I was very fortunate to be able to sit down and visit with author Mark Henshaw about his debut thriller RED CELL!
I really loved Henshaw's RED CELL and hope you'll enjoy what he had to tell us about his new book. I case you missed my review just click here http://johnnydeppreads.com/index.php?showtopic=11017
At the end of the interview, you'll find a couple of links that give you a bit more information about a couple of the things Mark mentions.
Now...my chat with Mark Henshaw.
JDR: I have to start this by reading the first line of my review of your book RED CELL, “Mark Henshaw, did you write this just for me?”
MH: Well unfortunately, I can’t say that, given that this is the first time I’ve met you. I’m glad that you enjoyed it very much though.
JDR: I really did like this book, I’d heard about this book last summer, from another author, who told me to keep a look for a book called “Assassin’s Mace” coming out in May. So I did! And this book just fascinated me, I’m normally not a spy/thriller fan, but your book is different. Tell me about your female protagonist, Kyra Stryker, where did that spark come from?
MH: Well, that’s a good question. When I started writing the book, trying to develop my protagonist, I think it was just kind of natural for me to make the protagonist a woman. I’ve always been surrounded by strong women. My mother was more highly educated that my father and had a Masters’ degree. They were both in the military. He was a Marine and she was Air Force, but she was an officer and he was enlisted—a Master Sergeant, which is a high and exalted rank in the Corps, but still enlisted. They met on a blind date and found out about two-thirds through that date that they were both in the reserves. My Dad had a bit of a hard time believing that my Mother was actually military, so she took him back to her apartment, and she went in the back and put on her dress blues and came out with Captain’s bars on and made him stand at attention. That was my example growing up for what a woman is.
And during my years at the agency, I was surrounded by any number of strong women there: managers, fellow analysts, and in many cases they were the best ones at what they did. Certainly some of the best managers were women. So it was not a stretch for me to go down that road and have a female protagonist.
JDR: It was a fabulous choice and when I shared with friends that I was going to be able to talk with you, I told them that what I really liked about Kyra was that you wrote her as a woman, but in a way that was non-gender specific. You didn’t throw out the usual issues with her being too worried about how she looks, or worried about her hair or makeup. You avoided too many of the trappings that happen when people write about a female protagonist. And I thank you very much for NOT doing that.
MH: You’re welcome.
JDR:You made her a competent agent, who happens to be a woman…and that was fabulous!
MH: Most of the women I’ve known at the agency were extremely competent people, sometimes the best at what they did, and they were very serious about being seen as competent and professional. So again, it was not a stretch to write Kyra that way, having been surrounded by women who were just very smart and very good at their jobs. It didn’t occur to me to write Kyra in a gender-specific way and have her worry about those other kinds of things.
JDR: Why the name change Mark, why did the title go from ASSASSIN’S MACE to RED CELL?
MH: ASSASSIN’S MACE was my original working title for the book and I was actually a little surprised that Simon and Schuster was going to keep that title. I had just assumed that if it got published that they would change it to something more “punchy” or whatever. For a long time, that was going to be the name and for a while on Amazon they had the cover with that original name. Then one of the head honchos at Simon and Schuster was afraid that it sounded too much like a fantasy novel, like a “Game of Thrones” knockoff, so they came back and suggested that we change this to RED CELL. And I said “sure, I was kind of surprised that you weren’t going to change it in the first place.” I was fine with it, it caused a wee bit of confusion there just in the beginning because for a little while I’d go on to various sites and you could see that the title was RED CELL but the cover said ASSASSIN’S MACE. It took a while for the new cover to catch up to the new title.
JDR: Well, I’m thrilled that I saw it on a publisher’s galley sheet, even with the new name. (Small spoiler-ish alert here: ) Mark, there’s a scene in the book where someone says to Pioneer, “You were never alone.” This just made even me cry, and I thought, “there’s the human touch, there’s the connect.” Did that come from a personal experience?
