Not long ago, I conducted an interview with Senan Gil Senan, author of Beyond the Pale, focusing on how and why he wrote the book that he did. I found his book as well as his interview answers to be fascinating. Now we’ve switched places, offering me an opportunity to reflect on why, and how, I wrote the book that I did. So here we go:
My name is Senan Gil Senan. Last month I was fortunate to have a fine review of my book Beyond the Pale, followed up by an interview by Andy Updegrove on this blog. Answering his questions was thought provoking for me, and I thought that it would be equally interesting for Andy to reciprocate by answering a set of my questions about his book The Alexandria Project. I would also suggest that anyone who has already this most excellent book, should maybe add their own questions in the comment section if they feel that mine do not do the story justice.
Q. In my humble opinion, I thought the opening scene in the first chapter was brilliant, but also extremely original. You introduced the main character to us through observing his body language through the eyes of his dog who expressed his own reservations and annoyances with his owner, Frank Adversego. Can you tell us how you came up with that idea?
A: Literally while walking my dog in the rain, collecting up after him using the blue plastic bag my New York Times arrives in. That’s when the following lines came to me:
“Isn’t that just the story of my life?” he thought bleakly as Lily happily consumed her treat. “Every day I give her a cookie, and every day she gives me a bag of shit.”
Trudging home through the rain, Frank reflected that his day generally went downhill from there.
I hadn’t even decided to write a book when I thought of those few lines, and certainly hadn’t given any thought to what the protagonist might be like, or even their gender. But those few words were sufficient to get the wheels turning, and also to suggest what I thought could be an interesting and non-stereotypical main character. Not surprisingly (if you’ve read the book), I’ve always enjoyed quirkiness, whether as a reader or a writer. And, of course, introducing Frank through the eyes of the dog was the perfect way to set up the little joke that set me off on writing the book.
By the way, this scene was the beginning of the book until shortly before I finished the first draft. As a commercial decision, I added the current prologue because I thought it provided a better hook to draw readers in. But at some point I may delete it.
Q. The main character Frank Adversego is shown to have not fulfilled his vocational career potential. He only demonstrates his full potential when dealing with a crisis situation. Is this character based on someone you know, or is he a construct that exemplifies certain qualities you required for your hero?
A. I have to give two answers to that. Up to a point, his life experience is similar to that of a number of people I knew back in the 1970s and 1980s, when mucking around with computers was very much of a fringe activity. They were into computers for their own sake, and some literally did sleep in the computer lab rather than bother to go home.
Back then, start-up companies were launched by people in their 40s and venture capitalists wouldn’t dream of giving money to anyone younger, and personal computers hadn’t been invented yet. So if you wanted to have access to computers for the hell of it, hanging around a university like MIT and getting a masters, and even a doctorate, was appealing. But the underachiever part was something I added on top of that in order to make Frank a more interesting character, and to help set up various other parts of the plot that I thought would make the story more fun to read and his character development more interesting.
Q. I found Frank’s character interesting because of his detailed character portrait. You described someone that was an excellent analyst and problem solver, but disorganised in many other respects. His downfall seemed to be that he had little or no time management skills, and would let a system collapse around him whilst he pursued one little problem. Are you fond, or disapproving of Frank’s character, and do you intend to use him again in another book/sequel?
A. I hadn’t thought about it using those words before, but yes, I suppose I am fond of him. And yes, I’m currently finishing up the editing of my second book, in which Frank is the main character (Frank’s daughter and a few of the other characters also put in an appearance, and several new characters play major roles). Once again, an element of his makeup that affects his personal journey is a major thread that runs through the book from start to finish. I suppose it would be accurate to say that when I turned my hand to writing fiction, I found that I was just as interested in writing about characters as I was about developing a plot. It may be accurate to say that notwithstanding the fact that I’ve been writing in the thriller genre, I’ve been devising the plot to present the character’s development more than the other way around.
Q. I detected an underlying distaste for the employment of cutting edge technology and program coding in online marketing. Is this just Frank’s opinion, or do you share it?
A. Answering the last part first, indeed I do find social media to be of questionable utility for many purposes. And it certainly isn’t something that I have been able to find value in. So that bias informed the choice of social media as a whipping boy to help illustrate Frank’s “smartest guy in the room” self-image. You’ll see some more on this topic in the second book, by the way.
Q. You paint a picture of inter agency rivalry, particularly in respect to the access and control of online information. You give the impression that they are fighting each other first, and the external threat is only of secondary importance. Is this an accurate summary and can you expand on this here?
