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Q&A with Charles Kowalski

Can you describe what your book is about in one sentence?

A peace-loving religion professor, striving to atone for his crimes as a military interrogator, must help stop deadly biological attacks on the world’s great pilgrimage sites on their holiest days.

What is the theme of Mind Virus?

Mainly, that the fanaticism that leads to violence can be found anywhere, whether among religious believers or nonbelievers, and the will to seek peace and understanding can also be found anywhere.

How do you develop your plots and characters?

Everything begins with “What if…?” In this case, the question was, “Everyone is always talking about terror in the name of religion; could there be terror in the name of atheism?” From this question flows the rest of the plot and the characters. It was easy to develop Robin Fox; he’s the person I might have been if my life had taken a slightly different turn. As for the other characters, they may be loosely patterned on a real person, or a composite of several. If a minor character doesn’t seem sufficiently well-developed, I ask myself: if I were an actor, how would I play this character? How would I see the story from his or her point of view, since in our own minds, we’re always the central character of any story we appear in?

What was your favorite part of writing Mind Virus?

Following in my protagonist’s footsteps in Israel, Vatican City, and England.

Give us some insight into your main character. What does he do that is special? What are his character flaws?

One reader described Robin Fox as “Indiana Jones meets Sherlock Holmes: brilliant, moral, instinctive, with uncanny powers of perception.” Having seen a great deal of the world as the son of a Foreign Service officer, he is multilingual, culturally adaptable, able to survive in just about any country, but never completely at home anywhere. After his traumatic experience in Iraq, he is passionately committed to peace and nonviolence, to the point where he sometimes hesitates when decisive action may be called for.

If you could spend time with a character from your book, which character would it be? And what would you do during that day?

I would love to spend a day with Robin Fox, listening to his stories about all the places he’s traveled in search of enlightenment—meditating with monks in the Himalayas, whirling with dervishes in Turkey, sweating with shamans in the American Southwest—and asking what conclusions he’s drawn about the beliefs that unite the world’s faith traditions.

Tell us about the conflict in this book. What is at stake for your characters?

There are many layers of conflict. The main one, of course, is the race to stop the villain before he can start a worldwide epidemic. There’s also the undercurrent of tension between Fox and his CIA counterpart, John Adler, and Fox’s anxiety that the more he cooperates, the deeper he’s dragged back into a chapter in his life that he wanted to keep closed forever. And to top it all off, there’s danger to the woman for whom Fox secretly harbors an impossible love.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating Mind Virus?

I learned a great deal about the subtle art of interrogation. Stories of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (a code word for torture) dominated the news during the Iraq War, but the best interrogators would probably dismiss those as crude and ineffective. Good interrogators have to be keen students of psychology and talented actors, capable of improvising themselves into whatever role will help them earn the subject’s trust. Fox summed it up when he reflected, “In any interrogation, the most important questions are the ones that aren’t asked. Who is this person? What does he want most? What does he fear most? Once you know the answers to those, the field is won.”

Mind Virus seems to have some technical aspects that appear to require some expertise or background in the field. How did you come by this information? (Is it in your background, or did you just do research?)

Mind Virus was a very research-intensive book. Very little in my own background prepared me for it, so I read everything I could get my hands on and consulted everyone willing to share their experience and expertise with me.

What makes your book different from other books in your genre?

Mind Virus isn’t the typical thriller that pits the infallible West, led by the invincible United States, against the dark forces of Islam. It paints the world in more shades of gray (though perhaps not fifty!). And Fox is quite different from the standard-issue action-adventure protagonist; he’s a reluctant hero, tormented by remorse and self-doubt, who always prefers nonviolence over violence when he has a choice.

Of all the characters you have created, which is your favorite and why?

Of course, Robin Fox is my favorite, but his antagonist is a close second. It was great fun to read authors from Nietzsche to Harris and combine the nastiest parts of their philosophies into one monomaniacal psychopath from hell. His appearance may be brief, but he gets some of the best lines in the book.

What are some of your favorite authors or books?

Of course, I took some inspiration from the big names in the genre, like Lee Child. Tana French showed me it’s possible to write genre fiction with a literary flair. Dan Brown, Daniel Silva, and Jeffrey Small paved the way for thrillers with religious themes. Barry Eisler and Barry Lancet showed me it’s possible for Japan-based authors to produce books with worldwide appeal; I’m hoping the same will prove true even for one who isn’t named Barry! And the list wouldn’t be complete without Leo J. Maloney, who ever since our chance meeting at Killer Nashville has been very generous with his time and expertise and always gave me a dose of encouragement at just the time I needed it.

What other projects are you working on?

I have other Robin Fox novels in the works, the next one set in my adopted homeland of Japan. I’m also working on a standalone thriller featuring an archaeologist who, in the course of an undercover operation to recover artifacts stolen from Iraq, finds evidence that she is descended from an extraterrestrial race tasked with saving humanity from an impending disaster.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Forget what they say about “write what you know.” Write what excites your imagination, and the knowledge you need can be acquired. And if a story grabs hold of you and won’t let go . . . tell it! Pay no attention to the inner voices that say “this is no good” or “no one else will be interested in it.” Believe in yourself, even when it feels like no one else does. To paraphrase Florence Foster Jenkins, people may say you can’t write, but never let it be said that you didn’t write.

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