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Interview: T.H.E. Hill, Author of Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of Monterey Mary

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T.H.E. Hill knows a bit about Army life and all that it entails.  After serving a tour at Herzo Base in the late 1960s, T.H.E. Hill went on to serve with the U.S. Army Security Agency at Field Station Berlin in the mid-1970s.  During his time in the Army, Mr. Hill was taught several languages, including Russian, Polish, German and Czech.

T.H.E. Hill is a three-time graduate of the Defense Language Institute (DLIWC) in Monterey, California, whose alumni just happens to be called “Monterey Marys.” Mr. Hill is now retired from Federal Service and able to write what he wants on his time.  I am thrilled to share with readers an interview about one of these great works, Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary!  

First of all, could you tell us a bit about Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary? What is the story about, who are the characters, etc.

The novel is ostensibly about the pre-wall Berlin Spy Tunnel that the CIA used to tap Russian telecommunications cables in the mid-1950s. It became famous, when it was discovered by the Soviets, 54 years ago on 21 April 1956. The Time Magazine article (7 May 1956) about the discovery was entitled "BERLIN: Wonderful Tunnel." In the article the tunnel is described by a German journalist as "the best publicity the U.S. has had in Berlin for a long time."

• You can learn more about the Berlin Spy Tunnel at the on-line Cold War Museum.

The yarn in the novel is told from both ends of the tunnel. One end is the story of the Americans who worked the tunnel. The main character — Kevin — is a "Monterey Mary," which is Army slang for a Linguist. He is the one who has to transcribe the Russian conversations that are coming off the cable tap. This part of the story is about the fight of the tunnel rats for a sense of purpose against boredom and against the enemy both within and without. Reviewers have compared the novel to Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Richard Hooker's M*A*S*H*, and Hans Helmut Kirst's Zero Eight Fifteen, perhaps better known in America as The Revolt of Gunner Asch.

The other end of the tunnel is the story of the Russians whose telephone calls the Americans are intercepting. Their side of the tale is told in the unnarrated transcripts of their calls. They are the voices under Berlin. This part of the novel has been compared to Henrik Ibsen's "play for voices," Peer Gynt, which is usually considered very hard to stage due to its accent on the aural, rather than on the visual. This unusual approach to literature is intended to help the reader understand the ear-centric worldview of the people who had to transcribe the Russians' conversations. The result is a new type of spy novel, as unique as Berlin herself. It is Cloak-and-dagger with headphones.

Do you have a favorite excerpt from Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary? Could you share that with us, please?

"His dissertation adviser, however, had neglected to impart to him one of the key tenets of academia: avoid making decisions at all cost. If you made a decision, you might be held responsible for the consequences. There were always consequences. Even if things went right – which they did less often than pure chance dictated, because that is what happens when nobody is willing to take a chance and make a decision – credit was always given where credit was due, that is at the highest level of the hierarchy intelligent enough to claim it. This type of credit grab is not entirely without risk, because there could be consequences for not doing it sooner. If, on the other hand, things went wrong, which they often did – because that is what happens when you avoid making decisions and leave things to chance – the first order of the day was to find a scapegoat. If you had made a decision, you might be it. It's a lose, lose situation."

What do you want readers to take away from reading Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary?

In addition to a good laugh, I want the reader to take away the answer to the question of what the system did to itself when it "dealt" with Kevin. I won't say any more, because that would be a spoiler. This is a question that should be on the list of any book group that discusses Voices Under Berlin.

What was the most fun about writing Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary?

I’m one of those authors who listens to the voices of the characters in his head, and then writes down what they say. Voices Under Berlin did not start out to be a humorous novel, but every time I put the characters 'on page' in the set-up for a new chapter, the characters decided that the story should be funny, and that is the aspect of writing Voices that I enjoyed most. In retrospect, the characters' decision to make it a funny book was a good one. I’ve gotten some very good reactions to the humor in Voices Under Berlin. One reader said that he laughed so hard that he almost fell out of his chair.

