By J. N. Duncan
I would like to welcome Michael Pocalyko to this month’s ITW Bulletin, whose debut thriller, THE NAVIGATOR, hits the shelves in June. It’s not often than an author gets to bring so much real world experience to the table when writing big thrills, but Mr. Pocalyko is a retired Naval Commander, former politician, CEO of an investment company, and is able to incorporate all of his background into an intense, action-packed thrill-ride that delves into the human psyche as much as the complexities and intrigue of politics and big business. On that note, let’s get to the good stuff and see what Michael has to say about writing and his new book.
THE NAVIGATOR covers a lot of themes. How much of this was planned before writing and how much was a consequence of just coming out in the story?
When I started writing this novel, I did have only a few major themes in mind. They’re the ones that are most evident in the finished work. How the past intrudes on our lives. The confluence of big data, big business, big technology, big government, big regulation, and big finance. Fathers, sons, and brothers. PTSD. As my writing progressed, some of the other more subtle themes began to take shape. The Cold War, for example, the Mafia subplot, Rick and Julia’s rekindling romance and their relationship as ex-spouses, or the emergence of the mysterious Israeli connection and Arab honor. Those themes definitely emerged only during the writing. I wouldn’t say that they were exactly unplanned, but they truly took on their own life and voice as this book took form. What I wanted to do more than anything was to portray the complexity and interconnectedness of our modern world, and that thrillers can be intelligent, illuminating, literary, and take on major issues.
You have an incredible amount of relevant background: military, business, politics. You likely could’ve written something non-fiction to cover some of the central themes and topics in this story. So, why write a thriller?
There are moments, and there are issues, for which fiction is the best way to tell powerful truth. That’s the main reason, but there’s one other that compelled me in this direction. I’ve been active in the policy and the commercial worlds for decades now. I’ve published widely and made a lot of observations. One of the most important verities is that it’s most likely that you will get lost in the noise, even if you write a great and enduring nonfiction book. Have you ever heard of Robert Pozen’s TOO BIG TO SAVE? How about Blythe McGarvie’s SHAKING THE GLOBE? Both of them are superlative, influential, important books. They should enjoy a wide general readership, but unfortunately that’s not the case. I wrote a thriller because it elevates the themes that I care about, and frankly because this is the most convincing form the novel takes at this moment in history.
There are a couple of other personal reasons, too. Stephen Frey is a friend of mine and my business partner going back to the mid-nineties. He encouraged me to write a financial thriller by simply saying, “Mike, you can do this, and you should.” Now Steve and I write very different kinds of books. In this sub-genre he is the absolute master,in my judgment. Finally, I’ve been writing fiction my whole life. Although THE NAVIGATOR is my first published novel, I wrote my first novel when I was 21—I told the story on Algonquin Redux—and wrote another one, a political conspiracy,about fifteen years ago. My first novel demonstrates what everyone should do when motivated to be a novelist in college: Write the book, put it in a box, and move on having learned from it. Writing the second one convinced me that I really could sustain a 117,000 word book—that’s the length of THE NAVIGATOR. As an undergraduate in college I wanted to be a novelist. This book is indeed a return to one of my first passions. Only I am much better now at, well, knowing what I’m talking about.
The press states that this is a debut, but I see that your author bio says that your literary debut was in 1977. Obviously, you’ve been a writer for a long time, even if the books haven’t hit the shelves for the past 35 years. Would you mind illuminating us a bit on your history as a writer?
That literary debut in 1977 was a book of literary criticism with the academic-sounding title A JOHN HAWKES SYMPOSIUM: DESIGN AND DEBRIS. I was its co-editor and a contributor. The book was incredibly well-received, but of course it didn’t make a dime. It gets referenced all of the time, and I still hear from people writing their doctoral dissertations on Hawkes’ work. Jack Hawkes was a friend of mine and encouraged me at a very young age to write fiction—and there are dozens of great writers who can say the same thing. His publisher James Laughlin, the founder of New Directions, was a giant of literature in the twentieth century. He published my first book and was an incredibly influential mentor early on in my writing life. I was fortunate. I got to know a whole host of literary luminaries in New York the mid-1970s.
I probably had a path to a literary life. But I took the other, just as fair, as Frost wrote. I embarked on a wonderful career as a naval officer, then Washington policy professional, politician, and businessman. I never looked back. The important point is that I never stopped writing and publishing consistently and often. While I was in the Navy my work was mostly in the essay form, opinions, reviews, expository writing. I published a whole lot on arms control and international affairs. Later, when I went into banking, I shifted to writing about economics and the machinations of deals and corporate boardrooms, my natural habitat for the last 18 years. Some of that experience is fictionalized in THE NAVIGATOR.For me, this novel is the one place where the harmonies of a long writing life have now come together.
You touch on psychological, global-business, and political issues in your story. Which of these do you find most compelling as a writer?
