10 Questions with James Bruno
1. Mr. Bruno, thank you for this opportunity to be interviewed for my blog. Your new thriller, HAVANA QUEEN, came out in June 2013. Tell us a bit more about this book.
I invested more of my heart in HAVANA QUEEN than in any of my previous novels. It is the culmination of four years of research, writing, and production. The magical and sad country of Cuba got under my skin during my service there as a diplomat in the mid-90s. Yes, there was the intrigue: being constantly surveilled and harassed by Castro’s secret police; the politically charged yet constructive monthly meetings with Cuban military officers on “The Line” at Guantanamo Naval Base; cork-screwing in for a landing at GTMO as mine fields exploded by accident on the Cuban side; attending policy discussions at the White House. Heady stuff all. But the human encounters made a deeper impact on me: The warm embrace and tears of a mother whose family was hounded by the communist regime after her son, a member of the military, made an unsuccessful attempt to flee the island. Saying a sad farewell to other young failed migrants we sent back through the northeast GTMO gate; the doctors, engineers and other professionals who spilled their guts to me as they drove cabs, cleaned hotel rooms, or hustled tourists to get some hard currency to keep food on the table for their families. And then there was the young Afro-Cuban girl who was tasked with tailing me on a lazy Sunday in Santiago. After hours of baking in the hot June sun, this girl was exhausted and dehydrated. Her shy smile is etched in my mind as I presented her with a flower at the end of her long day of surveilling me.
But the throbbing music, which infuses the air everywhere in Cuba, the vivaciousness of the people, and their anticipation of change get under one’s skin. Cubans have one eye on the dinner table and one eye on the clock. Scraping enough resources to feed their families is a daily challenge. But their focus on the clock, waiting, waiting, waiting for change, is very palpable.
The great Spanish poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, enchanted with Cuba after his 1930 visit there, wrote, “Si me pierdo, que me busquen… en Cuba.” Likewise, should I go missing one day…
2. Who are Nick Castillo and Larisa Montilla and how did you go about creating their characters?
I strove to capture Cuba three-dimensionally in HAVANA QUEEN. The smells, sounds, the people’s mindset, the cynicism are all incorporated in my characters: Larisa Montilla – Fidel’s ruthless spy master; Col. Henrique Marcial and his son Yuri – patriots who fall out with the regime; Yamile Acosta – the young blogger who knows too well how the keyboard is mightier than the gun. Private tetes-a-tetes between Fidel and Raul. And the Americans: FBI agent Nick Castillo – mole hunter who gets swept up in Cuba’s political maelstrom; Kate Kovalchuk – Nick’s CIA counterpart, and lover; and the moles: Philip and Deirdre Livingston and Amelia Hernandez – offspring of privilege who spy for a bankrupt dictator. It’s a delicious Caribbean stew of intrigue, love and betrayal – Cuban style.
3. What kind of research did you do for HAVANA QUEEN? How much of what you write about secret services operations is fiction and how much is fact?
I drew heavily on my diplomatic service there, including at Guantanamo Naval Base. Many of the characters are composite, based on Cubans I’d met or knew. Same goes for the American officials. But I also did nine months of intensive research for this book. Over a decade had passed since I’d been in Cuba, so I needed to bone up. I also read extensively scholarly research papers focused on likely political transition scenarios to help me with the plot.
4. What has been the reaction to your novels from the CIA and/or other intelligence services?
I have an avid following in the intel and foreign affairs communities, both of my books and of my blog (Diplo Denizen). By the way, these include Russian as well as Western intel officials. Intel agencies, as well as the State Department, had to read and clear HAVANA QUEEN, as they have all of my books. Often they make redactions or alter text. This clearance process takes up to six months. One ex-CIA officer said in an anonymous review: “His descriptions are so good I wondered at times how he got them through the government reviewers.”
5. Why do you write? Why spy thrillers?
If you had any illusions that government is manned with competent, bright, judicious officials who have your best interests at heart, you’re wrong. Twenty-five years in the federal government showed me otherwise. Regularly, I faced situations which made me say, “Fiction can’t rival this.”
I write spy thrillers because spies steal secrets, break the law, get deep into intrigue. Diplomats, of which I was one, talk to people, read dry, turgid studies, go to stiff cocktail parties, then write up superb, but unexciting, dispatches back their home offices. Spies are more interesting.
6. A word of advice for new writers?
It’s a steep and l-o-n-g learning curve. Successful authors are those who never give up. Improve your craft; learn the business side. I would skip the legacy route altogether and self-publish. Life is too short.
7. What are your writing habits? How long does it take you to research and write a novel?
Somewhere in the family tree there is vampire blood. Routinely, I get going on writing around 9:00pm, come alive at midnight, and the creative juices really get flowing through to 3:00am or 4:00am. I’m a research fanatic. I did months of research for each of my novels before putting fingers to keyboard.
8. What are your favorite pastimes?
I like to canoe, go camping in the Canadian wilderness, fish and shoot. Family life and writing, however, have largely sidelined those pastimes.
9. What do you like to read and what are you reading at the moment?
I love books on history. I recently finished the superlative “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris,” by David McCollough. I also read in my genre. Currently, I’m reading Andrew Kaplan’s “Scorpion Deception.” Finally, I love medieval French literature.
10. What is your next book going to be about?
I’ve started another espionage thriller called “Spykiller,” but the Cuba attraction pulls and I may embark on a Nick Castillo series instead.