ: What’s key when creating fictional characters?
WALSH: Rarely, if ever, draw them from life. I violated that rule deliberately in And All the Saints, since Madden was a historical figure and most of the events in that story (told in his voice) are true. But I hope I turned him into something that transcended his gangland milieu, and into a real tragic figure whose greatest crime is his own lack of self-awareness.
In general, though, it’s far easier to make characters up than to try to “copy” bits and pieces of their traits from real people. Everybody hates a roman a clef, or should. And as for memoirs in disguise by lady writers with daddy issues on the Upper West Side, enough said.
LOPEZ: You write thrillers; you’ve done music reviews, screenwriting, media criticism, and now political commentary — both straight and Kahanery. What’s your favorite? What’s most natural? What’s most challenging?
WALSH: I spent 25 years in the classical-music business, the last 16 as music critic of Time magazine, but I began my journalistic career as a police reporter, something that gets into your blood and accounts for my fascination with tales of hard men taking out society’s trash. Political commentary more or less found me, and I do it because it’s fun and because conservatives need more writers who aren’t afraid of the Left, and who absolutely do not respect the fascist conventions of “political correctness.” I am a proud First Amendment absolutist — which is something that the Left used to be as well, or at least used to pretend it did. Now, of course, it’s all about speech codes and not giving offense, etc. The hell with them.
That’s why we — and by “we” I mean you and I, Kathryn — invented David Kahane, who is the Leftist I made flesh. He’s a complete idiot, of course — a Hollywood hack who’s always getting his facts wrong. He’s also a disappointment to his father, the sainted “Che” Kahane; intellectually outclassed by his girlfriend, Ginger, a former porn star who reads Hegel in the original; and he is pretty much an embarrassment to his nameless agent, who can only find him work writing cheesy sequels whose subtitles always include the words, This Time, It’s Personal. But he’s also lovable in his own way.
People have referred to Dave as my alter ego, but that’s not exactly true. He’s more of a fictional character, the way Frankie Byrne or Devlin are, and at this point I can channel his tangled syntax, muddled thinking, and portmanteau cultural references in my sleep. He tells me that his long-lost sister, Cassandra Kahane, is just about due to make her debut in his ongoing chronicles, and I can hardly wait.
But it’s in writing fiction and screenplays that I am happiest. Feeling a story come alive under your fingertips is a real thrill, and it isn’t something that can be taught, no matter how many Bread Loaf or Meat Loaf writers’ conferences one attends. The key is to let your characters speak in their individual voices, let them control as much of the story development as possible (which, if you’re doing it right, is a lot) and generally get out of their way. When you find the story flagging, stop writing, lie down, and clear your head — their voices will come through, and they’ll tell you what they’re up to. You’ll be glad you did, and they’ll thank you. So will your readers.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.