On the Rocky Mountain Writer podcast with Mark Stevens, I discuss the inspiration for Mind Virus, the philosophy of interrogation, and the subtleties of exclamation point usage. Listen to the podcast here.
(This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.)
MARK STEVENS: We’ve got sage words of advice this time on the podcast, all the way from Japan. Charles Kowalski is only a few weeks away from the release of his first novel, Mind Virus, but it’s been a long road to reach this point. And Charles knows it was all meant to be. He had just the right amount of encouragement, he says, at just the right time to keep going and to not give up.
Mind Virus features Robin Fox, a peace-loving professor of world religions, who wants only to leave his dark past as a military interrogator behind him. But when an unknown suspect tries to disperse a deadly virus in downtown Washington, Fox is unwillingly drawn back into the shadowy world of intelligence. The FBI and CIA automatically suspect Islamic terrorists, but Fox digs deeper to discover the far more frightening truth: a global conspiracy to eradicate all religion from the face of the earth.
Charles Kowalski is a two-time winner of the Action-Thriller Colorado Gold Award, for Mind Virus in 2013 and also in 2016 for the forthcoming Day of the Watchers. He divides his time between Japan, where he teaches at a university, and his family home in Maine. This is a special podcast because it marks the first international interview for the Rocky Mountain Writer.
Charles Kowalski, welcome to the Rocky Mountain Writer podcast. It’s fantastic to have you on the podcast today.
CHARLES KOWALSKI: It’s fantastic to be here. Thank you for having me.
MS: Tell us about Mind Virus. What was the inciting idea behind this book?
CK: This book was a long time in the making. Since September 11, of course terrorism was a big theme on everyone’s mind, and in the literature of the time. And at the same time, you also saw the ascendancy of what was called the New Atheist movement, which was the growing chorus of voices, spearheaded by people like Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, saying that, essentially, religion itself is to blame for all the world’s ills. And if we could only eradicate religion – the way we eradicated the smallpox virus, to borrow a phrase from Richard Dawkins – then the world would be a better place. Especially as concerns terrorism, because everyone knows about terror in the name of religion, but terror in the name of atheism would be inconceivable. To which, of course, my reaction was: “You keep using that word! I don’t think it means what you think it means.”
MS: [Laughs] And so you started thinking about a plot which took that issue on?
CK: Exactly. And it was meant, at first, as a satirical role reversal. What would happen if, say, someone with the mentality and the means of an Osama bin Laden were to get his hands on the teachings of people like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris? What if the shoe were on the other foot, and these New Atheists were to find themselves in the position of, say, American Muslims post-9/11: always on the defensive, always having to answer for the actions of a few extremists, having to lay low and send warnings to one another, saying: “Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to carry books by Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris through airport security”? And the book does still retain some of those humorous touches, but the more I wrote, the more plausible it felt.
MS: So this book sounds to me like it must be set in the future, a little bit.
CK: It’s contemporary.
MS: And where did you set it, and how did you develop a protagonist around this idea?
CK: The protagonist was also a long time developing. His life, in some ways, parallels mine. He’s lived in many countries, speaks many languages – he’s a Foreign Service brat, and he has the experience that I could have wished I had. So he’s a citizen of the world, he can adapt just about anywhere he goes, but he’s always on the outside looking in, even in his own country. The first half is set in Washington, and then the second half, without giving too much away, travels the world.
MS: How did you start developing this? You’ve got a great concept, obviously. Was this a big challenge, to come up with elements of how this story was going to propel itself?
CK: It was a challenge, in a way, but also in many ways, the elements in the story came together of their own accord. Robin Fox, the protagonist that I’d had in mind for so long, seemed like the ideal person to confront this new threat, partly because of his knowledge of various languages and cultures and, particularly, religions. And also, I made him – not of his own choice, but from pressure from his family – a former military interrogator, who had served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. He did a very good job, he earned a Bronze Star for his service, but it also left him deeply scarred. After he left the service, he had a dark night of the soul and spent some time traveling the world, immersing himself in various spiritual traditions, looking for answers which he’s still not quite convinced he’s found. But after that, he seized upon teaching world religions, teaching understanding among different religions and cultures, and teaching peace philosophy, as a way of making amends for his complicity in war crimes, just wanting to leave that dark chapter in his life behind him…until the fateful day comes when the FBI and CIA decide that they have need of his expertise.
MS: It’s always a great idea to have a character who’s got a past, who’s got something haunting them a little bit, or something they’re trying to change or leave, right?
