Dan Mayland didn’t make things easy for himself with his debut novel, THE COLONEL’S MISTAKE, passing up familiar professions and settings to write about a retired CIA agent caught in deadly international intrigue in Baku, Azerbaijan.
Mayland’s protagonist, Mark Sava, has settled into a new life as a university professor in Baku after retiring as CIA station chief for Azerbaijan. His tranquil existence is threatened when he learns that a young female CIA operations officer of Iranian-American descent has been jailed for a crime Sava is sure she didn’t commit. He sets out to help her and becomes embroiled in a lethal “shadow war” over oil involving Iran, China, and the United States.
Kyle Mills, N.Y. Times bestselling author of THE IMMORTALISTS, calls THE COLONEL’S MISTAKE “a terrific ride,” adding, “Mayland beautifully captures the high stakes games played in an increasingly complex world.” Lutz Kleveman, author of THE NEW GREAT GAME: BLOOD AND OIL IN CENTRAL ASIA, calls it “a riveting spy story” and says that Mayland “vividly captures a mysterious, dangerous place that swarms with agents like Cold War Berlin in the 1960s.”
Mayland, who lives with his family in Pennsylvania and owns a real estate company, recently talked about his new career as an author and his long-time interest in a part of the world that remains little known to many westerners.
Most Americans probably know next to nothing about Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan – couldn’t find them on a map – and although we hear a lot about Iran, the country and its culture remain mysterious. What stirred your interest in that region and led you to visit those countries for the first time? Did you go there because you thought it might make a good setting for a book?
Azerbaijan has rights to gobs of oil in the Caspian and is sandwiched between Iran and Russia. That puts it smack in the middle of the New Great Game—which is what people are calling the struggle between Iran, the US, Russia, and China over oil in the Caspian region. As a result, Azerbaijan’s capital city of Baku has been described as a den of spies, like Casablanca during World War II. I thought it would be a fantastic place to set a spy thriller, although my interest in the region certainly preceded my travels, particularly my interest in Iran.
Iran has long been an interest of mine. (Check out danmayland.com, particularly the annotated bibliography, for more on that.) And you’re right, we certainly do hear quite a lot about the country these days. But so much of what we hear in the news is from the perspective of Iran’s role in the Middle East. I thought it would be more exciting to approach Iran from Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, Iran’s little-understood northern neighbors who are nevertheless big players in the New Great Game. Full disclosure—Turkmenistan doesn’t make an appearance until book two of the series.
Your protagonist, Mark Sava, sounds as if he might be somewhat older than you. Why did you decide to make your hero a seasoned CIA agent turned university professor, rather than a young gung-ho type? How does Sava’s depth of experience influence the story?
Thanks for the compliment, Sandy! I feel young and gung-ho! Regrettably, though, I might be older than you think…
Or maybe it’s just that Sava’s younger than his impressive resume might suggest. He’s 42 in THE COLONEL’S MISTAKE, my age when I started the book, but his experience exceeds what might be typical for someone his age because he started out as a CIA agent—someone who spies for the CIA but isn’t actually employed by them—when he was a 22-year-old kid on Fulbright scholarship in Soviet Georgia. Only after surviving a disastrous encounter with the KGB did he formally join the CIA and get a job as an operations officer.
Sava’s twenty-year history with the CIA serves him well in THE COLONEL’S MISTAKE. It means he doesn’t get rattled easily, and that he’s got plenty of espionage, paramilitary, and linguistic skills to draw upon.
What kind of man is Sava? What would you say are his best qualities – the qualities for which you admire him? What are his flaws, and how do you make use of them in the story?
Sava’s best and worst quality is exactly the same—he’s extraordinarily adept at compartmentalizing his life.
He’s got a long history with the CIA that he doesn’t tell his girlfriend about, ties to the Azeri government that are deeper than he tells the CIA about, serious family issues involving his mother’s suicide which he doesn’t tell anyone about…And within those compartments, he’s got lots of secret sub-compartments. To keep everything ordered the way it should be, he’s got to be a bit of a cold SOB, and he’s perfectly comfortable not telling people he loves, or at least respects, what’s going on in other aspects of his life. But that’s also what makes him such a good spy.
Your photos and descriptions of the environmental degradation caused by an unregulated oil industry in the region are sad and frightening. Have you been able to learn much about the effects of dirty oil production on public health? Is oil’s impact on the citizens’ health and quality of life a concern or a non-issue for the region’s governments?
The environmental degradation you see in some of the photos posted on my website, particularly the photos of Azerbaijan, has had a heartbreaking effect on many Azeris.
One town near where much of THE COLONEL’S MISTAKE is set made TIME magazine’s list of the most polluted places on earth. Cancer rates, birth defects, and genetic mutations—all are much higher than normal there. Recently environmental issues have been given a higher priority by the Azeri government—2010 was declared the Year of the Environment, so if nothing else the slogans have improved—but Azerbaijan still has a long way to go when it comes to the environment.
Do you believe oil– the need for it, the buying and selling of it — is now shaping international relations the way nuclear weapons once did?
On the one hand, I don’t think it’s that clear cut. Oil was always a part of the fight over nuclear weapons and now nuclear weapons are part of the fight over oil. Iran’s long-troubled history with Russia and the West certainly involved both, and that’s part of the reason why I focus on both the oil and nuclear issue in THE COLONEL’S MISTAKE. On the other hand, I think a strong case can be made that the biggest foreign policy challenge now is the struggle over energy—especially if you link that fight over energy to the fight against terrorism, which I do— just as the biggest foreign policy challenge of the Cold War was struggle over nuclear weapons.
Do you still have a day job? How do you fit writing into your daily life?
I own my own business (real estate related) but have been able to step back from the day-to-day operations to focus on writing. I try to either write, or work on things related to writing—every day.
Which authors have influenced your own writing? Whose work do you read purely for pleasure?
As a young kid I remember reading Robert Ludlum and Ian Fleming way past my bedtime, hiding under the covers with a flashlight. In my twenties I fell in love with the work of Faulkner and Wallace Stevens. More recently, I’ve spent way too much time reading all of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books and George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series.
You’re one of the first crop of authors to be published by an Amazon imprint. What has that been like? Has the process moved faster than traditional publishing, or do you think it’s much the same? Has anything surprised you?
Getting in near the ground floor of Amazon’s new publishing venture has been exciting and immensely gratifying. The people I’ve worked with clearly care a lot about the books and authors they’re signing.
As for the pace of the process, THE COLONEL’S MISTAKE is my debut novel, so I’m not well equipped to compare my experience to what a traditional publisher might offer. But I can say that my book went through a developmental edit, a copyedit, was proofed, had great cover art designed for it… All that stuff takes time no matter who’s the publisher.
As for surprises, a pleasant one has been the sense of camaraderie that’s developed among Amazon Publishing authors.
What comes next for you and Mark Sava?
I’ve finished a first draft of book two in the Sava series, look for it next year! Meanwhile, I’m off to Kyrgyzstan and Bahrain to research book three of the series—I’ll probably be in one of those places when this interview posts.
Dan Mayland spent years exploring the outer limits of Western civilization and beyond. He has been detained by soldiers in Soviet Czechoslovakia, trekked to remote monasteries in Bhutan and Nepal, explored mosques in Iran and Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, and gone high-altitude mountaineering in Peru and Bolivia. He has written articles for the Iranian.com and his debut spy thriller, THE COLONEL’S MISTAKE, will be released by Thomas & Mercer this August.
To learn more about Dan, please visit his website.