This week, Annie’s Book Stop of Worcester is happy to put the spotlight on author Tom Lukas, who will be driving his Spycar to our humble bookstore this coming Friday, August 8, from 7PM-9PM. He designed his Spycar based on his debut novel, Special Operations. Special Operations is a collection of several books where retired Detective Nick Giaccione faces off against The Illuminator, a war nurse who has become a religious fanatic, embedding illuminated manuscripts into the bodies of her victims. The cases ensnare Giaccione in a web of contrapasso vengeance—punishing victims based on the crimes they committed.
Thank you very much for joining us, Tom! What kind of research went into writing Special Operations?
Literary forensics, medical-surgical research, utting-edge bibliographic techniques for ancient manuscript analysis, the art (and science) of Illuminated manuscript creating by church scribes during the Fifteenth century – for a few.
You’ve got a unique method of promotion for your book! What’s the story behind your spycar?
My plan to build the Spycar came the moment I created my character Professor Canon Nailor, the FBI Literary Forensics consultant in Special Operations. It seemed natural to equip at that level with a top super car, so I gave him a McLaren F1. In terms of fact-checking, it’s not uncommon for law enforcement agencies like FBI or DEA to confiscate supercars from bad guys and then put them to some conspicuous use. So for a buttoned-down Federal law enforcement consultant of Professor Nailor’s stature to have access as a perk is quite realistic.
Professor Nailor, however, doesn’t view this as you or I might. Coldly academic and with a heart that beats solely for the hunt – he’ll likely regard the screaming beast as a precision instrument – much in the way a surgeon would regard a superior scalpel. In Blood Rain, my next book in this series Canon Nailor’s ride will be even more thrilling!
How has it been as a promotional device for Special Operations?
The Spycar’s a smile machine! Adults or kids…people light up the moment they see it. . . They ask about the book and then ask if I’ll sign a copy of they buy one. Something about the Spycar cuts straight to what makes us all human.
From Seattle on we’ve been getting responses throughout the day and everywhere – at the gas station, at traffic lights, out on the highway at 75 MPH. I’d love to do a video sometime of all those happily surprised facial expressions, of people for a moment forgetting all their troubles.
What is the coolest spy-gadget in the spycar?
I’d have to it’s a toss-up between the driving lights fashioned from cocktail shakers, and the smoke screen machine.
What has been the most spy-worthy adventure in your life?
Crawling through the drainage tunnels beneath the campus of U-Mass, Amherst at 3:00 AM with my brother Stephen and my nephew Chris back in 1982 while Steve was a student there. I remember pushing up a manhole cover to discover we were under a main thoroughfare, the blare of a car horn and then ducking very quickly — and then the clang of iron.
Further along in that tunnel we reached intersection of several of the tunnels where the water ran deep. You could feel a roiling against the skin. Then somebody shined the flashlight. We were ankle-deep in live crawfish. I find it interesting that years later my brother Stephen, and my nephew Chris both wound up in law enforcement.
What is your favorite part of being a writer?
I love to write fiction more than any other activity – except maybe working with images — because I go so deep into the fictive dream – so much so that I require solitude while in the creative process. Once I’m in the work I see, smell, and hear everything in very fine detail. I lose any connection with the physical; all that exists is what I’m seeing. So much so that if there’s a disturbance in the room, I startle.
This is rather miraculous– because for many many years as I was trying to become a writer – I was failing miserably – unable to let go fully to enter the fictive dream. It can’t be half and half – half in the dream and half in what we all know as the day-to-day existence.
How important has the New England setting been to your writing?
For Special Operations it was everything. I grew up listening to the music of Robert Frost and reading Hawthorne’s Gothic stories. Many years ago I promised myself I’d set my first novel in “Goddard, Massachusetts.”
What else can we expect from you in the near future?
My sequel Blood Rain, set in Rome as Book II in The Seethrough Spybook Series.
What are some of your writing-related hobbies, crafts, addictions?
Building and restoring the Spycar, or any work I can perform with my hands. Even washing dishes. The best ideas for Special Operations came to me while washing the dishes.
Writers very often have furry or feathered or otherwise non-human companions to “help” them through their work. Do you?
