Behind the Scenes with Joel
The political thriller is a unique subgenre of the traditional thriller novel. So much of the story line deals not just with people’s actions, but their motivations. What would make a person in the leadership of this country carry out this plan? To build a story at this level, an author needs the ability and information to dig to a deeper psychological level.
Research for political thrillers for me is not just about Google, nor is it reading books by people who are experts. I definitely use both of those resources, but they aren’t enough. I need to find genuine mindsets and nuances of political leaders and operatives that will make the books more authentic, more realistic. It’s their habits and quirks and even verbiage that brings humanity to a powerful character and legitimacy to the story. That is why I typically seek out people who really know these leaders up close and personal, and I go to them.
For instance, when I wrote The Kremlin Conspiracy, I was departing from my regional comfort zone of the Middle East. This new story would focus on the threat of a resurgent Russia and a would-be czar. It was essential that I really get into the head of this Vladimir Putin–esque character. So I opened up the Contacts app on my phone and asked myself, “Who do I know that has met and interacted with the president of Russia?”
A name came to my mind—Stephen Harper, the former prime minister of Canada. In his ten years in Ottawa, he was the most pro-Israel leader on the planet. I also knew that he had taken some pretty strong positions regarding Vladimir Putin. The problem was that I didn’t know him. However, I knew some people who did. I called up my friends and they contacted Prime Minister Harper and asked if he would be willing to chat. That contact led to a three-hour dinner with him. I laid out what The Kremlin Conspiracy was going to be about, and then we just dove in. His information was invaluable to the eventual formation and writing of the book, and his on-point analysis of Putin’s character is being played out in the news day by day of late. That first interaction began a friendship, and over the years we have met and emailed and talked on the phone numerous times.
The past twenty years, I have been able to develop a list of “go-to” people, including three former directors of the CIA. One of them, Mike Pompeo, is also a former secretary of state who has interacted directly with North Korea’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un, which is an addition that not many Westerners can include on their résumé. On that list, also, is former Delta Force commando and three-star general, Jerry Boykin, who has been wonderful in letting me war-game specific situations with him.
It is those personal contacts that have helped to make my political thrillers the successes that they have been. In many characters, you are not just getting made-up people with made-up motivations. Instead, you are getting fictionalized versions of the real leaders of real countries, who in many cases are making real decisions that will affect the lives of millions of people.
—Joel C. Rosenberg