Interview with T.H.E. Hill: 'Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary'

T.H.E. Hill (center, left), the author of Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary, served with the U.S. Army Security Agency at Field Station Berlin in the mid-1970s, after a tour at Herzo Base in the late 1960s. He is a three-time graduate of the Defense Language Institute (DLIWC) in Monterey, California, the alumni of which are called "Monterey Marys". The Army taught him to speak Russian, Polish, and Czech; three tours in Germany taught him to speak German, and his wife taught him to speak Dutch. He has been a writer his entire adult life, but now retired from Federal Service, he writes what he wants, instead of the things that others tasked him to write while he was still working.

You can learn more about T.H.E. Hill and his books at:
www.VoicesUnderBerlin.com

Welcome to The Writer's Life, Tom. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how long you’ve been writing?

[Tom]I have been a consumer of the written word and a writer all my adult life. My family did not have the money to send me to college, and no scholarships were coming my way, but I nevertheless wanted to get out and see the world, so I joined the Army. That was where I started writing, and I've been writing ever since. Somebody sat me down in front of a stack of files, said "read all this stuff, and then write me a report about it." They seemed to like what I was doing, because they kept bringing me things to read and report on. So I wrote more and more and more reports, and eventually discovered that it was addictive. I've been writing constantly since I was about 20, which is roughly four decades. During the time that people paid me to write reports, the clarity of your prose and the correctness of your analysis were the gauges by which a writer's product was judged. I would ask that those who look askance at novelists with this kind of writing background to recall that Hemingway was a journalist, who started out writing for his high school newspaper, became a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star, later was a correspondent for the Toronto Star, then wrote dispatches from the Spanish Civil War and covered World War II. Mark Twain worked as a journalist for twenty years before he wrote his first novel. Shelley Fisher Fishkin's From Fact to Fiction: Journalism & Imaginative Writing in America (1985) provides an exhaustive account of the impact that journalism has had on American literature. To paraphrase Mark Twain, "In the real world, the right thing never happens in the right place and the right time. It is the job of historical novelists to make it appear that it has." That is what I've done with Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary.

Can you please tell us about your book and why you wrote it?

[Tom] Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary is ostensibly about the pre-wall Berlin Spy Tunnel that the CIA used to tap Russian telecommunications cables in the mid-1950s. It became famous, when it was discovered by the Soviets, 54 years ago this month, on 21 April 1956. The Time Magazine article (7 May 1956) about the discovery was entitled "BERLIN: Wonderful Tunnel." In the article the tunnel is described by a German journalist as "the best publicity the U.S. has had in Berlin for a long time." • You can learn more about the Berlin Spy Tunnel at the on-line Cold War Museum. The yarn in the novel is told from both ends of the tunnel. One end is the story of the Americans who worked the tunnel. The main character—Kevin—is a "Monterey Mary," which is Army slang for a Linguist. He is the one who has to transcribe the Russian conversations that are coming off the cable tap. This part of the story is about the fight of the tunnel rats for a sense of purpose against boredom, and against the enemy both within and without.

Reviewers have compared the novel to Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Richard Hooker's M*A*S*H*, and Hans Helmut Kirst's Zero Eight Fifteen, perhaps better known in America as The Revolt of Gunner Asch.
The other end of the tunnel is the story of the Russians whose telephone calls the Americans are intercepting. Their side of the tale is told in the unnarrated transcripts of their calls. They are the voices under Berlin. This part of the novel has been compared to Henrik Ibsen’s "play for voices," Peer Gynt, which is usually considered very hard to stage due to its accent on the aural, rather than on the visual. This unusual literary technique is intended to help the reader understand the ear-centric worldview of the people who had to transcribe the Russians’ conversations. The result is a new type of spy novel, as unique as Berlin herself. It is Cloak-and-dagger with headphones. "A Spy Novel that Breaks all the Molds," was what one reviewer called it. I wrote Voices Under Berlin, because I wanted to record what it was like to fight the Secret Cold war for posterity. When their children ask "What did you do in the Cold War?," most Secret Cold War veterans, have to say something trite, like "If I told you, I'd have to shoot you." I wanted to give voice to some of their stories so that they would not disappear when the generations of Kevins and Fast Eddies who are sworn to silence shuffle off this mortal coil. Voices Under Berlin may not be exactly the story that each and every one of them would like to tell, but it is close enough so that people who fought the Secret Cold War in places other than Berlin say that they felt right at home while reading it. I wanted Secret Cold War vets to be able to answer their children and grandchildren with: "I can't tell you exactly, but why don't you read Voices Under Berlin?" A number of secret Cold War veterans have done just that. And I wanted to entertain people with what I was writing. Judging from the reactions I've gotten from readers I was pretty successful. Voices Under Berlin has garnered five book awards thus far.

