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Sunday 22 November 2015

ℚ♫ Surrounded by Enemies: Breakpoint [1] - Bryce Zabel

Today we have the pleasure of meeting up with CNN correspondent-turned-screenwriter, TV producer and  author  to talk about Surrounded by Enemies (first published 29 July 2013, this edition published , Diversion Books, 334 pages), an Alternate History Mystery Novel, book one of his new Breakpoint series.

"I have some experience with shattered timelines and altered realities but this one kept me guessing every page.”—Damon Lindelof, writer/producer of Lost, Star Trek Into Darkness 

 “Plausible development, building from what we know about what really did go on, and a whacking good story…Surrounded by Enemies delivers on both, big-time.  So hold on to your hats, folks. You’re in for quite a ride.”—Harry Turtledove, alternative history author, How Few Remain

Author Q&A | Synopsis | Trailer | Teaser | About the Author | Giveaway & Tour Stops

A very warm welcome to Bryce Zabel; thank you for joining us today on BooksChatter.

What was the inspiration for Surrounded by Enemies?

"I've wanted to write Surrounded by Enemies since, I think, 2003.  Mostly I thought it could be a dynamite story, but, frankly, part of me just wanted to take a crack at honestly answering the what if that has haunted multiple generations over the past fifty-plus years.  Let me boil that down to a single sentence.

What if President John Kennedy had survived the ambush in Dallas, Texas?

It's such a simple question but the answer is so nuanced and complicated.  Many people have tried to tackle the subject over the years and concluded with a fantasy that we would have stayed out of Vietnam, avoided the racial riots, ended the Cold War, and generally lived a far less turbulent Sixties.

I don't buy it.  Mostly because I think it's naive to think that JFK would have gotten a pass to do what he wanted in a second term.  Also, if he lived through Dallas, he'd also know that somebody had tried to execute him in broad daylight on a public street.  That kind of knowledge can change a man."
You said you had some personal insight, too.  Can you tell us about that?
"My other inspiration was getting to know my Hollywood mentor, Bill Asher.  He was a contemporary of JFK, and directed not only the pre-inaugural show in 1961, but also the famous "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" as crooned by Marilyn Monroe.  Bill attended more than a few Rat Pack wild parties and JFK was at a lot of them.  The things he told me made me believe that President Kennedy was living a dangerous life.

Alternate history
Over the years, I came to the conclusion that if the things we know now that have drip-dripped out over decades had instead come out quickly while he was President, it would have been a very dramatic time.  Don't get me wrong.  I loved President Kennedy and I wept at his death as a child.  Yet as a journalist and a dramatist, this what if just burrowed in my head and would not leave until I wrote it out.

Even sober historians now agree that JFK was probably living just one headline away from disaster.  I decided that writing an honest book had to reflect that."
Can you tell us something quirky about Surrounded by Enemies, like its story and characters?
"Absolutely.  The most obvious quirk, I'd have to think, is that Surrounded by Enemies features two central characters as you've never seen them before — President John Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy.  It's my view that if the bullets had missed on November 22, 1963 that November 23rd would have seen the Kennedy brothers moving at full speed to solve the crime of the near assassination.  As characters, however, the post-Dallas Kennedy brothers knew more than anyone, knew that JFK had many enemies, particularly in his own government.  Jack and Bobby would have become the first conspiracy theorists."

We always like to ask about a book's cover.  What can you tell us?
"Covers are super-important and, in fact, sometimes you can judge a book by it if the graphic artist has captured the essence of what's in the pages inside.  This cover comes from Kit Foster, a supremely talented designer from Edinburgh, Scotland.  He's done a great deal of work with Diversion, as I understand it, and I think he's nailed it here.

I can tell you this.  My manager took one look at it and demanded a poster of it for his office.  I loved it enough that while I was making him a poster, I made one for myself.  I think it's brilliant."
Your book, Surrounded by Enemies, is the first in a series of books.  They can't all be about President Kennedy.  Can they?
"Ha! Well, I suppose they could if I was willing to let JFK continue to solve crimes after he leaves office.  But, as we like to say out here in Hollywood development, I decided to go another way.

