Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Author interview: Emily (E.A.) Benedek

Emily Benedek is the author of The Red Sea, a book I just read and reviewed here. I enjoyed the book and wanted to know a bit more about the author. So I asked her!

About the author (from her website):
Emily Benedek is a journalist and author. Her articles and essays have appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Glamour, and on NPR, among others. She is the author of The Wind Won't Know Me: A History of the Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute (Knopf, 1992); Beyond the Four Corners of the World: A Navajo Woman's Journey (Knopf, 1996); and Through the Unknown, Remembered Gate: A Spiritual Journey (Shocken, 2001).

Benedek spent a year following an FBI special agent working counter terrorism and wrote about an F-15C fighter pilot who flew in Operation Shock and Awe. Red Sea is her first novel.

The interview:
I asked Emily the following questions:
- What was your inspiration for writing The Red Sea?
- The Preface states you started with a book about terrorism and airplanes.
- How did you then transition to including other potential areas such as sea ports?
- Do you think this book gives an accurate portrayal of the different intelligence agencies, their abilities and interactions?
- Will Julian, Marie and others be back in another book?
- What are you currently working on?
- Who are your favorite authors?

She answered:
Hi Michele,

Glad you liked Red Sea!

My inspiration for writing RED SEA was meeting a source for a Newsweek story I'd written soon after 9/11. The man was an expert in airline security, and we met several times in New York after my story had come out. Why did he want to meet me? This was a man who liked developing sources. That was his job and his habit. Also, he had some measure of trust for me because he'd made a request of me during our interview for the Newsweek story, a request I had honored.

He was a fascinating person who told amazing stories. After a few meetings, he asked me if I would consider writing a book about airline security--he was convinced at the time that Washington would not do the right thing by its air passengers. I had already written three non-fiction books and I knew what was involved. I was intrigued. So in our next meeting, I put down a tape recorder and switched it on. For the first time, he was much less open in his conversation, and I immediately snapped off the recorder. I realized right away that the kind of insider information he had would very hard to triple-verify -- what I would have to do for a non-fiction book. So I asked him if he thought it might be easier to tell his story as fiction instead. "Maybe" he said. "Maybe."

We continued to meet and I found out more about him--he had been a commando and then a commander in Israel's most elite special forces unit and an operator for Israel's security service in Europe. He was a very senior operator and a very intelligent person.

I began to create characters in my mind--of a retired Israeli commando with a heavy past, an American female journalist with something to prove, and a maverick (excuse the term) FBI agent. I had spent a year following an FBI agent for a story, so I knew something about how that agency was run. All the threats in the plot, all the operational details are correct and based on as much detailed and intensive reporting as if the book had indeed been non-fiction.

The safety of seaports has been a huge concern of American security officials--and for good reason. Millions of sea containers enter our ports every year, almost none of which get inspected. I decided to put an attempt to attack one of our seaports in the book, and then I had to find experts who could tell me what took place on ships--how they were laid out, what the threats were and how much bribery and criminality was involved in the sea trade.

I felt when I wrote RED SEA that Americans were being very naive about the threat of terrorism. Unfortunately, the Bush Administration, by using the threat for political ends, by launching a senseless war in the name of counter-terror, and by trying to abridge Americans rights, has made it much harder now to talk about terrorism. Because now Americans are frustrated, angered, and confused about it. Unfortunately, the threat remains. I tried to show how a very smart and experienced person thinks about and fights terror. And how two principled, brave people try to learn fast and help out. I also tried to show the weaknesses in the American system, which I'm afraid are accurately drawn.

I am now working on the next book--Marie, Morgan and Julian are back together again, this time trying to interfere with Iran's development of the bomb.

My favorite authors include Leo Tolstoy and John Le Carre.

All Best, Emily

Thanks for a great book and interview, Emily! I look forward to the next one.


Anonymous said...

It's interesting that the author is a woman. I wonder how many women write books like that. Thanks for a great interview.

Anonymous said...

Hate to parrot bermudaonion, but feel exactly the same way. Great insight.

Julie said...

Ok, I also thought the same thing (about the author being a woman). What does that say about us??

p.s. Michele, you rock!