Sunday, March 1, 2015

Q&A with J. Douglas McCullough

J. Douglas McCullough is the author, with Les Pendleton, of Sea of Greed: The True Story of the Investigation and Prosecution of Manuel Antonio Noriega. He is a North Carolina Court of Appeals Judge, and during the 1980s he served as a federal prosecutor in Raleigh. 

Q: Why did you decide to write Sea of Greed?

A: I decided to write Sea of Greed around the time of Operation Just Cause and the invasion of Panama. I was an active reserve officer in the Marine Corps stationed at Marine Forces Atlantic Headquarters in Norfolk and serving in the G-2 (Intelligence) section. 

I had attended a CIA briefing on Latin America and the CIA analyst was describing the U.S. government relationship with Gen. Noriega as good with him being a source on Castro/Cuba and further describing him as cooperative on drug investigations. 

This was after I had de-briefed [drug trafficker] Steven Kalish and the reporting agents from Customs, DEA and FBI had sent their reports up to their respective headquarters, thus I thought the CIA should have known about Noriega. 

Later, when Noriega was indicted and there was mounting tension prior to the invasion I was brought on to active duty to brief the admiral and general in Norfolk who had responsibility for Panama. 

I realized that this was truly an untold story. Even they did not know what caused Noriega to fall out of favor. While the trial eventually provided some of the details, this story has much more.

Steven Kalish was the first non-Hispanic witness to implicate Noriega. Up until he was available to testify, the CIA would claim that any Colombian or Panamanian who stated Noriega was corrupt was a person with political motivations and not trustworthy. With Kalish, a Houston high school dropout, flying Noriega around in his Lear jet, this stance became impossible to maintain.  
It took me a long time to get around to writing the book, but I knew back then I wanted to.  Maybe a longer answer than you wanted.

Q: How did you research the book, and, despite your own involvement in some of the events, was there anything that particularly surprised you as you conducted your research?

A: My research was aided considerably by the fact that I retained a set of the investigative reports for the entire criminal case that I prosecuted involving Kalish. A set of the "discovery" that I would normally provide to the defense lawyers was the principal research material. 

I then found newspaper articles detailing the investigation in the Detroit newspaper helpful, as well as Miami papers that set forth the Noriega trial testimony of Kalish and other witnesses. 

I even read and copied the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals case that upheld Kalish's Texas conviction for it described some of the marijuana loads that Kalish ran into the Gulf. 

What surprised me during the course of my research was how long the D.C. people continued to deal with Noriega even after they knew about Kalish's interview and corroborating evidence.

During my research I learned that Lt. Col. Oliver North tried to use Kalish's cooperation to force Noriega to be more cooperative concerning the struggle in El Salvador. That was beyond the scope of my book, but very surprising to me. 

Q: Why did you choose to write the book using dialogue? Do you see the book as purely nonfiction, or as a work based on actual events?

A: When I started to write, I first tried to write a screenplay, but found I really don't know how to do that. While making that attempt I would set a scene (the scenes later became chapters), would populate the scene with characters, and write down what they might have said. 

I say might, as we don't know the actual words spoken, but we do know what they did next, so the words would have been similar. I gave up in frustration and boxed all my materials. 

In 2003 I re-married and as I and my wife, Lucci, started consolidating households she discovered my boxed up research and drafts. She prodded me into working on this, but as a book this time. It still took a long time to do as I could only work on it part time. 

Since I had the scenes that became chapters and a draft of what the individuals in the chapter might have said if it had been a screenplay, dialogue just seemed natural and went from there. 

I see this book as a work of non-fiction, for everything in it actually happened. It may read a bit like a work based on actual events only due to the style, dialogue...

Also, at the end I have included a bibliography to demonstrate the source documents for each chapter and explain about the dialogue being our words, although there are places where the dialogue came straight from a report. 

Q: Are there lasting repercussions today from the events you describe in the book? 

A: The most obvious lasting repercussion from the events described in the book concerns the government of Panama. It has been transformed from a country ruled by a dictator to a democracy. The Panamanians have had elections and have a popularly elected government. 

The criminal case was not the cause for the invasion of Panama, however. Noriega was indicted in February 1988 and the invasion did not occur until December 1989. During the interim, Noriega allied himself with Cuba, and committed more provocative acts such as attempting to sabotage American equipment. 