And now that the similarity between the humor in Voices Under Berlin and the humor in Catch-22, M*A*S*H*, and The Revolt of Gunner Asch has been pointed out to me, I can see why the characters were right to make it humorous. The situations described in all four novels are simply absurd. A serious "Literary" with a capital 'L' treatment of the material would fall flat, because the reader's first inclination is to think that I was stretching truth for comic effect. While I did take some liberties with the truth, the fiction of the story isn't as far from the truth as those who have not lived the life described in these novels suspect.

We used to say "you don't have to be crazy to work here, but it helps." Being able to laugh at the insane things going on around you was the only way to maintain your own sanity. The characters in Voices Under Berlin clearly remembered that, and brought it to the novel with them.

What was the hardest part about writing Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary?

The hardest thing was sitting down in my chair in front of the computer every day, writing and rewriting until it was done. It takes a lot of discipline, and there are always other things competing for your attention. In the end, I had to fall off the edge of the real world for a while to get the novel done, and that has an intangible opportunity cost that is measured in terms of things that I missed a chance to do. In balance, however, I think that I came out on the plus side. I get a lot more pleasure out of Voices Under Berlin being a real book, than I would have gotten out of the things that I "missed." The closest I can come to quantifying that pleasure is the five Book Awards that I've received for Voices Under Berlin, which is not an inconsiderable amount. That kind of thing puts a wide smile on your face.

And this is a time investment that keeps on giving. There is always the possibility of more awards yet to come for Voices Under Berlin, and — since it was an award winner at the Hollywood Book Festival — the hope of a movie deal.

What kind of research did you do for Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary?

The story is hung loosely on the historical background of the CIA cross-sector tunnel in Berlin in the mid-1950s, and that came primarily from three sources: 1) Battleground Berlin, a book on the Intelligence war in Berlin written by a former chief of the CIA Base in Berlin in cooperation with a retired KGB Chief of German operations from that period. It has a whole chapter on the tunnel. 2) Spies Beneath Berlin by David Stafford of the University of Edinburgh. 3) The Official CIA history of the tunnel that was prepared in August 1967 and declassified in February 2007.

• Berlin in the 1950s

The historical background for occupied Berlin during the tunnel period came from a number of sources such as Berlin Before the Wall by Hsi-Huey Liang and a series of booklets published by Berlin Command for distribution to newcomers. The fact that these army booklets are quite rare and are not to be found in libraries — even in the Library of Congress — made me decide to reprint them as a single volume after I completed Voices Under Berlin. Those interested in the reprint can find it on Amazon.com as Berlin in Early Cold-War Army Booklets. The booklets contain a wealth of background information on occupied Berlin at the time of the tunnel.

Could you please tell us about your writing process?

I am a morning person, so I get up early, and get right to work. That's not always easy, because when my characters start talking to me, they won't shut up, even at night, and they keep me awake, developing the story. I know, however, that I have to get up, because the characters won't leave me alone until I get their story committed to paper, well, these days, saved as a file.

About eleven-ish, both I and my characters get hungry, so we take a break, after which I normally walk into campus to do look-ups for any reference material I might need in the university library.

Sometime in the mid-afternoon — depending on how much I have to look up — I head back for home and my computer to fill-in the blanks I left in the manuscript for the look-ups.

After that, I re-read what I've produced so far that day, and start on the re-write. I take another break for early supper, and after supper, if my characters still have something to say, I head back to my computer to get it recorded. If not, then I'll take it easy for the rest of the evening.

Do you ever put yourself within your characters?

I suppose that you could say so. Like I said, I'm one of those authors who sits down in front of a computer and lets the characters tell him what to write. Normally, all I have to do is set the scene at the top of the page, and the characters take it from there.

Do you have any particular habits that you take part in while writing? By that I mean certain music you like to listen to, foods you like to eat, environment that helps you write better, etc.