           Alternate history
Surrounded by Enemies is Book One in a new series of alternate history novels from my publisher Diversion Books.  It's called Breakpoint.  The idea with that is that every great what if has a "breakpoint" where history could have gone one way but instead it goes another . The Kennedy assassination happens to be an extremely clear breakpoint.  Either he dies in Dallas or he doesn't.

Each book in the Breakpoint series will feature a different what if story with different characters.  The Kennedy survival scenario became my first book but the second one that I'm writing now should shake a few paradigms, too.  It's called Once There Was a Way, and it's about what would have happened had The Beatles had stayed together."
Tell us more.
"I'm still writing the novel about The Beatles.  I'll say this.  It's not as soft as you might think. It's full of conflict and surprises, and some familiar themes and events get twisted in some mind-blowing ways, just like the Kennedy book, but if this next one becomes a TV series, it'll have an awesome soundtrack."
So you have plans for Breakpoint that includes TV and films?
"We'll see.  I've certainly made my living writing television drama, and I enjoy it very much. I've definitely thought about it.  I'd envision a TV anthological series with each season mirroring one of the books.  So the unifying theme would be that each season tells a complete historical what if story, but that each season is different.  Season One — JFK.  Season Two — The Beatles. Wow.  That sounds so great I may have to quit after two seasons.  I mean, those two are about as iconic as it gets."
Indeed - I am not quite sure how you could follow that in Season Three...

Who do you see playing the Kennedy brothers?

"I know enough about casting that anybody I suggest probably won't get the part because someone perfect will present himself at the right moment.  There have been hits and misses over the years with JFK . People liked William Devane [The Missiles of October, 1974] a great deal.  Recently, we had Greg Kinnear [The Kennedys, 2011], someone I would not have thought of, but he had angles on him where he looked just right.  Then there was Rob Lowe [Killing Kennedy, 2013] who, even though I admire him as an actor, I thought just didn't quite succeed.

In the 90s when I was producing Dark Skies for NBC, we turned Bobby Kennedy into a recurring character played wonderfully by James F. Kelly.  James was not a doppleganger for the Attorney General, but he suggested him perfectly.  At the end of the day, playing a Kennedy is not about an impersonation but is about playing a role.

I give up.  I just don't know . I'll have to cross that bridge when we come to it."
Do you know what comes next in the Breakpoint series?
"Actually, I do, but I can't tell."
Alternate history
Tell us about your writing process.
"My background is TV news, working first as a CNN correspondent, then later as a Hollywood screenwriter.  Both of those careers put a premium on being fast, but they also reward a writer who knows his story going in and has a structural plan for delivering it.

Surrounded by Enemies took a long time to think about but was a fairly quick write.  Oddly, when I was first struck by the concept, I grabbed a number of Kennedy photos and assembled a visual "look-book" of the story's chronology.  It was a very unorthodox approach, to be sure, and I've never done it before, it just happened.  Then I wrote a treatment that laid the story out with a lot of specificity.  When I actually got down to writing the book, however, it flowed out of me fast and furious.  I've done a lot of re-writing, of course, but the essence came with speed.

I've been on a dozen TV writing staffs and created five drama series that have gotten on the air. The process there is usually very straightforward.  Pitch an idea.  Get notes.  Write an outline. Get notes.  Write a screenplay.  Get notes.  Revise for a production draft.  Shoot.  While I don't have to embrace that detail in a book, it gives me something to draw from.   One thing I liked about the book writing process, however, is that you don't get notes until the manuscript gets to your editor.  Mine was Randall Klein at Diversion and he loved this story as much as I did.  When they sent me the first copy, he put a Post-It on it: "It's rare to have so much fun with something this intelligent.  Congratulations on an amazing book."  That Post-It is sitting here right above my desk.  It's my Moment of Zen.

Also, having so much that I've written actually produced has given me a good ear for dialogue and pacing, and I do think that Surrounded by Enemies has benefited.  I got so deeply into hearing JFK's voice in my head that I added a 12-page interview with JFK at the end, conducted in 1976, shortly before his death (in the book's timeline)."
A couple of quick questions about JFK.  Conspiracy or lone gunman?
"Conspiracy. I happen to agree with the 62% of the American public who believe to this day that JFK was murdered as the result of a plot.  Speculating about who was in on it is a key part of Surrounded by Enemies, so no spoilers here.  As for Oswald, he clearly had a role to play, but he wasn't playing all by himself."

Where were you when President Kennedy was killed?

