It is 1992 in Warsaw, Poland, and the communist era has just ended. A series of grisly murders suddenly becomes an international case when it’s feared that the victims may have been couriers smuggling nuclear material out of the defunct Soviet Union. The FBI sends an agent to help with the investigation. When he learns that a Russian physicist who designed a portable atomic bomb has disappeared, the race is on to find him—and the bomb—before it ends up in the wrong hands.
1. When and where do you prefer to write?
When I’m not traveling, I’m always at my desk with my office door closed. Even if I am alone in the apartment, I close my door. Same when I’m traveling, I try to create a similar set-up: a room in which I can close myself off. I’m not a writer who can work at a café or a park bench or other public spot. Occasionally I’m forced to by circumstances, and I accomplish something, but it’s not my preference.
2. Do you have a certain ritual?
I used to be a morning person, but when I became a full-time writer, I quickly became a night owl, so much so that for a period I was going to bed at two or three in the morning. That started to feel unhealthy so now I try to be in bed by midnight. The writing life is a lot more than just writing. It’s promoting, researching, editing—enough to fill a day without writing a single word. It’s during the day that I take care of those tasks and all of life’s other stuff. Come sunset or five o’clock, whichever comes earlier, I’m a my desk writing until usually midnight.
3. Is there a drink of some food that keeps you company while you write?
Definitely. Black coffee from the moment I sit down until I start sipping wine at five. Red wine in the winter and white in the summer, except when it’s the hottest. Then like the French, I drink rosé with a cube or two of ice.
4. What is your favourite book?
I’m going to cheat on this one because my answer is actually four books: The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. When I first read the quartet, I loved how the first three books told the same story from radically different perspectives, and the fourth was almost an epilogue, clarifying the real story and wrapping up loose ends.
That multi-perspective approach to telling stories has influenced my work, including The Fourth Courier. Reviewers have commented on how unusual it is for a thriller or murder mystery to tell a story from the perspective of both the good guys and the bad guys. In Durrell’s case, he used whole books to shift POV. In The Fourth Courier, it happens much more rapidly, between chapters and eventually within chapters as the characters’ stories become wound together tighter and tighter.
5. Do you consider writing a different genre in the future?
Not unless a dystopian thriller is considered a different genre. Then I probably will. I already have the story for one. All I will say is that it will be set in Paris.
The literary thriller genre suits me for a couple of reasons. I write what I like to read, and that’s relatively fast-paced stories but not all action, which have depth and verge on literary. So good plotting with good writing. I also like my novels to bring some awareness to an issue of social importance. So I take an event or threat—a thriller plot—and examine what it means through the eyes of the people it involves.
In The Fourth Courier, through a nuclear smuggling operation, I give the reader an insight into how, in 1992 at the very end of the Cold War, families in Poland coped with the country’s collective hangover from communism. In A Vision of Angels, I look at how the lives of four families become interwoven by a suicide bomb plot in Jerusalem. Cooper’s Promise is the story of a soldier’s redemption through a tale about human trafficking. I don’t think another genre would let me entertain and enlighten in the same way.
6. Do you sometimes base your characters on people you know?
Before I answer that, let me call my solicitor! The only answer can be yes. Writers can’t go around making up every aspect of every character, and why should we? People are already interesting enough.
The question is, to what extent do I do it with each individual character? In doing research in Warsaw for The Fourth Courier, I came across a man whose “jaundiced features appeared pinched from a rotting apple.” That brief encounter was the inspiration for my character, Billy. More profoundly, in the two years that I lived in Poland, I became close to several families, and have pieced together my fictional Polish family from them.
I can’t imagine any writer not agreeing that we constantly plumb ourselves, not always consciously, in almost every story and character we create. I can certainly recognize bits of me in my protagonists. When I think about what a character might fear, or how s/he might torture someone, or what s/he might find annoying, of course it has to be organic to how that character has already been portrayed, but I also ask myself: what would I do? Or fear the most?
Cooper’s Promise is a good example of that. Cooper, a deserter from the war in Iraq who’s adrift in a fictitious West African country, would like to go home but can’t because he knows he’ll be thrown in jail—and he’s highly claustrophobic. So am I.
7. Do you take a notebook everywhere in order to write down ideas that pop up?
I kept forgetting the notebook so I stopped.
8. Which genre do you not like at all?
Another cheat on my part. This time it’s a trilogy: fantasy/science fiction/romance.
9. If you had the chance to co-write a book, whom would it be with?
Hannah Kent. Her novel, Burial Rites, is stunning. Set in the late 1800s in Iceland, it’s an historical murder mystery (which The Fourth Courier is as well, though much more
modern history). I loved how she created her story’s world and how authentic it felt. I still shiver when I think about the cold. I loved her main character and how sensitively she was developed, though she might be a murderess. Her whole sense and use of language is beautiful. I strive for the same qualities in my own work.
10.If you should travel to a foreign country to do research, which one would you chose and why?
Well, it’s probably pretty clear that I have already traveled a lot, and all of my novels have been set in foreign locations. In fact, I’ve been to 112 countries, and when I still worked (as a finance advisor on low-income projects), I worked in 33 of them. But I only write about places where I’ve lived a couple of years or otherwise know very well.
I’ve already started a new novel set in Istanbul about a Syrian refugee recruited by the CIA. I’ve known Istanbul since 1973, though not especially well, and I’ve gone a couple of times recently to develop my story. It might seem odd that I feel confident making my protagonist a Syrian, but I did a lot of work with refugees arriving in Greece 2015-2017, and I’ve spent a lot of time in the Arab world. I’m gambling I can write that character convincingly. At least so far, so good!
Thank you, Timothy Jay Smith and Love Books Group Tours
About the author
Raised crisscrossing America pulling a small green trailer behind the family car, Timothy Jay Smith developed a ceaseless wanderlust that has taken him
around the world many times. Polish cops and Greek fishermen, mercenaries and arms dealers, child prostitutes and wannabe terrorists, Indian Chiefs and
Indian tailors: he hung with them all in an unparalleled international career that saw him smuggle banned plays from behind the Iron Curtain, maneuver through
Occupied Territories, represent the U.S. at the highest levels of foreign governments, and stowaway aboard a “devil’s barge” for a three-days crossing from Cape Verde that landed him in an African jail.
These experiences explain the unique breadth and sensibility of Tim’s work, for which he’s won top honors. Fire on the Island won the Gold Medal in the 2017 Faulkner-Wisdom Competition for the Novel. He won the Paris Prize for Fiction (now the Paris Literary Prize) for his novel, A Vision of Angels. Kirkus Reviews called Cooper’s Promise “literary dynamite” and selected it as one of the Best Books of 2012. Tim was nominated for the 2018 Pushcart Prize. His screenplays
have won numerous competitions. His first stage play, How High the Moon, won the prestigious Stanley Drama Award. He is the founder of the Smith Prize for Political Theater.
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