Saturday, August 04, 2007

Being There

I’m always on the hunt for new and interesting voices in the espionage thriller field. Which was what attracted me during last summer’s Thrillerfest, in Phoenix, Arizona, to Karna Small Bodman.

Bodman who has a very interesting background--perfect for a thriller writer. She began her career in San Francisco as a reporter for KRON-TV. Her name at that time was Karna Small. She then anchored the news for KGO-TV and covered breaking news stories throughout the Bay Area. Later, she relocated to Washington, D.C., where she anchored the 10 o’clock news on Channel 5, and hosted both a news/talk show and a program about business and economic matters. Her posted bio goes on to explain:
When Ronald Reagan was elected President [in 1980], he stood in front of Blair House and named Jim Brady as his Press Secretary with Karna as Jim’s Deputy. She was immediately thrust into the tough task of explaining domestic policy initiatives to members of the national press corps. But there were benefits--being involved with the most important issues of the time, almost daily meetings with the President and traveling on Air Force One. She was also sent to South America and the Far East to give speeches to government, business and student groups on the President’s economic priorities.

Later, she had an opportunity to focus on foreign policy and became a Senior Director and spokesman for the National Security Council. She attended arms control talks with the Soviets and traveled with the team that briefed the leaders of Great Britain, France and Italy as well as Pope John Paul II. Those were heady days, “evil empire” days, so it was a unique experience to chat with the Soviet Union’s General Secretary Gorbachev at that first Summit meeting in Geneva.

When Karna left The White House to become Senior Vice President of a Public Affairs firm, she was the highest ranking woman on The White House staff.
All of this background made me want to read her first political thriller, Checkmate, which came out in January 2007. And while I was in New York City last month for the second ThrillerFest, I bumped into Bodman again. She informed me that she’s just finished her second novel, Gambit, which is due for release early in 2008. She also agreed to supply Rap Sheet readers with a bit more of her background and some thoughts of her contributions to the thriller genre. So, over to you, Karna:
I was scheduled to be in the staff car with White House Press Secretary, Jim Brady, on March 30, 1981--the day of the assassination attempt against President Ronald Reagan. I was Jim’s deputy at the time. At the last minute, Jim said, “You know, there’s a lot of work to do here, a ton of press calls to return. Why don’t you stay back--I can handle this one alone. It’s no big deal--just a speech to some union group over at the Hilton. I’ll be back around 2:30.” He never came back.

As we all remember, when Jim and President Reagan walked out of the hotel, John Hinkley fired six shots in three seconds, combat style, with two hands using a devastation bullet that was supposed to explode inside the victim. It didn’t explode, because he was using a smaller gun--a 22. Later, after surgery, we learned, but never announced to the country, that the bullet was lodged one inch from the president’s heart.

That day, along with many others, will always be seared in my memory and when I sat down to write my first novel, Checkmate, I spent a lot of time reflecting on those personal experiences, figuring out that I had a lot of material for a series of political thrillers. Authors are always asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” Of course, any daily newspaper gives a writer a veritable Petri dish of plot points, but I decided that “being there” is even better.

After that initial job in the press office, I later became senior director of the National Security Council where we were dealing with crises on almost a daily basis ... any one of which could be turned into a pretty good thriller: the assassination of [Anwar] Sadat (by Islamic Jihadists!), the attempted assassination of the Pope, the rise of the Greens and anti-nuke parties over our deployment of INF missiles in Europe; the terrorist attack on the cruise ship, Achille Lauro, and their killing of an innocent American; the shooting-down of the Korean jetliner with an American congressman on board (I used that one in my second novel, Gambit ...), the explosion of the space shuttle with the school teacher on board; and then there was the bombing of Libya. Now that was actually the basis of Nelson DeMille’s great story, The Lion’s Game, and when I met him at Book Expo in New York, I told him I had been in the Situation Room the night we bombed Libya, so his book brought it all back to me.

The inspiration for that first thriller, Checkmate, was President Reagan’s announcement of his Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”). I did a lot of research and realized that in Reagan’s day, there were eight countries with the missiles and technology to be a threat to us. Today, there are 30 countries with those capacities--and many are NOT our friends. George Bernard Shaw said, “The best way to get your point across is to entertain.” The point I wanted to make is that having a good missile defense system is good policy, so I put together a story about a young woman who works for a defense contractor. She invents a breakthrough technology for a defense against cruise missiles, foreign agents are trying to steal it for their own wars abroad, [and] a National Security Council staffer tries to help her, while a lecherous congressman [who] is more interested in her bod than funding her project. (Look, it’s Washington!)

I pitched the book to an editor I met at a writers’ conference. We decided to work together. I got an agent and then began a rather long process of finalizing the manuscript. But that was OK. I knew that nobody prints a first draft. After all, Tolstoy rewrote Anna Karenina 17 times!

Now I had a published novel, but as all my author friends tell me, writing is about 25 percent of your life, marketing is 75 percent. How true! Publishers don’t usually devote large marketing budgets to new authors.

Media exposure is great, but most radio and TV producers book authors of non-fiction. They want news hooks: “How I lost 18 pounds in 18 days” or some such. I actually do have some news hooks with this missile defense story, since the U.S. currently is deploying missile defense systems around the world in cooperation with Great Britain, Germany, Israel, Australia, Denmark (which operates a key radar system in Greenland) and other countries as a hedge against North Korea, Iran or any number of rogue groups. And since President Putin is putting up a fuss about U.S. plans to deploy a very small set of interceptors and radar in Poland and the Czech Republic (which could easily be overwhelmed by Russia’s thousands of warheads), it’s even more timely. So I have ended up as a guest on dozens of radio and TV shows where the host has asked about current events while also plugging Checkmate.

Then I decided that organizing events where I could have a “captive audience” would be another good way to go talk about the novel. I contacted dozens of organizations, alumni groups, libraries, author series, even Republican Clubs (since I could tell Reagan White House stories) and ended up putting together a book tour where I now have had over 80 speeches/events for various groups around the country.

For a debut author, or an old hand at the process, we all are inundated with “interesting requests” along the way--the people who come up to you at a signing, tell you their life story and how it’s SO intriguing, but admitting they can’t write and then saying, “So you write it, we’ll split the profits”; or the woman who handed me a huge envelope saying, “When you get a chance, could you please critique this? It’s the first three chapters of my nephew’s novel--he’s 13!” And so it goes.

While I’m still doing events for Checkmate, the sequel, Gambit, is finished and will be out on February 19, 2008. The story involves the same characters--with yet another totally different foreign-policy crisis to solve. Right now, I’m working on book number three.
READ MORE:Author of the Month: Karna Small Bodman,” by Linda Morelli (

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