To borrow a phrase from Alan Jay Lerner's superb lyrics to "I'm an Ordinary Man" from My Fair Lady (1964), I like to write in "an atmosphere as restful as an undiscovered tomb." I find it hard to hear what my characters are saying when there is something going on in the room where I am trying to write.

Where do you get your ideas and inspirations?

Very few of the incidents in the book are entirely the product of my comic imagination, though they are all liberally decorated by it, and by my own experiences in Berlin in the mid-1970s. The historical background that the story plays against came out of books about Berlin in the 1950s, and books about the tunnel. (See above.) The inspiration to write it came from the people to whom it is dedicated. The dedication reads "to all the countless Kevins and Gabbies, Fast Eddies and Megs — not just in Berlin, but around the world — who for over forty years fought the secret Cold War for one tour and then went home." Kevin and Gabbie, Fast Eddie and Meg are characters in the novel who are amalgams of people I knew, and people I heard about, and of various incarnations of myself. The people who fought the Secret Cold War were some of the most extraordinary people I've ever met in my life. They were so full of intelligence and energy that you could almost see the sparks flying off of them.

I wanted to record what it was like to fight the Secret Cold War for posterity. When their children ask "What did you do in the Cold War?," most Secret Cold War veterans, have to say something trite, like "If I told you, I'd have to shoot you." I wanted to give voice to some of their stories so that they would not disappear when the generations of Kevins and Fast Eddies who are sworn to silence shuffle off this mortal coil. Voices Under Berlin may not be exactly the story that each and every one of them would like to tell, but it is close enough so that people who fought the Secret Cold War in places other than Berlin say that they felt right at home while reading it. I wanted Secret Cold War vets to be able to answer their children and grandchildren with: "I can't tell you exactly, but why don't you read Voices Under Berlin?" A number of Secret Cold War veterans have done just that.

How did you decide you wanted to be a writer? Were there any authors or books that made you think "Wow, that's what I want to do – craft stories of my own for others to read"?

There was never any one moment that I could point out and say that was when I decided to be a writer. I started writing when I was in the Army, and I've written ever since. Somebody sat me down in front of a stack of files, said "read all this stuff, and then write me a report about it." They apparently liked what I was doing, because they kept asking me to write reports. So I wrote more and more and more reports, and discovered that it was addictive. It was a gradual process. I've been writing constantly since I was about 20, which is longer ago than I care to think about some days. During my professional career, the clarity of your prose and the correctness of your analysis were the gauges by which a writer's product was judged.

I would ask that those who look askance at novelists with this kind of writing background to recall that Hemingway was a journalist, who started out writing for his high school newspaper, became a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star, later was a correspondent for the Toronto Star, then wrote dispatches from the Spanish Civil War and covered World War II. Mark Twain worked as a journalist for twenty years before he wrote his first novel. Shelley Fisher Fishkin's From Fact to Fiction: Journalism & Imaginative Writing in America (1985) provides an exhaustive account of the impact that journalism has had on American literature.
I think that Anonymous is the author who made me want to craft my own stories. I've always been a big fan of fairy tales, and while the names of the big collectors are well-known (Grimm, and Elias Lönnrot, for example), the names of the original authors are unknown.

One year when I was on vacation, I was looking for something to do, and decided to write something a bit different than I normally did, and turned to fairy tales. The first story that I ever published was a tale about a sorcerer's apprentice who couldn't understand computers. He could recite endless incantations in Latin, Greek and Arabic, but he couldn't remember the keyboard short-cuts on the computer that ran the guided tour to his wizard's haunted castle. No matter what he did, the computer just "went nuts." The wizard didn't want to get rid of his apprentice, because apprentices who can read Greek and Latin don't grow on trees, so the wizard installed a logging printer on the computer, for when the guests inevitably didn't show up at the exit at the appointed time. All he had to do then was read the print-out to learn what the guests had been turned into and where, and go turn them back into guests. These kinds of surprises were just what the touring public had been looking for, so the wizard was making more money than the last time he had had an alchemist in the basement making gold. The story was pretty profitable for me too. I sold it to a computer magazine. That was my first published piece of fiction.

