By Keith Raffel
Recently, I sat down with the father and son writing team of Michael and Patrick McMenamin to talk about their debut novel, The De Valera Deception.
How did you come up with the idea of The De Valera Deception?
MICHAEL: I’m a Winston Churchill biographer and scholar, and I’ve always had an interest in Irish history as well. Patrick is a Phi Beta Kappa history major who specialized in 19th and 20th century European history, so we both have an interest in the period where our thrillers occur.
For years, I had talked about writing a thriller series set in Churchill’s “Wilderness Years” from 1929 to 1939. I wanted the first book, set in 1929, to revolve around two historical facts: Churchill’s three-month holiday that summer in North America while at the same time the Graf Zeppelin was making its historical round the world airship flight sponsored by the Hearst media empire.
PATRICK: The rest we sort of pieced together over family dinners whenever we visited each other. (I think it’s fair to say we became a bit of a nuisance at the dinner table for the rest of the family.) We were both familiar with Weimar Germany’s secret military alliance with the USSR during the 1920s which enabled Germany to evade the Versailles Treaty’s limits on arms. This is years before Hitler assumed power. Germany developed in Russia the most modern weapons systems in Europe–planes, tanks, artillery, poison gas–and the Allies were none the wiser. The goal of the alliance was to invade Poland and divide it between them. That’s all historical fact.
MICHAEL: And that’s how we were able to work in the Irish angle, which forms the core of our story. We created a conspiracy of arms makers and financiers backing this real-life military alliance. If there was an invasion of Poland, they would want to distract Britain from getting involved in a general European conflict. So, they determined to finance an IRA coup d’état in the new Irish Free State which would inevitably lead to war with Northern Ireland and Britain. De Valera, for his own reasons, was happy to help.
How does Churchill fit in?
PATRICK: When MI-6 hears rumors of the IRA arms deal brewing in America as a necessary prelude to the coup d’état, the new British Prime Minister asks the newly out-of-office Churchill to accompany a team of MI-6 agents to America and use the information they assemble to persuade President Hoover to stop the arms deal. Churchill agrees but he mistrusts MI-6 and assembles his own team which includes Bourke Cockran, Jr., a former US Army counterintelligence officer (and the fictional son of Churchill’s real-life Irish-American political mentor) and Mattie McGary, a Hearst photojournalist (and Churchill’s fictional god-daughter). While Churchill travels by private rail car across Canada, Cockran and Mattie travel across America–at first apart and then together–to gather at considerable peril the information Churchill needs to persuade President Hoover to intervene and stop the arms from reaching the IRA. And as they do that, the Graf Zeppelin, on its round the world flight, is drawing ever closer to California carrying gold bearer bonds to complete the IRA’s arms purchase…
I myself have dozens of books by and about Churchill on my shelves at home. How do you get a new take on such a well-documented life?
MICHAEL: Well, the short answer is that we get a “new take” because we make it all up. The long answer is more complicated.
PATRICK: I’ll take the short answer. My Dad enjoys the long ones. We try and do what Ken Follett did in The Man From St. Petersburg, where Churchill served as the catalyst who enlists the protagonists to foil an anarchist plot in 1914 to assassinate a Russian diplomat and disrupt a budding English-Russian alliance. We use Churchill the same way – launching the protagonists on their adventure and pulling strings along the way both behind the scenes and sometimes in them.
MICHAEL: The long answer is that while Churchill probably has the most-documented life of any historical figure, most people don’t know much about him beyond his saving the world in 1940 when England stood alone against the Nazis.
Churchill is in many ways a perfect historical character around which to craft period thrillers. He had a remarkably adventure-filled life. He was a fencing champion in prep school, a championship polo player in the Army and a seaplane pilot in the early, peril-filled days of flight in 1910. In between, he was a much decorated war hero in bloody battles on the Afghan-Indian border and in the Sudan. In the Boer war in South Africa, he was nominated by his commanding officer for the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military honor. He also escaped from a Boer prisoner of war camp and made his way to freedom over hundreds of miles of enemy territory. During the Great War, while other politicians safely abed sent millions of young men to their death, Winston was with his troops in the trenches in the bloody Ypres salient daily risking death himself.
So how we get a new take on Churchill is to create a plot based on something that might have happened in the 30s; toss him into the middle of it; and ask “What would Winston do?” Which, as Patrick noted, is just what Follett did in The Man From St. Petersburg.
Tolstoy, of course, seems to have done okay in blending historical and fictional characters. What are the challenges you found?
MICHAEL: Wow, Tolstoy? Keep in mind these are historical thrillers, not historical novels, so we try to keep the background accurate for our stories which otherwise never happened. One key way is to make sure your historical characters stay within themselves. To do this, I read biographies of all those with major speaking roles, e.g., Churchill, Hearst, Hitler, Hoover, De Valera, John Devoy etc. because we don’t want the historical character to say or do something in a purely fictional scene that would be out of character. At the same time, we want to make sure he fills the role we have for him in the plot. Herbert Hoover, for example, would never swear, even in private, so he doesn’t in our book. Similarly, the Irish revolutionary John Devoy damn well would have and his “colorful” descriptions of his arch foe De Valera are not out of character.
