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By Milton C. Toby

We all wonder from time to time what the CIA, the NSA, and the other alphabet-soup intelligence agencies are really up to.  Author Keith Raffel knows, but he’s not telling.  Not exactly, anyway.  But he admits that his time in Washington as Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence greatly influenced his latest thriller, Drop By Drop.  Some of the novel’s characters are amalgams of Washington powerbrokers Raffel got to know, and the author’s Top Secret clearance gave him an insight few of us share.

“I worked for a Wall Street firm during the summer when I was in law school,” Raffel said, “and I didn’t like it.  I was an idealistic kind of guy, so I decided to go to Washington D.C. and make the world a better place.  I got a job with the Senate Intelligence Committee, the third lawyer in line.  Within nine months, the top two lawyers quit, so there I was.”  The job involved oversight of the agencies and their budgets, along with work on legislation to regulate the country’s intelligence activities.  It was heady work for a new lawyer just out of school.

Four years later, though, disillusioned with Washington and some of the people in government who were “going along with things they knew were wrong,” Raffel returned to California and mounted an unsuccessful run for Congress.  “It was like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute,” Raffel recalled of his campaign.  “It was a great ride, but what you remember is the ending.”

He supported himself as a professional gambler for a while, betting mainly on horse racing, before landing a job in Silicon Valley.

“I loved the work,” he recalled, “but I was getting bored.  I was leafing through a college catalog one day and I came across an offering in mystery writing.  I took the course and liked it.  I was still bored with my day job, so I quit and did what everyone in Silicon Valley was doing in those days—I started my own company.”  Raffle also started writing.  His first two novels, dot.dead and Smasher, were set in Silicon Valley (underused, but nevertheless a “great site for mysteries and thrillers,” Raffel explained) and both books drew a string of rave reviews.

Drop By Drop, a political thriller, is set in Washington.  The protagonist, California college professor Sam Rockman, winds up working for the Senate Intelligence Committee after his wife is killed in a terrorist bombing.

“What Sam wants out of his stint in D.C. is revenge for the death of his wife,” Raffel explained on his web site.  “What he gets is danger and betrayal. Secret documents are showing up on his doorstep. Russians are trying to poison him. A renegade CIA asset is strewing nuclear materials up and down Interstate 95. Sam finds allies among a savvy Kentucky senator, a billionaire investment banker, his wife’s old rabbi, and the president’s national security advisor. Too often, he finds himself thrown together with his counterpart on the other side of the aisle, the whip-smart, six-footer Cecilia Plant. Mourning still for his wife, Sam steels himself against Cecilia’s appeal and remains suspicious of her motives.”

Raffel compared writing Drop by Drop to an exercise in intellectual time travel.

“I knew I wanted to draw on my years in Washington for the book,” Raffel said, “but I was afraid that I couldn’t recreate the atmosphere.  I like to go to a local café to write. I’m like Norm in Cheers—they know me there.  The first time I slipped on my Bose noise cancelling headphones and started writing, I found myself back in Washington.”

Drop By Drop is being released as an ebook original, which might sound like a risky move for an author who already has a successful track record taking a traditional approach with his previous novels.  But the ebook strategy seems like a natural fit for a Silicon Valley author and entrepreneur, and Raffel is excited about the prospects.

“It’s a controlled experiment,” the author said.  “Drop By Drop is coming out as an ebook at the same time that my agent has another book out to more traditional publishers.  We’re still waiting to hear about that novel, an historical thriller.  But it will be interesting to compare results for the two.  There are a lot of terrific things about ebooks, especially the instant gratification and the availability of immediate sales statistics.

Raffel has some advice for writers:

“There’s an old saying, ‘don’t get it right, get it written.’  This doesn’t mean you can ignore the details.  It just means that you have to satisfy yourself first.  I’ll send the first 30 pages to my agent and ask, ‘Is this a book?’  If the answer is ‘yes,’ I start writing and no one sees the book until I’m finished with the first draft.  You need forward progress.

“Then there’s the on-going controversy about outlining.  If outlining works for you, then that’s the right answer.  I don’t use an outline.  When I write, I want to move to a different world and I want to be surprised by what happens there.”

To learn more about Keith Raffel, please visit his website.

Milton C. Toby