CK: That’s what I felt.
MS: And how long did this book take you, the first time through, back when you were first drafting it?
CK: It did take a number of years, I’m not entirely sure…maybe two years from the time I started writing to the time it was ready for the Colorado Gold. And of course, the world changed since then.
MS: Right. Have you made adjustments based on those changes?
CK: I have, to a certain degree.
MS: But it’s hard to keep up with all the changes, isn’t it? Revisions would be just ongoing. At some point, you have to declare that this is the way it is.
CK: Yes, exactly. And of course, once the manuscript goes to press, things still change. It was while I was shopping this manuscript around, actually, that there was the incident in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where three young Muslim students at the university were shot by a neighbor, whose library and whose website contained a great many references to these New Atheist thinkers that I’ve mentioned. At one point, he posted a comment along the lines of, “I wish Christians, Jews, and Muslims would exterminate one another.” When I read that, I thought, “Those words could have come from my villain.”
MS: So, did this involve a lot of research, either on the military side of things, and/or…maybe you already had been reading Dawkins, Hitchens, and the others?
CK: Yes, it involved a great deal of research on all of those fronts, particularly in terms of the military, and military interrogation. I don’t have any military experience myself, so I had to read everything I could get my hands on, and talk to everyone who would talk to me who had that experience. So, yes, that was quite a learning process.
MS: On the reading side there, how did you know you were reading the right things in terms of researching that aspect of your story, and how did you go about finding people who were involved in military investigations?
CK: Well, finding the appropriate things to read was actually the easy part, because a number of military interrogators, after Iraq and Afghanistan, came forward to share their stories. I read of people who, like my protagonist Robin Fox, had left the service deeply scarred by what they had done. And I also read accounts from interrogators who had pursued things their own way, and pursued the philosophy that Robin Fox also subscribes to, and that had proven to be most effective in gaining intelligence in counterterror, which is: If you frighten a subject into cooperating, then he’ll only cooperate as long as you can keep him frightened. But if you can manage to earn his trust, then of course that’s a much more time-consuming process, but once you have him, you have him forever, and the information he provides is going to be much more reliable. That’s also Robin Fox’s guiding principle, which did occasionally put him into conflict with some of the more hard-line members of his unit, in his military days.
MS: Do you get into waterboarding, then, and the controversy over that technique?
CK: Not so much that technique, but yes, there are others in there.
MS: That’s a classic example of a point of dispute about military tactics. I can’t remember exactly who recently said that they can get more out of a suspect or an enemy, if they’re in captivity and being questioned, they can get more out of them by sharing a beer than by waterboarding, which is exactly the point you’re making.
CK: Yes. I don’t know who said that, but that captures the whole philosophy very nicely.
MS: So how about reading up on Hitchens and Dawkins? Was this an area that you had explored previous to writing the book, or did you go back and read everything they’ve put out?
CK: I knew them by reputation only, so yes, I had to go back and read their works more deeply.
MS: What about, coming at this issue, just yourself personally? Where do you stand on organized religion, just as a person?
CK: As a person, and as a person of faith, I share certain aspects with Robin Fox. I would call myself a Christian, but I’ve also been fascinated by many of the world’s other faith traditions. I live in Japan, so Shinto and Buddhism have had a great influence on me. I feel very strongly that all these traditions have something very important to contribute to the world, and that society would be much poorer without them. But this idea that the world would be a more peaceful place without religion…this is a sentiment that I often hear echoed here in Japan, which is quite a secular society. And I feel in the position of someone who has enrolled in police academy because they have a burning desire to serve and protect their fellow citizens, only to be exposed to a constant barrage of opinions saying “well, all the crime in the world is the fault of the police.” So it’s quite galling to be blamed for the very ills that you’re doing your best to prevent, and even more galling to turn on the evening news or log into Facebook and see, every day, where they got that idea. So, yes, I can sort of see both sides of the issue.
MS: Did you find your views changing as you wrote the book?
CK: I wouldn’t say my views changed, but I became more able to understand the opposing viewpoint.
MS: So you wrote the book, and you’ve made some changes over time. Tell us about the whole process here at the end and bringing it home, with Literary Wanderlust, with Suzie Brooks. I assume, since we’ve had some of Suzie’s growing stable of writers on the podcast, I assume she put you through some pretty good editing paces, knowing her and knowing how she goes about this.