The invasion only took place after Panamanian security forces began killing Americans in the Canal Zone, with the slaying of a Naval Officer in Panama City being the final straw. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I am preparing to be interviewed…for a statewide TV show on our PBS channel (WUNC TV).  It will be taped and unedited so it is like a "live" show when it runs. The show, "Book Watch," hosted by D.G. Martin, runs at noon on Sunday and at 8 pm on Thursdays…

I am also writing a short piece that I intend to submit to Our State magazine. Our State is a magazine that is all about North Carolina and has articles ranging from history to out-of-the-way places, food, vacations spots, almost anything. 

My article will deal with the marijuana smugglers of the 1980s being the last of a long tradition of smugglers, pirates, and rum runners along the North Carolina coast.

I am also in the process of working on a novel based on actual events but which I will fictionalize, and the lead character will be a female smuggler. There was a real one, and I will probably embellish her personality a bit. Hopefully it will be as entertaining as Sea of Greed.  

The real woman used to hang out with the Studio 54 types in NYC, ski with rock stars like Joan Jett, and when not partying would smuggle multi-ton loads of hashish from Lebanon. 

I also have a "day job" as I am a judge on the N.C. Court of Appeals and live in Atlantic Beach where I can hear and see the water. 

In the summer my wife and I are excellent "crew" and spend a lot of time on our outer banks, our area being the southern tip of the Cape Lookout National Seashore.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 1

March 1, 1914: Ralph Ellison born.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Q&A with Dionne Peart

Dionne Peart is the author of the novel Somerset Grove, which takes place in Jamaica and Canada. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: Your novel focuses on three generations of women. How did you come up with your three main characters, Ruby, Angelique, and Carmen?

A: I knew I wanted to write a multigenerational story. The first character that came to me was Angelique. She’s a compilation of many women I’ve known—she’s savvy but she keeps people at arm’s length…

Growing up in Winnipeg, there were a lot of first-generation Canadians there. A lot of people came without their parents, or their parents came and left them in their country of origin. Some of the girls I grew up with had distant relationships with their mothers.

[Angelique’s daughter] Carmen is the character many people identify with. She’s a first-generation Canadian, and is inspired by a lot of the people I’ve grown up with—trying to walk the line between a new life in Canada and connecting with their culture.

[Carmen’s grandmother] Ruby was not supposed to be a main character, but about two-thirds of the way through, I knew I needed to bring in another main character, and Ruby was in the background screaming and protesting that she needs to be a main character!

She turns out to be one of my favorite characters. She’s a typical Jamaican mother—they want to be sure you don’t shame them. She starts out hard at the beginning—people don’t like her…until they read her story.

Q: I was going to ask you if you make changes as you write, and it sounds as if you do—but did you have the ending in mind as you started writing?

A: I didn’t. Again, about two-thirds of the way through, because there were so many conflicts, I knew I couldn’t wrap it up as a happy ending. I needed something to bring them together, and the idea of tragedy came to me—[that’s] how the three women came together.

Q: Somerset Grove is set in Jamaica and Canada. What do you think those two countries mean to your protagonists?

A: My story is that my parents grew up in Jamaica and went to England to finish high school, and after they were married and had [children] they moved to Canada. Jamaica is a former British colony, so a lot of people [move to those countries] and a lot of people could identify with that. There’s a large Caribbean population in Canada.

Q: So some of this was inspired by your family?

A: The journey. Picking up when you’re in your teens, and going to another country by yourself. It’s a very common theme for a lot of Caribbean families….

Q: You’re also a lawyer. How does your legal training fit into your work as a writer?

A: My legal training has really helped me with technical writing, how to analyze story and characters. I did a lot of litigation…and was fortunate to work for a partner who was very meticulous. You would write a 30-page brief and he would find the one typo! He also taught me that you have to tell a story…to convince the judge to rule in favor of your client.

Q: Did you always know you wanted to write fiction?

A: When I was very young--creative writing was my favorite class in elementary school and junior high. Then they stopped offering that class, and I put it on the back burner. A few years into my practice…the idea of writing a novel came to me.

Q: Which authors have inspired you?

A: Toni Morrison was probably the first African-American author I discovered--I loved The Bluest Eye. And Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. With Toni Morrison, I loved the way you have to read at her pace. I love the way she can make something beautiful out of something tragic. Recently I’ve started to enjoy Marlon James…and Edwidge Danticat.