"I was attending Peter Boscow Elementary School in Hillsboro, Oregon.  The TVs were on in the cafeteria at lunchtime and everyone was pretty much in shock.  My teacher, Mrs. Braden, was a tough old bird who always forced us to eat our vegetables.  On this day, she sat at the table silently, as did we, and nobody touched their vegetables.  Finally, they sent us home.  It was Friday afternoon.  I went home and watched TV with my parents for the next four days and everybody cried a lot.  Except for when Oswald was killed.  At that point, my father, an American History teacher, said, "That's not right. Something's not right."  He, of course, was correct."
Where do you like to write?
"Being a Hollywood screenwriter, the short answer is "Have MacBook Air, Will Travel."

Producing TV series teaches a writer to write at any time and in any place possible  I've written a lot of stuff on airplanes going to the set in Vancouver, B.C., for example.   I used to write in Starbucks but now all I see around here is people writing in Starbucks, and the part of me that wants to be different won't let me do that anymore.

My favorite place to write is still my home office.  It's big, and it's got a big desktop, my iMac, and this is where I love to crank.  I have reliable, fast Internet, all my books, a Keurig, and my wife, Jackie, who I can bounce ideas against.  Of course, I also have easy access to my kitchen.  That obstacle I haven't figured out yet..."

Do you listen to music when you write?

"Not always, sometimes.  With Surrounded by Enemies I had so much going on in my head that I usually wrote silently.  I did have certain songs that I put in a playlist and listened to them when I wasn't writing.

I loved "Sleeping In" by The Postal Service for example.  Have you heard that lyric? "Last week I had the strangest dream...there was never any mystery about who shot John F. Kennedy."   The Stones "Sympathy for the Devil", you know, "I shouted out who killed the Kennedys."  "Long Time Gone" by Crosby, Still & Nash.  "He Was a Friend of Mine" by the Byrds.  "In the Summer of His Years" by Connie Francis.  "Please Mr. Kennedy" by Mickey Woods and "Vote for Kennedy" by Frank Sinatra.

I took it one step further.  In the book, Jimmy Dean records "The Day JFK Dodged a Bullet" to the tune of Gene Pitney's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence" in time for Thanksgiving 1963.  I'm probably not a great songwriter but I gave the lyrics a shot."

How do you fact-check your books?
"This book, Surrounded by Enemies, is the result of one explosive idea married to a ton of research and then twisted to the purposes of alternate history.  I've been reading and thinking about John Kennedy and how he lived and how he died all my life.  That's involved reading, I'd imagine, over fifty books.

Even though I'm writing as a dramatist these days, my old journalistic habits are hard to shake.  I still like to pick up the phone and talk to somebody who's an expert.  I love to ask questions and because I'm willing to ask some challenging or odd ones, I've always come away from a conversation with at least a nugget or two that's pure gold.

For a first bounce, though, when my writing is on fire and I need a quick factoid, I will zip over to Wikipedia, find what I need and keep going.  Later, in the revision and editing process, I'll fact-check all those quicky visits to get the information right.  Please do not send me hate mail for looking at Wiki once in a while.  I know it's not factually reliable since someone put a page about me up and it's wrong all over the place but they won't let me correct it because I'd be biased.  Go figure."
Oh, that is funny.  I hope you have managed to get someone to fix the information for you! (if not drop us a line ;-) )
I think that you need to be careful with any source, and check and double-check the information.  Wikipedia is just a quick and easy starting point.

Final question.  You sent us a wonderful photo of you and a turtle.  Tell us about it.

"That's not just any turtle.  That's an endangered desert tortoise and my family has two of them.  The one I'm holding is Einstein.  That's as big as they get but they live, like, 200 years I'm told.  So I've put my kids on notice that Einstein and Patrick (our other turtle) are going to be passed on to them, and then they're going to have to take care of them and pass them on to their own kids.  We're not the best pet owners but the advantage of these endangered tortoises is that they spend half the year in hibernation.  We also feel positive that we're giving them a home and keeping them alive."

Absolutely.  I used to have turtles as a child, and I simply love them.  Thank you for sharing Einstein with us.

Surrounded by Enemies
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1 comment:

Omnimystery News said...

Thanks so much for this terrific interview! And Bryce's alternate history thriller sounds really intriguing.