Monday, October 18, 2010

Author Interview with Theodore Jerome Cohen

Today we're talking with Theodore Jerome Cohen, author of Unfinished Business: Pursuit of an Antarctic Killer.

FQ: In Unfinished Business we quickly cut to the chase and witness Captain Muñoz exacting revenge for the death of his good friend Lieutenant-Commander Cristian Barbudo.  Muñoz is a very cunning psychopath.  Did you have to ‘study up’ on psychopathic behavior in order to develop his character?

I know this is going to get me in trouble, but the answer is ‘no’. It took me a long time to develop the captain’s personality . . . I spent hours (and hours!) thinking about him. He did not start out being the complex psychopath you see in Book II of the Trilogy, or will see in Book III. In fact, in the initial drafts of Book I, Frozen in Time, he was a ‘nicer’ person. But soon, I realized that the novel lacked energy and conflict. True, we got some insight into Muñoz’ character through that little fútbol story in Book I, but his character really needed to be strengthened.  If I was going to have any chance of drawing the reader into what I hoped he or she would see as a thriller, Muñoz needed to be much more complex, to have a sinister side, and to show he could be both tough and ruthless if the circumstances required it. You saw he was a risk-taker in Book I by his willingness to jeopardize his ship, the Lientur, and crew when he turned around in the middle of a hurricane and went back for Barbudo and the American Scientist, Ted Stone. As you recall, they were trapped in a crevasse on the Continental Glacier. So, the stage was set to explore the full dynamics of Muñoz personality.

Now, when I wrote Frozen in Time, I had no idea that it would become Book I of a Trilogy. It originally was written as a standalone novel. And it still is one. The idea of doing a trilogy only came to me after my two daughters, Missy and Stephanie, repeatedly asked questions regarding ‘what happened?’ I guess some people just aren’t comfortable with post-modern novels, for which batteries aren’t supplied and some home assembly is required. So, I wrote Books II and III . . . simultaneously, so that I would have the ‘hooks’ in Book II that I would need for Book III. Fortunately, I had laid the groundwork in Book I for the other books, especially when it came to Muñoz’ character.

FQ: In your first novel in this series, Frozen in Time, you mentioned the Chilean earthquake of 1960.  Your book was in print, but not in distribution, when another quake of the magnitude 8.8 occurred on February 27, 2010, within a 1,000 mile range of the first one.  It may seem a bit prophetic or quirky that you brought up the subject so many years after the event just as another was happening.  Do you believe in prescience?

No, that was pure chance. There are tens of thousands of earthquakes that occur every year around the globe. Just look at the large number of earthquakes that have occurred this year. By the way, the royalties (and then some) for Frozen in Time are being donated to AmeriCares in Stamford, CT, for Chilean earthquake relief. By the way, a woman was killed at SeaWorld by an orca around the time the book was released. That, too, was pure chance. Just unbelievable.

FQ: On one level, Unfinished Business is the stuff that CSI fans are quite interested in, yet during the time the novel was set in, crime scene technology was a far cry from what it is today.  Naval Intelligence, albeit Chilean or American, was probably similar.  Did you pattern the investigatory work of Captain Mateo Valderas and Lieutenant-Commanders Antonio Del Río on the work of people you knew?

Well, I’m a big fan of the CSI series, so I have to say I was influenced by the CSI shows. But of course, the story took place in 1962, so I had to keep the technical side of the investigation at a very primitive level compared to what we have today. But everything was thorough checked out vis-à-vis such things as VIN numbers, blood tests, and so forth. I made sure that if something was mentioned in the novel, it actually existed at the time. So while the reader may have gotten a sense that the action was CSI-based, the science was based on what could be done in the early 1960s.

FQ: In this work there are many coins that present cryptic clues that the two Naval Intelligence officers need to think about in order to find Muñoz.  The presentation may strike the reader as being rendered Da Vinci style.  Were you influenced by Dan Brown’s novels?

A little. I read Dan Brown’s novels and saw the movies based on his books. As a scientist, I loved the mysteries associated with the various cryptic clues he embedded in his stories. You will notice that coins played an important role in Frozen in Time. I spent no few lines talking about the various types of gold coins—US, European, South American—that had been stolen from the branch of the Banco Central de Chile. I needed something ‘material’—a ‘token’, if you will—to associate with Muñoz, and that ‘something’ is a coin . . . or several coins, depending on the circumstances. He flips them through his fingers, plays with them in his pocket, and so forth. I just decided to carry that idea further by using coins as a way for the captain to taunt his pursuers. The whole trilogy, after all, revolves around a bank heist and the theft of approximately US$12 million in currency, negotiable securities, gold, and jewelry. So, it seemed a natural to focus on coins throughout the story. By the way, you even see coins appear in Frozen in Time in the discussion of inflation in South America. So, being a guy who used to collect coins as a kid and, at times, as an adult, it seemed like coins would be an ideal way in inject clues into Unfinished Business.

