Tropic of Fear


[Questions asked by Nick Stuyvesant of Stuyvesant & Hoagland, August 22, 2005.]

Tropic of Fear, like your last thriller League of Shadows, has a strong sense of place. How do you go about your research? Have you visited the countries that serve as settings in your thrillers?

I prefer to use countries that I’m familiar with. For Storm Track and League of Shadows, I used settings in Italy, where I’ve traveled extensively and often, but I also chose some locations that I’d never seen. In Storm Track, it was Malta and Tunisia, and in League of Shadows it was Suriname. So I do extensive research. Most people would assume that a writer uses the web. I prefer printed sources, in part because the material on the web is so easily accessible to everyone that I’m looking for something less easily found. Which doesn’t mean I don’t google certain topics. If you look at my website for example, and click on “Extras” for each novel, you’ll find pages that are based on images. Some I’ve taken myself, but others come from the web. So you can do research, including finding photos of locations, with great ease these days. I know when I wrote Storm Track, that sort of material was not yet available. So I used old National Geographics, illustrated books from libraries and scholarly studies, often anthropological.

What inspired you to write Tropic of Fear?

Tropic of Fear is a novel that combines revolution (in a Latin American setting), the concept of war games as a means of disaster prevention, and the ecology of dams, particularly large ones. I went to graduate school in Berkeley, just after the wild days of the late ’60s. So, while I missed out on many of the events that made Berkeley a hotbed of protest, the atmosphere was still in the air. I saw police throw protestors through glass windows of stores, I saw crowds being tear-gassed, and I also saw women dancing topless in Sproul Plaza, seeking the right to do what men do–take off their shirts when they’re playing in the sun! And I also remember watching Costa-Gavras’s movie “Z,” which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1969. The movie deals with assassination, government corruption, and conspiracy in Greece, but by the time I was writing, years later, I'd forgotten that it was set in Greece and pictured a Latin American setting in my mind. So I’ve always wanted to write a novel with that type of atmosphere. And through the years certain novels also kept that drive alive. In the dedication, I mention three authors who inspired me–Conrad, who published Nostromo in 1904, perhaps not often read today, but a tale of high adventure set on the South American seaboard during the turmoil of a revolution; Graham Greene, for The Power and the Glory from 1940; and Robert Stone’s A Flag for Sunrise, published in 1980. There’s a homage to each, well disguised I think, in the novel.

What about the war games that take place in the novel?

They’re not the sort of war games that most people think of when they hear that term. It’s not soldiers out on maneuvers, but more of a think-tank exercise. In the acknowledgments, I thank a clinical professor of surgery, Dr. Martin E. Silverstein, an expert in international disaster and emergency management issues. I met him in Tucson several years ago, at a gathering of the Society of Southwestern Authors. He’s worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency—this is all prior to 9\11—and with quite a few other organizations, including the State Department and international, federal, and state medical units dealing with trauma and the effects of fear. We talked at one point about collaborating on a book, but didn’t follow up on that. But our discussions planted the idea in my mind of using risk control and a disaster prevention project as a major element of the plot. I simply transferred the concept to Paraguay during a period of dictatorship and popular unrest.

What about your interest in the environmental effects of dams? How did that come into play?

When I researched the history of Paraguay—its long series of dictators, the fact that the country served as a haven for Nazis after World War II, the Mennonite presence, and so forth—I came upon the large dams, some already built, some in the planning stages. By the way, one feature that I share with the male protagonist in Tropic of Fear, Walter Stanek, is that we both had fathers who worked in construction on large dams. (And I also share something with the female protagonist, Diane Lang. We're both professors of language, although she teaches German and my field is Italian.) At any rate, dams intrigued me. My own university, the University of Arizona, has a strong department of hydrogeology, so I thought, well, I can use that as the occupation for Stanek. And you can't build a dam without an environmental study.

At one point in the novel, Walter talks about some of the factors you have to consider when you construct a dam. People have to emigrate out of the flood plain; wild animals have to be captured and relocated, but many are left behind where they starve to death on little islands or in trees, or they drown; you lose agricultural products--any unlogged trees, for example, but also crops, and sometimes rural industries are lost as well. The loss of natural vegetation can cause problems with precipitation. Rainfall gets altered, water evaporates from the reservoir, occasional flooding occurs, the velocity of the water in the river that feeds the dam changes--and that's both upstream and downstream. So aquatic life is affected. And there's usually an accumulation of sediment that changes the turbidity of the water. It's fairly complicated.

The whole situation results in a lot of controversy. And for that maybe I was influenced, in part, by my reading of Edward Abbey, in particular The Monkey Wrench Gang, a great novel that depicts what I'll call natural man (eco-terrorists for some) fighting against concrete. At one point early on in the novel, one of the characters, a guy named Seldom Seen Smith, kneels down on Glen Canyon Dam and prays for an earthquake to destroy it . Right that minute if possible! And then, in his prayer, he remembers what the river and the canyons used to be like before the dam was built. It's a great passage. So all those things captured my attention.

