In debut novelist T. J. Waters’ Secret Signs, former golf pro Amy Kellen finds herself at a crossroads in her life. As a widow and the mother of a three-year-old daughter, she takes a job as a video relay service interpreter for deaf clients, hoping the new career move will inspire a much-needed sense of stability. But after witnessing the vicious killing of a political strategist during a video call, she is plunged into a murder mystery that interweaves internet scams, burglaries, and presidential politics while placing Amy and her daughter at the center of an electrifying assassination plot.
Waters spent four years as a senior consultant to U.S. Special Operations Command and previously served as a Senior Counterintelligence Analyst for U.S. Central Command, an Economics and Trade Security Analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency, and Vice President of a private intelligence consulting firm. Class 11, his memoir about being a student in the first post-9/11 training class for the CIA’s Clandestine Service, was optioned for television three times. From his home in St. Petersburg, Florida, he talked to ITW about his new novel.
Your protagonist is a sign language interpreter for a Video Relay Service. Was there a particular person or persons who inspired Amy Kellen’s creation?
Yes, it’s actually a compilation of my younger sister and several of her cohorts. She’s a professional American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter who does both community and Video Relay work. I found the VRS technology fascinating. Since interpreters are held to the same professional confidences as a priest or physician, there were some really interesting scenarios I could craft around that personal-technical interaction.
Gallaudet University has an illustrious reputation for providing liberal education and career development for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Secret Signs stands as the first time Gallaudet University Press has published a novel during its thirty-year history. What was your road to publication and how did your collaboration with the university come about?
One of the other interpreters I worked with was a Gally grad. She kept bugging me about approaching them even after I pointed out they only publish nonfiction. I called Senior Editor Ivey Wallace and cold-pitched her from my cell phone in the parking lot outside my office. She listened very patiently and replied, “No, I’ve never heard of you. No, I’ve not read your other books. And no, we don’t publish fiction. But I would love to read your book.” She read it, gave it to others in the publications office, and to an outside consultant they use. Everyone loved it. Next thing I know they are pitching the idea to the University and the rest is history.
That must have been an impressive pitch! Do you have any tips for crafting a compelling pitch that will grab agents and editors?
[Laughter] Boy, it was so NOT impressive at all! If you don’t take a breath for them to jump in with a “no thanks” they can’t very well turn you down. You’ve heard of a stream of consciousness? This was a stream of words with barely any daylight between them.
If I were to offer a tip it would be to understand the issue from the editor’s point of view. They don’t sit around looking for reasons to shoot down people’s dreams, but they do sit around thinking about what will happen to them if they don’t publish books that people want to buy. This was one of the most inelegant proposals I’ve ever pitched, but it did at least address things from the editor’s perspective: She knew immediately that I had been published, that I recognized she would not know me from Adam’s housecat. I was aware I was asking her to do something outside their normal product line, BUT I noted how it would meet the stated mission of the University’s press. THAT is what made her consider it. Either that or simply morbid curiosity. Hard to be sure.
Authors need to consider options like a university press. Tinkers, published by Bellevue Literary Press (part of NYU’s School of Medicine) won the Pulitzer Prize this year. A university press hasn’t won the Pulitzer for fiction in nearly thirty years (since LSU published A Confederacy of Dunces). I think authors (and others in publishing) will now think twice before summarily dismissing a university press simply because it might not be a big New York publishing house. Get the book out there and let the results speak for themselves!
You’ve had a distinguished career in both government service and the private sector. In what ways did your varied background shape the direction of your thriller?
Being a political thriller there’s an obvious espionage angle. I’m fortunate to have worked with numerous agencies over the years so I’ve become familiar with how most of them work and how uniquely entertaining stories can be told through them. That’s how the Secret Service factors so heavily in this story. Good people doing a difficult job.
Are there plans for a sequel to Secret Signs?
It’s already framed out and underway. It’s called Stealing Signs, playing off a bit of the sports angle started with Secret Signs.
At what point did you realize that you wanted to become a novelist?
Intelligence professionals are by nature storytellers—that’s what the job ultimately is—telling a decision maker a story about a particular issue. I’ve played around with the idea of writing a novel for years but it was only after the concept of Secret Signs came to light that I actually sat down and framed out the entire story from the end back to the beginning, which is how I write most things.
In addition to your debut novel, you’ve written on intelligence, competition, and strategy. As an author of both fiction and non-fiction, do you find writing one more challenging than the other?
Telling an effective story is a challenge no matter how you do it, fiction or nonfiction. They are very different, as is screenwriting or musicals. Secret Signs started as a screenplay that I rewrote as a novel, so it has a particularly visual feel that is great considering ASL’s visual orientation. But I tend to be a visual thinker so maybe that’s simply the result of that orientation.
Has a particular author or book influenced the way you write fiction?
James Swain as a novelist has certainly been an influence. I really enjoy his Tony Valentine series, particularly the human side of the story. As for story telling itself, I took Robert McKee’s STORY seminar a couple of years ago. It was hands down the best instruction for story telling I’ve ever had. I later took his THRILLER writing seminar as well and that’s the week I began writing Secret Signs.
What would be the best piece of advice that you could share with aspiring novelists?
Don’t quit! Keep writing and rewriting and rewriting some more until you think it’s flawless. Then find someone who will give you an honest opinion on story, characters, timelines, pace, etc. My wife Cathy is my first and foremost editor. If she doesn’t like it, the story never sees the light of day. “Back to the drawing board” as they say!