Your latest novel—your fifth book—is called The Russian Bride. Is it another crime novel?
No, it’s an espionage thriller set in Russia and the U.S. I’ve created a new cast of characters and had a lot of fun writing this one. The villain was in a way inspired by a former KGB agent I’ve gotten to know—a man who worked undercover for the Soviets in London. Of course, the fictional villain in my novel has a plan to become the richest man in the world and cripple America in the process.
So have you spent time in Russia?
I’ve been to Siberia and to Moscow more times than I can remember. And I’ve worked with any number of Russian intelligence types while on certain deployments. Those folks know how to drink vodka, I can attest to that! When things screw up, we refer to TVE—The Vodka Effect.
Who is your hero, Kit Bennings based upon?
He’s an amalgam of people I have known mixed with my own imagination. He’s a member of an army unit once known as ISA, or simply, the Activity. Members of that very real, super secret Special Operations unit are some of America’s spookiest spooks.
Burnt Black is your third novel in the Cliff St. James series. The description sounds like a mystery concerning the occult. Is this a supernatural thriller?
No. My heroes face some baffling events, but the killer is all flesh and blood. New Orleans is a city rich with kind of a scary, voodoo/hoodoo/woowoo past, as evidenced that its cemeteries are huge tourist attractions. Strange things happen there. Since my detective hero and his pal Honey are such physically tough characters, I thought it would be interesting to place them in opposition to what appear to be non-physical threats that can’t be overcome with fists or guns. Their investigation forces them to examine their own beliefs toward the occult, but the book isn’t fantasy or sci-fi.
Did you do a lot of research for Burnt Black?
I have gone back to New Orleans to do research for each of the three CSJ novels I’ve written. It’s a great excuse to return! However, the story is not about voodoo per se, but a secret group that is doing all kinds of strange practices. Generally, I research all of my books extensively and seldom write about a location I haven’t already visited.
Cliff and Honey are something of a very dysfunctional couple. Do they finally get together in Burnt Black?
Sorry, I don’t kiss and tell. You’ll have to read the book. But I will say that in Burnt Black their relationship goes into crisis and then shifts. I hope to explore the tremendous amount of emotional baggage carried by Honey in future installments.
So are you working on the next in the NOLA series?
Actually, I’m launching a new series with St. Martin’s Press, with the first book, The Russian Bride, coming in winter of 2015. That book is finished. It’s a fast-paced, knock-down drag-out global conspiracy espionage thriller. Readers who like Cliff St. James should like the hero of that book, Kit Bennings, who is a military intelligence agent who goes on the run from the bad guys…and the good guys.
I hope to write more Cliff St. James novels in the near future and have lots of ideas for new plots.
Your third novel is called Good Junk. What’s it about?
Cliff St. James returns to stir up a lot of trouble as he investigates a series of murders in New Orleans. A sexy FBI gal, shifty intelligence agents, shady scrap sellers, fast-talking thieves, Feds on the take, and lots of gun-running. Sounds like a party to me!
Since Good Junk is the second thriller featuring New Orleans detective Cliff St. James, do you bring back any of the characters from Storm Damage?
Yes, except for the dead ones! Cliff’s pal and partner Honey is now an NOPD homicide detective, and they again work closely together. Cliff once again has his hands full on both the professional and personal fronts.
Are all the locations in your books real?
Most are, but not all. For legal reasons I sometimes have to create a location instead of using an existing one. I do a tremendous amount of field research; usually, if I’ve written about an establishment or city or country, I’ve been there beforehand. I inject as much verisimilitude, or authenticity into my writing as possible. I travel a lot.
Was Storm Damage based on a true story?
No. The premise of the book was inspired by a real event, but otherwise there is no connection.
Do you still live in New Orleans?
I had to move due to other commitments after living there for two and a half years, but I visit often and have many friends there. I encourage everyone to take a holiday in and enjoy New Orleans.
How long did it take to write Storm Damage?
Storm Damage is unusual because it took three years to finish it. I worked 12 hour shifts, six or seven days a week as a private security contractor over that three year period. I never had a chance to just write full-time. I started working on the book in 2007, the same year I co-founded a security company that specialized in providing training. So I was pretty busy. But if I worked nightshift, I could usually spend a couple of hours each shift writing, while still fulfilling my duties.
Does your first novel, Unseen Forces, feature detective Cliff St. James?
No, the hero is Dr. Sky Wilder, a maverick archeologist and adventurer who has been marginalized by the scientific establishment. He manages to get into a lot of trouble while working in the field trying to prove his “fringe” theories. There is plenty of espionage and conspiracy in that book and it’s been called “Indiana Jones on steroids,” although Wilder is a present-day character. A sequel is in the works.
Unseen Forces features a female psychic spy working for the U.S. Army. Did the military really use psychic spies?
Yes. There were a series of super secret military units under different code names. The program officially ended in 1995. The whole thing was essentially given birth in 1972 at the Stanford Research Institute with CIA funding. What’s interesting is that the Russians revealed in January 2005, in Pravda, that President Boris Yelstin had used Russian psychic spies to protect him from American psychic spies.