Answering the Call: From Music Exec to Spy Novelist
- by Paul Vidich
Paul Vidich WG81 explains why, after 18 years at Time Warner, he chose to pursue his lifelong passion for writing.
Before Raymond Chandler wrote his first novel, The Big Sleep, at 51, he was an oil executive. Before Amor Towles, author of the New York Times bestseller A Gentleman in Moscow, retired to write full time, he was an investment professional.
My path to writing my first published book, An Honorable Man, was long and windy. I was 27 when I learned I was to be a father. Having already written two failed novels, I didn’t believe I would be successful enough as a writer to contribute to my growing family’s financial needs, so I decided to pursue my more conventional ambition and got a Wharton MBA. I made a promise to myself then that I would quit business and pursue writing again when we were financially secure. In 2006, at the age of 56, I fulfilled that promise, deciding not to renew my contract at Time Warner, where I had worked as a music executive for 18 years. I had enjoyed my long business career, and I was good at what I did, but writing still called to me. I enrolled in the inaugural Rutgers Newark MFA class. Beginning to write more seriously allowed me to look back at a life—my life. There was a world to write about that I did not know at 27.
An Honorable Man was inspired by a family tragedy that had sat unsettled in my mind for years. My uncle Frank Olson was a highly skilled Army scientist at Fort Detrick, a top secret U.S. Army facility in Frederick, Maryland that researched biological warfare agents. He died sometime around 2:30 a.m. on Nov. 28, 1953, when he “jumped or fell” from his room on the thirteenth floor of the Statler Hotel in New York City, where he had gone to see a psychiatrist in the company of a CIA escort.
In 1975, 22 years later, a report was published by The Rockefeller Commission containing a two-paragraph account of an army scientist who had been unwittingly given LSD and died in a fall from a New York City hotel window. To the conflicting theories that my uncle “jumped or fell,” another possibility was added: He was pushed. For me, Frank Olson’s death embodied our collective fascination with the Cold War’s dark secrets, and it shined light on the dubious privileges men in the CIA gave themselves in the name of national security.
In the course of my research, I came across a brief mention of the mysterious case of James Kronthal, the first Soviet mole in the CIA and a close associate of CIA director Allen Dulles, who committed suicide in 1969. This intrigued me. I built a storyline around the incident, using the essence of Frank Olson’s life to create the novel’s protagonist, George Mueller. I knew the life of a man cut off from family by covert work. When I set down to write, these things were in my mind, so the draft, sloppy and uneven, came quickly in 45 days. Many drafts followed.
Very little of my life is directly reflected in the book. I was not a spy. I did not work at the CIA. But as a senior executive at Time Warner, I understood how bureaucracy functioned. Beneath the work are the personalities that compete—men and women with ambition, who game the politics of the organization, who betray colleagues to advance themselves. These things I knew, and I used them in the novel.
I sent the finished manuscript to four agents who represented authors in my niche—espionage novels with a literary register—and was fortunate enough to be taken on by The Gernert Company. My agent, Will Roberts, handled the novel’s sale to Emily Bestler Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.
My advice to people coming to writing later in life is this: You have to want to write. Really want it. And you have to be disciplined about the work. Writing is a craft, not a mystical state, and it requires great effort, dedication and hard work. A pianist is made learning from other pianists and through long, numbing hours of repetitive practice. And so a writer learns by reading other writers and by mastering the craft.
It is also important not to be discouraged by age. There is an idolatry of youth in contemporary literary culture that reveals itself in its many awards. The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40, Narrative’s 30 Below, the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award for writers under 35. There are no awards for your first book published after 40. You have to inoculate yourself from the perception, however true, that the world only seems to recognize youth and ignores the contributions of later-aged newcomers.
Editor’s note: Vidich’s next novel, The Good Assassin, will be released on April 18, 2017.