By Jeremy Burns
Every fiction author has a debut novel, and while some authors slowly make their way onto the scene, perfecting their craft and slowly gathering acclaim, debut author Gary Kriss looks poised to launch into the limelight with THE ZODIAC DECEPTION. A journalist, professor, history enthusiast, and magician, Kriss’s intriguing bio has several similarities to that of that of his equally fascinating protagonist, a con man-spy sent to infiltrate Hitler’s inner circle. With THE ZODIAC DECEPTION poised to make a splash this month, Kriss sat down with THE BIG THRILL to give readers a glimpse into his extensive bag of tricks.
Tell us a little about yourself.
Let’s see: I was born in Brooklyn but spent the early part of my life in Tennessee, so in many ways I’m still a transplanted Southerner. Growing up in the South, with its great literary tradition, gave me a love for reading and writing. It also sparked my social consciousness, which, in turn, significantly influenced my own creative endeavors. I started writing for newspapers when I was 11 and pursued this, on and off, for most of my life, largely for The New York Times. I also served my time as a college administrator and as a professor. And since the book involves astrology, I’m a Libra with Capricorn Rising.
Tell us about your new thriller, THE ZODIAC DECEPTION.
If pressed for a logline, it would go something like this:
Espionage, romance, religion and the paranormal collide in 1942 Berlin when the Allies send an American con man, trained by Houdini, to pull off the greatest scam in history: pose as an astrologer, gain the confidence of SS chief Heinrich Himmler by playing on his fascination with the occult, and then persuade him to kill Adolf Hitler.
Besides my con man protagonist, there’s a very strong female character—Hitler’s favorite film director who’s also Gestapo and a tortured cleric known throughout Germany as “Hitler’s priest.” They join a cast that includes highly placed members of the German Resistance and real characters, besides Hitler, Himmler and other prominent Nazis, such as Churchill, Montgomery, Houdini and even Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, who would later become Pope John XXIII.
The story is based on a number of facts and on a very basic premise, which is stated in the preface: “This is a story about how even the smallest good can eventually overcome the greatest evil.” It may sound naïve to some, but maybe the world needs more naïfs and fewer cynics. Besides, often the simpler something seems, the more complex it really is. I hope the novel conveys this in some way.
THE ZODIAC DECEPTION is your debut novel. Tell us about your path to becoming a published author.
To say it was circuitous would be putting it mildly. Many years ago I wrote a novel outline and a few sample chapters—this after even more years of putting it off, which is another story—and, to my surprise it sold for a close-your-eyes-and-gulp advance. I finished it, convinced I was on my way. Unfortunately that way coincided with the take-over of my then-publisher, which led to the jettisoning of a slew of properties, including mine. All my dreams shot. It was enough to sour me on publishing, so I decided to get even by not writing any more novels. The hell with them! They don’t know what they’re missing! Not my most mature moment by any means. But I was resolute, retreating into journalism and self-pity. Sure, I had ideas for other novels, but I resisted converting into words. Martyrs don’t come back from the dead. It ruins the whole effect. So determined was I not to write a novel that I even turned to the dark side and wrote for politicians, a career choice which is several steps below playing piano in a whorehouse. That’s how low I had sunken.
Then one day I woke up, grown up and admitted what others had long known: I was simply avoiding the possibility of again winding up in a painful situation. If I don’t write another novel, I won’t get hurt again. So I returned to something I really wanted to do, even though I had fought it furiously. Once more I wrote a synopsis and a few chapters. And I was extremely fortunate once again: I acquired a wonderful agent, June Clark, and then a terrific editor, Jim Frenkel, took me under his wing, and helped me fill in the pieces I had missed in making the transition from journalist to novelist. He did this even before he bought the book, which is unheard of. As a result, Macmillan, and the legendary Tom Doherty, took a chance on me, and here I am. It’s hard for me to look back and see how many years I wasted spiting no one but myself, but I can’t change the past. And besides, if I kick myself in the ass too much I won’t be able to sit down and finish THE HOUDINI KILLER, the prequel to THE ZODIAC DECEPTION, which is under contract.