How do you handle Churchill’s “black dog” in your book?
MICHAEL: We don’t because it’s a myth. Churchill did refer to periods when he was down in the dumps as a “black dog” but that was a common term in the late 19th century, one he probably first heard from his nanny. My wife (and Patrick’s artist mother), Carol Breckenridge, a psychotherapist and an adjunct professor of Art Therapy, is glad you asked because she believes writers who do not understand mental illness have taken “black dog” to mean clinical depression, i.e., bi-polar disorder, which is simply not true of Churchill.
As Churchill’s daughter Mary Soames once told Carol, she thinks a number of Churchill biographers “have made too big a meal” of Churchill’s “black dog”. When he was down, as all of us are from time to time, there was always something external as a cause, she said, and she suggest a person would have had to be almost inhuman not to have been down at these times.
In fact, Carol was so taken by my fascination with Churchill…
PATRICK: Mom would call it an obsession …
MICHAEL: Which reminds me that Churchill hated having a monologue interrupted…. Anyway, Carol once prepared and delivered a peer-reviewed paper to the American Art Therapy Association on “The Use of Art as Therapy: How Churchill Coped” in which she demonstrates that Churchill was not bi-polar and diagnosed him in his youth as having ADD, attention-deficit disorder, which afflicts many bright young people (raise your hand, Patrick). If Churchill carried ADD into adulthood, Carol suggests that his painting (he was an undeniably gifted impressionist producing over 500 oil paintings after the age of 40) was one of his methods of coping with ADD.
Churchill’s mother was born in Rochester, New York. Much of the action in The De Valera Deception takes place in the United States. Just how American was Churchill?
PATRICK: Very. To begin with, Churchill’s only political and oratorical mentor was an American, Bourke Cockran, and my Dad has written a great book, Becoming Winston Churchill, about their relationship. Most of Churchill’s detractors, of whom there was no shortage especially among Conservatives, referred to his American origins disparagingly, e.g., calling him a “half-breed adventurer.” And Winston was a very pushy, self-promoting young man in an upper-class British culture that did not value and looked down on such traits. From WWII on, Churchill has been more revered in the US than in the UK. He still is.
Two terrific series have been written by “Charles Todd,” who is in fact a mother and son writing together. What’s it like for you two, father and son, to collaborate? Come on now, a straight, no-holds-barred answer.
MICHAEL: We also like the two “Charles Todd” series and I met the mother half of the team at the last ThrillerFest. More importantly, we’re both big fans of the Indiana Jones films and Young Indiana Jones (a much under-rated TV series) so it’s fun to write novels together in that era where Nazis are always the villains (but we have any number of good guy Germans too ) . We’re having a great time. Really.
PATRICK: It’s true. Honestly, we only write the books because it’s fun to write them together.
MICHAEL: No-holds-barred, though. We come up with a book concept jointly…
PATRICK: Well, hang on. You said “no holds barred” and my dad is being uncharacteristically modest. I’d credit him with most of the initial inspiration for each book. I really like thrillers, but I don’t read nearly as many as Dad. (Too many Sci-Fi/Fantasy books on my plate.) He really has a nose for this stuff. Once he has an idea, it gives me about five other ideas for plot lines and then we really start talking.
MICHAEL: And I try so hard not to be modest. But Patrick is correct in that I usually come up with what he calls “the initial inspiration” but I don’t think we have an actual “concept” until after we bat it around. Anyway, I then do a first draft of a chapter by chapter outline, 100-130 pages. We pass it back and forth until we’re satisfied. Then Patrick takes one of the major characters and drafts the chapters within that character’s story arc while I do the other chapters.
PATRICK: Then we edit each other’s chapters so many times, that when you read the book, you aren’t able to tell which chapters were initially drafted by whom unless we tell you.
MICHAEL: Which we won’t.
PATRICK: Also, we’re both libertarians. Dad is a contributing editor at Reason and I’m a producer for John Stossel at Fox, so we have similar views on politics, economics and history which helps keep us on the same page. Of course, we do have disagreements. And from my perspective, Dad’s training as a lawyer can make some arguments especially tedious! But the fact we have a long history together and love each other helps smooth things out.
MICHAEL: Well, I was a media defense lawyer in my previous life and dealing with journalists is no walk in the park either. But, defending them was a decent living so I have no complaints. So that and living in different cities where Patrick and I can’t see our facial expressions when we talk helps. When we can’t persuade each other, we typically compromise along the lines of the one who did the initial draft of a chapter usually gets the last word.
Do readers have to remember who De Valera was for the title to make sense?
MICHAEL: As opposed to the book? No, not at all. You learn all you need to know about the underlying Irish politics–the Treaty negotiated by Churchill and Michael Collins which created the Irish Free State in 1922, the Irish Civil War in 1922-23, the IRA and De Valera later in the 20s–from characters’ dialogue and internal monologue.