A. Sadly, inter-service rivalries are more than a fictional trope in the U.S., whether we’re speaking about the armed forces or government agencies. I hope it’s an exaggeration to say that they care more about tucking it to their peer-rivals than doing their jobs, but certainly one gets the impression that there’s enough validity to the concept to make it a reasonable conceit to work with.
Q. Your book credits North Korea with impressive hacking or ‘cracking’ abilities. It has proved very prescient considering the latest hacking allegations against this rogue state. In the real world do you credit North Korea with as much ability as in the story of the Alexandria code? Do you see them as a credible threat to the United States?
A. It’s been a bit eerie watching so many things I came up with as plot devices actually appear in the morning paper (hopefully the last ten chapters will not). But indeed, we should be very, very afraid of cyberattack from countries such as North Korea – it’s the ultimate example of an “asymmetric warfare” opportunity for the Hermit Kingdom. The developed world in general, and the U.S. in particular, is enormously dependent on computer networks for virtually every purpose, while North Korea could presumably lose access to all of its computers tomorrow and the average citizen might be oblivious to that fact.
So if you were Kim Jung Un and wanted to go up against a country whose annual military budget equals that of the next 18 most-armed countries in the world *combined,* would you try to match them militarily, or would your go after their weak cyber-underbelly, where you would be at a distinct advantage? If that sounds far-fetched, you might decide differently after reading a scenario I wrote to illustrate the point.
Q. Which countries and organisations do you see as the biggest threat to cyber terrorism, and what are their main targets?
A. It’s necessary to distinguish between the types of motivations. For military purposes, one would assume that Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran would lead the list if we’re speaking of the U.S. as the target. But if we were speaking of India and Pakistan, a different answer would be obvious, and mutual. So also for Israel and Iran.
On the economic side, a number of states are known to help their domestic industries by stealing and seeking commercial information. Their answers might surprise you: Not just China, but France and Israel as well.
And for strictly commercial gain, some of the Eastern European, former Soviet Republics, Russia and China lead the list.
Q. The great library of Alexandria which allegedly housed all the knowledge of the classical world has been the inspiration for many other projects. Jimmy Wales, The founder of Wikipedia referred to it in the context of being an open resource for all mankind. The Egyptian Gnostics saw it as an exclusive resource for the higher echelons in which information was a source of power and restricted, and only accessible through a pyramidical structured hierarchy. Julian Assange referred to WikiLeaks as ‘a rebel library of Alexandria,’ meaning that he saw it as a necessary open resource to prevent secrets. How do you view it Andy?
A. I think that the symbolism of the great library is very powerful. It deals with the goal of making all knowledge accessible in one place, and also the recognition that knowledge is at least as important than riches and empires. Whenever a ship landed in Alexandria, Ptolemy relieved it of its books, returning them only after his scribes had copied them. The rest of the cargo was untouched (although doubtless taxed).
This leads me back to one of the original concepts of my book, which was to highlight the risk we run by digitizing everything rather than keeping physical copies as well. If you read the scenario I provided the link to above and assume that it happens in twenty years, the greatest danger would be the annihilation of all knowledge, accept to the extent that people carried that data around in their heads. Virtually all of the up to date information that twenty years ago would have been stored in books and documents in the fields of technical, scientific, engineering, finance, and so on will exist only on computer servers. Destroy the servers, and we’re back in the Stone Age.
Run the scenario out 100 years, and the last paper records will be in landfills. A future extra-terrestrial visitor to the now-empty earth would wonder how we ever created such a complex society without ever having discovered writing, except for the words carved in the lintels of buildings. Much the way Mayan ruins look to us today, after the Spanish destroyed almost all of the codices that contained information.
In the sequel, The Lafayette Deception, I deal with a more pedestrian concept: someone hacking the upcoming U.S. presidential elections. So there will be fewer scary things for readers to worry about. But that should be only a partial comfort. After all, the candidates are likely to scare the bejeebers out of us all on their own.
Q. One of your characters was named Bach Choy, a spelling close to the Chinese root vegetable (Bok Choy), which is often used in stir fries. Were you aware of this, and poking fun at the North Korean General?
A. Indeed I was. I had some fun with many of the names in the book. Some readers got a kick out of them, while others thought they were juvenile and a mistake. For example, Lang Dang (assuming I’m remembering the spelling of the Chinese President’s name in my own book) is intended to be mildly scatological. Again, “You may fire when ready, Grid Lee,” takes advantage of the most common Korean name (Lee) to reprise one of the most famous battle lines in U.S. naval history: “You may fire when ready, Gridley,” Gridley being the captain of the U.S.S. Olympia, the speaker being Commodore George Dewey, both of whom were steaming, in 1898, into what we now refer to as the Battle of Manila Bay. And so on.