By Jeremy Burns
In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and discovered America—or did he? What if Vikings, led by the famous adventurer Leif Eriksson, were in fact the first Europeans to discover the New World five centuries before Columbus’s voyage?
This is the question posed by award-winning author and former congressman Robert J. Mrazek in his new thriller, VALHALLA, a globe-spanning adventure steeped in history, legend, and myth. Mrazek sat down with THE BIG THRILL to talk about his fascinating new book, its creation, and some cool tidbits about himself.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I don’t know how many former members of congress ever decided to become working novelists. Looking back on my life, I believe I was a writer who became a politician, rather than a congressman who eventually turned to writing fiction as a second profession.
Like I’ve read about you, I’ve been reading and writing stories since I was a small boy, and enjoyed pursuing creative writing all through college. In 1968, I was placed on the disabled-retired list by the Navy following a training accident at Officer’s Candidate School. I had spent two months in Newport Naval Hospital, sharing a ward with badly wounded Marines who had been evacuated from Vietnam.
After seeing first hand part of the human cost of the war in Vietnam, I was deeply disheartened, and decided to leave the country to attend the London Film School. Within five months, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated. Suddenly, my goal of writing fiction and making films seemed trivial compared to the convulsive upheaval that was taking place at home.
My anger over the Vietnam War and its aftermath carried me a long way in politics. But I never stopped writing. With four novels and three non-fiction books now published since leaving public life, I’m as proud of the awards that my books have received as the legislation I authored in congress.
If you’re a masochist, here is the Wikipedia link for some of the congressional work.
Tell us about your new book, VALHALLA.
VALHALLA tells the story of an intrepid expedition to the Greenland Ice Cap to recover a lost World War II bomber. The team ends up discovering far more than they bargained for. It is the first in a series that introduces a female archaeologist and a retired air force pilot as the principal seekers of truth.
What sort of response have you seen for VALHALLA thus far?
It’s still too early to tell after a couple weeks. This is the first time I have had a book come out as a mass market paperback original. So far the reviews have been good. A reviewer for Suspense Magazine wrote, “This author shines. With a huge dose of action, adventure, and a thrilling pace that will take the breath away, the depth of Norse mythology on top of everything else, makes this novel an incredible treasure.” My mother might have written that. I saw that on Goodreads there were twenty-five solid reviews. As you probably have found, when you send one of these babies out into the world, you hope it will do well, but the publishing world is obviously in a state of fundamental transition and it’s always a proverbial crap shoot. I just keep working and hope for the best.
What was your initial inspiration for VALHALLA? How did the story’s premise develop through the early days of your writing process?
I have written big chunks of my books at my home on Monhegan Island in Maine. It is fairly remote, about twelve miles off the mainland. When I first bought my place in 1984, there was no electricity and one phone down at the island store. It is the most inspirational place I have ever lived. One slows down to the rhythms of the sea and the sky here. No bars, cars, tennis courts, or golf courses. Just amazing beauty that drew the likes of W. Homer, Hopper, Kent, Bellowes, Henri, the Wyeths. Today, for example, we have an old fashioned nor’easter to savor, with horizontal rain driven by fifty-mph gusts and a raging sea. Great writing weather as long as you’re inside by the fire. Anyway, I used to look over at the smaller island that is adjacent to Monhegan. It’s called Manana, and ever since Captain John Smith put the first settlement here in 1614 (we celebrated the quadricentennial this summer), historians have pored over the stone etchings on part of the rock face of Manana and debated if they were rune markings left by the Vikings in the eleventh century. That got my imagination in gear some years ago. What if Leif Eriksson’s burial tomb was over there after he disappeared in 1016? How did he get there? What would it mean for our nation’s history if the evidence was established that he got here five hundred years before Columbus? A major archaeological discovery, if true. That’s what started me on my first contemporary thriller.
How closely do you tend to stay to established historical/archeological/geographical facts when writing your novels?
I try to be completely accurate as far as the events that actually took place in the backdrop of the story I’m writing. I try to put the reader there with my characters, allowing them to experience the same sense of mood, time, and place.
What are some of the ways you’ve conducted research for this novel? Any interesting stories there?
I didn’t need to do a lot of research for the contemporary aspects of VALHALLA. I knew the Washington landscape quite well from all my years living and working there. I did a lot of intensive reading about the early Norsemen, focusing on the lives of Erik the Red and his son Leif Eriksson, along with subjects like the rune language and how it evolved, their navigational methods, and their lifestyle.