PATRICK: But I don’t think it affects the title, no more than a Steve Berry title or most other thrillers. Once you get into the book, the title will make sense. Dad is a big fan of Robert Ludlum titles and alliteration so our first three books in the Churchill series reflect that. Ludlum fans will recognize “Deception”, “Parsifal” and “Gemini” as part of Ludlum titles. Sort of an homage.
MICHAEL: It is an homage and all thriller writers owe him a huge debt. Patrick is tolerant of my Ludlum title affectation and uses this to extract what he considers to be more important concessions when we disagree.
Enigma Books is publishing The De Valera Deception. How did you find them and what’s it like working with them?
MICHAEL: Actually, Enigma found us when they bought the trade paperback rights from Greenwood, then a division of Harcourt, for my 2007 Becoming Winston Churchill, The Untold Story of Young Winston and His American Mentor (“BWC”) which they published in July, 2009. As I like to say, it was critically acclaimed but, alas, not best selling. As we mentioned above, Bourke Cockran was Churchill’s mentor (and his mother Jennie’s lover) and his fictional son is our male protagonist in the Churchill Thriller series, Archie Goodwin to Winston’s Nero Wolfe.
More to the point, Enigma is a small NYC publisher which specializes in 20th century history and biography and has published nearly 50 titles since its founding in 2000. In 2008, they started an Enigma Thriller line of historical novels with three out by the time they took on BWC. I became friends with Enigma’s publisher, Robert Miller, after I came to NYC quite a few times to talk about the book for events that Enigma arranged. Publishers like that in a writer.
PATRICK: So when Robert learned we had written not one but three Winston Churchill thrillers (the first two of which our agents got read–and rejected–by many well-known publishers), he offered to publish all three in hard cover over an 18 month time frame, a trilogy which takes Winston through 1932 with Hitler on the cusp of power! Clearly, Robert is a very wise man. Talk about an offer you can’t refuse…
Working with Enigma has been good so far. We have a great cover design team with Josh Beatman at Brainchild Studios in NYC. We just love the De Valera cover, with the zeppelin soaring over the 1930s NYC skyline and a 50-something Churchill hovering above. Brilliant!
MICHAEL: We’re the lead book on Enigma’s website and it’s nice to be a big fish in a small pond. Plus we’ve got a brand beyond our unknown names (www.winstonchurchillthrillers.com) and if our books are good enough, we hope word-of-mouth will carry us.
What’s next for the future prime minister and his friend Bourke Cockran, Jr.?
PATRICK: Don’t forget Hearst’s favorite photojournalist and Winston’s fictional god-daughter Mattie McGary. She features prominently in the series as our female protagonist.
MICHAEL: Yes, don’t forget her. Patrick hates it when I do this but I channel Maureen O’Hara, Katherine Hepburn, and Karen Allen when I write Mattie’s chapters and you don’t want to be on wrong side of women like that. Mattie’s the main character in the next book in the series, The Parsifal Pursuit (Spring, 2011). It’s a blatant cribbing of the plot in Wagner’s opera Parsifal where Mattie takes the traditional male role of Parsifal. She’s assigned to cover an expedition to recover the “Spear of Destiny” hidden in the Austrian Alps while minions of both the Kaiser and Hitler vie to find it first. (Yes, there really is a spear of destiny which Hitler finally seized in 1938 along with the rest of Austria. It’s now safely back in Vienna where I saw it last year.) At the same time, Cockran tangles with an SS protection racket in Munich whose story line eventually converges with Mattie’s.
PATRICK: The next Mattie-Bourke adventure after that is The Gemini Agenda (Fall,2011) where Cockran and Mattie expose the true horror of a Eugenics movement that saw 26 US states forcibly sterilize nearly 50,000 women to advance the cause of racial purity before a pre-Hitler Germany had yet to sterilize one. And the movement was substantially financed by American capitalists, e.g., the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Institute. In fact, when Hitler came to power, he had Germany enact a eugenics law identical to the model US law. In Gemini, Mattie and Bourke uncover a conspiracy by Nazi scientists to kidnap and conduct lethal experiments upon American twins aided by elements in the Military Intelligence Division (the CIA of its day) of the US Army and funded by US industrialists.
MICHAEL: The fourth book–working title The Berghof Betrayal–is set in February, 1933 and concerns the attempted assassinations of FDR ( it really happened) and Hitler where a fake assassination attempt (rumors of one were circulating then in Berlin) staged by the SS is hijacked and turned into a real one by Hitler’s enemies, some of them inside the Nazi party (yes, he had them). It’s the first book in a new trilogy. Where our first trilogy is set against the backdrop of Hitler’s rise to power from 1929-1932, our second trilogy will take our heroes through the summer of 1934 and the “Night of the Long Knives” when Hitler rid himself of his enemies within the Nazi party and consolidated his power.