What kind of research was involved in writing Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary?

[Tom] The story is hung loosely on the historical background of the CIA cross-sector tunnel in Berlin in the mid-1950s, and that came primarily from three sources: 1) Battleground Berlin, a book on the Intelligence war in Berlin written by a former chief of the CIA Base in Berlin in cooperation with a retired KGB Chief of German operations from that period. It has a whole chapter on the tunnel. 2) Spies Beneath Berlin by David Stafford of the University of Edinburgh. 3) The Official CIA history of the tunnel that was prepared in August 1967 and declassified in February 2007. The historical background for occupied Berlin during the tunnel period came from a number of sources such as Berlin Before the Wall by Hsi-Huey Liang and a series of booklets published by Berlin Command for distribution to newcomers. The fact that these army booklets are quite rare and are not to be found in libraries—even in the Library of Congress—made me decide to reprint them as a single volume after I completed Voices Under Berlin. Those interested in the reprint can find it on Amazon.com as Berlin in Early Cold-War Army Booklets. The booklets contain a wealth of background information on occupied Berlin at the time of the tunnel. It has found a good reception with the reading public. On Amazon.com, it is listed as the “Also Bought Together” companion of Voices Under Berlin.

Has it been a bumpy ride to becoming a published author or has it been pretty well smooth sailing?

[Tom] The twenty-first century is a time in which good books are finding it progressively more difficult to be accepted by a publisher, so a bumpy ride is undoubtedly the road most traveled these days. I had the typical series of rejection letters. The final count was 47. The only people who sail into representation by an agent or get a book contract on their first try have names like Madonna, Sharon Osbourne, or Sarah Palin.

The specific problem with Voices Under Berlin is that it is a different kind of spy novel. It is the kind of thing that has not been done before. One reviewer called it "A Spy Novel that Breaks all the Molds." And therein lies the problem. More and more these days publishers and agents are looking for what was selling last week, rather than for something new. I think that is best illustrated by one of the responses I got when the manuscript was making the rounds of literary agents in search representation.

It was the best rejection letter I got. Almost all the others were just form letters with some vacuous reason for rejection like "It does not fit our current requirements." This agent, however, took the time to write me a personal letter, in which he said that Voices Under Berlin was very Helleresque, but that it would sell better with more sex and violence.

I very much appreciated his taking the time to do so, but that wasn’t the kind of book that I had set out to write. I wanted to write a book that was based on the reality of the mind numbing boredom of a Sunday mid while you’re waiting for the target’s loose lips to sink a ship.

Readers' reactions to Voices Under Berlin indicate that I was right on the mark. The one that that, perhaps, illustrates this point best was from a soldier who is currently fighting the Secret War in the mid-East. In a post on the Military.com Discussion Boards, he said "I thought it was hilarious how some of the SIGINT/linguist jokes and eccentricities have virtually remained unchanged in sixty years . . . I can assure you the same situations are being played out in Iraq and Afghanistan as I type this. :-) I encourage anyone currently in SIGINT to read up on this stuff. It will make you smile a bit knowing that people have been going through the same crap you did as a SIGINTer for the past 60 years!"

For this particular book, how long did it take from the time you put the first words on a blank page to its release?

[Tom] The concept of Voices Under Berlin had been percolating in the back of my mind for about five years when Battleground Berlin: CIA Vs. KGB in the Cold War first came out in 1999. This is a book about the Intelligence war in Berlin written by a former chief of the CIA Base in Berlin in cooperation with a retired KGB Chief of German operations from that period. It has a whole chapter on the tunnel. That was followed by a further round of note taking and contemplation. Then when David Stafford's Spies Beneath Berlin came out in 2003, I decided that I had to get serious about the project. This led to a further round of note taking, but I did not get down to cases until I signed up for a Writers' Digest course on novel writing in January 2007. That was the tipping point for the novel, because the course gave me the incentive to turn all my notes into a coherent narrative. The course required that we submit polished drafts of chapters from our novels each week for the instructor and other students to read and comment on. I had paid a considerable amount of money to participate, and I was determined to get my money's worth out of it. The instructor and student comments were very helpful in getting me to focus on the structure and the plot. By the time the course ended, I had 15 thousand words of finished text, and a clear road map for where the novel was headed. The first version (110 thousand words) was finished in July, and I started sending it around to test readers. The final revisions were completed in December, and Voices Under Berlin became a real book at the end of January 2008.