The particular set chosen, British coins—Cromwell Crowns, Durham House groats, and the like—provided a wealth of Latin inscriptions. It was fun selecting various engravings and embedding them in the story as clues. I’m sure Captain Muñoz was having the same fun. After all, don’t all authors put themselves in their character’s minds?

FQ: Still on the subject of coins.  There were many interesting rarities presented.  For example, we see obscure, but valuable coins such as the 1741 Brazilian 400 reis gold coin and a Pontefract siege coin from 1648.  Most people would not know about these coins.  Are you a numismatist or did you have to do some research?

As I mentioned, I used to collet coins as a kid. Later, as a adult, I collected Civil War token. So, I always maintained an interest in coins and tokens. In writing Unfinished Business, however, I did quite a bit of research before penning—that always sounds to much better than saying ‘typing’—the portions involving coins. The portions that involved the British coins took the most research because I needed to find just the right set of inscriptions for the circumstances in which the Latin engravings were to be used.

FQ: Some sentences/paragraphs a writer pens reflect their inner thoughts.  One you wrote was striking: “The afternoon had been a sobering reminder of how fragile life is and of the impact the death of one good man can have on family and community.”  Did this remind you of such a person in your own memory banks?

Yes. Susan, my wife—who also is ‘Susan Stone’ in the trilogy—and I lost a very good friend in the invasion of Baghdad during the first Gulf War of 2003. He was US Army Captain James F. “Jimmy” Adamouski, who was killed when the Black Hawk helicopter he was piloting was shot down on Wednesday, April, 2, 2003. Jimmy was only 29 years old. His dad and I knew each other for many years, and we often visited Jimmy at West Point when his dad and I were traveling on business in the NJ-NY area. Susan and I danced at Jimmy’s wedding, and we often sent packages to him, wherever he was deployed around the world. He had been accepted at Harvard Business School, and was supposed to begin classes later in 2003. His death was a shock to everyone who knew him, of course, and it had a significant impact on us.

You may find it interesting to know that I paid homage to Jimmy in my novel Death by Wall Street” Rampage of the Bulls, which recently was published by AuthorHouse. I named the hero after him. It’s not the name so much—Louis Martelli—but the fact that the hero is the only survivor of a Black Hawk crash in the first Gulf War.

FQ: Most likely the adventure of your life was when you participated in the 16th Chilean Expedition to the Antarctic.  Were there any more events in your life that you were especially exciting or life altering?

Certainly facing death has a way of making you grow up quickly! Both ‘Grant Morris’—the scientist I was supporting—and I nearly lost our lives on two occasions. Both involved getting back to and on Chilean naval ships that were standing off shore, waiting to pick us up after storm had arisen while we were working on the North Antarctic Peninsula. In both cases, the wind, wind-driven waves, rain, sleet, and snow almost sunk the small launches we were using. The ship couldn’t come in to pick us up because of the icebergs close to the continent, so there was no alternative except for us to head to sea. Even when we managed to find the ship, using our field compasses, of all things, getting off the launches, which I described in Frozen in Time, was a hair-raising experience. So, as I said, it tends to make you grow up pretty quickly. Up to then, I hadn’t experience anything but the tranquil life of a college student in Madison, WI, where the biggest problems usually centered on final exams and things like that.

FQ: You said you started writing when you were in the Antarctic.  Many people start to write or paint, yet when life’s obligations such as family and career necessitate putting up the pen or brushes, they forget about their artistic ventures.  Tell us about why you decided to start writing again. 