What make you take that leap from "wanting" to be a writer, as opposed to "becoming" a writer? Many talk of being a writer and dip their toes in, but it seems there is often a sort of "push" to bring one over that wall.

The concept of Voices Under Berlin had been percolating in the back of my mind for about five years when Battleground Berlin: CIA Vs. KGB in the Cold War by David E. Murphy, Sergei A. Kondrashev, and George Bailey first came out in 1999. It has a whole chapter on the tunnel. That was followed by a further round of note taking and contemplation. Then when David Stafford's Spies Beneath Berlin came out in 2003, I decided that I had to get serious about the project. This led to a further round of note taking, but I did not get down to cases until I signed up for a Writers' Digest course on novel writing in January 2007. That was the tipping point for the novel, because the course gave me the incentive to turn all my notes into a coherent narrative. Without the incentive of the course, I don't think that Voices Under Berlin would be finished now. The course required that we submit polished drafts of chapters from our novels each week for the instructor and other students to read and comment on. I had paid a considerable amount of money to participate in the course, and I was determined to get my money's worth out of it. The instructor and student comments were very helpful in getting me to focus on the structure and the plot. By the time the course ended, I had 15 thousand words of finished text, and a clear road map for where the novel was headed. The first version (110 thousand words) was finished in July, and I started sending it around to test readers. The final revisions were completed in December, and Voices Under Berlin became a real book at the end of January 2008.

How do you come up with the names of your characters? It almost seems as though, as an author, you have the continuous fun of naming children!

All the surnames in the book are talking names. A number of them are translations. Some of them are simple a play on words. Sergeant Laufflaecker's name is based on the German word that means "tread," as in 'tire tread'. "Tread" is the Army slang for someone who has re-enlisted, or been "re-treaded." Corporal Neumann's name means "new man" in German. He is the eternal "newk," the new guy, who doesn't know how things really work. Blackie's name takes almost a whole chapter to explain, and Trudy, his girlfriend is a "working girl," because her name is Russian for "works." General Molotov's name is a joke that only becomes apparent when you realize that he always only speaks with Colonel Serpov. The translation of their names is "hammer and sickle." As Jim Henson of the Muppets once said: "It's a cheap joke, but we're worthy of it."

Kevin, however, does not have a last name, which makes him stand out in the Army, where everybody has a last name, first name, middle initial, and a rank to go with them. You have to sew your last name on your uniform "so you won't forget who you are," as one wag put it. The Army's explanation is so that they'll know what name to put on your tombstone when they find your body.

There's an old army war story that perhaps explains the place of names and ranks in the military. It seems there was a lieutenant talking to a private who hadn't quite got a handle on the finer points of military courtesy. The private says, "My name's John. What's yours?" The lieutenant replies, "You can call me by my first name too. It's lieutenant." It sounds a lot funnier if you've never met someone whose first name was lieutenant. I, however, have. Not having a last name or a rank is intended to mark Kevin as a civilian in uniform.

Sergeant Laufflaecker calls Kevin "Kilroy" as a joke. It's not really Kevin's surname. Kilroy was the nickname (and graffiti tag) associated with the average American GI during World War II. Kilroy was everybody and he was nobody, all rolled into one. The suggestion of Laufflaecker calling Kevin "Kilroy" is that Kevin represents the countless, nameless Monterey Marys who fought the Secret Cold War for one tour and then went home to do other things. They never became "soldiers," and didn't care about rank or position, just like Hawkeye and Trapper in M*A*S*H*. The only thing that mattered to them was professional competence, and the bureaucracy was often at pains to understand people like that.

The other character who has no surname is the Chief of Base. He is nameless, because the secrecy of his job requires him to be so. He is like Peter Sellers, who once said, "I can play anyone, but I can't be myself. There is no me. There used to be one, but I had it surgically removed." These two nameless characters – the Chief of Base and Kevin – are the antipodes of the story, the older man showing what the younger one could develop into, if he stayed in the business long enough.