Q: I saw that you’ve finished your second novel and you’re working on your third?

A: Correct. The second one is called Butterfly, and it’s about an attorney in the middle of a personal and professional transformation…she starts to look at things in her private life, and examines her relationship with her best friend—and discovers something that could derail the friendship and her career.

Q: Can you say anything about the third novel yet, or is it too early?

A: It’s called Blackheart Man, and it’s based on a Jamaican legend. It was supposed to be my second book, but I write on a Netbook, and I put it on a flashdrive…and I lost the flashdrive. It was a real tragedy for me! I tore up my house, my car, every coffeeshop I visited, and I couldn’t find it. I tried to start writing it again, and I couldn’t. Only since my trip to Jamaica was I inspired to write it again.

Q: Anything else we should know about Somerset Grove?

A: I like to read books that explore a time, space, and culture. Somerset Grove did that for me when I wrote it, and [for people who also like that] it’s one that will take you there!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 28

Feb. 28, 1894: Ben Hecht born.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Q&A with Ruth Kassinger

Q: You write that A Garden of Marvels was initially inspired by your experience with your kumquat tree. How did that come about?

A: I don’t think I’m alone in forming a sentimental feeling toward a plant. I really loved this little plant—she was just perfect, except her leaves dropped off. I did a poor job of pruning!

It occurred to me—I had had the thought before—that I don’t know much about how these [plants] work. You can follow the instructions in a book or on the hangtag, but sometimes it helps to know what’s going on in a plant. I got a book, Botany for Gardeners, but it was really boring. All my writerly instincts kicked in—“I can do a better job than this!”—and that’s what I did.

Q: Was there anything that especially surprised you in the course of your research?

A: The story of Sebastien Vaillant. On June 10, 1717, he gave an incredible, sexy lecture that crystallized it for me—there was so little known about plants! In 1717, this was an amazing moment. He was a very appealing character, but he was so stopped in his career by who he was, a son of a tradesman—there was no chance of his becoming a professor. That was one of the most engaging moments.

Also Marcello Malpighi. There was very little written about him, but there was a wonderful five-volume collection of his letters, so I had this sense of doing primary research. I found the particular day when he had written about being at a particular anatomy lesson. It was one of the last times he did something with human anatomy; he was about to leave for the country to work on plant anatomy.

Q: One particularly interesting plant in your book is the fruit cocktail tree that you named Dorothy. What more can you say about that?

A: It started with [my previous book,] Paradise Under Glass, going to a greenhouse complex, Logee’s, in Connecticut. In one of the greenhouses, there was a giant cocktail tree, with so many different kinds of fruit hanging off it. The tree was growing in the dirt, not in a pot, which tells you how big it can become. I just really wanted one! I loved the idea of one tree that could bear different kinds of fruit. It set me off on a quest that took me to Florida.

Q: What about the giant pumpkins you write about, and the pumpkin boats?

A: As I did research on pumpkins, I spent a lot of time talking to people who grow giant pumpkins, and someone said, Go to the Giant Pumpkin Regatta [in Damariscotta, Maine]. It’s a beautiful place. I could hardly hold my camera, I was laughing so hard. It was a fun vacation!

Q: How did you decide on A Garden of Marvels for the book’s title?

A: It just came to me. I really struggled with the subtitle—it captures part of the book, but not the other part, talking to people about their extraordinary plants. The cover was painted by a friend who lives across the street, Eva-Maria Ruhl.

Q: Your book includes information on early botanists as well as current scientists and your own life. How did you blend those elements as you worked on the book?

A: I was very conscious of keeping people’s interest and slipping in the science as easily and gently as I could. I had the story of botany in mind, but I knew I needed to chop it in small pieces, and only focus on the botanists who were the most interesting.

I was going to alternate as much as I could: the story about me, the story about someone in the here and now, and the story about someone in the past. It was hardest for me to write about myself. [Looking at an early draft], my editor said, “It needs more Ruth-ness!” She said people are really interested in who is telling them the story.

Q: What has the reaction been to A Garden of Marvels?

A: The reaction to the book has been gratifying. One reader wrote to me that A Garden of Marvels was the first science book she'd read. The book is really a combination of history, science, and contemporary stories, but I'll take it! A Garden of Marvels recently made the New York Times bestseller list for science.