Do you have an agent and, if so, would you mind sharing who he/is is? If not, have you ever had an agent or do you even feel it’s necessary to have one?

[Tom] No, I do not have an agent. I tried to get an agent, but all I got for my trouble was 32 rejection letters. An agent—if I could have found one to represent me—might have gotten me a better deal. And bearing that in mind, I will be shopping my next novel to agents when it is ready to be read by other people.

You mentioned your "next novel"?

[Tom] I have three novels in various stages of development. The reason for this is that I’m one of those authors who sits down in front of a computer and lets the characters tell him what to write. Once I have the first few words on screen to set the scene for a chapter, the characters are normally quite talkative. Some days, however, the characters don't want to talk to me. When that happens, I just see what the characters in the other two novel projects have to say. If I only had one project going, I would be stuck until the characters started speaking to me again. But with three projects, there is usually somebody who wants to talk. I'm actually making good progress on all three.

The project for which the characters are speaking to me at the moment is The Day Before the Wall: Berlin August 1961. The plot is based on a "legend" that was still told on mids in Berlin when I was there in the Army in the mid-1970s. My story relates what happens to a young American sergeant in Military Intelligence who has a piece of information that the East Germans are prepared to kill for. He knows that construction of the Berlin Wall will begin at midnight on August the 13th, and that orders have been given to the East German engineer troops who will be building the wall to pull back if the Americans take aggressive action to stop construction. The Stasi, the East German secret police, are after him, but so are the West-Berlin municipal police and the U.S. Army MPs, because the Stasi have framed him for the murder of his postmistress. It's August the 12th, and the clock is running almost as fast as my hero. The key question of the novel is: "even if he is lucky enough to make it back across the border, will anybody in the West believe what he has to say and take action on it before it is too late?" History says that he either didn't make it, or they didn't believe him. I'm not going to spoil the surprise of the ending by telling you which now. You'll have to buy a copy when it's published to find out. It has turned out rather well, if I do say so myself.

The second project is entitled Reunification. It is about an American who used to be stationed in Berlin going back to post-wall, reunified Berlin and meeting his old "long-haired dictionary." The key questions to be explored here are: "Is there an 'us' in this reunited couple?", "Is there an 'us' in the reunited halves of eastern and western Berlin?", and "Is there a place for the 'USA' in the reunited Germany?".

My third project has the working title of The Listeners at P.O.Box 1142: The Hunt for Nazi Secrets in Virginia. This is a return to the style and layout of Voices Under Berlin. The main character will be another transcriber, and the transcripts will be of the bugs in the cells of high-value Nazi prisoners of war.

During World War II, the USA had an interrogation center for Nazi POWs at Fort Hunt in Virginia. The operation of the center was so secret that it was only known by its post office box number. The history of P.O.Box 1142 has only recently been declassified, and the press immediately seized on the story to make comparisons to the detention center at Guantanamo Bay on Cuba.


Can you describe your most favorite place to write?

[Tom] My favorite place to write is my office. It is a quiet and cozy small room, at the back of the house. Two of the walls are lined with books, floor to ceiling. The other two walls are lined with South-Sea Island masks, a taste that I picked up during my tour in Berlin. It's not for nothing that Kevin and Gabbie meet in the Dahlem Museum in Zehlendorf, and go to the Abteilung Südsee, where the Oceanic art and artifacts exhibits are. I spent a lot of time there.

The agreement at home is that if I have the door closed, I'm listening to my characters talk and do not want to be disturbed, except in case of flood, fire, or earthquake. When the door's open, it "safe" to come in.

If money were no object, what would be the first thing you would invest in to promote your book?