How much of yourself do you put in your characters? With which character in VALHALLA do you most identify?
It’s probably different with each book. I started out wanting to write about positive values like courage, honor, and sacrifice, qualities that are sometimes in short supply. One aspires to those things and I have attempted to imbue my lead characters with these endowments. In VALHALLA, I have a very strong heroine and a very brave retired air force officer. The character I probably identify with most is the heroine’s mentor, the archaeologist Barnaby Finchem. Like him, I’m in my late sixties and take life on my own terms, living it the way I choose. All I’m lacking is his brilliance, fearlessness, and bank account.
Which character was the most fun for you to write? Why?
There were a number of subsidiary characters I enjoyed creating: a charter boat captain named Mike Grubb and a descendant of the Norsemen named Chris Pakkala who dies well. Also a cynical semi-retired gay CIA operative named Tommy Somervell. The supporting cast is so important in a thriller.
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?
I have a pretty good idea of my skeletal structure of the book. Of course a lot of couch time goes into fleshing everything out.
Other than VALHALLA, what is your favorite book that you have written?
I would suppose it’s a non-fiction book I wrote called A Dawn Like Thunder: The True Story of Torpedo Squadron Eight. One of my inspirations for writing it was Wouk’s Winds of War series. He actually stopped the novel to write about what the men in this squadron did in sacrificing their lives to help with the Battle of Midway. It took me four years to research and write the story and it was the most satisfying time I’ve enjoyed as a writer. It was a privilege to get to know some of the men who were part of it.
What is your favorite book by another author? Why?
Tough one. There are so many finalists and the list tends to change. Remarque’s Arch of Triumph, Portis’s True Grit, Shaara’s Killer Angels, Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, would be on the list. For thrillers the master for me was Lionel Davidson.
What is your favorite travel destination? Why?
Monhegan Island, Maine. I have traveled all over the world and it is still the most beautiful place I have ever visited.
If you could have dinner with any one person, dead or alive, who would it be and what would you talk about?
Marilyn Monroe to convince her that life was worth going on.
What is your favorite period in history (get as specific as you want, e.g., country, reign of King X, et cetera)? If given the opportunity to time travel there, would you go? Why or why not?
It would be the White House from 1941 to 1945. I’m still consumed by WWII, primarily because I believe it was the most important time in human history in which two dictatorships bent on enslaving the rest of the world almost succeeded until the rest of the world came together to defeat them. I’m endlessly fascinated by the leadership of FDR and Churchill in mobilizing the civilized world to take on the challenge.
If you had the opportunity to freely explore any secure location (palaces, bunkers, secret bases, corporate headquarters, abandoned sites) from anywhere in the world, where would you go and what would you do?
I’m not aware of any that hold the kind of secrets I would find fascinating. Like whether there have been any genuine UFO incidents.
What do you find most rewarding about writing?
It gives me great satisfaction to write books that give readers pleasure, just as I have enjoyed that pleasure from the writers I have admired. I started going to the library by myself at five or six (small town) and have lived in my imagination ever since.
What is one thing that would surprise your fans about you or your writing process?
Not surprisingly it would be the self-discipline to keep writing and getting better. Otherwise, there isn’t anything surprising. Like you and my other peers, I look to get better with each book.
What advice would you give to new or aspiring authors who look up to you?
I’m reminded of a letter Raymond Chandler wrote to a woman asking him to help her son become a successful writer. It made me laugh and I have it pinned on the wall of my writing lair. He wrote back, “Dear Mrs. Hogan, My experience with trying to help people to write has been limited but extremely intensive. I have done everything from giving would-be writers money to live on to plotting and re-writing their stories for them, and so far I have found it all to be a waste. The people whom God or nature intended to be writers find their own answers, and those who have to ask are impossible to help. They are merely people who want to be writers.”
My own view is not so harsh. I think the only thing that separates a good storyteller from a good book is the self-discipline to sit in front of the word processor every day and tap one’s imagination. It’s there if you have the patience to mine it.
What can we expect next from you, and where can readers go to hear the latest news?
I spent the last year writing and co-directing a feature film called THE CONGRESSMAN. It was something I always wanted to try since my days at the London Film School and I like to think it is an entertaining story with a serious message.
A former five term Congressman, Bob Mrazek has written six books including Stonewall’s Gold, the winner of the Michael Shaara prize for best CW fiction of 1999, and A Dawn Like Thunder: The True Story of Torpedo Squadron Eight, which was named Best Book (American History) by the Washington Post.
To learn more about Bob, please visit his website.