Oh, and don’t be surprised if that earlier novel, which is a totally different kind of book, suddenly reappears. Getting published is the best revenge!
What was your initial inspiration for THE ZODIAC DECEPTION? How did the story’s premise develop through the early days of your writing process?
It started out to be a pure horror story with its origins in two Nazi projects: the Lebensborn essentially a program to breed more Aryans by having SS members mate with “acceptable” women; and the experiments Josef Mengele—I won’t dignify him with “doctor”—conducted on twin children in the concentration camps. The book would have carried over to the present day and centered on the ramifications of these projects. But because I had given up trying to be a novelist, for reasons that I explain, I never wrote it. When I returned to novel writing I had changed. I had a different outlook, some of which I’m sure was due to my wife embarking on a second career as a minister. The book had already started to take on a new form and some new characters were emerging. However, something was missing and that something was a moral compass. There was no intentionality to the book and I had come to believe that writing should be “for something.” Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not talking about preaching and I’m not even necessarily talking about imparting “messages.” I am talking about raising questions and enabling thought. And even then I think it should be a subtext: readers needn’t be aware of it but it should be there for those who wish to delve deeper. So I’m not talking wearing these on my writer’s sleeve. But if you’re so disposed to take off my jacket and shirt you’d see them on my arm—in this case the deeper implications of good versus evil. Once I had established that moral compass, I was able to let the book develop knowing that I would be able to keep it on course.
What are some of the ways you’ve conducted research for this novel? Any interesting stories there?
I love research, so much so that I have to be careful, as many novelists do, not to get so immersed in it that I forget to write. I cultivated a good set of research skills in college and when pursuing my doctoral studies, but the Times was really the best proving ground. There you were expected to become an expert in anything related to a story you were covering, enough so that you could hold your own with the real experts. And if you were juggling a few stories at a time, well . . . . It was a daunting and exhilarating experience.
In any event, I tend to be an authenticity addict, despite taking a certain amount of writerly latitude in the book. I gathered as much period material as I could. Maps, guide books, manuals, dictionaries, school books—not just for Germany, but for all the locations and for all the sectors, such as the movie industry and the priesthood, in the book. But obviously the bulk was Nazi-related, and I got to a point that my wife put her foot down, noting our house was beginning to look like the center for Bund meetings. I know Stanley Kubrick would immerse himself in research prior to a project, for example gathering thousands of Napoleon books and artifacts for the film he never made. He created an index card for each day of Napoleon’s life and recorded what happened. I’m not that bad and I certainly wouldn’t have that kind of patience. But I think just being among these objects gives you a feel for the period. It certainly does me and it’s that feel that I hope to convey in the book.
I also drew on the Internet. When I needed various specifics on the Paris Catacombs, I made connections with some cataphiles—people who illegally explore the Catacombs—who measured manhole covers and checked on passageways for me. In the same way, there were trapeze artists who very graciously tested out some feats my protagonist performs to see if they could be done. And, of course, my sister and brother magicians were extremely helpful, especially when it came to assisting me in creating new effects for the book, enough of them that the novel could also pass muster as a magic manuscript.
How much of yourself do you put in your characters? With which character in THE ZODIAC DECEPTION do you most identify?
Those who aren’t actually historical figures start out with some of my DNA, although it may only be trace amounts. Eventually, however, they grow into their own and often take the story in directions I couldn’t have predicted. In a way, creating characters can be a form of self-analysis, at least for me. Consciously or not, we imbue them with traits that we possess or would like to possess. Character creation also allows us—and this is the writers’ affinity for Jung talking—to draw out archetypes from the unconscious, reify them and then engage in a dialogue. My anima informs my female protagonist while my shadow is scattered among some of the fictional Nazis. It’s a unique learning experience and certainly cheaper than psychoanalysis.
