Here’s an interview with author Raelynn Hillhouse. The mass market paperback edition of her novel, The Rift Zone, is available now.
Hello and welcome. Tell us whatever you’d care to share about your background.
I lived in Central and Eastern Europe during most of my twenties and during that time I was involved in some unique business opportunities: I ran Cuban rum between East and West Berlin, forged East Bloc visas and trafficked jewels and artwork out of the former Soviet Union. I was a smuggler and I loved my job.
I had some close calls. I’ve faced the barrels of Kalashnikovs and I’ve been chased by police. I’ve slipped across borders and I’ve talked my way through closed checkpoints. My phones have been tapped and my hotel rooms bugged. My friends have been questioned about me. In one very chilling experience, a friend disappeared at the hands of the Romanian secret police. And I’ve been recruited as a spy.
How did THE RIFT ZONE get started? Was being a novelist an early ambition?
My early ambitions were about adventure, academics and escaping the confines of rural life, not about writing novels. This changed because of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. I was in Berlin the following year in the winter of 1990-91 on a Fulbright researching my dissertation. East Berlin was a mess. The euphoria of the collapse of the Wall had descended into a deep depression among the East Germans. The social structures of that people had lived with for forty years were ripped away and there was nothing to replace it. There was a big void in everyone’s life. Awful as many aspects of communism were, people missed the good parts. I missed them. Gone was the tension of two incompatible political systems at war with one another, but forced to coexist in the same city. No more spy vs. spy. Pan Am no looped over downtown on approach just to remind the East German regime that they didn’t control their own skies. The West Berlin subway no longer slowed down when it passed through those eerie stations in the East that had been boarded up since 1961. And you didn’t hear those familiar sonic booms of MIGs reminding West Berliners they were surrounded. And one night in my cramped Berlin apartment I realized I could capture some of that amazing time now lost to history. Over ten years later, I finally got around to it and wrote RIFT ZONE.
Because of Faith Whitney’s unusual occupation it’s tempting to assume she’s based on your experiences. To what extent is the novel autobiographical?
It’s not a memoir, but it’s very much informed by my own life. The first chapters when Faith is recruited to spy for the East Germans is lifted almost directly from my life, but toned down to make believable fiction. I was living in West Berlin in the mid-1980s and one day I got a call from the East – and those were very rare because there were less than a dozen phone lines between both halves of the city of 3 million. It was Egon from the League for International Friendship, the Stasi-front organization that was sponsoring me to study in the East that fall. (Think CIA-USIA.) Egon wanted me to help the League by lugging an allegedly broken Xerox machine from the East through Checkpoint Charlie to his special repairman in the West. He wasn’t asking me to smuggle it West, but to openly transport it there. After that, he was sure he’d be able to help me get the special visa I wanted that would allow me to cross freely between East and West. His request raised more red flags than a May Day parade on Red Square, particularly since to use a copier or even work near one you had to have a security clearance. Somehow Egon managed to get through to West Berlin via phone almost every day and at almost the same time. The man clearly had connections.
We went through a crazy dance for months. My visa would get approved, then mysteriously revoked. I stalled. And I stalled. The Stasi was not an organization that took rejection well, so I figured it was best to play hard to get. I came up with every possible reason that I wanted nothing to do with that darn copier. For every excuse, Egon had a work-around: Repairs too costly? No problem. Egon offered Western cash to foot the bill-forget that West German Marks were forbidden to him. Forget that no organization was allowed to keep petty cash in Western currency-not that they could ever get a hold of the scare resource. Too heavy? Not an issue. Egon would personally drag it to the border. Too heavy on the Western side? Egon knew just what to do, even though he had never been allowed to travel to the West: cross at Checkpoint Charlie instead of my usual Friedrichstrasse because there was a taxi stand just across the Western side. Hmmâ€¦Worried the guards would think I was stealing State property? No worries. Egon would to write a note to the border guards (as in Stasi border guards) explaining that I wasn’t really stealing state property, but doing the League a favor.
I managed to dodge them until they took a new approach with me, however, in RIFT ZONE, Faith isn’t so lucky.
Every writer follows a unique path to publication; how did you go about yours?
One day my former agent faxed me a half-dozen rejection letters from editors with two words scrawled across the page: looks grim. I was crushed. The market was and still is incredibly bad for first fiction and no one was willing to take a chance on a Cold War thriller.After a few days of sulking, I realized nothing would happen if I didn’t take things into my own hands. I cruised the internet as I tried to figure out my angle of attack. I learned that an editor who was still considering the manuscript was scheduled to be at a conference that weekend in San Diego. He had lived in post-communist Prague for several years, so I figured this guy was my best shot. The only problem was that I was finishing up production of a multi-million dollar contract proposal for my employer – due the next day – and I’d have to leave Hawaii for the Mainland the next morning to get to the conference in time. I didn’t get much sleep that night.
The editor had read the first half of the manuscript on his flight to San Diego and loved it, but I knew it took a lot more than that to make a sale. Evenings I hung out with him along with some other editors. He was a very heavy drinker and I rarely touch alcohol nowadays, but fortunately I’m Russian-trained.
He bought the book.
You’ve chronicled some of your promotional efforts for the novel on Publishers Marketplace. What was the highlight of the tour?
The hardcover of RIFT ZONE came out around the 15th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Every year the German embassy in DC hosts a banquet for former American spies and soldiers who defended West Berlin during the Cold War. It was amazing to walk into the embassy, see copies of RIFT ZONE on every table and to autograph books for people who had played such key roles in what I was writing about. Particularly fun was collecting business cards from the CIA guys-they were always from some bland cover organization like, “Tennis Courts, International.”
One of the elements of THE RIFT ZONE is Faith’s sense of humor. A lot of writing professionals fear humor lessens tension. Did you have to battle your editor to retain the wit?
There were no battles. Humor is one way that people use to deal with a stressful situation. When it’s done well, it doesn’t detract from the tension, but rather shows the nervousness of the character as and at the same time reveals something about that character.
Given all that’s happened since the Berlin wall came down, do you see THE RIFT ZONE as a historical novel? Many of the icons of the era, from Erich Honeker to the Pan Am Clipper no longer exist.
It’s very much a historical novel which meant like in good science fiction, I had to create the experience for the reader of being in a very alien world. I couldn’t assume any background and I had to be very subtle in how I introduced the reader into this world. And I was a stickler for accuracy – particularly with cultural icons like Pan Am. I consulted with a former Pan Am pilot to make sure I got everything accurate.
In what way has the experience of being published met or exceeded your expectations?
It’s been a rollercoaster with incredible peaks and other times when I’ve had to hold on for dear life while screaming my lungs out on the plummets. As I write this I’m in Hollywood where a top TV packager is pulling together a TV series based on my life. Several networks are interested and I just came out of meetings with, among others, Mel Gibson and Jennifer Lopez’s production companies. This is light years beyond my expectations, but I know Hollywood well enough to know more often than not things don’t come together. My gut feels the rollercoaster climbing higher and higher, so listen for the screams. Whatever happens, it’s been a hell of a ride.
Can you tell us anything about your next book?
OUTSOURCED is about a Pentagon operative who infiltrates a for-profit private military corporation suspected of selling seized arms caches to terrorists and who becomes a target in the multi-billion dollar War on Terror. The only one he can trust is his ex-fiancee who’s been hired to kill him. It comes out with Forge in early 2007.
Any thoughts youâ€™d care to share about the state of the book business? I think V.S. Naipaul has predicted the imminent demise of the novel; what’s your take?
Let’s see who has the earlier demise – VS Naipaul or the novel. I know where I’m placing my wagerâ€¦
Thanks for being with us.