An Interview With the Author:
Linda Thompson of “The Authors Show” recently interviewed me. Click below to listen to the replay.
What motivated you to write Conclave?
As time has passed, I think the significance of John Paul II’s election as pope has been under-appreciated. It was a turning point in the Cold War – not recognized then but worth recognition now. Since having heard the old story while I was at State that the US played a role in his election, I thought it would make a good story. So, when I retired from corporate life, and had the time, I researched and wrote it. Besides, I think subconsciously I wanted to show my sons – the older a sports editor for USA Today and the younger an English Professor at Northwestern – that Dad could write a story 433 pages long.
What did they say when they read it?
To be honest, despite my best efforts, I don’t think either one of them ever had the time to get more than half way through it. Neither the NFL nor the demands of collegiate-level teaching ever stop. They said they loved what they read, so I’ll be content with that for now.
So, even if the story is unlikely, your fictional characters are drawn from real people you have known?
Yes, they are. And that’s what made it fun to write. Carter Caldwell is a composite character, but mainly he’s my old West Point faculty colleague, Colonel Ty Cobb, who served for six years on President Reagan’s NSC staff. Ty coordinated Reagan’s meetings with John Paul II. Katherine is a composite of two former corporate colleagues who had served in the CIA earlier in their lives. Katherine’s background is largely from one, and her personality from the other. Others, however, such as Cardinal Katic, Bruce Harrison, Avery Dugan and Dimitry Zhukov are fully fictional.
Did you also use names from people you have met or known?
Oh, sure. “Carter” was the first name of the son of a State Department friend, and I always liked the name. “Caldwell” was the last name of the army colonel in charge of summer training my plebe year at West Point. And his son was a friend I met later in my own army career… he’s now a retired lieutenant general. One of the really remarkable women who have served in the Defense Department was Katherine Hicks, once the Under Secretary for Policy… and she goes by “Kath.” I liked that. So I paired Kath’s name with the last name of my battalion operations officer from Desert Storm, Chris O’Connor. Since Kath was going to be Catholic in the story, I wanted it to sound a bit Irish. I selected “Myshkin” for the last name of the Rome KGB chief from the back-up goalie on the Soviet 1980 Olympic hockey team. I just liked the name – better than that of the starting goalie, Tretiak. And I also liked Matteo Ferrari, who was the chef at one of my favorite San Francisco area restaurants. I took the “Avery” for Avery Dugan from John Foster Dulles’ son, Avery Dulles, who was a Catholic priest and later in life was made a cardinal. Doing research, I found that Avery Dugan gave the funeral homily for Pope John Paul I’s memorial service in Washington, which I found quite interesting.
You’ve mentioned several times that you’re not Catholic, so what creates the interest in the Catholic Church?
I wish I knew the answer to that. I really should, but I really don’t. I think it comes from a trip my family took to Rome in late 1957 or early 1958 on the way back from Saudi Arabia where my father worked for Aramco. My father hired a guide and we toured the city. We drove right in to the center of St. Peter’s Square. No one was there. It was completely empty. But the massive size of the church made a strong impression on me. Then later in the year Pope Pius XII died, and I remember watching TV in Lexington as the cardinals gathered in the Vatican. It was so exciting for me to see them in a famous place I had recently been. The 1958 conclave was the first to get international television coverage. And after that conclave was over, the Pope was John XXIII, who physically reminded me of my grandfather, Bourbon McCain. Shortly after, there were the discussions I overheard in the Rosemont Baptist Church, and between my Mom and Dad, over Kennedy being a Catholic in the 1960 campaign, which were intriguing. For Baptists back then, the Catholic Church was hard to understand. And there’s one other dimension: the Catholic Church and the army have a lot in common. Both have long histories, are always led by capable and notable people, are very hierarchical, and heavy on tradition and ritual. That may explain why the cadet corps at West Point is disproportionately Catholic. I suspect the same might be true at Annapolis and Colorado Springs
Do you think anything like the events described could have occurred?
Oh, I seriously doubt it. For one thing, in the fall of 1978 the Carter administration was up to its eyeballs with the final details of the Camp David agreement, trying to get a new SALT treaty with the Soviet Union, worrying about the Shah of Iran, and trying to find a formula for establishing diplomatic relations with China while skirting the Taiwan issue. They had a very full plate. It took a giant intellect like Zbigniew Brzezinski’s to manage it all. And unlike today where the NSC supposedly numbers over 400, Zbig only had forty or so. I would imagine what was going on in Rome was interesting to the NSC, but did not make the top ten… or twenty. Of course, we’ll never know. I believe the only cardinal still alive who participated in John Paul II’s election would be Cardinal Ratzinger of Germany, or Pope Benedict XVI as he is now better known. I’m not expecting he’ll write a memoir. And the votes are all burned in the stove, so there are no records.