Actually, I started writing Frozen in Time in Antarctica. It started out as a short story that I had intended to submit to Playboy magazine when I returned to the US. The magazine did then, and still does, publish avant-guarde fiction. So, with not much to do at Base O’Higgins when the wind was blowing 60 miles per hour, I wrote a short story about a man who was killed in the waters off the base by two other men while the three on a seal hunt. The story was handwritten on the back of some blank radiograms, and unfortunately, it was lost during my return to the US. I never gave it another thought, what with finishing college, going into the Army, raising a family, and earning a living. It was the job of converting the 35mm slides I had taken on that trip to jpegs that gave me the idea of writing Frozen in Time.
But more generally, I’ve been writing all my life. I have written for the scientific, engineering, and popular communications-electronics communities, including the Amateur Radio community, since the mid-1960s. And in business, I wrote countless proposals to the federal government over the last 45 years. But I didn’t start writing novels until 2009, when I wrote Full Circle: A Dream Denied, A Vision Fulfilled. This is more of a biographical novel, and chronicles my life in music, science, and engineering. I was motivated to write it based on my return to the violin after a 50-year hiatus. I originally envisioned the story more of a screenplay for, say, Hallmark Channel, or something like that. In my mind’s eye, I saw an elderly widower cleaning out the house he and his deceased wife of 60 years had lived in. In the attic, he finds his old violin . . . an instrument he hasn’t play in 50 years. He, of course, is depressed, and eventually, turns back to music, takes lessons, joins an orchestra, and finds his life renewed. Well, I don’t know how to write screenplays, and I did know what it was like to play violin as a kid, stop playing for 50 years and return to the fiddle, so I wrote the story as I lived it. That’s what’s in Full Circle. That’s where the reader first encounters Ted Stone. The is mention of the trip to Antarctica, but as I recall, it’s not more than one or two sentences.

FQ: In  Unfinished Business we don’t see ‘Ted Stone,’ the character who you patterned after yourself in Frozen in Time.  Will we be seeing him in the last book in this trilogy, End Game? Perhaps you can give us a little peek as what goes on in End Game?  Just a bit of a teaser, please!

Yes, both ‘Ted Stone’ and ‘Grant Morris’—the latter, by the way, in real life, has retired and is living the ‘good life’ 20 miles south of Lima, Peru, on the Pacific Coast—return in Book III. If you go to my new Web site,, here is what you will see regarding the novel:

About the Book:

End Game: Irrational Acts, Tragic Consequences, is Book III of the Antarctic Murders Trilogy. In many ways, it brings to an end three things: the sagas of Captain Roberto Muñoz of the Lientur, the hunt for the millions of dollars in U.S. and British cash, negotiable securities, gold coins, and jewelry stolen from the Banco Central de Chile following the Chilean Earthquake of May, 1960, and the murders that followed the robbery. Book I: Frozen in Time: Murder at the Bottom of the World, introduced American scientists Ted Stone and Grant Morris, who, while performing geological and geophysical field work with the assistance of Captain Roberto Muñoz of the Chilean auxiliary tug Lientur, were caught up in the hunt for the robbers and the spoils from the robbery, and murder. Unfinished Business: Pursuit of an Antarctic Killer, introduced Captain Mateo Valderas and Lieutenant-Commander Antonio Del Río of the Chilean Navy’s Office of Internal Affairs. Initially assigned to solve a murder in Arica, they soon found themselves facing perhaps the most vicious, cunning thief and murderer they ever encountered. The return of American scientists Ted Stone and Grant Morris to Santiago for the purpose of helping personnel of the University of Chile prepare for the 20th Chilean Expedition to the Antarctic, beginning in December 1965, jeopardizes the lives of both scientists. What ‘irrational act’ will elicit the tragic consequences that finally bring everything to an end? For the answer, read Book III: End Game: Irrational Acts, Tragic Consequences.

Does that pique your interest? There’s a free preview on the Web site.

FQ: You say you have ‘published more than 350 papers, articles, columns, essays, and interviews.’  You are a very prolific writer, but of all these works, which one are you the most proud of and why?

That’s a difficult question to answer. I love them all—after all, they are my children—but each for a different reason.  I am very proud of the Antarctic Murders Trilogy, however, because of the setting, the complexities of the characters, and the fact that I have been able to ‘exercise’, if you will, so many disparate concepts, ideas, and methodologies in telling the tale. For example, the use of footnotes and photographs in Frozen in Time, as well as the somewhat extensive use of Spanish in that same book, portions that were translated in footnotes, almost set this novel apart as a separate genre. Now, I will tell you that not everyone was thrilled with Book I. In fact, one local book reviewer, who had reviewedFull Circle and loved it, refused to review Frozen in Time because of the footnotes, photographs, my use of italics, and the like. I can understand someone not liking my books, and I’m okay with that. But I write what I like to write, so while I toned down the footnotes, photographs, and italics in Books II and III, I also eliminated all translations. Which means readers will have to wing it when it comes to the Spanish, Portuguese, and French they will encounter from time to time. Hey! I never promised you a rose garden! As well, I love Book III, End Game: Irrational Acts, Tragic Consequences, in particular, because it allowed me to bring in one of my first loves: music. The story hinges on a performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, and the agony Captain Valderas and Commander Del Río experience during the performance, knowing what is about to happen. Whoops . . . I don’t want to give too much away.
Is this enough of a tease?

To learn more about Unfinished Business: Pursuit of an Antarctic Killer please visit our website and read the review at: Feathered Quill Book Reviews.