Our interview today is with James Houston Turner author of Greco’s Game (spy thriller, 4.8 stars, 16 reviews). Before we get to the interview a brief book description: The story of former KGB colonel Aleksandr Talanov continues in the hotly anticipated follow-up to USA Book News’s Best Thriller of 2011, Department Thirteen. Greco’s Game finds Talanov witnessing the brutal murder of his wife. Convinced the bullet was meant for him and wracked with guilt, he spirals downward on a path of self-destruction, hitting rock-bottom on the mean streets of Los Angeles. But in a seedy world ruled by the Russian mafia, all is not as it seems. Was her murder an accident, or was it a carefully planned strategy? The answer lies in Greco’s Game, a chess game played in 1619 that Talanov’s old KGB chess instructor regarded as the most brilliant example of how to trap and kill an opponent. The question is: who was the target?
Interview with James Houston Turner
Tell us about Greco’s Game.
When a former KGB agent’s wife is murdered in front of his eyes, his vendetta to track down and kill the assassin becomes a journey of redemption with the help of two young prostitutes being held captive by human traffickers. So our hero, Talanov, becomes swept up in a deadly plot framed around a 1619 chess game, where victims are nothing but disposable pawns, and Talanov is pushed to his limits defending those victims while trying desperately to solve his wife’s murder.
That’s the simplified version of the synopsis, but there’s more to the story than that.
Talanov — the “ice man” — was married to a woman he was unable to love, which was an ugly consequence of his training with the KGB. So when his wife is mistakenly gunned down, he spirals downward on a path of self-destruction. He should have been killed, not her. He was the one whose violent past would not leave them alone. Months tick by and Talanov hits rock bottom on the mean streets of Los Angeles, where he meets a hooker named Larisa, who drugs and robs him.
But in the seedy world of prostitution and human trafficking ruled by the Russian mafia, this hooker made the big mistake of stealing the ice man’s wallet. In it was Talanov’s sole possession of value: his wedding photo. Talanov tracks Larisa down to get that photo because it reminds him of everything that should have been but never was, and never would be because an assassin’s bullet had mistakenly killed his wife. Or was it a mistake?
The answer to that mystery is of course the heart and soul of the plot. But we are also taken into the heart and soul of the character – Talanov — as he struggles with memories and guilt while seeking to find answers where there’s only illusion. Was the bullet really meant for him? If not, why not, and if so, why haven’t they come back to finish the job? The answer is found in a maze of action and suspense set against the glitz and glamor of Hollywood and its criminal underworld.
Why write this book?
In the front of Greco’s Game, you’ll see how it’s dedicated to the untold victims of black market human trafficking, whose names I may never know but whose plights I will never forget. So in a real sense, I wrote the book for those victims, to give voice to the horrors they’re forced endure.
But this is a thriller, not a docudrama, and it’s written to take my readers on a whitewater ride of entertainment. So above all, Greco’s Game was written for my readers, who have come to expect stories like that.
But it’s also written for me. I like stand-up-and-cheer novels, where an injustice like human trafficking gets its ass kicked. Good and hard. There’s a lot of injustice and need in the world, and not a lot being done to stop it. So I created a hero who does do something about it. But I also like thrillers that involve me emotionally. Books that make me care. So that’s what I write.
What kind of research went into Greco’s Game?
First was the setting — in Los Angeles — where I once worked as a journalist. Then there was Talanov himself, on whom I maintain a comprehensive profile. For example, in Greco’s Game I mentioned his having had to shoot a woman in Spain, who was trying to kill him. For that incident, I created an entire separate story, which will be the subject of a forthcoming book, as will another similar instance of Talanov taking out a KGB hit squad that was after him when he was helping a family of Soviet Jews escape the Iron Curtain back in the 1980s. That’s the kind of research I maintain on just one character — Talanov — and similar research goes into his support cast and other significant characters.
Then there’s the issue of black market human trafficking, and for that, I was able to draw on several interviews I once conducted at a women’s shelter in Los Angeles. The stories of those victims were tragic, moving, and triumphant, and I was both humbled and stirred. I then updated my research by contacting a Ukrainian journalist whose writes regularly on this subject, and who was kind enough to help me construct the character of Larisa.
But Larisa was just a part of this, for I had then had to paint the deeper backdrop of organized crime and how it scams innocent young women. And while I don’t cite statistics in the book — remember, this is a thriller, not a documentary — I still had to set the story against facts like these:
(1) There are nearly 30 million people working today as trafficked slaves;
(2) The United States of America remains as the biggest destination of such slaves;
(3) Traffickers make 9 billion dollars off human trafficking, making it more profitable than weapons;
(4) About 80% of trafficked victims are women and children.