I probably identify most with my con man anti-hero, Peter, since he shares many of my tendencies and interests. We’re both polymaths, although his ability to master any matter is in a far different league than mine. Both of us are also practical problem solvers and love the challenge of using whatever’s available to accomplish our goals. Both of us don’t like playing by the rules, although I reluctantly yield much more than Peter ever would. And, ultimately, both of us live—or die—by our words, whether written or spoken. In that sense, we’re both con men. A novelist essentially “scams readers,” getting them to believe that characters and situations are real. In order to do this, we need to pretend we’re something that we’re not, and the better we are at adopting identities, the better the book.
Which character was the most fun for you to write? Why?
Again, Peter was a lot of fun to write for the reasons stated above. And I always love writing strong female characters. Getting into the minds of famous people like Churchill was an unusual and ultimately satisfying experience. However, getting into the mind of, say, Himmler was somewhat disconcerting. There were times it was draining and horrifying. I know how Spock must have felt after some of his mind melds.
When sitting down to write a new book, how much of an outline or plan do you usually create before launching into the first draft?
It depends. I do create a story synopsis of sorts out of discrete chunks of material that often seem to have no relation to one another. I can’t write in a linear fashion. I can’t even read in a linear fashion, unless I force myself and then it’s painful. It’s a function, or dysfunction of my ADD. Linearity diminishes my focus and causes me to lose interest. Instead, I write in modules, jumping around from portion to portion of a book in progress. That pieced-together synopsis serves as a roadmap, but I constantly stray from the given route, relying on my creative GPS to chart new directions for reaching my destination—a finished novel. I love these journeys off the beaten path and the surprises they yield. To me, serendipity is the secret ingredient in a novel and one I believe readers can taste and savor even if they can’t quite identify what it is.
Another way of looking at it is cinematically, where shooting, or better over-shooting is done out of sequence and coherence comes in the cutting room where various scenes are chosen and woven together.
What is your favorite book by another author? Why?
Assuming we’re talking about fiction, my favorite book is whichever one I happen to be reading at any given time. Whether I consider it good or bad, I learn from every book, in terms of things to emulate or to avoid. There are, however, a few books I try to re-read each year. For example, The Bible, which is a magnificent sources of inspiration beyond the spiritual and is suitable for those of any and no faith. A genre novelist could certainly benefit from The Hebrew Bible with its fantastic characters and it’s magnificent plots. Love, war, intrigue, jealousy, mystery, murder . . . you name it, it’s all there and in a form that few if any have been able to equal. On the other hand, The New Testament is a textbook for “literary,” inner-directed fiction.
And I have a weakness for ALICE IN WONDERLAND. Each time I read it yields something new and insightful. Besides being brilliantly composed by someone who didn’t merely know words but lived them, it’s an organic book, one that grows with you as well as on you. At different stages of your life, you see different things in it. It’s both an entertaining and meaningful reading experience from childhood to old age. Not many books can claim that distinction.
What is your favorite travel destination? Why?
If I had to choose a favorite, it would be Nantucket. It’s always been a special place with special for my wife and me. Somehow we just connect with it. Rather than explain it, we just let it happen.
Other than that, we love the White Mountains of New Hampshire and try to get up there as often as we can. And then there’s the Berkshires, which is like a second home for us. My wife was the minister of the Congregational Church in North Adams for a few years and we lived in Williamstown. We have many friends in the area (and keys to their houses!) and I ‘m still a Research Associate at Williams College, so we’re committed Ephs. Actually we run up there every six or eight weeks, spend a day then head back home. It gives our dog Libby a chance to see the herd of cows she had adopted and really misses. We’ve made the trip so often the car drives itself.
If you could have dinner with any one person, dead or alive, who would it be and what would you talk about?
My wife Pat, because she’s the most fascinating person I know. And we wouldn’t have to talk: I could just look at her and appreciate how lucky I really am.
What do you find most rewarding about writing?
