Annie’s Book Stop of Worcester is very happy to shine our Friday spotlight on Espionage Thriller Author S. Lee Manning. I asked her to tell us a bit about herself and her writing, and this was her response:
A recovering attorney, I had a legal career that spanned from a first-tier New York law firm, Cravath, Swaine & Moore to working for the State of New Jersey to solo practice. I also chaired New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, writing articles on the risk of wrongful execution and arguing against the death penalty on radio and television in the years leading up to its abolition in the state. When I decided to write my first novel, I was drawn to the complexity of the espionage thriller genre. Trojan Horse introduces Kolya Petrov, a Russian Jewish immigrant who works for American intelligence and whose agency decides to sacrifice him in a devious plot to obtain information from an anti-Semitic, neo-fascist Romanian. A Vermont resident since 2014, I now write full time and live with my husband and two cats. On occasion, I take a break from writing thrillers to perform stand-up, and in 2019, I was a semi-finalist in the Vermont’s Funniest Comic contest.
Wow, that’s quite a diverse portfolio, from writing espionage novels to performing stand-up comedy! Where can people find your work? Books, of course. (Besides Annie’s Book Stop of Worcester–though they should totally check here first!)
How can we follow your work and share your awesomeness?
For readers unfamiliar with your work, how would you describe what you write? What can readers expect from Trojan Horse?
I write spy thrillers, with suspense that hopefully will keep you turning the pages, but with complex characters whose actions are propelled by relationships and inner conflict. Readers can expect thrills, chills, romance, loyalty and betrayal. Along with providing a great read, Trojan Horse asks serious questions about the morality of actions taken by the “good guys” as well as questions of subtle versus overt and hostile bias.
What was the biggest challenge in writing and putting out Trojan Horse? How did you overcome that challenge?
The greatest challenge was getting the book published. This has been a fifteen year journey from first draft to publication, overcoming hurdles like the death of my first agent, a contract with a publisher who then pulled out of the mystery/suspense genre, a second and terrible agent who had to resign from the Association of Authors’ Representatives after ethics complaints, and then finally landing the contract with Encircle Publications – a great small publisher. Over the years, I’ve rewritten Trojan Horse multiple times. The first draft was laughably long – 250,000 words, which I cut down to 125,000 words, the version that landed me my first agent. For my first publishing contract, I cut it down to 84,000 words, but I felt that version left out some of the richness of the story. Last year, I did a rethink and a reedit/rewrite that resulted in the book that is now coming out.
What character did you love or hate the most while writing? And why?
I like all my characters to some extent, even the villains. But of course, Kolya is my favorite, and he’s the protagonist. (If the protagonist isn’t your favorite character, you might want to rethink the story.) But beyond that, Kolya’s personality is modeled after my husband, who is the love of my life. Kolya, like Jim, is intellectual, feels deeply but doesn’t really want to talk about what he’s feeling, loves music, and lacks appreciation for Jane Austin. (For the record, I love Jane Austin.) He also has a quiet and understated sense of humor, and he has a strong sense of right and wrong. What I also love about Kolya is his strong relationships, not just with the very strong woman whom he loves, but with his sometime partner and best friend. Unlike my husband, Kolya is Jewish and Russian. He’s also a bit of an adrenaline addict.
What draws you to the particular genre or style that you write? What do you think draws readers to these kinds of books?
I’ve always loved the spy genre, because while there are good guys and bad guys, a lot of what intelligence agencies on both sides do falls into a morally ambiguous area. I also like spy novels because – like fantasy novels, which I also enjoy – there’s a parallel world with stuff going on that the average person doesn’t know about and spies have to conceal who they really are. I wanted to write a story where there was a real danger that had to be countered, but the actions taken by the government would fall into that gray zone. So I came up with the idea of an intelligence agency deciding to sacrifice one of its own agents in order to feed false information to a terrorist and neo-Fascist. I like complex novels that are both page turners and yet have complexity of character and ideas. I also find spies kind of sexy. I hope readers are drawn to these kinds of stories for the same reasons I am.
What is your favorite part of being a writer? Of the whole writing and publishing process? What do you think has been your greatest lesson in the journey thus far?
My favorite part of being a writer is the writing. I wanted to be a published writer because doing so justifies the vast amount of time I spend in my imaginary world. I love losing myself in the world that I create. What I find fascinating is that books I write and characters I create – take on a life of their own. They’re me – and they’re not me. My greatest lesson is to listen to your characters when they talk to you – but don’t tell anyone that’s what you’re doing – or they’ll think you need medication.
How important has the New England setting been to your writing?
Not at all important in this book, but quite a bit of the next book takes places in Vermont.
What else can we expect from you in the near future?
I’m working on the next Kolya Petrov thriller at the present time, working title Nerve Attack. It should be out next July.
Thanks so much for taking the time to answer our questions, Ms. Manning!