MH: No, not really. When I started writing the book, it was pretty much Pioneer’s story. I was trying to explore what kind of a person would do what he does in the book—turns traitor and spies against his own country for over twenty years. Living with the stress, every single day, that this could be the day he gets discovered, gets arrested, gets shot. What does that do to a person? What would that do to you emotionally over time? How does that warp you? And as he goes through the book, he’s very much a realist about this whole thing. He has his agenda, but he knows that the CIA and the United States and other countries engaging in this kind business always have their own agendas that don’t match his. And he’s not lying to himself about just how much he thinks he’s worth, but he badly underestimates his worth to the US. So he’s convinced himself over the years that if push comes to shove, “they aren’t going to save me, and I’m going to go down.” He thinks they’ll just hang him out to dry, but he pushes ahead and engages in treason anyway for very personal reasons.
But having worked in the Agency, I can tell you that the officers who work there are honorable people, not at all like they’re often portrayed in the movies or on television…like totally cold and calculating people who are always willing to double-cross and stab others in the back. On the contrary, they respect and value honor and loyalty. At least, that’s true for the ones I’ve known. And they know which traitors are in it for honorable reasons and which are in it for the money or whatnot, and Pioneer’s on the side of the angels. He doesn’t realize that his self-appraisal is badly out-of-sync with the way Agency officers look at their assets. So when I was writing the scene, it just made perfect sense to have her lean over to him and say, “You were never alone.” And it just knocks him flat. Suddenly he realizes just how much he was worth to the United States government. He realizes that the CIA isn’t just looking at him as an asset; they are looking at him as a human being who has earned their respect. This guy has done this for so long that at some point they owe it to him as a human being to go save him. And that’s where Kyra and the Agency leadership are approaching him from.
I really wanted Kyra to have a very strong sense of honor and decency throughout the story. I wanted to inject a nice sense of humanity into Kyra and into Pioneer, to really have them be people who readers could respect and not the kind of anti-heroes who populate so many other stories.
JDR: That’s exactly correct and you used the smallest amount of words to convey a huge bit of emotion and information! You’re a wordsmith and I’m thrilled to know that there are more books coming! Will we see Pioneer again?
MH: (Spoiler Alert!) I think his story has largely ended, but I might include some reference to him in a future book. I think it could be nice for readers to see exactly how he did end up. "Red Cell" leaves his future a little bit uncertain. He’s trying to figure out “now what?” But I don’t think I’ll be writing a book about Pioneer trying to build a new life for himself outside of China.
JDR: Was there a real “Pioneer”?
MH: I based Pioneer on a real person, not on a Chinese national, but rather on a Russian. There was a guy named Vasili Mitrokhin who you may have heard of. Mitrokhin was a senior archivist for the KGB and he was appalled by what he was seeing the KGB doing. He had a crisis of conscience, and he started smuggling copies of KGB reports out of work every day in his shoe and he did this for, I forget how long, twenty years I think, and by the time he was done he had about six trunk loads of reports. He eventually bartered that information in exchange for getting himself and his family out of Russia. The British smuggled him out and all of his trunk- loads of information. Then he sat down with MI6 historian, a gentleman named Christopher Andrew and started producing whole books titled “The Mitrokhin Archives” based on those stolen reports and they basically blew open just about every operation the KGB ran in the last century. People were saying that any former KBG asset still in the West should be running scared that these books are coming out. So in that sense, Pioneer is a real guy. I made Pioneer an archivist for the Ministry of State Security so he’s in the same position, doing some of the same kinds of things.
JDR: In your bio sheet, I think it said that you did a three-year rotation in the Red Cell group. Did you have an inkling back then that you might write a book?
MH: Yeah, I kinda did. If you went through the press material, you’ve got an idea about how I started writing, with my wife kicking my butt. So I started casting around, looking for some ideas and the Red Cell was just an interesting place to be. It was so different from anywhere else in the Agency. You go anywhere else to do analytic work in the Agency and I won’t say that it’s not fun or interesting work, but everyone’s got their own tightly-defined portfolio, there are very rigid ways that things are done, the way you coordinate ideas and papers, things like that. In the Red Cell, all of that goes away. When I was there, nobody had a cubicle. It was like a newspaper bullpen, and any time someone started a discussion about any subject, everybody else could just pile in. There were no restrictions on what you could think about, write about, nobody had a defined portfolio… it was just a very liberating place.
