Friday, May 12, 2017


Award-winning writer of crime fiction and thrillers, Terrence McCauley’s novels of modern espionage have made the techno-thriller thrilling again. Lean, fast-paced, displaying sharp characterization, and eschewing all filler, Sympathy For The Devil, A Murder Of Crows, and the upcoming A Conspiracy Of Ravens (September 2017)—all featuring James Hicks and the machinations of the omnipotent University—are paranoia filled nightmares, stiletto slashes of modern espionage brought to life. In a clandestine meeting set up via dead drop, I recently debriefed Terrance about his world of spies and spying…
If we got our hands on the CIA file on Terrence McCauley what would it tell us about you?
It would say that I was born in the Bronx and had the luxury of walking to school my entire life. Elementary school, high school and college (Fordham University) were all within walking distance of my apartment. It would also say I probably smoke too many cigars and yell at the television too much. 
How did the world of modern espionage intrigue you enough to choose it as a genre?
The first movie I ever watched with my father from start to finish was Three Days of the Condor. It’s a dense movie and tough to follow, even now, but I was about six or seven when I sat through it. We didn’t have cable, so I watched it with commercials, which made it even longer. I may not have understood it all at first, but the subtle aspects of the story intrigued me, even from an early age. I also watched The Equalizer when it was on TV and found myself more interested at the events they hinted at in McCall’s past as a spy than I was about his efforts to help people. As an adult, I’ve come to love the genre beyond just the James Bond movies and novels, and decided to try my hand at it. The result was Sympathy For The Devil, which received a lot of nice acclaim.
How do you compare old school spies with modern espionage in real life and fiction?
I think the spy genre is like the western genre, in that we use both genres to reflect where we are as a society. Bond came along at the beginning of the space race, so everyone was intrigued by the ideas of gadgets and technology. Those can be crutches for a writer. You can swing the other way and look at the great Le Carré, whose novels are beautifully written, but incredibly dense to the point where it’s difficult for many casual fans of the genre to follow along. Those of us who stuck with his work were richly rewarded with some wonderful books. Today, ex-Special Forces operators are the heroes. They’ve been written about extensively by other writers, so I decided to tell my story in my own way with my own kind of hero. 
In real life, espionage and intelligence have always been about one thing—finding out what your enemy doesn’t want you to know. And despite all of our advances with electronics and satellites and computers, the human element is always the weakest link in the chain. See Snowden, Assange and Bradley for details. The bells and whistles might get fancier, but nothing’s more reliable—or more corruptible—than the human element of espionage.
What are the difficulties in writing cutting edge espionage fiction?
I’m a news junkie, so when I started writing Sympathy For The Devil, I had the benefit of all the information Edward Snowden had released. I used some of what I’d learned and made logical leaps in the kind of technology I used in my book. It’s a strategy I’ve used since and plan on continuing to use well into the future. 
The greatest challenge is trying to be too cutting edge. If the tech isn’t relatable, people tend to tune out and either skip it or move on to another book. There have been advances in artificial intelligence and biometrics and the like that I mention in my novels, but I don’t plan on making much of them. My goal is to tell as interesting a story as I can, and people tend to gloss over large blocks of techno-babble. At least I know I do. It’s why I stopped reading Clancy’s work. I got tired of having to flip to the front of the book to remember what all the initials meant. Keep it simple for the audience to stay with you and the reader and the writer are better off.
How do you balance character and technology in the modern spy novel?
For me, it’s all about character. Bytes and satellites are only as interesting as the people who use them in the story. The trick is to use the technology to advance the story and keep the reader interested in the plot. When technology begins to be intrusive and does the work for the characters, the writer is in trouble. I have a lot of tech in my books, but it doesn’t supplant the plot or the main thrust of the story. If anything, I use it to enhance the traits of my characters.
How do you keep your espionage novel rooted in the real world and not spinning off into the world of James Bond style supervillains, super weapons, and menacing henchmen?
I love writing about people. All kinds of people. Good and bad and indifferent people. I keep in mind those on both sides of the struggle in my book were people first. They have pasts and motivations and experiences that brought them to where they are today. I’ve read a lot of books in the genre so I try to avoid copying some of the more common aspects of other works, like the ex-Special Forces operative pulled back into the life against his will, or the foaming Jihadist, or the corrupt, cigar-smoking senator more interested in money than his country. I do my best to keep the characters as real as possible because those are the kinds of books I like to read myself. 
Have you become paranoid researching all the surveillance and invasion of privacy techniques you write about?
Nope. I’ve never been under the illusion we’ve ever had privacy in anything we do, and that was before the internet and cell phones. The government was able to tap telegraph lines, so today there should be no expectation of privacy. Maybe someone is keeping track of what I write and what I look up. If they are, I hope they enjoy what they read—and buy a book if they do. If I wind up in an orange jumpsuit in Gitmo, I’ll give you a call.