Were you an avid reader as a child? If so, what were some of your favorite books?

When I was a kid, I loved the Richard Scary books, especially The Animals Merry Christmas. I read that one to pieces, and I still have what's left of it at home. I was also a big fan of Pogo Possum by Walt Kelly. My mother used to read that to me, and do all the voices. I didn't get the political jokes until much later, but I couldn't get enough of the Possum who said "We have met the enemy, and He Is Us." He knew what he was talking about. Later there was Treasure Island, with the illustrations by N.C. Wyeth. Not to forget the editions of Kidnapped, Robin Hood, Robinson Crusoe (1920), and The White Company with the Wyeth illustrations.

If you had to summarize your life and give it a book title, what would that title be?

Reading is a Prerequisite for Success in This Endeavor

The explanation for this title can be found in Voices Under Berlin. When people would ask Kevin why he knew all the esoteric things that changed his transcripts from just so many random words on six-ply paper into insightful intelligence reports, he would always reply with "reading is a prerequisite for success in this endeavor." Knowing how to read opens up a world of knowledge to you, and each new language that you learn opens up other, previously unknown worlds to your gaze. Being able to absorb that knowledge and apply it is what reading is all about.

What are you working on right now? Could you give us a taste/teaser (aka excerpt) from your current WIP?

My current work in progress has the working title The Day Before the Wall: Berlin August 1961. The plot is based on a "legend" that was still told on mids in Berlin when I was there in the Army in the mid-1970s. My story relates what happens to a young American sergeant in Military Intelligence who has a piece of information that the East Germans are prepared to kill for. He knows that construction of the Berlin Wall will begin at midnight on August the 13th, and that orders have been given to the East German engineer troops who will be building the wall to pull back if the Americans take an aggressive stance to stop construction. The Stasi, the East German secret police, are after him, but so are the West-Berlin municipal police and the U.S. Army MPs, because the Stasi have framed him for the murder of his postmistress. It's August the 12th, and the clock is running almost as fast as my hero. The key question of the novel is: "even if he is lucky enough to make it back across the border, will anybody in the West believe what he has to say and take action on it before it is too late?" History says that he either didn't make it, or they didn't believe him. I'm not going to spoil the surprise of the ending by telling you now. You'll have to buy a copy when it's published to find out. It has turned out rather well, if I do say so myself.

• Here is an extract from the opening chapter, "Knocking at Heaven's Door."

A gentle rhythmic knocking sound swam down into the darkness that had swallowed my consciousness and attracted my attention. My consciousness hung out the "Do Not Disturb" sign and tried to ignore it. The knocking got more insistent, which prompted my consciousness to begin a groggy search through the dim caverns of my memory, trying to identify the sound. My consciousness stopped when it got to the memory of a clearing in Korea. I was lying on my face in the mud with a bullet in my shoulder. The sound was the bark of a fifty-caliber heavy machine gun on the chopper that had come to pick us up. The fifty-caliber was raining death and destruction into the underbrush where the bullet in my shoulder had come from.

The shooter in the underbrush had apparently been displeased by the fact that we had just blown up a regimental headquarters and made off with a stack of classified documents. I guess that he found the fifty-caliber's arguments for why we should have blown up the regimental headquarters persuasive, because he stopped shooting. The memory of the clearing in Korea stopped abruptly when I passed out from the pain of being dragged unceremoniously to the waiting chopper by my wounded arm.

My consciousness compared the two sounds, and decided that, even though they were a lot alike, the sound on the outside of my brain did not correspond with the one on the inside. The one on the outside didn't have the metallic bark of a fifty-caliber, and it wasn't as fast. My consciousness left that particular patch of unpleasant darkness and went off in search of another sound pattern. It tried the memory slot marked "knock on the door," and I said "Come in! It's open," but the knocking didn't stop.