And it occurred to me that this unit that’s free to look at any subject, and look at it at very unconventional ways, and that is not particularly well liked by its peers, that was just literary gold. It really freed me as an author. To write a China story, if Jonathan Burke wasn’t in the Red Cell, I would have had to make him a China analyst if I wanted to be realistic. I would have been restricted to which account he was working, which office he was in, and that would have constricted the story. And then if I wanted to go and tell a story about Russia or Iran or some other country then either I’d have to find a way to move Jonathan and Kyra over to a different office or I’d have to start over with a new protagonist. So the Red Cell was a great place to be and it really lit a fire under me to get writing.
JDR: This is amazing and I think the story of how this came about getting published is one of those “this will never happen again” kind of happenings. I’m looking at your bio now, and it says that you were “taking a break from an agency war game”?
MH: Yeah. I ran a series of analytical war games for the Agency over the last decade. Through a convoluted series of events, that’s how I ended up connecting with the Hollywood gentleman who triggered the chain of dominoes that led to the book getting published. The Agency and the Department of Defense have occasionally hired Hollywood creative types as consultants in developing scenarios for wargames, which brought me into contact with some really interesting people. They pushed me to take my writing more seriously than I was taking it myself, and as a result I ended up getting the book published kind of backward. Usually you get a literary agent, then the book gets published and sells a lot of copies, then it gets optioned for a movie. And in this case it went the other direction. The book got optioned first, which led to getting a literary agent and then getting published. So it all went backwards.
JDR:Hey, it worked!
MH: Yeah, you can’t complain about the end result.
JDR: It’s so nice to hear about things that just click. This is just a great story! So, Mark, are you going to be writing the screenplay for the film?
MH: It’s way too early to tell about something like that. Just because something’s optioned doesn’t mean that it’s automatically going to become a film. Production companies might option a hundred books and maybe only one of them ends up on the screen. So we’ll have to see whether it ever goes into production…keep your fingers crossed.
One of the big issues that studios are wrestling with on these kinds of projects is that the Chinese are pouring a lot of money into Hollywood these days. For example, a news story broke just today that Chinese investors just bought out AMC Entertainment. So the studios are sensitive about making something that might potentially offend the Chinese, because it’s such a big market for them now. For example, MGM filmed a remake of RED DAWN a few years ago, where it was the Chinese who invaded the US instead of the Soviets, who were the villains in the original 1984 version. The Chinese press got aggravated about that, which made the studios got nervous, so they spent the last year reshooting some scenes and using CGI to erase the Chinese flag and symbols from everything. Now it’s the North Koreans who are the principal villains.
So, given some of the China references in my book, we’ll see whether one of the studios is willing to turn it into a movie. But it’s out of my hands.
JDR: I think it would make a great movie, because your lead character, Kyra, (not taking anything away the male protagonist, Jonathan Burke) will bring in a crossover audience of men and women. This isn’t your typical “thriller” – it’s going to be a great “date” movie too. Everybody is going to be happy with this one.
I know that some bits were removed by the Agency; did you have to do a lot of back tracking to write around things?
MH: No, not for that reason. The first draft that I wrote was actually 180,000 words. The final product is 105,000 words, but that’s not because of the Agency. When I finished that draft and first started sending it around to literary agents, literally the first agent that I sent it to responded with a personal note that said, “good book, very well written, way too long—nobody will read it if it’s over 100,000 words.” So I was looking at this letter and my manuscript, wondering “do you mean I have to literally cut this thing in half?” So I didn’t send it out to any other literary agents for about six months while I went through and figured out how to cut 70- or 80,000 words out of the book. I had to drop some sub-plots and combine some characters. So that’s where most of the changes came from. They were just so I could get somebody to look at the thing. For financial reasons, publishers just don’t want to consider anything over a certain length from unknown authors these days.