I then had to assemble this into a portrait of what life would be like for Larisa, living and working as she did in Los Angeles. But not in a depressing way, but in such a way as to communicate those grim realities without sacrificing the book’s upbeat personality as an action thriller.
Talanov seems pretty realistic. Tell us about him.
As a former KGB agent, he’s the kind of man who’s trying to make up for some of the injustice he used to enforce when he was with the old Soviet spy agency. But after seeing through the peeling veneer of Communism and the atrocities being committed by the KGB, he became the legendary November Echo, a deep cover informant who helped the CIA. Now retired and living in the West, Talanov finds himself faced with a huge problem when he comes up against many of his old KGB colleagues, who went to work for criminal organizations once the Soviet empire collapsed. So we have a guy caught in the middle between his past and the present. … between who he used to be and who he now is. I like that kind of tension.
But the best part is that Talanov is based on an actual good-guy KGB agent.
Back in the 1980s, I used to smuggle cash, clothing, food, medical supplies, even Bibles, on humanitarian trips behind the old Iron Curtain. Almost a million dollars’ worth, in fact, and much of it to hospitals where people were dying from needless infections and unsanitary conditions. But you can only carry so much in the secret compartments of a vehicle, so I began offering tons of medical supplies to needy East Bloc hospitals, providing certain European governments paid for the shipping costs. To my surprise, they agreed, and I continued making numerous trips behind the Iron Curtain, where of course I was followed everywhere by shady looking agents right out of a spy movie.
What I didn’t know was that I had attracted the attention of the KGB in America. My name was actually on a KGB watchlist, and I was being followed in San Diego. Why? Because the Soviets did not believe in humanitarian aid. I had to be CIA, and that’s why they were following me.
I found all this out only because a good-guy agent deep in the KGB leaked word out of Moscow through a number of underground contacts that I was being followed. He took an enormous risk doing that for someone he’d never met, and that’s what gave me the idea of a good-guy KGB agent working for the West. My smuggling activities gave me lots of insight into that secret world, and my signature hero, Aleksandr Talanov, is both a result of those experiences and a dedication to the heroism of that agent.
So who is James Houston Turner?
A very ordinary guy, I can assure you, with the privilege of having lived through some very extraordinary experiences. Take my survival of cancer, for instance.
In 1990, I was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma in my jaw. But when the cancer specialist in San Diego found out I had neither health insurance nor the $200,000 needed for an operation, he said, “Sorry, buddy, can’t help you,” and walked out of the room, leaving me alone in the examination chair. My wife and I cried all the way home, feeling I had been handed a death sentence. Being from Australia, she called “home” to see if help was available there. There was, and so, with weeks to live, we flew to Adelaide, where for $17,000, a team of surgeons opened my face up like a book, excised a tumor the size of an orange, made me a new jawbone out of hip bone, grafted skin in my mouth where teeth used to be, then vascularized the area and stapled me back together. I was given 18 months to live. It has now been over twenty years.
I beat the odds, and they were huge, frightening odds. So I draw on emotions I’ve felt when I write, of feeling lost and alone and without hope. I draw on what it felt like to be rejected by a doctor who simply didn’t care. I recall what it was like to be ripped apart from my family. Of not knowing if I’d ever see them again. And I make myself relive those emotions in order to give Talanov believability.
So when Talanov gets beaten up, I’ve been there. When he feels alone and rejected, I’ve been there. When characters die, I’ve almost been there. And when he finds love and doesn’t quite know how to handle it because of how messed up he is, I’ve been there. It’s what makes him human because it’s what makes me human. And flawed. Very flawed.
You say when Talanov gets beaten up, you’ve been there. What do you mean?
I was in college and taking my yellow belt test in karate. Our sensei — master — was Jim Harrison, founder of the Bushidokan dojo in Kansas City … a man Bruce Lee once called “one of the most dangerous men in America.” Harrison called my buddy and I up for our test and toyed with us for a while before turning on us with a fury I will never forget.
He hammered me with a blur of fists and down to the mat I went. Up I jumped and — pow! — down
I went again. I don’t know how many times that scenario was repeated until I couldn’t get up. “Get up! Keep fighting!” Harrison commanded. So up I staggered, and — pow! — down I went again. “Get up!” he shouted. But I couldn’t get up. “Get up or I’ll kill you!” he yelled. I forced myself up onto my feet and — pow! – down I went again. And so it went until he finally called off the test.
