I reviewed The Fourth Courier by Timothy Jay Smith recently, and I really liked his book. Which is why I’m absolutely delighted to have the opportunity to interview him today!
Honestly, if you aren’t planning on reading this book, you’re missing out on something great.
Timothy Jay Smith has written three wonderful novels: Cooper’s Promise, A Vision of Angels and The Fourth Courier.
Okay, now let’s get started.
Raised crisscrossing America pulling a small green trailer behind the family car, Timothy Jay Smith developed a ceaseless wanderlust that has taken him around the world many times. En route, he’s found the characters that people his work. Polish cops and Greek fishermen, mercenaries and arms dealers, child prostitutes and wannabe terrorists, Indian Chiefs and Indian tailors: he’s hung with them all in an unparalleled international career that’s seen him smuggle banned plays from behind the Iron Curtain, maneuver through Occupied Territories, represent the U.S. at the highest levels of foreign governments, and stowaway aboard a ‘devil’s barge’ for a three-day crossing from Cape Verde that landed him in an African jail.
How did you come up with the story for The Fourth Courier?
The Fourth Courier book goes back a long way for me. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and Solidarity won the first free election in over sixty years. I. The same year, Mikhail Gorbachev introduced new cooperative laws in the Soviet Union, which was an area of my expertise. I was invited to the Soviet Union as a consultant, which led to my consulting throughout the former Soviet bloc, eventually living for over two years in Poland.
At the time, there was a lot of smuggling across the border between Russia and Poland, giving rise to fears that nuclear material, too, might be slipping across. While on assignment in Latvia, I met with a very unhappy decommissioned Soviet general, who completely misunderstood my purpose for being there. When an official meeting concluded, he suggested we go for a walk where we could talk without being overheard.
I followed him deep into a forest. I couldn’t imagine what he wanted. Finally we stopped, and he said, “I can get you anything you want.” I must have looked puzzled because he added, “Atomic.”
Then I understood. In an earlier conversation, there had been some passing remarks about the Soviets’ nuclear arsenal in Latvia, for which he had had some responsibility, and apparently still some access. While my real purpose for being there was to design a volunteer program for business specialists, he assumed that was a front and I was really a spy. Or perhaps he thought, I really did want to buy an atomic bomb!
Have you always been a writer?
In the sense of enjoying to write, yes. I actually wrote my first stage play in fourth grade and started a novel in sixth grade, but I didn’t become a full-time fiction writer until twenty years ago. The first half of my adult life I spent working on projects to help low income people all over the world. I always enjoyed the writing aspects of my work—reports, proposals, even two credit manuals—but I reached a point where I’d accomplished my career goals, I was only forty-six years old, and I had a story I wanted to tell.
What was the story?
For over two years, I managed the U.S. Government’s first significant project to assist Palestinians following the 1993 Oslo Accords. One thing I learned was that everyone needed to be at the negotiating table to achieve an enduring peace. So I wrote a story of reconciliation—A Vision of Angels—that weaves together the lives of four characters and their families.
If anybody had ever hoped that a book might change the world, I did. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to bring about peace in the Middle East, but I’ve continued writing nevertheless.
The Fourth Courier has a strong sense of place. It’s obvious that you know Warsaw well. Other than living there, what special research did you do?
Warsaw is a city with a very distinctive character. It’s always atmospheric, verging on gloomy in winter, and the perfect location for a noir-ish thriller.
I had left Warsaw several years before I decided to write a novel set there, so I went back to refresh my memory. I looked at it entirely differently. What worked dramatically? Where would I set scenes in my story?
It was on that research trip when all the events along the Vistula River came together for me. There was a houseboat. There was Billy’s shack, and Billy himself whose “jaundiced features appeared pinched from a rotting apple.” There were sandbars reached by narrow concrete jetties and a derelict white building with a sign simply saying Nightclub. Fortunately, Billy’s dogs were tethered or I wouldn’t be here to answer your questions.
My main character is an FBI agent, and I didn’t know much about it. A friend, who was an assistant to Attorney General Janet Reno, arranged a private tour of the FBI’s training facility in Quantico. That was before 9/11. I don’t think that could be done now. Maybe for James Bond himself but not for a wannabe writer.
If I was going to write a novel about smuggling a portable atomic bomb, I needed to know what a bomb entailed. Weight, seize, basic design, fuel? How would a miniature bomb be detonated? So I blindly contacted the Department of Energy. I explained what I wanted and was soon connected to an atomic expert who agreed to meet with me.
We met on the weekend at a Starbucks-like coffee shop in Rockville, MD. We met in line and were already talking about atomic bombs before we ordered our coffees. He had brought basic drawings of them. He was an expert and eager to share his knowledge.
Can you imagine having that conversation in a café today, openly looking at how-to schematics for building an atomic bomb while sipping skinny lattés?
In The Fourth Courier, you team up a white straight FBI agent with a black gay CIA agent. Even Publishers Weekly commented that it seemed like an ideal set-up for a sequel. Do you plan to write one?
Probably not. My to-be-written list is already too long.
I’m close to finishing the final edits on a book set in Greek island village, which is more of a mystery about an arsonist than a thriller. I’ve already started a new novel set in Istanbul about a young refugee who’s recruited by the CIA to go deep undercover with ISIS. I’ve never written a novel set in the States but I have the idea for one.
To date, my books have been stand-alones with totally different settings, characters, and plots. I try to write what I like to read: smart mysteries/thrillers with strong plots and colorful characters set in interesting places. I suppose like me, I want my stories to travel around and meet new people.
You’ve had gay protagonists or important characters since your first novel over twenty years ago when gay literature had not yet become mainstream. How would you say that affected your choices as a writer, or did it?
Friends warned me that I shouldn’t become known as a gay writer because it would pigeonhole me and sideline me from consideration as a serious writer. At the time, I think the general public thought gay books were all about sex and more sex. Of course, already there were many emerging gay literary writers; it was more stigma than reality.
The world of thrillers and mysteries is still largely uninhabited by gays. Hopefully I am helping to change that. I also hope that my novels expand my readers’ understanding of homosexuality in the places where I set them. In The Fourth Courier, the gay angle is key to solving the case. In my other novels, too, the plot turns on something gay, and the way it does is always something that couldn’t have happened in the same way anywhere else because of the cultural context.
What do you want your readers to take away from The Fourth Courier?
What motivated me to write The Fourth Courier was a desire to portray what happened to ordinary Polish people at an exciting albeit unsettling moment in their country’s history. I hope my readers like my characters as much as I do—at least the good guys. The people are what made Poland such a great experience.
The Fourth Courier is my thank-you note to them.