Was there some model for the book – so to speak?
Somewhat. I enjoyed the historical fiction work of Herman Wouk, and had Katherine reading War and Remembrance in the book. I liked the way Wouk co-mingled historical and fictional characters, particularly in the way he treated Admiral Spruance in Wouk’s telling of the 1942 Battle of Midway. I enjoyed Tom Clancy’s fiction, more when Jack Ryan was in it, but I thought he did a masterful job in Red Storm Rising without Ryan. Frederick Forsyth has always been a favorite. And I really enjoyed my good friend Mike Pocalyko’s The Navigator. Mike and I were military fellows together at the Atlantic Council years ago – Mike was Navy and I was Army. He was very helpful in suggesting ways to craft Conclave, most significantly by suggesting a female character – who became Katherine. And I should also mention Leon Uris. I read Exodus in high school and found it riveting.
You were an army officer and later a corporate executive. Did that play some role in your selecting the election of a pope as the topic for the book?
Oh, certainly. I have always been interested in government processes, particularly how heads of state and heads of government are selected. And in the corporate world, the appointment of members of boards and CEOs. I enjoyed teaching cadets at West Point the comparative politics portion of the required “US Politics and Government” course. I got a glimpse later, while a young military assistant to the Secretary of the Army, on how the Army Chief of Staff was chosen, and how political appointments are made. Many processes are highly opaque, with the election of a pope certainly being one.
What readership are you looking for? Are there any groups in particular?
Well, obviously Catholics. I have had several Catholic friends read the book as I wanted it to be complimentary of the Church, showing that it could rise to the moment when needed – which is how I see the election of John Paul II. I didn’t recognize the longer term impact back in 1978 while I was in grad school at Harvard, but that’s how I see it now. Hopefully the book will benefit to some degree from the “Francis effect.” I hope it will appeal to the Cold War generations as Bridge of Spies and the TV show The Americans have. And, I fear the Cold War, in a different form, is coming back. I hope the book appeals to those who have liked Clancy and Forsyth. I think people who have had careers in the federal government will recognize certain things, such as the “blame line.” And, I hope it will appeal to women, who Mike Pocalyko tells me read more books than men.
What about the technology used in the book? It’s not quite James Bond, but was it feasible at the time – such as the use of cell phones?
I researched the technology. And they basically fit in the time frame of the story as described. In the late 1970s people were just developing cell phones and Lithium Ion Batteries. Heat resistant coatings for ships and buildings were coming along. And, for fun, I threw in the army’s Tacfire computer, which was such a technological and operational dog. The technology for it was always a step behind its envisioned use, and by the time it was fielded in the early 1980s it was largely obsolete. So, in the book, I gave it a successful role… a small acknowledgment of the hard work done in Knox Hall at Ft. Sill trying to make the thing operate. My former army artillery colleagues get a big laugh at its mention.
You’ve said you patterned the relationship between Carter and Katherine to be like that between Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in many of their movies. So, if Conclave were to become a movie, who do you see playing Carter and Katherine?
Well, wouldn’t that be nice… to have to make those decisions. I guess they wouldn’t be entrusted to me. I suspect it would be hard to find actors and actresses as tall as Carter and Katherine, but I’m sure there are some. The description of Katherine is largely Taylor Swift, and she’s tall… as is Charlize Theron… or maybe Scarlett Johansson, but I think she’s smaller. I liked Kristen Wiig in The Martian. And for Carter, maybe I’d suggest Austin Stowell from Bridge of Spies, or Ryan Reynolds or Chris Pine. I’m sure there are many great young actors out there I’ve never heard of.
Is there another book out there?
There is. If you paid attention to the Prologue, you probably picked up that there is a journey ahead for Carter and Katherine. I’m sure, like the journeys of all couples, it’ll have some twists and turns, some highs and lows… but you already know they’ll get there.
Have you decided on a subject or setting for the next book?
Probably the Middle East, as my wife Denise and I are “Aramco Brats,” and grew up over there. Plus I taught Middle Eastern Politics and Government at West Point, served briefly on President Reagan’s Palestinian Autonomy Negotiating Team, and led an artillery battalion in Desert Storm. And I wrote a book about the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, 40 Kilometers Into Lebanon. So, it would be the leading contender, but… maybe not. Something has to strike me! But I’m sure it will.