I could barely stand. My mouth was swollen and bloody. My nose was bleeding. One eye was swollen shut, and the other had a cut in my eyebrow. Blood ran down my face.
“Was that the worst beating you’ve ever had?” he asked.
“Yes, sensei,” I answered.
“And I didn’t let you quit. So no matter what life throws at you, don’t ever quit.” He then patted me on the shoulder and said, “Good job. I’ve given you a scar above your eye to remind you of this moment.”
I know what it’s like to have the stuffing beat out of you. I know what it’s like to hurt and ache and feel like you’re going to break in half. And THAT’S what I hope readers experience in my books: gritty realism when Talanov goes through the same. And believe me, he does.
How did you get your start in writing?
I wrote my first book when I was 10, and I’ve been writing ever since. It all started with an old wooden, round-topped multi-band radio I found in a dumpster as a kid. I took it home, repaired it, then shot an aerial from the elm tree up over a high branch on our walnut tree and into my upstairs bedroom window, where I would lay awake on those steamy Kansas summer nights and listen to the world. That’s when I began to dream of faraway places. And here I am, today, living on the other side of the planet, about as far away from Kansas as you can get, writing about those places. That’s how I got my start, and I was encouraged by my parents and teachers to keep writing and dreaming.
What life lessons have you learned being an author, smuggler and cancer survivor?
Almost any endeavor today demands not only education and skill, but perseverance. A favorite quote of mine is from the 30th President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge, who once said, “Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” I have found this to be one of the most profound quotes I’ve ever read, and it has inspired me onward more than once. I would not have been able to endure the rejection and rudeness I have if it weren’t for persistence and conviction. Let me give you an example.
A few years back, my writing career seemed to be going nowhere fast, and I was on the verge of quitting. I was discouraged, we needed money, and so I applied for a customer service job with a large company. I was refused, not because I lacked skills, but because I was too ugly (a reference to the facial scars I still carry from my successful 1991 battle against cancer). At the time, this was a real kick in the guts. But sometimes the hard knocks of life are blessings in disguise, for if I had been hired, I may well not have persevered with my writing to become the published author I am today.
Perseverance. That is probably the #1 lesson I have learned.
It’s also a message I carried into schools during my 2011 “Too Ugly Tour,” so named in dedication to the moment when I was turned down for that customer service job which, as I said, was a actually blessing in disguise. So I made that “too ugly” moment my platform, where I spoke to students about not letting the hard knocks of life defeat them when someone knocks them back for being too ugly, too fat, too short, too dumb, too poor, too old, too…whatever. “How badly do you want that dream?” is the question I ask before giving practical tips on how to maximize their chances for success.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I love traveling to faraway places, photography, pumping iron and being outdoors. One day, I want to take a bicycle/cooking trip across Southern Europe. As many of you know, I love cooking from scratch, and each weekend, you’ll find my wife and me in our little “shoebox” kitchen (which is not much larger than a shoebox), bumping hips, drinking naked margaritas and listening to loud music while we dream up new recipes. I’m a self-confessed pizza nut who is working to develop a grain-free pizza dough. My specialty, however, is a double-crust “tamale pie” with picadillo filling (sweet, heat, and meat), topped with sour cream, salsa fresca, chopped avocado, and fresh cilantro/coriander. Oh, yeah!
Other than selling your book, what do you hope to accomplish with it?
I think this gets to the heart of why people read — fiction in particular. By nature, we all love stories. We communicate through storytelling. Look at how we entertain and teach our kids. Often, it’s through stories. Stories communicate and illustrate valuable truths and principles.
Look at David and Goliath. People can argue all day long whether or not that story is historical, but the fact remains, it is one of the most powerful stories ever told. Why? Because it teaches us moral and spiritual truths. Its heroism inspires. And of course it entertains. That’s what a good story does. It draws us in, and we become part of it. So when my “David” — Talanov — takes on his various Goliaths, I want people to cheer. I want them to feel what it’s like to go through the valley of the shadow of death and emerge victorious on the other side. That’s the beauty — and privilege — of being a storyteller.
Where can people find out more?
Talanov even has his own Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/aleksandr.talanov), and we’ll be running some cool contests for free books and prizes, so I hope people will stop by and click the “Like” button.
And for those who would like to buy a copy of Greco’s Game and begin their Talanov adventure, they can head on over to Amazon to boy Greco’s Game or Barnes & Noble (http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/grecos-game-james-houston-turner/1108208059).