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Interview with Author T.H.E. Hill

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We are talking with award-winning author T.H.E. Hill.

In May (2010) Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary was selected a winner of the prestigious NIEA annual book awards in the category "Miscellaneous." This categorization seems to match an early review that calls your book "a spy novel that breaks all the molds." So what is it about your book that keeps it from fitting in one of the standard genre categories used in the publishing industry?

When I was stationed in Berlin in the 1970s, the word that everyone used to describe the U.S. Army's role there was "unique." The memory of hearing Berlin described that way day in and day out translated into a unique novel about in Berlin. What's specifically unique about it is that it describes a SIGINT (signals intelligence) operation. Traditional spy novels are invariably HUMINT (human intelligence) operations. There's a huge gulf between the two.

Ostensibly the novel is a story of the pre-wall, cross-sector Spy Tunnel that the CIA dug to tap into Russian telecommunications cables. Two intertwined threads run through the novel. The first is about the Americans who worked the tunnel. This part of the story bears a certain similarity to other black-humor novels about the military, like Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Richard Hooker's M*A*S*H*.

The other thread is the story of the Russians whose telephone calls the Americans are intercepting. The threads are tied together because the Russians are running a "honey trap," sex for secrets operation against the Americans, and the Americans are listening to the Russians talk about the operation, but they cannot figure out who the target of the operation is. The Russians are the voices under Berlin, and their part of the story is the other unique element in the novel. Their story is told in the unnarrated transcripts of their calls.

The novel, in general, lacks the kind of visual clues that readers are accustomed to seeing on the printed page. Instead — as the novel’s title (Voices Under Berlin) suggests — it is a novel of voices, intended as much as a tale to be heard, as a text to be read. It 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. Even the narrative of the American half of the novel carries an “aural” signature, reflecting the ear-centric worldview of the main character, the person who had to transcribe the Russians’ conversations, Kevin. That's what makes it unique.

Is Voices Under Berlin going to be unique in the same sense as Gone with the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Black Beauty?

I certainly hope not! Those are all books by people who only wrote one novel, so if you mean "unique," as in the single one of its kind, then, no, it won't be. My current work in progress is entitled The Day Before the Berlin Wall: Could We Have Stopped It?

The story is based on a "legend" people were still telling in the mid-1970s when I was in the Army in Berlin. According to this legend, we had advance knowledge that the wall was going to be built, and we knew that the East-German engineer troops who were going to build the wall had been told to pull back and stop construction if the Americans were to take aggressive action to stop them.

In my version of this legend, a young American sergeant in Military Intelligence is the one who gets this piece of intelligence, but he is in East Berlin and has to get back to his unit to report it. The Stasi (the East German secret police) is prepared to kill to keep this information from getting to the Americans. They have killed his postmistress, and have framed him for her murder. Now it is not only the Stasi, and the Vopos (the East-German "People's" Police), but also the West-Berlin municipal police and the U.S. Army MPs who are after him. It's the day before construction is scheduled to start, and time is running out, so my main character is running as fast as he can.

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.

This sounds like a more typical spy thriller than Voices Under Berlin.

It started out that way. When the manuscript for Voices Under Berlin was making the rounds of agents, looking for representation, I got a rejection letter from an agent who said that the manuscript was very Helleresque, but that it would sell better with more sex and violence. That wasn’t, however, the kind of book that I had set out to write when I started Voices Under Berlin. I wanted to write a book that was based on the reality of the mind-numbing boredom of a Sunday mid (midnight shift) while you’re waiting for the target’s loose lips to sink a ship

I nevertheless appreciated his taking the time to write me a real letter, and started making notes for a new proof of concept novel with "more sex and violence," just to see if I could do it. The Day Before the Wall is the result. There is just this tiny little problem. No matter how much sex and violence I put in the outline for a chapter, as soon as the characters start acting out their parts in it, the story turns cerebral.

Please explain what you mean by cerebral?

Aside from the references to classical mythology, a character who speaks Latin, and hidden quotes from authors like Shakespeare, the novel goes beyond the questions that form the foundation of any intelligence report, newspaper article, or novel: "who's doing what, when, where, and to whom?" The Day Before the Berlin Wall adds "why?" The majority of the dialogue in the novel is an internal mute conversation in the first-person narrator's mind between a group of individualized voices that were shaken apart when the narrator was hit on the back of the head with the iconic blunt object of detective stories. This paints a picture of the narrator's mental processes as he reacts to the dire straits that he finds himself in. To a certain extent, this is a reprisal of the aural signature of Voices Under Berlin, which, in retrospect, seems almost inevitable, because I’m one of those authors who listens to the voices of the characters in his head, and then writes down what they say. What they have to say is a distillation of conversations about similar situations that I have overheard or participated in.

The Cold War as I knew it was fought more often in the shadows of the mind than to the death, so while I've read all the James Bond books, I never actually knew anybody like that, and I can't conjure up any characters like him.

So, once again, I have decided to listen to my characters, and not to the agent who said that my book would sell better with more sex and violence. I have, however, decided that it is probably only going to be fifty thousand words, because you can only dodge the cops so many times before you begin to repeat yourself and the story starts to get boring, just like real-life espionage operations sometimes can be.

That's very interesting. I think that you hit your head right on the nail. There have been times that I'd read a book and been dissatisfied. Your comment about length is one of the reasons, but it took me a while to figure that out. A number of times in reviews I've made the comment that "trimming the number of pages would do wonders for this book," or something to that effect. I can think of a couple books where what you describe is exactly the problem. Run out of ideas? No problem! Just write in another complication.

There's an author named Jo Nesbo who's gotten rave reviews, so I tried him. A 400-pager that would make a very good 175- or 200-pager. But in this particular case, the pot is calling the kettle black. I, too, tend to ramble on – it's the easiest thing to do, and the hardest to stop. With the book of his that I read, Nemesis, the plot was good, the writing and phrasing were good, the characters were mostly believable, and overall it was a good 400-page book. But it would have made a top-notch 200-pager.

I can think of a number of good authors who wrote at that length. John Creasey's The Toff in Wax is 160 pages. Dorothy Sayers' The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club is 192. Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe adventure The Silent Speaker is 202. Ian Fleming's Dr. No is 192. H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines is 192. Maurice LeBlanc's Arsene Lupin adventure The Eight Strokes of the Clock is 168. John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps is 160. I would not be embarrassed to be counted among that company.

A very interesting reading list of good books. These days though, it is hard to get a publisher to consider something under a hundred thousand words.

You're right, but maybe I can buck the trend. I would rather give the reader a quality novella than the quantity of words needed for a bad novel. As George Bernard Shaw said, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." I guess you can call me an "unreasonable" author.

See my review of Voices Under Berlin here, and my previous interview with Hill here.

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