[Tom] If money were no object, then a Super-Bowl commercial by a creative genius like Ridley Scott, who did the world-famous Apple Super-Bowl commercial in 1984, would be the first thing I would invest in. That would only cost a "paltry" five million: about three million for the thirty-second slot, and somewhere around two million for the production costs. That investment gets you an audience in the neighborhood of 90 to 100 million viewers during the game, not to mention the pre-game buzz about who is buying ads, and the post-game Internet rebroadcast of the commercial on sites that do compilations of the best Super-Bowl ads. Since I doubt that any other publisher or author would be willing to make that kind of investment in a single book, I would also get the invaluable bragging rights for being the only novel with its own Super-Bowl spot.

More realistically, money is tight these days, and I cannot afford a Super-Bowl ad. That is why I am taking advantage of the growing impact of social media outlets to go on this nationwide virtual book tour with Pump up Your Book. More and more people are getting the information they need to decide which books to buy online, while more and more traditional media outlets are cutting the number of book reviews and the amount of literary coverage that they carry. Recommendations from book bloggers, supplemented with reviews by ordinary readers on Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.com, GoodReads.com or Shelfari.com are taking the place of the traditional-media literary arbiters who used to be able to propel a book to bestsellerdom, or dash its author's hopes with a single review. Diversity is king in the marketplace for books in the twenty-first century, due to the technological advances that have made it economically feasible to produce books for niche audiences, but this economic feasibility only works if these books are distributed online. Authors and publishers who ignore this paradigm shift in the publishing industry do so at their peril, because they are ignoring a growing segment of their potential market, which, by some estimates, accounts for 25-30% of the books sold each year in the USA. A Pump Up Your Book Virtual Book Tour will bring Voices Under Berlin to the attention of the multitude of people who buy books online every day. With the thousands of books being published each year in this new publishing climate, you have to work hard to make your book stand out from the pack. I believe firmly that F. Scott Fitzgerald's oft quoted statement—"You don't write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say"—applies to Voices Under Berlin, so by working with Pump Up Your Book via a Virtual Book Tour, I am trying to give Voices Under Berlin the best possible chance of reaching its audience. And by leaving the publicity heavy-lifting to them, I can spend more time writing.

How important do you think self-promotion is and in what ways have you been promoting your book offline and online?

[Tom] Nobody is ever going to feel as passionately about your book as you do, so in the end, you are your own best salesman. Yes, paid publicity and marketing professionals are worth the money you pay them to get the word out about your novel, but you are still the best spokesperson for your book. Nobody will ever understand the story that your novel has to tell like you do. What marketing and publicity professionals bring to the table is a contact list, and a knowledge of how to get these contacts to pay attention to what you have to say. These professionals can help you formulate your message, but you have to give them something to work with. Without your input to the marketing and publicity campaign for your novel, the campaign will sound hollow, and the results will be mediocre.

I have a webSite that provides information about Voices Under Berlin, about its non-fiction companion piece Berlin in Early Cold-War Army Booklets, and about my art. I have designed a series of postcards and brochures about my books, and hand those out instead of business cards. I write my own publicity releases, do book signings and interviews. It can be a full-time job, but I try to limit my publicity activities to one day a week. I would like to eventually finish my other works in progress.

What’s the most common reason you believe new writers give up their dream of becoming published and did you almost give up?

[Tom] I think that most new writers give up their quest for publication, because they begin to believe the seemingly endless stream of rejection letters that come in response to their queries, forgetting that the people writing these letters are making marketing decisions based on their own subjective tastes and a knowledge of what the market was buying yesterday. They are not infallible. Can you imagine how the 12 publishers who rejected J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series must feel in the light of its runaway best-seller status, followed by a string of movies!

Rejection letters are part and parcel of being a writer. Each one is a test of your determination to tell the story that you are sure has something to say to others. You have to believe firmly that F. Scott Fitzgerald's oft quoted statement—"You don't write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say"—applies to you and your story. You cannot let a rejection letter shake that belief, because one day, if you don't give up, you will indeed find your audience, and your faith in yourself and your story will be validated. My faith in myself and my story has been validated by the five book awards that Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary has thus far received.


Any final words of wisdom for those of us who would like to be published?

[Tom] Write the best book you can. If your book is the best you can make it, and has a unique voice, it will speak for itself.


Thank you for your interview, Tom. I wish you much success!

[Tom] You're quite welcome. It was my pleasure to be here at The Writer’s Life, and thank you for your good wishes.
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