Do you have any specific espionage fiction influences?
Marc Cameron and Le Carré are two different types of writers who excel in their respective areas of espionage. The action in Cameron’s work is fantastic, while the plotting in Le Care’s work is admirable. I also like Daniel Silva’s books and Len Deighton’s rare talent for being able to tell a great story while introducing just the right amount of humor is fantastic.
Do you actively seek out and collect espionage related or plot related threads you keep in a dead drop for when you might need them?
Like I said, I’m a news junkie, but espionage and techno-thriller bits of news always grab my attention. I don’t take notes very often, but some of the facts tend to stick in my mind as I go along. They form a kernel of an idea, which often blows up into a plot for a short story or, if I’m lucky, a novel.
What drove you to begin writing and what were your original goals?
I began writing because I grew up in a family of storytellers. My uncles were priests in inner city parishes here in NYC, so they always had stories to tell. One uncle was actually a chaplain in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women, so you can imagine some of the stuff he saw. I suppose it’s why I chose to write about crime, because from an early age, I was introduced to the failings of the human condition. Cops and robbers and spies help me tell the story of that condition without becoming too preachy about it. 
My original goals were to get published. I figured I had about one good book in me. That book was Prohibition, originally published by our good friends over at Airship 27. I never thought I’d write a sequel, much less begin The University Series. But I did and I’m still at it more than five years later. 
How have your writing and your goals changed with experience?
Yes. The more I’ve done it, the more important writing has become to me. It’s now part of who I am. When people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them I’m a writer, even though I have a day job that has nothing to do with writing. My goal now is to tell the best story I can, and never think I’m as good as I can be. There’s always room for improvement and I never want any of my readers to feel like I gave any less than my best. They might not like something I’ve written, but I never want them to be able to say it’s boring.
Polis Books is a high profile, progressive, successful small publisher. How did you come into their universe and how has your journey with them progressed?
I met Jason Pinter, the owner and publisher of Polis Books, at several Noir at the Bar events. After he launched Polis Books, I asked him if he was looking for any new material. He said he was looking for good material whether it was new or not. So, I sent him a list of the works I had done and planned to write and we agreed to a three book deal. We’re now on our third and fourth books together, with the possibility of more in the future. 
Like many authors, you’ve kept your day job while continuing to weave your stories in your off hours. What stresses does this schedule put on you personally, on your family, on your day job?
It helps that I don’t have a ton of hobbies. I don’t like to golf. I love traveling and reading and watching old movies and documentaries. I enjoy strong coffee and cigars, both of which I can enjoy while writing. Everything I do outside the office lends itself to help me in my craft. Even when I’m not physically at the keyboard working on a novel, I’m thinking about what’s coming next. Some people think that’s taxing, but I couldn’t live any other way. Nor would I want to.
The stresses of being a full-time writer can also be onerous. A writer’s income fluctuates wildly. Benefits, pensions, and medical coverage become a mirage. Writing full time increases the pressure to produce good work exponentially. Sitting around in your pajamas all day playing with your imaginary friends may sound like fun, but it isn’t the reality of a writer’s life. Is your plan to become a full-time writer and, if so, how will you deal with those challenges?
I’d love nothing more than to have the opportunity to take that challenge, but I’ll only do it if I was fortunate enough to do it my way. I’d need enough money in the bank to secure my financial future before I’d consider quitting my job and writing full time. It’s hard to hear the muse over the growl of an empty stomach. It’s also tough to type on a computer when the electricity gets shut off. I also don’t know if I could write with a gun to my head. I’ve always worked fast, but it’s been on my own terms and largely at my leisure. I’ve often wondered if the stress level of finding good paying gigs would affect my writing. I’m sure it would. I just don’t know if it would make it better or worse. 
So yes, I’d need to have a significant amount in the bank or some kind of security to feel comfortable enough to dive into this full time. How much? Make me an offer and find out!
What’s next for Mr. Hicks and the University, and what else do you have hidden up your sleeve?
The University Series is growing more and more each year. It’s not just about Hicks and the first three books are not a trilogy. Nothing is over. In fact, everything is just beginning. Next year, Polis will be publishing the sequel to my 1930s novel Slow Burn, called The Fairfax Incident. It is the book that shows the very beginning of how The University was formed in the pre-World War II era and blossomed into the entity it is today. I also have plenty of huge changes in store following the events of A Conspiracy Of Ravens. Stay tuned.
As Terrence makes his way back out into the cold, I want to thank him for taking the time to chat and share his writing experiences with us.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Your comment will be reviewed by the administrator before being posted...