No contest. The psychological issues are the most compelling. Without giving away any spoilers, there is an unusual literary convention that I’ve employed in THE NAVIGATOR. I’ve attempted to show how psychological wounds, combat trauma, visit on the next generation. The prologue to THE NAVIGATOR has gotten a lot of play in advance of the book’s publication, mostly because of how dark and disturbing it is. We witness up-close in his point of view the psychological decomposition and breakdown of a very good man. Something horrible happens to the 20-year-old navigator in that death camp, only at this point in the novel we don’t know exactly what. We only know that it’s horrible. Then, wham! We’re in Washington and New York in the present day, caught up in blazing fast action, wondering just what that opening story could possibly have to do with the developing story. It’s only later, with a number of slow-reveals and thriller “stingers” that we find out how that incident and its effects are the genesis of everything. The psychological backstory, through the emergence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), literally compels all of the other action. It’s a way of eliciting a major theme in the novel: The past is never really the past, even if it’s not your own past. And once again, I believe that only the thriller form can best showcase that theme.
THE NAVIGATOR has a vast array of characters and subplots. Did you have any particular favorites, ones you couldn’t wait to get back to when writing the story?
I loved writing Horvath, the bad guy, which you know the instant you meet him in chapter three. Often, even in really great thrillers, the bad guys can come across as a bit one-dimensional. I wanted to avoid that pitfall, and I had some real fun creating Horvath. Every time he does something, you learn a little bit more about him. Those pieces coalesce and eventually fold into the narrative late in the book. Whenever I was writing him, the composition came easily and quickly. He’s a fairly simple man acting with a fairly simple motive, but his story and thoughts—as the narrative shifts to his point of view—are written to be disarmingly complex, interesting. History has moved on past him. He’s an old Hungarian communist from the other side of the Cold War. So he’s naturally an atheist, but he wonders whether intellectually allowing for the possible existence of deity makes him a shitty atheist. When he guiltlessly kills, he doesn’t look back so as to keep his fundamental humanity intact. Horvath is a real piece of work. I don’t like him—nobody should—but he was an absolute guilty-pleasure joy to write.
You’ve accomplished a great deal in your life outside of writing: three degrees, Navy pilot, company CEO, politician; what brings you to writing fiction?
I had a story to tell. After the financial crisis I had more time to write. Motive and opportunity. It’s just about that simple.
There appears to be a great deal of advance promotion for this book. You’re a member of the Macmillan Speakers Bureau. It almost sounds like you’re starting a new business. Can you give us some insight into this non-writing element of being a writer? What has it been like to work with a big publisher giving a big push to your book?
It is exactly like starting a new business, something that I’ve done a lot. The most difficult challenge in book marketing is figuring out what activities undertaken by an author will result in the most actual book sales. In that way being an author is just like being in a business with persistently limited resources. We are all in the midst of the publishing industry’s watershed. Everything is changing, in constant flux. Macmillan is giving THE NAVIGATOR a big launch, and I am very grateful for that, but a lot of my book’s advance is on me. Frankly, that’s the way it should be. The days of a publisher buying a book, editing it, packaging it, aggressively selling it, and then its author basking in the afterglow of success and royalties are over—if they ever existed in the first place. Whether you’re with a Big Six (soon to be Big Five) or any other publisher, an author’s strategic decisions must always be about what sells, not about what makes him or her feel accomplished about being published.
I’m attempting a number of new and unique marketing avenues for THE NAVIGATOR in addition to the well-established methods. I will be at BookExpo America in New York this week signing as a featured author in Macmillan’s big booth—incredibly mindful of what that kind of visibility means for a first novel. I’ll be doing Barnes & Noble in-store signings in Washington and Philadelphia during the launch, along with some favored independent booksellers like the Moravian Book Shop in my home town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Supporting our independents is a moral imperative for every author as far as I’m concerned. But I am also working social media relentlessly, not just for visibility—the mistake that most marketers make—but for carefully targeted results, using some highly proprietary methods migrated from other industries. And there will be some other groundbreaking events and mediagenic opportunities in New York and elsewhere over the summer. My author’s web site is about to go live, and I’ve begun posting updates on Facebook—readers who “like” that page will be privy to a lot of insider information.
Macmillan, its Speakers Bureau, and particularly Tom Doherty Associates, the ferociously independent house within Macmillan that publishes Forge Books, have been phenomenal in their marketing and publicity support. They’ve created a promotional web page dedicated to THE NAVIGATOR with all kinds of materials including a Reader’s Guide for book groups. They have also put up the longest excerpt from the book available anywhere on-line, although there are pieces teasingly available in numerous places including Amazon and B&N.
One of the most important additions to the marketing plan for THE NAVIGATOR is an incredible book trailer by Brian Jackson. He is an amazingly creative and gifted young filmmaker and that short film will give you chills.
