10 Questions with Keith Thomson
1. Mr. Thomson, thank you for this opportunity to be interviewed for my blog. Your new thriller, 7 GRAMS OF LEAD, came out on February 25. Tell us a bit more about this book.
7 Grams of Lead is the story of a reporter, Russ Thornton, who discovers that an electronic eavesdropping device has been implanted in his head. His subsequent investigation catapults him into a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with a mysterious intelligence agency.
2. Who is Russ Thornton and where did the inspiration for his character come from?
Thornton is a national security blogger. The story is based on my own actual experience. Sort of.
A few years ago, at CIA headquarters in Langley, VA, I interviewed then CIA director General Michael Hayden for The Huffington Post. The interview was contentious.
Hayden is a guy with a soft, grandfatherly exterior. Otherwise he’s like Darth Vader. Not your ideal cocktail party companion, but definitely the sort of guy you want safeguarding the country. Of note, he doesn’t care much for the fourth estate. Also, in his previous gig, director of the NSA, he ran the controversial warrantless surveillance program.
A few days later, I was walking out of a movie theater when it felt like lightning struck my left arm. Inside my wrist, I discovered a small lump. I figured it was a sebaceous cyst They’re harmless. Go away in a couple of months. This one was unusually smooth, though. Oddly symmetrical too, like a Tic Tac.
Probably because of my background and definitely because of General Hayden’s, I wondered: Could the lump be an eavesdropping device.
I went to see an orthopedic surgeon. A few months earlier, I’d made the mistake of trying to push a squash court wall out of the way while running full speed after a ball and tore the cartilage in my left wrist. The lump in my left wrist now, the surgeon said, was an absorbable suture from the operation that hadn’t dissolved properly. Which fit the facts. Or Hayden had gotten to the surgeon. In any case, I had a book idea.
3. What are your writing habits? Outline or not?
Outline, yes, for a couple of months. I work in an office I rent in an office building from 8-5 or so, five days a week. People assume I am an accountant.
4. What is the single most important thing you have learned during the writing process of crafting a novel?
Once, while I was at home waiting for my wife to read something over, I had to dig a ditch. No matter how hard writing ever seems, digging a ditch is harder.
5. A word of advice for new writers?
Eat in crappy Mexican places. Here’s why:
In December 2002 I came down with a 103-degree fever. Oddly I felt fine. Six days later, I felt great, but my temperature remained 103. So I took my wife’s suggestion and went to the doctor (nowadays, with small children, we would have to have a 103-degree fever for twenty days before thinking of going to a doctor). It turned out that, as a result of eating the wrong burrito, I’d contracted the hepatitis A virus.
“You’ll need to spend six to eight weeks in bed,” the doctor said, a devastating blow because it would cost me a substantial movie rewrite job (at the time I was working as a screenwriter, essentially commuting to Los Angeles from Palo Alto).
It turned out hep A wasn’t all bad. Two of my favorite activities are sleeping and reading. How often do you get to spend two months doing nothing but? I could keep only toast down, and I suffered haunting, recurring dreams of cheeseburgers, but, all in all, I was delighted with the disease. My family and friends took this as delirium.
More than anything, hepatitis nudged me into doing research to fill out the pirate manuscript I’d begun that fall in the novel-writing class I took at Stanford’s School of Continuing Ed. Ships are complicated, and I didn’t know my bow from my poop deck. My story involved an extensive duel between a superyacht and a clipper sailed by a bunch of actual pirates hiding in plain sight as a troupe of pirate re-enactors. To write the clipper scenes, I needed to know how the craft was rigged and sailed, and I needed to know about most every part of it, because about most every part gets blown sky-high. While in bed, I read about forty maritime books, mostly non-fiction, from Stanford’s singularly extensive maritime library—in several instances, I was the first person to check out the book in half a decade. If I hadn’t had hep A, I don’t know when I could possibly have done all the research. Or that I would have ever done it. Or that the book would have sold (St. Martin’s bought it in 2003, publishing it as Pirates of Pensacola in 2005).
Now I’m a research junkie. Is that good? How much research is too much? At what point does research hinder writing, in terms either of time drain or diluting the creative process? How do you decide to go to a story location for research, or simply visit via YouTube? I don’t have the answer to any of these questions; I’m eager to know your thoughts.
In the interim, would I recommend hep A to other novelists? Absolutely. Just follow your doctor’s instructions closely or you could wind up getting published by Davy Jones.
6. What are your thoughts on the latest publishing industry developments, mainly the rise of the self-publishing? Did you ever consider it or might you consider it in the future?
The rights to Pirates of Pensacola, the book mentioned above, were reverted to me in 2011. I did nothing with it. Then, somehow, it became a Jimmy Buffett’s Book Club pick and, in the next few months, people bought more copies than they had in the previous six years when it was a St. Martin’s title.
7. What was it like to play semi-pro baseball in France?
Like playing basketball with eight-foot hoops. Anyone who played high school ball in the United States would have hit .300 there.
8. What are your favorite pastimes?
Watching and coaching baseball, playing squash, reading, drones.
9. 7 GRAMS OF LEAD will be delivered by drone in Birmingham, AL? How did you make this possible?
I own a couple of drones that I acquired in the course of reporting on them. Unfortunately, it looks like FAA regulations may preclude drone delivery this time around.
10. What is your next book going to be about?
Either an aircraft designer or a racetrack robbery.