You mentioned teaching. Does that have any relationship to what you're writing?

Well, what I write is heavily influenced by my everyday job. I don't think it's necessarily very noticeable in my novels, but I am influenced by the authors I teach. I'm a specialist in the Italian Renaissance—something that's clear from my academic books—but I teach the whole range of Italian culture from prehistoric times down to the present. Let me give you one example of how I use Italian literature in my thrillers. Unobtrusively, I hope!

In my last novel, League of Shadows, I described a funeral attended by Nick Ferron, the protagonist of the contemporary story. Well, almost every time we find a funeral in a movie, the director sets the scene on a gloomy, rainy day, with everybody standing under their black umbrellas. I marvel actually that that cliché is still so heavily used. It's nearly universal!

Instead, I decided to use a Dantesque technique, a rhetorical figure called litotes, where you describe something as the negative of its contrary. By itself that definition is hard to understand, but basically what it means is: you describe something by what's lacking and that makes the lack yet more emotionally effective. In canto 13 of Inferno, Dante describes the area of hell where suicides are punished. And he starts out by saying there are no green leaves, no smooth branches, no fruit, and so forth. I'm also reminded of his description of Mastro Adamo in canto 30 of Inferno. Master Adam is a counterfeiter who suffers from dropsy. He's thirsty, his lips are parched, and all he can think about is what is not there—little streams flowing down from green hills, cool and soft with moisture.

So, with that technique in mind, I described the funeral in these words, if you'll let me quote a passage:

   As Ferron stepped out of the Lowell's car, the incongruity of events overwhelmed him. The sun was too bright and yellow, the sapphire sky too transparent. Not a cloud in sight. No black umbrellas under lowering skies, no endless drizzle, no smell of rotting autumn leaves, no sere grass between the headstones, no time-worn inscriptions on crumbling vaults, no chill wind keening out of the north. The grass was neatly trimmed, the flowers cheerful, the granite slick and shiny. Even the graveside ceremony presided over by a Methodist minister seemed prosaic and mundane. And then the wind picked up, and the minister's words, like drifting leaves, were carried away by the breeze.

Even the image of leaves for souls is Dantesque. I'm thinking of canto 3 where the souls are waiting to cross Charon's boat. But the passage also reflects two other fourteenth-century Italian poets, Petrarch and Cino da Pistoia. Both of those guys have what I'll call very romantic lines in sonnets lamenting death. Cino talks about visiting the tomb of his beloved and then he says something like "le alpi passai con voce di dolore." "I crossed the Alps with a cry of grief." In poem 267 of Petrarch's Canzoniere, the first sonnet after Laura's death, he concludes by saying that while she filled him with hope and desire, the wind bore everything away. So those are the sources for the last sentence I quoted earlier. I doubt a single reader, anywhere in the world, will realize that the funeral description was influenced by all those authors. But that's how my teaching and my reading all play into the writing of my thrillers. No one should notice!

A final question: We've talked about several of the novel's distinctive features, but haven't said much about the characters, other than what the two protagonists do for a living. Any comments on how you create characters?

I think I recall talking about characters and character profiles when we discussed League of Shadows last year. But maybe I can say something in general terms about the characters in Tropic of Fear. First, I wanted to be attentive to readers, both male and female. So I made sure I had two protagonists, a man and a woman, with the added benefit of a possible romance in a difficult situation. Two characters who start out not liking each other but are forced by outside events, external threats, to work together. That in itself, of course, is not very original, but I do hope the reader enjoys how the two protagonists work out their relationship.

And then, since Walter and Diane are both academics, fish out of water where violence is concerned, I wanted a rougher character, someone whose cruder characteristics would contrast with their manner. And that's where "Dink" Denton came into being. A more flamboyant character. Some of the things he says, however, particularly the vulgar comments he makes about life, actually derive from the ideas of Gabriele D'Annunzio, an early twentieth-century Italian author. D'Annunzio was influenced by Nietzsche and, in turn, influenced the Fascists. He thought you should live life with gusto. Life has to be seized, with violence if necessary. So Dink has a speech or two that seems fairly crude and low class, but the origin is much more lofty and literary.

Two other characters I really enjoyed creating are the villain, Colonel Ibarras, and the trauma surgeon, D. Benjamin Harrington. So I hope readers enjoy them as well, though they're quite different. I hope that answered your question, at least in part. Let me conclude by once again thanking my readers for their support. I write with their pleasure in mind, and if I succeed in satisfying them, I'm happy with my work. And the next thriller will be better yet! That's the goal.

All material may be freely used.

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