So I got it down to that level and that removed a lot of the stuff that the Agency had initially sort of been eyeing. Some other things did stay in that the Agency was skeptical about. At one point they came back and said, “you can’t use the term ‘Chief of Station.’” I responded by saying, “how many cleared books by other Agency authors do you want me to produce which used the term ‘Chief of Station’?” Anything they’ve previously cleared was fair game.
There were some other things they wanted cut and I was able to convince them that it was just common sense that they shouldn’t be classified. But overall, the Agency didn’t demand too many changes. It wasn’t bad…remarkably painless, in fact. So most of my rewriting came more because of the requirements of the publishing industry, than because of the Agency.
JDR: I know our time is coming to an end, but I have a couple more questions if you have the time?
JDR: Thanks so much! What was the “spark”, what happened that made you think “I’m going to put that in a book”?
MH: I’m one of those guys who always wanted to write a book, but I had never written anything longer than a short story. Red Cell is my first book length work. What really got me going was my wife, and I suspect that’s not an uncommon thing for an author to have a spouse who pushes them along. I was at work one day and I was informed I had earned an Exceptional Performance Award that came with about $1,500 attached to it. So I went home and told my wife and asked. “which of our student loans are we going to throw this at?” She said, “We’re not going to do that. You’re going to use it to buy a MacBook and you’re going to use that MacBook to write that novel. Here’s the catch—you have one year to write it. If you don’t write it in one year, I get the MacBook.” So that’s what kicked me off.
As for the actual Genesis of the story, I was looking around for a story and I had a couple of characters like Kyra and Jonathan in my head, but I didn’t have enough of a plot to run with. I’m the kind of guy who likes those novels that are sort of grounded in reality, so I thought maybe I can find events in actual history that I can project into the future and I just found two events which happened within six weeks of each other and which were geographically close, and if you read the book, you know what those two things are. And I just looked at those and I just thought if those two were actually connected, that would be really interesting! And the rest of the story just grew right in, and at that point the plot sort of put itself together. So that’s how the specific idea for the story came about.
JDR: You found Scrivener?
MH: Yeah, that was the tool that really let me finally start to fly. Trying to write a novel using Microsoft Word is a bag of hurt. It’s a great writing tool for novelists, created by a guy in the UK named Keith Blount, who runs a company called Literature & Latte. It’s a steal at $40.
JDR: Now this question is pretty random, but this is the stuff that I wonder about, I mean “really”? Did this really happen?? In the book you said something about “Beijing had hundred of thousands of rooms for rent, and even the MSS could not bug them all. At least that was the theory.” Now my question, do you really think that so many rooms are really bugged in that situation?
MH: I can’t go into detail, but any time that you travel to another country, you’re playing on the home field of the foreign security services. So you just always have to assume that wherever you are or whatever you’re doing, somebody hostile is watching.
For example, back in the 70s, the Agency developed a list of rules for its case officers in Russia that were called “The Moscow Rules.” You can see them on a plaque on the wall in the International Spy Museum in DC. Every case officer in Moscow had those rules beaten into their heads, and lived by them as if they were the Ten Commandments written by the finger of God on the stone tablets. Basically, you just had to assume that every single person that you met was under the control of Russian government. Now, as a practical matter, no government can watch every place, every person, at every moment; but you can’t know always know where the gaps are, so you just have to act like gaps don’t exist.
But in "Red Cell", the Agency ends up in a kind of desperate situation while trying to get Pioneer out, so they have to gamble a bit. But it’s a gamble you wouldn’t want to take very often.
JDR: WOW! You’ve been fabulous, Mark, I appreciate your giving me so much of your time today! Any idea when the next book will be out?
MH: I’m already working on it. I’ve got the story in my head, got the first several chapters banged out, got the outline going. I’d love to get it out in the next year or two.
JDR: Again, you’ve been fabulous! Thanks so much!!
MH: It’s been a pleasure to meet you.
JDR: And a pleasure to meet you too!
Mark mentions “The Mitrokhin Archives” - they really exist and you can read more about them here
. And he also talks about "The Moscow Rules", they exist too you can read more here.