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Interview with James Stone, Author of ‘Crypto’

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Dr. James Stone has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and numerous international certifications in computer security. He has worked at NSA, NASA, and the Department of Defense, as well as having been a professor of engineering at a major university. He recently retired from engineering and plans to devote himself to writing. His first novel, Crypto, has just been released by Twilight Times Books.

Crypto_smCongratulations on the release of your spy novel, Crypto. When did you start writing and what got you into spy fiction? 

I’ve always been a writer, just not of fiction. Most engineers are very poor writers. They are just interested in solving the next engineering problem. It’s a fundamental personality attribute. Working for the government, first as a civil servant and then as a consultant to agencies and their contractors, I’ve almost always been working against deadlines. In one case my client had a requirement to deliver six documents on standards. I was assigned to write one of them and had a month to do so. As I was wrapping up mine, the client called and said their team had failed, and would I bail them out? I agreed, provided the customer would give schedule relief – they’d give me a month. This happened on all six, resulting in my spending 2000 hours on-the-clock in six months. The documents were five inches thick. In this kind of situation, organization is essential; writer’s block is unacceptable. Now that I’m retired from that kind of work, and in a comfortable situation, I can write for fun on whatever I want. Spy novel first, because I’d always wanted to write this story. Sci-Fi next. I still maintain the same kind of organization and discipline that worked for me when working to deadline.

What was your inspiration for Crypto? 

Personal experience. 

Did your book require a lot of research? 

Yes. I tend to be a perfectionist on the details of settings, organizations and such things. I’d been to most of the places but needed to refresh my memory. Fortunately, the Internet is one-stop shopping, if you know how to make it sing and dance.

For those of us who are unfamiliar with espionage terminology, what are cryptographic chips?

Cryptographics is a field of mathematics devoted to rendering messages unreadable except by a party that has the key to reversing the encryption. The chips in the book are silicon wafers using Very Large Scale Integration (VLSI) to pack the encryption functions onto a singe chip. The crypto chips in the book are controlled items, unique to NSA. When they start showing up in boxes hanging from the backs of highway signs, all kinds of alarms go off.

I understand people at the National Security Agency tend to look askance at associates who write books in the genre. Why is that?

‘Methods and sources’ are the most closely guarded secrets we have. Expose one and it a ‘go to jail’ offense, although it doesn’t seem to apply to the NYT very much these days. NSA takes very seriously its slogan, ‘What you see here, hear here, stays here.’ A prudent security worker is well advised to stay way back from the line, and to avoid those who don’t.

Were you nervous when you had to send them your manuscript for review before you were able to submit it for publication? Did you get a quick response?

A prudent person is always nervous when interacting with Security. Just because something shows up in the media, that doesn’t mean it’s been declassified. In my case, it’s been a while since I was actually at the agency. Plus, I was never directly associated with the cryptographics side. Plus, there are many academic journals dealing with cryptographics, although not with specific Agency sources and methods, or with Agency successes or failures. Those with the mathematical and engineering background to understand it (e.g., quantum key management) pretty much know how things are done, although not successes and failures. Finally, the NSA web site had a wealth of information, including their complete Security Guide. I found Ellen’s organization and job description in it. I was pretty sure the manuscript was clean, but never be completely sure until their review. NSA responded in a month.

What made you choose a female protagonist for your novel?

I wanted someone who looked like a patsy, who could be under-estimated, who could be thrown to the wolves. Coming from being an LAPD Homicide Detective should have led to some second thoughts, but it didn’t. Besides, a strong male protagonist shows up somewhere in the middle of the book. And then there is a very strong Russian protagonist almost from the beginning. And there are others, some good and some bad.

Being an author of spy novels, you must read a lot of them yourself. Who are some good authors in the field these days?

Too many to detail without shorting some. Plus, I read and enjoy many authors from other genres. My frustration is they don’t write fast enough. Somewhat the reverse of a character in a book who was said to read everything written by Stephen King, which doomed him to read only King since King could write faster than he could read.

What was your publishing process like? 

Smooth as silk. Twilight Times Books is a top-notch publisher. 

Where is your book available? 

Twilight Times Books, Amazon Kindle, Barnes and Noble.

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About Mayra Calvani

Mayra Calvani writes fiction and nonfiction for children and adults and has authored over a dozen books, some of which have won awards. Her stories, reviews, interviews and articles have appeared on numerous publications such as The Writer, Writer’s Journal, Multicultural Review, and Bloomsbury Review, among many others. Represented by Serendipity Literary.