That stirred up some clouds of dust in the caverns of my mind, which, when they settled, said "the door's locked, stupid. Get up and go open it." That was easier said than done. I opened my left eye, because the first step to opening the door was to find out where it was. It was dark, so that didn't help much.

Opening my eye reminded me that my head hurt. That was a bad sign. Your head's not supposed to hurt unless you've got a hangover, or somebody applied a heavy blunt object to it. I couldn't remember drinking anything recently, but in my present state I suspected that my perception of time was slightly out of whack. I started feeling around in the dark with my right hand to see if I could figure out where things were. I was lying on some hard surface. My reawakening consciousness suggested that it might be a floor. That made some sense. Drunk or bashed on the head, the floor was where you normally ended up.

What are you reading right now?

Frederick Forsyth's The Fourth Protocol in Dutch: Het Vierde Protocol.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

In no particular order: J.R.R. Tolkien, P.G. Wodehouse, A.A. Milne, O'Henry, Mark Twain, Karel Capek, Annie M.G. Schmidt, and Lewis Carroll.

If you could have lunch and chat with any author, dead or alive, who would it be and why?

Shakespeare, because I would love to be able to finally put an end to the controversial conspiracy theory about who actually wrote Shakespeare. Some say it was Christopher Marlowe, others claim it was William Stanley (Earl of Derby), still others mention Roger Manners (Earl of Rutland), Sir Walter Raleigh, Edward de Vere (Earl of Oxford), and last, but certainly not least, Francis Bacon.

What do you hope to accomplish within the next five years?

In five years' time I hope to have closed a movie deal for Voices Under Berlin, and completed my three current works in progress: The Day Before the Wall: Berlin August 1961, Reunification, and The Listeners at P.O.Box 1142: The Hunt for Nazi Secrets in Virginia.

I already talked about The Day Before the Wall.

Reunification is set in the present day. It is about an American who used to be stationed in Berlin going back to post-wall, reunified Berlin and meeting his old "long-haired dictionary." The key questions to be explored here are: "Is there an 'us' in this reunited German-American couple?", "Is there an 'us' in the reunited eastern and western halves of Berlin?", and "Is there a place for the 'USA' in the reunited Germany?".

The Listeners at P.O.Box 1142: The Hunt for Nazi Secrets in Virginia is a return to the style and layout of Voices Under Berlin. The main character will be another transcriber, and the transcripts will be of the bugs in the cells of high-value Nazi prisoners of war.

During World War II, the USA had an interrogation center for Nazi POWs at Fort Hunt in Virginia. The operation of the center was so secret that it was only known by its post office box number. The history of P.O.Box 1142 has only recently been declassified, and the press immediately seized on the story to make comparisons to the detention center at Guantanamo Bay on Cuba. The key issue that it will explore will be — like Voices Under Berlin — the idealism and morality of the linguists running the operation.

Is there anything that you would like to add? That you would like readers to know about you or your writing?

I am also a graphic artist. I have a number of Army Security Agency T-shirt designs on CafePress.com. I invite readers to take a look at my designs for Pre-Field-Station ASA in Berlin, Field Station Berlin, Field Station Herzo Base, Field Station Rothwesten, Field Station Augsburg, Field Station Bad Aibling, and ASA Baumholder. For the Twentieth Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall I created a sheet of Cinderella stamps entitled "Americans in Berlin" to commemorate the almost fifty years that American troops spent in Berlin in the cause of peace and freedom. I invite your readers to stop by and take a look at my stamps.

Thank you for this interview, Tom. Can you tell us how we can find out more about you and your new book?

You're very welcome, April. I am pleased to have been invited to do another interview for Blogcritics. The easiest way to find out more about Voices Under Berlin is to visit the novel's webSite at www.VoicesUnderBerlin.com. There folks can read a sample chapter, browse the reviews, see a list of the awards the novel has won, and learn more about Berlin in the 1950s.

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