There is good reason why the legacy publishers continue. For a newly-established novelist like me, even though I have a public profile outside the publishing industry, a launch by a big publisher gives enormous credibility to my book. You frequently hear the question asked today, “Do we really need publishers to print and distribute books?”Well no, not really. We need publishers, big and small, to distinguish good books, great books, from everything else out there. It’s as Gene Weingarten recently wrote in the WASHINGTON POST: “The Internet makes a published author out of anyone who wants to be, and most of those people are not, say, Saul Bellow.” Actually none of us is in that league. Publishers endure, while Amazon emerges as a major first-line publisher, for the same reason that publishers have existed almost since Gutenberg: to discriminate and select what the market is demanding.
Personally, I’m always interested in other writers’ methods for story development, especially when it involves intricate, complex plotting. How did you go about creating a story where keeping track of everything can be half the battle?
First, I started with a basic story line that was both simple and linear, the ViroSat deal. There’s a new technology, an investment bank financing it, and political interest in regulating it. How the deal gets to closing was my simple narrative. Everything else, the problem, the mystery, all of the people and wonderful complications fueling the narrative, add nuance and complexity. Second, I outlined the story vigorously and often, sub-outlining each chapter as I wrote the novel, so that the framework consistently held together. Third, I kept going back to previously-written sections whenever later action and dialogue affected events and characters’ conversations that happened earlier. Sometimes characters had to be substantively changed in the early part of the novel after they did or said something later in the novel. I found that this happened pretty frequently, especially when I was working at sustaining the classic thriller motif of who’s-the-good-guy-and-who’s-the-bad-guy. Fourth, I isolated myself for about ten days to finish the “coming together” part of the novel, to end it. That was a most important step, to have full concentration on the task at hand, to keep track of all the threads. Fifth and finally, I re-wrote and self-edited the first several drafts quite critically, both on-screen and using red ink on a number of succeeding paper versions of the manuscript. I combined high tech and old school because that’s what works for me.
Many writers work for a living outside of writing. You are in a position that demands a great deal of time and energy. How have you gone about creating the mental and physical space to accomplish the goal of writing a novel, which can be difficult even when writing full-time?
I don’t mean to be snarky with this answer, but I don’t golf. I am very disciplined, a legacy of my Navy days and graduate school. I’m additionally fortunate to have an excellent support structure administratively at work and with a gratifyingly great marriage at home. Our children are grown, so I don’t have the same demanding intensity of family obligations that parents of young kids or high schoolers have. Sustaining a high level of mental energy for writing is actually easier for me when I am involved in intensive financial or corporate governance work than when I am deliberately relaxed and settled into down time. My professional life, like that of most investment bankers, is episodic, deal to deal, project to project, board meeting to board meeting. This structure gives me the opportunity to carve some chunks of time out of my schedule as required, although clients always have to come before writing. As for physical space, I live in northern Virginia and in the Shenandoah Valley, where we have a mountain home. I do a lot of writing there, and that is my down time. The way that I write also helps. I like to be fairly uninterrupted whenever I am composing, creating a first draft. But if I am re-writing, which is most of the hard work in a novel, I find that I can work in between meetings. William Carlos Williams used to write lines of poetry in between seeing patients as a medical doctor. Like him,I am very comfortable setting aside an hour here or there in and among all of the other work that I do.
You’re working at your local bookstore and a customer brings THE NAVIGATOR to you, asking why they should buy this book. What do you tell them?
See that blurb on the front cover? The one by Norb Vonnegut? “Wall Street. Washington. THE NAVIGATOR gives you the smartest, wildest ride of your life.” It’s not hype. Every word is true, and you are going to love this book. It’s the ultimate thriller.
Writers have their favorite authors too, those that inspire their own writing or that simply bring joy for the written word. If you could choose who to shelve your book next to, who would it be? Why?
That would be a long bookshelf. I’ll shorten it to just a few authors. Ernest Hemingway, even though I wouldn’t even bequalified to carry his baitbucket in Key West. A deeply troubled man who led such a magnificently troubled life, he is still the finest novelist of our American literary enterprise, always inspirational, dynamic, tough, and deep. Joseph Conrad, lyrical, disturbing, unsettling, writing themes as universal as Shakespeare with words of crystal lucidity. Umberto Eco, easily the most intellectually amusing and daring practitioner of our craft, even when read in translation. Scott Turow, a friend and our world-class leader of the Authors Guild, who’s done for the legal thriller what I’d love to do for the financial thriller. And Harlan Coben, who richly deserves to be on the New York Times bestseller pinnacle that he consistently occupies, as the best thriller writer of our terribly uneasy age.
Thank you, Michael for taking the time to answer a few questions for the Bulletin. THE NAVIGATOR sounds like a truly amazing thrill for all of us readers.
Michael Pocalyko is CEO of Monticello Capital, a boutique investment bank. He’s been a combat aviator, Navy commander, political candidate, venture capitalist, and global corporate chair. He has degrees from Muhlenberg, Harvard, and Wharton, and lives in northern Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley.
To learn more about Michael, please visit his website.