Behind the Books

I enjoy reading mysteries and thrillers and non-fiction related to politics, history, and government.  I also worked for the government – the U.S. Navy – lived in Washington, D.C. for a period of time and went there numerous times during the course of my career.  I love the city because it’s a “target rich” environment for a writer.  There’s always something happening there – something corrupt, something outrageous, something heroic and dangerous – that provides inspiration for fiction. It’s also a place where important things happen involving powerful organizations like CIA, the Pentagon, and the NSA – and the real life operations of those organizations are quite often more astounding than fiction.

So when I wrote my first novel, The Inside Ring, I had already decided upon the setting: Washington, D.C.  I also decided I wanted to write a series; i.e., novels with a recurring cast of characters.  The main cast in my DeMarco novels includes John Mahoney, a corrupt, devious politician and Speaker of the House; Emma, an enigmatic, retired ex-spy who worked for the DIA; and my protagonist: Joe DeMarco.  DeMarco’s a lawyer who’s never practiced law.  He’s Mahoney’s bagman and fixer.  He has family connections to the New York mob that have plagued his career.  He’s a guy with a sense of humor, who would rather play golf than work – kinda like me – and ends up in dangerous situations where he’s usually in over his head.

I’ve now published nine DeMarco novels and almost all of the books have been inspired by real life events: the Valerie Plame case, where Plame is “outed” as a CIA covert officer by a newspaper reporter (House Justice); the NSA eavesdropping on phone calls without the proper warrants (House Divided); the SEC pursuing insider trading cases (House Odds); Chinese spies stealing nuclear secrets from Los Alamos (The Second Perimeter).   In my DeMarco novels I’ve drawn from my own experience living and working in D.C., yet at the same time, have had to do a lot of research to get smart on the things I’m writing about.   In House Rules, for example, I had to learn about the no-fly zone around D.C. and got the opportunity to talk to people involved in the air defense perimeter around the Capitol.

But there’s a problem with writing a series, and the problem is that the writer can’t tell all the stories he or she would like to tell.  What I mean by this is that once you’ve created a cast of characters, their fictional jobs and abilities limit you to certain types of stories and preclude you from telling others.  Which, in a way, is how I came to write Rosarito Beach: I had a story I wanted to tell that didn’t fit within the framework of the DeMarco books.

Rosarito Beach began with a call from a television producer.  He liked the Emma character in my DeMarco novels and suggested I write a screenplay with a strong female protagonist.   At the same time, the news was full of stories about the savage violence in Mexico where thousands of people are killed every year by the cartels.   So I created Kay Hamilton, a tough, sexy, DEA agent operating out of San Diego and a plot where Kay arrests a drug lord with connections to a violent cartel in Mexico – and things go horribly wrong.

I never did finish the screenplay.  Instead, I ended up writing Rosarito Beach.  Researching the book took me to the brig at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, the Mexican border region, and the federal lockup in San Diego.  I had discussions with federal judges and lawyers to learn about warrants, and talked to weapons experts to learn about guns.  I spoke to several people who live in Mexico.  It was a fun book to write and research, and I was fortunate that Penguin-Blue Rider Press liked it.  Rosarito Beach has also been optioned for television.  So it looks as if Kay Hamilton, a character I love, is becoming the protagonist in a new book series and, hopefully, will one day appear on television.