CK: She did, she definitely did, and I feel that the book is the better for her attentions. But she also gave me free rein. Even in spite of the controversial nature of the subject matter, she didn’t really try to rein me in. I really appreciated her for that, because she definitely helped me polish the manuscript, but she also allowed my own voice to come through.
MS: So she said, “Here are some suggestions, but it’s really your artistic choices.”
CK: Yes. Although I’ve learned to be very careful about using exclamation points in any manuscript that I write for her.
MS: She’s not a big fan, I guess?
CK: She said I was allowed one per manuscript.
MS: [Laughs] And how many would we find?
CK: She actually gave me the number. I’ve forgotten it, but the fact that she was counting says a bit about how close an issue this is to her.
MS: And how many are in the end product that’s going to come out on July 1st?
CK: Well, somewhere between one and the original number.
MS: [Laughs] I guess that’s enticement for us to go read it and count for ourselves. Who were some of the folks that inspire you? I know it sounds like we’ve got a book here that’s very unusual and sort of on its own, but I wonder if you would connect it to any other writers or folks you admire.
CK: Well, I’ve definitely been influenced by a number of writers. I think Daniel Silva, in terms of both writing and subject matter, was a great influence on me, because he writes thrillers with a religious twist. Of course, Dan Brown. Lee Child, as well, for the thriller aspect. And a less-known writer by the name of Jeffrey Small; I was also very interested in his work because it paralleled mine so closely. I’d say he was another part of the genre that I’ve heard described as “theo-lit”, which is writing that shows the light and dark sides of religion without necessarily advocating for any particular faith.
MS: Have you always been a thriller reader in this particular genre?
CK: Not always; I think I came to it after college.
MS: But always a reader, from early days?
CK: Oh, yes. Always a reader. From birth.
MS: And where did you grow up?
CK: I grew up in New Jersey, and my family home now is in Maine. So I’m a Northeaster; I don’t really suppose I qualify as a Rocky Mountain Writer. My connection with Colorado is tenuous; I’ve only ever been there once, in college, to visit a friend. It was a humbling experience for a New Englander who casually tosses around the word “mountain” to refer to anything taller than a thousand feet.
MS: [Laughs] So how did you get connected with RMFW, then?
CK: Well, it started with the Colorado Gold competition. I was entering the manuscript into everything I could get my hands on, but I must have had some affinity with Colorado, because Mind Virus won that year, and then last year, in 2016, I’m happy to say that another manuscript of mine took home the Colorado Gold in the Action-Thriller category.
MS: And what’s that book about, and what’s the status of that? What’s it called?
CK: That one is still very much a work in progress. The working title is Day of the Watchers, and it’s about a young female archaeologist, struggling to establish herself, who makes a great discovery, a set of Babylonian tablets that have never yet been translated in their entirety, and in the process of interpreting them, makes a surprising discovery about herself and her mission in this world.
MS: It sounds as though that also may have a touch of theology to it, perhaps.
CK: It does, definitely. It draws very much on the Babylonian creation myths, and also on some of the books that didn’t make the final cut for the Bible, like the Books of the Watchers and the Book of Jubilees.
MS: So here we are on May 18th. It’s morning here in Denver, but it’s already May 19th in Japan. But here we are, about five or six weeks from launch. How are you feeling in general, and what’s your attitude going into this home stretch before the launch day?
CK: There are some days when it doesn’t feel quite real, and there are some days when I’m jumping out of my skin with excitement, and there are some days when I’m a nervous wreck. Is that normal?
MS: Yes. [Laughs] Entirely, entirely normal. That’s the entire gamut of emotions that are going to happen; it’s a roller coaster ride, for sure. Well, congratulations on bringing this home. Yet again, another story of patience, it seems to me, in terms of sticking with it and believing in your story, and waiting for the right moment to connect with the right publisher, and getting a book out that you believe in, and ultimately, down the road, we all know you will find your audience. And it sounds like a very interesting concept, and…one of a kind, for sure.
CK: Well, I certainly hope so. And it certainly does seem as though the timing happened according to a higher decree of the universe. Looking back on it, I was always given just the right amount of encouragement at just the right time to keep me going, but it was waiting until this moment to make its final appearance on the world stage. So, to all the writers who are listening to this podcast, I would say: Trust the process, trust in the timing of the universe. It always feels impossible until it’s done.
MS: Wise words from Japan. Charles Kowalski, thank you so much for jumping on the podcast today, and we wish you all the best with the launch of Mind Virus and whatever comes after it.
CK: Thank you very much, and thank you for having me, Mark.