Robin Fox, peace-loving professor of world religions, wants only to leave his dark past as a military interrogator behind him. But when an unknown suspect tries to disperse a deadly virus in downtown Washington, Fox is unwillingly drawn back into the shadowy world of intelligence.
The FBI and CIA automatically suspect Islamic terrorists, but Fox digs deeper to discover the far more frightening truth: a global conspiracy to eradicate all religion from the face of the earth.
From Washington to Jerusalem, from Rome to London, Fox must use all his wits in a perilous race to stop a psychopathic mastermind from unleashing worldwide devastation.
Charles Kowalski is almost as much a citizen of the world as his fictional character, Robin Fox, having lived abroad for over 15 years, visited over 30 countries, and studied over 10 languages. His unpublished debut novel, Mind Virus, won the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Colorado Gold Award and was a finalist for the Adventure Writers’ Competition, the Killer Nashville Claymore Award, and the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association literary award.
Charles currently divides his time between Japan, where he teaches English at a university, and his family home in Maine.
Mind Virus is scheduled for publication by Literary Wanderlust on July 1, 2017.
Other novels and short stories by Charles Kowalski:
“Let This Cup Pass From Me”
“Arise, My Love”
“The Evil I Do Not Mean To Do”
Charles can be found at his website, and on Facebook and Twitter (@CharlesKowalski).
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.
How do you choose which genre to write in?
I chose the mystery/thriller genre because as long as there’s an unsolved mystery or a looming danger, readers will keep reading, and a great deal of philosophy can be woven into the narrative as long as the action keeps moving along.
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.
Tell us about your background. What made you decide to pursue writing?
I’ve been writing stories ever since I learned to write, and finished my first (unpublished) novel at the age of 17. I write fiction because my mind naturally frames things in terms of stories; that’s how I try to make sense of complex issues. I also find that, especially on controversial and polarizing issues, the best way—perhaps the only way—of getting people to see an alternative point of view is through story.
What is your writing process?
I’m a plotter. I can’t start a manuscript without a clear idea of how the story is going to go. Once I have the plot in mind, I write the scenes I’m inspired to write, in no particular order, and often in layers: dialogue first, then narration, and finally description. And of course, however carefully I plan, there are always surprises, and the finished product is never quite what I had envisioned at first. I find that telling a story isn’t like carving wood or stone, it’s more like cultivating a bonsai. You’re not working with a slab of lifeless material but with something living, and you can try to direct it into the shape you want, but you also have to pay attention to the way it naturally grows.
Tell us about the challenges of getting your book published. How did it come about?
It was indeed a challenge. The manuscript won more than its fair share of awards and nominations, and agents and editors found the premise intriguing, but not enough to sign, possibly because they felt the story was too controversial to make it past a risk-averse editorial board. But after dissipating my savings in writers’ conferences, I finally met—on a Twitter pitch fest, of all places—an editor willing to take a leap of faith, Susan Brooks.
What is your favorite genre to read?
I like to read in the genre I like to write in: mysteries and thrillers. I also read a fair bit of middle-grade fantasy these days, since I have a son who’s that age, and I’m working on a project in that genre as well.
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.
Do you have a day job in addition to being a writer? If so, what do you do during the day?
I teach English at a university in Japan. Living abroad adds an extra layer of challenge to the writing process. I often feel somewhat out of touch with contemporary American culture, and research that for a U.S.-based writer would take only a simple trip to the local library, or a call to a local expert, for me requires careful planning and considerable expense. But on the other hand, field research in exotic locations is easier, and living at a distance from my native culture gives me a different perspective from writers who are immersed in it.
What motivates you to write?
50% inspiration and 50% desperation. Sometimes a story appears out of nowhere, grabs hold of me, and won’t let me go until I tell it, and Mind Virus was one such. Also, as a long-term expatriate, writing was also a way for me to maintain a connection with the world I left behind.
Why did you write Mind Virus?
The idea came about in response to the “New Atheist” movement, and the way its icons—Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, David Silverman, the late Christopher Hitchens—proclaim that all the world’s problems would be solved if we could just get rid of religion. Living in a very secular country, I often hear this sentiment echoed, to the point where I began to wonder: What if someone were to carry this idea to its extreme, and decide religion must be eradicated by violent means if necessary? It started out in a satirical, tongue-in-cheek vein, putting atheists in the shoes of Muslims, always under suspicion because of the acts of a few extremists (“Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to carry books by Christopher Hitchens through airport security”), but the more I wrote, the more frighteningly plausible it felt.
Who did you write Mind Virus for (audience)?
Anyone who enjoys a thriller with philosophical underpinnings. People of faith and lovers of peace will identify with Fox most closely, but it was very gratifying to discover that nonbelievers and military veterans also enjoyed the story.
Where can we find you online?
On my website, charleskowalski.com, on Facebook at charles.kowalski.author, or on Twitter at @CharlesKowalski.
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.
What are the most important elements of good writing? According to you, what tools are must-haves for writers?
The writers I most enjoy reading, even in gritty, down-to-earth genres, have a touch of the poet in them; they can create original, evocative images and make words do things they hadn’t known they could. Writing my first novel left me feeling that the most important quality for a writer is empathy, the ability to see the world through the eyes of someone from a vastly different background. Especially, to create engaging villains, you have to see how the world makes sense from their point of view, even if it’s the polar opposite of yours. For me, a good villain is one who makes the reader ask, “If I had the same experience as this person, can I be absolutely sure I wouldn’t have done the same things?” Apart from that, I’ll let W. Somerset Maugham have the last word on this one: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
Any last thoughts?
I hope you enjoy Mind Virus—and if you do, please help spread it!