So many aspects of writing are rewarding that it’s hard to single one out. For instance, the old teacher in me loves the possibility that readers might learn something new. The performer in me—yes, I actually did magic in preparation for THE ZODIAC DECEPTION and continue to do it as research for THE HOUDINI KILLER—loves the possibility that readers might be entertained and even transported, taken away, at least momentarily, from their everyday problems and concerns. The philosopher in me—my course of study as an undergraduate—loves the possibility that readers might discover something meaningful. The homeowner in me loves that possibility that I might be able to pay the mortgage. As I said, it’s hard to single out one particular aspect.
What is one thing that would surprise readers about you or your writing process?
Probably how systematically chaotic it is. I’m the poster child for filing in vertical stacks and making sure no horizontal surface is allowed to remain clear. Again, this stems from my ADD, which takes the blame for a ton of less than desirable traits but more than makes up for that by what I think it contributes to creativity.
Also, when I’m preparing to do a lengthy stretch of writing—a chapter or involved sequence—I write poetry to remind me that more is less and that a few words, well combined, can convey a tremendous amount of information and meaning. Good lyricists know this—Stephen Sondheim and his mentor Oscar Hammerstein, for example. They also really understand the rhythm of words.
I also throw myself into viewing art and listening to music since I believe strongly in synesthetic creativity. And I do a lot of calculus. Again, because of my ADD I have very little patience, so while I love mathematics I can’t add two and two. The computation aspects bore me silly. So I force myself to do calculus to try to impose some discipline on myself.
It usually doesn’t work.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors who look up to you?
If they look up to me, I would tell them to come to their senses! Failing that, I would tell them about my own journey, which I recounted above, and ask whether they really have the stomach for the business side of writing. Writing is predicated on honesty and to be honest with others you first have to be honest with yourself.
Next I would advise them to learn all the so-called rules. Pick up any book on novel writing—each contains “the rules”—study them, but only follow those that make sense to you. Break all the others. In fact even if you agree with all of them, still break a few if you want to develop a distinctive voice. Read as much as you can to see which rules other authors follow and which they chuck. And make sure you read widely—not just fiction, but non-fiction. You never know what will jog your creativity.
Associate and learn from other writers, especially established ones. Most will be happy to show you their bruises, lest you feel even more alone in what is by definition a lonely endeavor. The members of the International Thriller Writers, which include some of the best-selling novelists of all time, are especially generous in this regard. I could not have gotten this far without their willingness to pay it forward.
Above all remember: writing can’t be taught. It can be sharpened; it can be polished; but it can’t be taught. It’s too personal, too much a part of the individual driven to pursue it. And I use the word “driven” intentionally because if you’re not driven, you’ll become a person who puts words on paper but you’ll never become a writer. Writing, real writing, is, at its core, nothing more, and nothing less than divine madness.
What can we expect next from you, and where can readers go to hear the latest news?
My next novel is THE HOUDINI KILLER, which is a prequel to THE ZODIAC DECEPTION. It takes place largely in The United States between 1918 and 1933 and shows how Peter—or whatever his name is—became such a brilliant con man and much more. It starts with him running away from the orphanage and riding the rails and ends where the first chapter of THE ZODIAC DECEPTION begins. It provides some background for certain parts of THE ZODIAC DECEPTION and will cover a lot of territory including hoodoo and folk medicine, the rise of forensics, the growth of psychoanalysis in America, the development of the blues, spiritualism, revival meetings, carnival life, Some questions that arise in THE ZODIAC DECEPTION will be explained, or at least partially explained. And the thriller/mystery elements, well…
Gary Kriss, a former college professor and an award-winning reporter for the New York Times, was born in Brooklyn and raised in a small town in Eastern Tennessee. Kriss and his wife, Pat, live in a northern suburb of New York City.
For those who want to know more can follow the progress of the book, and find extras for THE ZODIAC DECEPTION on Gary’s website. They can also find him at @garykrisswrites.
If you love history, mystery, and illusions, Gary Kriss’s debut should be a must-buy. Like a master magician’s act, Kriss’s writing will keep readers enthralled as they try, likely unsuccessfully, to guess what will come next.