Q: You’ve also written for young adults. Do you have a preference when it comes to writing for younger readers or adults?

A: Adults. What I find fascinating is the science. What inspired the kids’ books, and the adult books, is to bring what I find so entrancing about science [to the readers].

There’s only so much complexity you can go into with the young adult books. A lot of the humor and irony would be lost.

Q: Do you have any writers who have especially inspired you?

A: Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire. I love books by Nick Lane, a really great popular science writer. Stephen Jay Gould. George Johnson, who wrote The Ghost Map--in England, in the early 1800s, figuring out cholera and how it was transmitted. These are people who are really good at communicating science in a narrative form.

Q: Are you working on another book now?

A: Yes, I'm well into a new book. The subject is algae. No doubt, you'll think "Ew!" and wonder if I'm crazy for choosing such a subject.

But consider that half the oxygen you are breathing right now is made by algae. It's also a fantastically nutritious food, and is 10 percent of the diet of East Asians. It is certainly a factor in the long lives of Japanese and Koreans.

Algae could well be an important part of our transportation future. Some exciting new companies are genetically engineering algae so they excrete ethanol and even gasoline.

Grown in plastic bioreactors, these algae take up carbon dioxide, use no fresh water, and require no arable land. And the product is below the cost of fossil fuels.

Of course, algae are also causing major environmental problems in the Gulf of Mexico and other bodies of water. They grow out of control when too much nitrogen enters the water from farm run-off. The "dead zone" in the Gulf is the size of the state of Connecticut, and that's all down to algae.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I really feel so strongly that understanding science should be fun, and it’s not that hard to make it fun and plot-driven in some way, so you don’t feel like it’s a job [to read it], you feel like, “What comes next?”

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Ruth Kassinger will be participating in the Temple Sinai Authors Roundtable on February 28, 2015. For a previous version of this Q&A, please click here.

Q&A with Brendan Simms

Brendan Simms is the author of the new book The Longest Afternoon: The 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo. His other books include Europe and Three Victories and a Defeat. He is a professor in the History of International Relations at Peterhouse College, Cambridge, and he lives in Cambridge, England.

Q: Why did you decide to focus your book on one particular aspect of the Battle of Waterloo?

A: I have been fascinated by Waterloo since I was a little boy and my father gave me a book on the battle. It always seemed to me that the defence of the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte by the Second Light Battalion was crucial to the outcome because they blocked Napoleon's main line of advance long enough to give the Prussians time to come up and decide the issue.

More recently, I returned to the battlefield with my son - to whom the book is dedicated - and I was reinfected by his enthusiasm for matters Napoleonic. Then I had a stroke of good luck in that the owners of La Haye Sainte were friends of friends of ours. So the idea of chronicling this remarkable story was born.

Q: Who exactly were the King's German Legion, and what role did they play at the Haye Sainte farmhouse?

A: The King's German Legion were a unit in the British army, after Napoleon overran the Hanoverian territories of King George III of England in 1803. They had a profound ideological antipathy to the French, who had despoiled their homeland.

The riflemen of the Second Light battalion were among the Legion's best troops, who had fought all the way from the Peninsula into France before Napoleon's return from Elba brought them to Belgium.

As seasoned skirmishers, they were well-suited to defend La Haye Sainte, which they did with great courage until finally forced to withdraw in the early evening when they ran out of ammunition. Their resistance was in the face of terrible odds and brought forth some incredible displays of courage.

Q: How were you able to research all the details about the battle that you include in the book?

A: I consulted documents in several British and German archives, many of which had not been used in connection with the battle before. 

I also walked the battlefield itself on several occasions, though one has to be careful because the terrain, as I remark in the book, has changed in important ways over the course of time. It was also a great help to know the owners of the farm who helped me in every way.

Q: It's been two centuries since the Battle of Waterloo. What is its legacy today?

A: Waterloo was fought and won as a coalition victory against Napoleonic tyranny. As Europe faces increasing perils, especially in the east and south, and struggles to mount a response, the legacy of the King's German, which mobilised Germans and other Europeans under English as the language of command, can surely serve as a model for a future united European army.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am writing a strategic biography of Hitler.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My mother is German, and I work in Britain, so it seemed to me after all the hubbub around 1914, that 1815 was worth commemorating as an Anglo-German success story.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 27

Feb. 27, 1902: John Steinbeck born.