Thursday, April 7, 2011

Author Interview: Gary Noesner on Stalling for Time

From time to time I present blog interviews with authors of books I liked. Gary Noesner, author of Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator, was kind enough to answer my questions. In hopes of introducing you to an articulate writer and in generating interest in his memoir, here are Gary's answers to my questions.

1. Let's begin with why you wanted to be an FBI agent. You write in the book that your interest started when you were a kid. Can you give people who have not yet read your book what triggered your interest? I wanted to become an FBI agent from watching the Mickey Mouse Club on TV. Yep - the one and only. I was about 12 and while watching the daily show after school one day they did an espisode on the FBI. They visited FBI Headquarters, interviewed Hoover, and shot machine guns on the firing range. I was sold by the tales of chasing spies, bank robbers, and kidnappers. After that, it's all I ever wanted to do.

2. One thing I've heard is that the FBI does everything by the book. I was interested in your episodes of writing a "new book" for negotiation rather than the use of force. Can you talk a little about how you went about this? Was it frustrating to run up against the J. Edgar Hoover approach to ending a standoff? The FBI may not always do things by the book to the extent that you might believe. It's true that the FBI is a bureacracy and as such is generally resistent to change and innovation. The same holds for most law enforcement and the military in my view. Still, the FBI has historically been in the lead in a number of law enforcement innovations and negotiations was certainly one of them. We didn't event the approach, but we perfected and marketed it worldwide. When moving the FBI's negotiation program away from the limitations of a pure bargaining approach to a more crisis intervention model, there was much support adminstratively. The resistence more likely came from field commanders who held onto some of the traditional beliefs about the projection of power. This was the core problem issue at Waco.

3. I particularly liked some of the less well-known events in the book. Can you tell your readers why you picked the Cubans seizing the Talladega Federal Correctional Institution? Is there a particular message you had in mind in this negotiation? I thought the Talladega Prison incident would be instructive to the reader by showing a very dangerous situation in which the prisoners had been dealt with in the past, but had not had their grievances adequately addressed by the government. With that as a backdrop, they began the siege very resistant to any negotiation efforts. This made our job at obtaining a peaceful resolution extremely difficult. They simply didn't believe us and felt we were only trying to trick them into submission. Despite these challenges, the negotiation effort yielded significant results. I felt this would show the reader that even in desperate circumstances the negotiation process can do much to achieve a positive outcome.

4. Once you decided to write this book, how much of it did the FBI have to vet? ('m assuming you hold a security clearance and have to secure permission to write anything about the FBI. Right?) My security clearances, which were quite high, basically ended with my government service. However, like all FBI employees, I was required to submit my full manuscript to FBIHQ for final approval. That approval process does not concern itself with content. The FBI is only able to block information which is classified in nature or discloses sensitive investigative techniques, which does not encompass hostage negotiations. While writing the book I avoided including any classified information knowing that doing so would create a problem.

5. Many people want to know the process you went through to find an agent. Did you send in a query letter and book proposal? Or did you have a personal connection with your agent before you decided to write the book? When I decided that I wanted to write a book, I went to lunch with my friend Peter Bergen. Peter is a CNN analyst and has written two books on Osama Bin Laden. Peter kindly put me in contact with his literary agent and she was absolutely wonderful. Her support and guidance made all the difference in my securing a contract with Random House.

6. From beginning to publication, how long did the writing, editing and publication process take? I wrote the book in about one year. I delivered twice the length of material than contracted for, knowing it would be cut back considerably. The editing process took over a year. This process was very time consuming and was also sporadic in that often weeks or longer would go by before I would receive additional feedback from my editor regarding the suggested changes I had made. My editor was extremely helpful and provided much sound advice, but due to other manuscripts he was working on, I often had to wait before we could proceed to the next phase of our work.

7. Many of us who write are multi-draft writers. I probably rewrite chapters over ten times until I get them "right." How many drafts did you go through? I don't know that I can count the number of drafts per se, but each individual chapter was worked on extensively. I did not encounter a situation where I had to significantly change an individual chapter, but my editor would often ask for more of one thing and perhaps less of another. Each time I touched the manuscript for a particular chapter I would tweek it to slowly get it to where I felt it was just the way I wanted it. One of my daughters, an English teacher, also read each chapter and provided critical feedback on both content and style.

8. How much interaction did you have with your editor at Random House? Was s/he instrumental in shaping the final book? Or did you come to the editor with a firm concept in mind of how you wanted to book to turn out? I had a good idea of what stories I wanted to include in my book, but I was a bit conflicted over story telling versus teaching lessons. In the end, with my editor's support, we decided to tell good stories within which key negotiation teaching points were embedded. In addition to the book being a personal story about my life, I wanted it to bring credit to the law enforcement negotiatino profession, and also serve as a learning tool for current and future law enforcement leaders who must command these incidents. It was my goal to influence the business while also entertain the reader. I hope I accomplished this. As the book got into its final draft, my editor spent a significant amount of time with me on the phone going over almost the entire book. I did all the writing, but he helped me stay on point, add in information that added value, and drop information which wasn't necessary to the story.

9. What are you writing now? You must have another book in you. Will it be non-fiction again or will you try fiction? I'm not currently writing, however, I have two clear ideas for my next project, which I probaby won't undertake until the Fall. One is another non-fiction work along similar lines and the other is a fictional work inspired by the true life events in which I was involved. Right now if I started that effort I would be in hot water with my wife, so it will have to wait for the quieter Fall and Winter months.

10. What are the last three books you read for pleasure and why? The book I just finished was Modoc about the circus elephant. It's such a wonderful and well written story. I could hardly put it down. My wife strongly recommended it to me. I was in Africa some years ago with my son and a herd of about 60 elephants crossed the road a short distance in front of our car. Watching the matriarch supervise her large flock and mothers protect their babies was so moving and wonderful to see. I'll always treasure that moment, so I guess the book had a special appeal to me. I try to intersperse fiction with non-fiction. But for entertainment, I've recently been reading books by Bernard Cornwell, the historical novelist. I just read the three books in the Arthur tales and before that the five books in the Saxon tales. I also read a book not long ago called "The Religion." I cannot recall the author's name right now, but it's another historical novel set in Malta that I enjoyed very much.

I find that I like a good yarn that also teaches me something about the past. A few months ago I read the "World's Wettist County" about the Franklin County moonshine trade around the depression. Since I live in the county I found it historically interesting.

11. I'm sure there are questions I haven't asked. Please feel free to add anything else that you feel important. An additional goal in writing my book was to share with readers the essential interpersonal communication skills that I believe help people be successful in life. By that I mean successful in relationships with spouses, children, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and almost anyone that you might interact with. If the skills I learned and share in the book work in high stress dangerous situations, than certainly they can benefit us all in less critical interactions we have with others.

If you think Gary's book is interesting and something you'd like to read, click on the link in the opening paragraph to go out to Amazon. Yes, the book is for sale there. Yes, this is a blatant sales pitch. But, hey, I can make it. I didn't write the book.

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