Before JR Seeger tried his hand at writing fiction, he served as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne and then as a field collector and team leader in the CIA. He now draws on 27 years of federal service to add authenticity to his military thrillers. A Graveyard for Spies (Mission Point Press, 2020) is the fifth book in the MIKE4 series “about a family who have served in the special operations and intelligence community from World War II to the present.” You’ll find all of John’s books on his Amazon author page.
What would you like readers to know about the story you tell in A Graveyard for Spies?
The MIKE4 series is about a mother and a daughter dealing with both the past and the present world of espionage. My main character is Sue O’Connell, a special operations officer who is a wounded warrior (a below the knee amputee) hunting terrorists in the post 9/11 world. Her mother, Barbara O’Connell, is a retired CIA officer still living with the consequences of a Cold War career. Graveyard for Spies brings past and present into focus on the Dalmatian Coast in Croatia.
What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
Due to my former career as an intelligence officer, my work focusing on post World War II events has to be reviewed by the CIA to insure nothing in the text is classified. So, after writing the story, I submit the manuscript to the CIA and wait for their approval before I can share it with the editors working with my publisher. It is just another step that I accept as part of my obligation to my former service.
Tell us about your protagonists and why readers will connect with them.
Sue O’Connell is a woman serving in a very manly man’s world. She is not trying to be a good “female special operator,” she is trying to be a good special operator — full stop. Her colleagues, both men and women, work as a team. Sue’s biggest flaw is she is very impatient in a career where patience is essential.
Barbara O’Connell is a retired intelligence officer who lost her husband to a Russian assassination. She has a history of working counter-terrorism missions prior to 9/11 and has a network of men and women who she calls upon when her old world intrudes into her life as “a mere, wretched, federal pensioner.” Both of her children (Sue and her brother William who is an FBI agent) have trouble imagining their mother as an action hero, though she was (and is).
All of your books involve characters in international settings. What settings will readers experience in A Graveyard for Spies?
In Graveyard, readers will be introduced to a small town in the Taunus Mountains north of Frankfurt, Germany, as well as settings in Northern Afghanistan and Croatia. The story moves between the actions of Barbara, as she hunts an assassin from her past, and Sue, who is hunting international arms smugglers.
What makes this novel unique in the military thriller market?
I am reluctant to say that the novel is unique, but I do believe there are few military thrillers out there that focus on the actions of women in the special operations community.
When did you know the characters or the storyline was strong enough for a series?
I admit that the creation of a series was not my plan from the beginning. That said, once the O’Connell world existed, it was easy enough to imagine multiple storylines including a prequel focusing on World War II (O’Connell’s Treasure) and very specific storylines which expanded into the world of counterintelligence (Friend or Foe and Graveyard for Spies). Of course, we still haven’t heard the full story of the death of Sue’s father or, for that matter, how in the world the Russians seem to be always in pursuit of the O’Connells. There are more stories out there.
What sparked the story idea for the MIKE4 series?
In 2016, I was working with the writer Doug Stanton on a potential project related to a nonfiction book on the intelligence community post 9/11. That project did not work out, but it started me thinking about how I could use some of my personal experiences and my knowledge of the young men and women fighting the current counter-terrorism fight. I knew of men and women who were second and third generation intelligence officers or special operators. I also knew of men and women who were gravely wounded in either Afghanistan or Iraq. They didn’t want to be considered broken; they simply wanted to be back in the fight. Once Sue O’Connell was created, the rest of the story flowed easily.
You began your fiction writing career later in life. What has your mature self brought to the writing table that your younger self never could have?
I believe I now have a better understanding of people and their motivations — why they do the good and bad things they do. I really didn’t understand that as well in my 20s and early 30s. Also, I didn’t have time to write in my 20s and 30s.
What first inspired you to become a writer?
My first thoughts about writing had nothing to do with the MIKE4 series. When I first visited New Mexico before moving to the state, I started researching the blend of history of Native Americans, Spaniards, and North American adventurers. I began plotting out a short story about a member of the Holy Inquisition. Eventually, this became my short stories currently on medium.com titled “Arrival of the Inquisitor.” I wanted to see colonial New Mexico through an outsider who was not part of normal society.
Of the five books in the MIKE4 series, which one was the most challenging to write and which was the easiest?
The hardest book to write was the first one. MIKE4 had to set the stage so the reader could see a world where the intelligence community and the special operations community worked as “one team, one fight.” The action sequences were the easy part. Creating the world of MIKE4 was hard. The easiest story to write was The Executioner’s Blade. It focuses exclusively on Afghanistan, and I spent the last years of my career either in Afghanistan or working on Afghan issues. It also allowed me to bring characters I liked back to life.
Looking back to the beginning of your writing/publishing career, what do you know now that you wish you’d known then?
I am still learning to write, but one thing I wish I had known at the beginning was that readers want to know how characters feel as well as what they see, say, and do. I am still working on that challenge. Also, it is important to accept the fact that rejection is part of the game. I received many rejection notes, including some that were exceptionally rude. Eventually, I found someone to publish the stories. It is not cheap and I suppose through KDP I could self-publish, but I know that finding the right publisher involved receiving rejections from other publishers.
Do you prefer the creating or editing aspect of writing? How do you feel about research?
I like creating and researching the novels. I suppose it is not surprising that I do not like the hard work of editing. Luckily, I have a great editor who is both hard on me and kind at the same time. Editing usually takes twice as long as writing.
Who are your favorite authors?
In the nonfiction arena, my favorite authors are William Dalrymple and Peter Hopkirk who have written on Central and South Asia. In the area of fiction, I have a number of favorites depending on my mood. Generally, I like classic mystery writers — Dashell Hammett and Eric Ambler — as well as modern mystery writers like Barbara Cleverly, Donna Leon, and Andrea Camilleri. In the thriller genre, I enjoy Ian Fleming, Graham Greene, Alan Furst, and Gerald Seymour.
Do you have a message or a theme that recurs in your writing?
I don’t think I have a message in my writing. My characters are always outsiders looking into a world where they work, but are perhaps not fully accepted. In the MIKE4 series, Sue and Barbara O’Connell are female operators in a male-centric world, and in the Inquisitor series, Brother Patrick is an Irish priest in colonial New Mexico.
What writing projects are you working on now?
I just finished the first in a new fiction series I am calling Steampunk Raj. The first manuscript, A School for the Great Game, is a blend of espionage and mysticism set in Central and South Asia in 1910. I hope the series will be intriguing to both young adult and adult readers interested in the world just before, during, and immediately after World War I. The second book in the Steampunk Raj series, A sound like distant thunder, is plotted and I have about 5,000 words written. Also, I am working on another MIKE4 book taking the family in other directions. I am about 10,000 words into that story tentatively titled Chasing the Neurotic Racer.
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know?
I hope I write stories that are fun to read. They are probably best imagined as “airplane” reads — something light that will take you to someplace different while you are trapped in an airplane or an airport for hours. Also, please know that I am learning to be a better writer. I hope that each of my books is better written then the previous book. MIKE4 was my first effort and is certainly nowhere near as well-crafted as the later books in the series. Still, you have to start somewhere, eh?
KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kathy posts to a speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.