10 Questions with Albert Ashforth
Who is Albert Ashforth?
Albert Ashforth served in the U.S. Army overseas upon graduating from high school. When he returned, he earned his B.A. from Brooklyn College. He worked for two New York City newspapers before returning to Europe to write a book. He worked as a military contractor in Bosnia, Kosovo, Germany and Afghanistan. He also worked at the German military academy (the equivalent of West Point) training NATO officers. As a member of the University of Maryland’s Overseas Program, he served as an instructor at 10th Group Special Forces headquarters in Bad Tolz, Germany. He is the author of three books. His articles and stories have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, American Scholar, Four Seasons and other publications. He is now a faculty member of the State University of New York and lives in New York City.
10 Questions with Albert Ashforth
1. Mr. Ashforth, thank you for this opportunity to be interviewed for my blog. Your thriller, The Rendition, came out yesterday. Tell us a bit more about this work.
The Rendition takes place against the background of the largely secret war America has been fighting since 9/11 — a war characterized by secret operations in other countries, drone attacks against nations we consider allies, and the quiet removal of terrorists from one country to another, usually for interrogation. Because other nations are often very unhappy about these operations on their soil, American intelligence officers often find themselves in complex and murky situations. The Rendition focuses on an intelligence officer who finds himself at the center of such a situation.
2. Who is Alex Klear and how did you go about creating his character?
Alex Klear enlisted in the Army at 19 and was accepted into Special Forces. But because he had learned German at home and Spanish in school, he was recruited by an intelligence agency and posted overseas when he was still young and very impressionable. During the Cold War he spent time doing a dangerous job in Europe, but became semi-retired after the Wall came down. As a favor to a former partner and against his better judgment, he becomes involved in a patched-together rendition operation in the Balkans, which goes off the rails. It is at this point that The Rendition begins.
Alex kind of evolved. He is resourceful and has an original way of thinking, which I think all good intelligence officers need to have because of the nature of their assignments. They often need to respond persuasively to new and tricky situations. Because most intelligence agencies recruit from Ivy League universities, Alex with his working-class background and dry sense of humor is sometimes on a different page from his by-the-book colleagues. To a large extent, I patterned Alex after many of the Special Forces guys, officers and enlisted, I’ve known over the years. I guess he resembles me in some ways.
3. What was your experience like while working as a military contractor in the Balkans?
It was eye-opening. While working in Bosnia in 2000, I recall watching unfamiliar looking planes with V-shaped tails taking off and landing on the Eagle Base runway. When I asked, I was told they were Predators, unmanned drones used for surveillance. At the time I lived in a BOQ about 200 yards from the landing strip, and I had no difficulty keeping an eye on what was going on. When I saw Predators being equipped to carry missiles, I wondered whether these drones would ever be used as attack aircraft. That question was answered a few years later. In some respects, I was able to anticipate what would be happening in the near future.
In Kosovo, I could see that the United States considered Serbia to be an enemy. Not only did we bomb Belgrade for 77 days in 1999, we also helped remove Slobodan Milosevic from power and have him sent to The Hague to stand trial. We were quietly helping rearm the Kosovars, and in 1999 we began building a large military installation, Camp Bondsteel, in Kosovo. Although Kosovo’s struggle to become independent of Serbia still had a way to go in 2005, I could see that, with American support, Kosovo would become independent. When Kosovo finally declared its independence in February 2008, we recognized, over the reservations of some highly placed government officials, Kosovo as an independent nation one day later.
4. Why do you write?
I find that by putting my thoughts on paper they become clear to me and are sometimes, t least for me, quite interesting. Hopefully, they are also interesting to other people. When I’ve written something I consider fairly good, I get a feeling of satisfaction probably similar to that of a craftsman who might build a serviceable piece of furniture or a gardener who creates a beautiful garden. And like most people, I enjoy overcoming challenges. Writing is very challenging, and the blank page often quite intimidating.
5. A word of advice for new writers?
I think it is important to think before you sit down to write because our sub-conscious does most of our thinking and problem solving. Walking works for me. I find that I think clearly and focus well while walking, so that when I finally begin writing everything flows. I was once so pre-occupied, I turned into a neighbor’s driveway. My only excuse for this blunder is that the houses in my street were built by the same contractor and are quite similar.
6. What is your typical writing day?
I can write anytime, but I find my best writing time is early, after I’ve had a cup of coffee and gazed at the news. I write for as long as I can. Sometimes I return to my desk in the evening, and while I find I can work well in the evening, once my mind is back in gear it’s difficult for me to relax and fall asleep. All in all, I think it’s better for me to wake up refreshed rather than work late into the night.
7. What are your favorite pastimes?
We have a summer house on the very tip of a peninsula that stretches out into the Atlantic Ocean. My wife and I always have things to do there, and we enjoy relaxing on the deck in the evening. Because I work in New York City, I also do a lot of walking there. Every block in the city is a beehive of activity, and there are all kinds of things to see day and night. New York is a great walking city. The French have a word, flaneur, for people who enjoy strolling around Paris.
8. What other books are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on two books, one of which is pretty far along. It’s about a former Green Beret who gets into some hot water. My other book is about Alex, who has again become entangled in a hard-to-figure-out mystery with a military background. I’m also working on some short stories.
9. What do you like to read and what are you reading now?
At the moment I am reading Scorpion Winter by Andrew Kaplan, Pulse by John Lutz, the latest issue of Popular Mechanics and a book of essays by the humorist Joseph Epstein. Although these publications all seem quite different, each contains some specific idea or information that I’m finding interesting.
10. What can readers expect to find in The Rendition?
I think readers will learn a great deal about how we are conducting the war on terror. The post 9/11 view of the United States around the world is very different from the pre-9/11 view, and to some extent, the book indicates why this is true. Some of Alex’s recollections of the Cold War years are also important, and I hope readers will pick up on some of that. We won the Cold War, which lasted from 1948 to 1989, without hardly firing a shot. I think it is worth remembering how we accomplished that. Things certainly are different now.
Most important, I hope readers find the characters in The Rendition engaging, the backgrounds authentic, and the story twisty and suspenseful.