Halfway through writing Special Operations, I came to adopt a Redfront Maccaw named Bailey – a bit of a surprise since there’s a character in the book named Bailey, a Police Forensic Specialist.
What other spy–fictional or otherwise–has had the most influence on you and given you the most inspiration for your writing?
A dear friend, boss, and mentor — a true spy, and cold war hero. His name was Colonel John R. McKone, U.S. Airforce.
In 1960 McKone’s mission was to check into a C.I.A. U-2 spyplane that had been shot down a few days prior, until his own reconnaissance plane was shot down by a Soviet MIG-17 over the Arctic Circle. McKone parachuted into the Barents Sea where he witnessed the death due to exposure of three of the other crewmen, picked up by a Russian vessel, and then arrested for espionage. He was interrogated daily throughout spent seven months he was imprisoned in Moscow’s Lubyanka Prision, where he spent two months in solitary confinement.
In his first two months’ imprisonment John lost 60 pounds. He described breakfast as follows:
“I’d have maybe a couple tablespoons of rice in the morning. You got to take your tablespoon, which was the only utensil we had to eat with, and take all the sticks and stones and pieces of glass, aluminum and everything else you found in it, put that in one pile, and then you had the rice in the other pile. And then you’d have a cup of black coffee, and that would be breakfast.”
Once John McKone said that in order to keep himself sane in the Lubyanika, he used to count the hairs on his arms each day.
But in all the interrogations the Russians doled out, Colonel McKone never gave up anything other than his name, rank, and serial number. He was awarded the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Prisoner of War Medal.
Getting to know this side of John was inspiring. He was the Operations Manager and I was Construction Manager renovating four yachting marinas on the lower Chesapeake. During this two-year period we had a series of one-on-one talks.
The stories he shared, tossing around names like Quantico and Langley, I learned the depths of his experiences and how he had overcame them, and this got me thinking about the seriousness of the spy world – and I suppose caused me, as a writer, to view spies–at least the good guys — as people who do a real work.
We also discussed the book I wanted to write and why I wanted to – and he backed me by writing a very strong letter of recommendation to the University of Virginia.
Prior to his military service John McKone had been an Eagle Scout, and prior to his role as operations manager of the yachting resorts where we worked together, he had held an executive position for several years an executive Scouter at the BSA National headquarters in Texas.
In things Spiritual, John was a Baptist and I from a Catholic background. Yet we agreed instantly on what was important about commitment and honor and right and wrong, and what it meant to be a stand-up guy.
Colonel John McKone was an example of courage and a role model for me. If I had not shared that time with him, I’m not certain I could have made it through school at age thirty-seven, nor finished Special Operations for that matter.
His passing in 2013 was a great loss. Without him, I’m sure I couldn’t have written Special Operations.
If you found yourself as a hostage or caught in the middle of an undercover case gone wrong, what literary or historical spy or investigator would you want to be the person on the case to save you? Why?
This is a stretch; I have a hard time imagining anyone other than myself being the one to save me.
In a fictional setting, though, I have a hands-down choice: the guy to save my hide would have to be none other than Nathan Muir (played by Robert Redford) in the movie Spy Game. On the eve of his retirement Muir goes all in, breaking all the rules and faking the C.I.A. out if its shoes – in order to rescue his protégé Tom Bishop (played by Brad Pitt). The mission code named Operation Dinner Out ends with Tom Bishop in safety, though we get the idea that his old friend Nathan Muir had ruffled more than a few feathers back at Langley, and will be paying for this one for a long, long time – or will he?
What do you consider the most challenging part of the writing process?
Thankfully, I don’t find writing challenging. It provides me the utmost freedom. Maybe because I spend so much time writing the outline. For Special Operations, I wrote an outline of one hundred pages. My outline for the sequel Blood Rain runs about one hundred fifty. And then there are the character bios and some sketches of important scenes. Having that kind of structure in place makes the research go fast, and allows me an infinity of possibilities when it then comes style, word choice, and imagery.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned, thus far, in your writing
Thank you again for joining us, Tom! For more information about Tom Lukas, his novel Special Operations, and his Spycar, visit http://www.spycarbooks.com.