Avraham Shama is an award-winning nonfiction author who specializes in the Russian economy and in the spread of new technologies. His newest release, Cyberwars — David Knight Goes To Moscow (3rd Coast Books, May 2022), is a work of fiction based on true events that one reviewer calls “a thriller reminiscent of Cold War spy novels.” You’ll find Avi on his Amazon author page. Read more about Avi’s writing in his SWW 2017 interview.
What would you like readers to know about the story you tell in Cyberwars — David Knight Goes to Moscow?
The novel is about a New York University professor named David Knight who experiences a breakdown in 1999 after he is fired by his wife and by his employer. David moves to New Mexico to hide and repair his life at the University of New Mexico (UNM) in Albuquerque. Unexpectedly, he falls in love with a young Latina professor at UNM, and the C.I.A. sends him to Moscow to spy on the Russian economy. In Moscow, he accidentally discovers that Russia is preparing for a cyber war against the U.S. Upon his return home, he mobilizes the Agency to begin a counter cybersecurity program to defend his country. In the process, he redeems himself and deepens his New Mexico roots.
The novel is also a tender love story across the Hispanic and Anglo cultures, as well as about an unexpected transformation of David Knight to a patriot. The book is meant for ordinary people like you and me, interested in what is happening to the security of the U.S. and in what could happen to them in view of the Russian threat. It is also intended for readers who like reading about impossible love, and about self-redemption.
What unique challenges did this novel pose for you?
The novel is a work of fiction based on true events. My overall challenge was how much to reveal and still protect my sources. On the other hand, this format allowed me to take certain liberties in portraying the dangers of Russia’s cyber espionage.
What sparked the story idea for the book?
My work in Russia began in1988 and continued for many years during which I came to know many things about the country. But I did not think to write this book until years later. My motivation to write this book was wanting readers to know how President Vladimir Putin decided to invest in cyber weapons in 1999, how he later used these weapons to interfere with the U.S. presidential elections of 2016 and 2020, and how now he is using cyber weapons in his war on Ukraine, in addition to conventional arms. I also wanted to assure readers that, with the help of protagonist David Knight, the U.S. has developed its own cyber technology to counter Russia.
How did the book come together?
The book took longer than an elephant pregnancy from conception to delivery. It was conceived in Albuquerque’s Flying Star restaurant on a leisurely Sunday afternoon over many cups of tea with my friend Robert Spiegel. Then came the planning: detailed outlines of plot, characters, locations, even mood and rhythm, followed by writing first and second drafts. While writing the drafts, I began sending query letters to potential publishers. Then it was time to show the draft novel to five beta readers and incorporate their comments into the next draft. 3rd Coast Books offered me a contract, and the cycle of editing and rewriting started all over again until the novel was published recently and became available at Albuquerque’s Organic Bookstore, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon. Altogether, from start to finish, this novel took two elephant pregnancies.
Who are the main characters, and why will readers connect with them?
My main protagonists are ordinary people like you and me confronting extraordinary situations. Different readers are likely to identify with different characters. My characters include:
David Knight: A young, brilliant NYU economics professor, David plays by the rules but has zero experience in espionage. He is about to be promoted, when NYU and his wife fire him, resulting in his nervous breakdown. David moves to Albuquerque to rebuild himself, but instead, falls in love, and the CIA hires him to spy on Russia’s economy. In Moscow, he is constantly under surveillance and his translator, Alexa Abratova, seduces him. He doesn’t know how to handle these situations. Nevertheless, David obtains critical information about Russia’s plan to mount a cyber attack on the U.S. David mobilizes a U.S. counter-effort and, in the process, is transformed from a mild professor to a warrior who saves his country from the claws of the Russian Bear.
Alexa Abratova: Alexa is an ambitious Russian beauty recruited by the Russian Security to spy on David Knight and his country. She works at The Academy of the National Economy, hosting David. She is David’s translator. Alexa knows men and enters the U.S. through David’s pants. After arriving in the U.S., she breaks into the Albuquerque nuclear lab at Sandia National Laboratory to steal secrets, where David apprehends her. She agrees to spy for the U.S.
Toni Chavez: Toni is a young Latina. She grows up in the small, Hispanic community north of Santa Fe. As a child, she makes a painful transition from her Spanish heritage to a novel Anglo culture that paves her future. Toni has just taken her first job at UNM, where she meets David Knight and falls in love with him. She is an unintended trailblazer: first in her family to go to college, first Latina professor at UNM’s Political Science department.
Michael McDonald: Mid 40s. Mike has the deceptive appearance of a playboy, but he is smart and good at his craft. We meet him as a Sandia National Laboratory scientist who is invited by David to help with Alexa’s research. He is an antidote to Alexa. We later learn that he works for the Agency and is onto Alexa the spy from the moment she arrives in the U.S.
Yevgeny Turgov: Yevgeny is an old-school communist and Rector at the Academy, but everyone knows he is a leading member of the Communist Party, keeping tabs on everything. Yevgeny is unhappy with the widespread poverty brought by the economic restructuring. He expects the new Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, to make Russia great again.
Sasha Pachenko: A washed-out Russian scientist with a Ph.D. in nuclear physics who works in the secret city of Chelyabinsk. He is now taking management courses at the Academy in Moscow. Sasha is developing the use of big data that could destroy Russia’s enemies, including the U.S. He seeks David’s help to move to America in return for helping the U.S. against the Russian cyber threat.
What are the main settings in the novel, and how did you choose them?
This novel takes the readers to many fascinating places in New Mexico, Moscow, and New York, all dictated by plot. In Albuquerque the reader is introduced to life in academia at UNM and its Student Union, the Duck Pond, and to eateries like Los Quates, Paul’s Monterey Inn restaurant, the hiking trails in the foothills of Albuquerque, and the secret existence behind the tall fences of Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories. In Santa Fe, the reader joins David in La Fonda bar to meet Sasha Pachenko and more. And in Antonito, David is introduced to life in the small Hispanic town where his girlfriend Toni grew up. In Moscow the reader experiences the Academy of the National Economy, stays in a Russian style Bed and Breakfast, visits the tourist sites, and inhales the special odor in the lobbies of many apartment towers. Other settings include New York City, where the reader gets a glimpse of life at NYU and in its faculty housing, not far from Washington Square, and dines out with David Knight and his colleagues in a real Italian restaurant.
When did you know you had taken the manuscript as far as it could go and that it was ready for publishing?
I have never felt that any of my six books (and more than fifty articles) were ever fully ready for publishing. There is such a finality to publishing that I am almost always reluctant to let go. As a result, I use a practical yardstick: when my writing is the best I can do for the moment and my publisher concurs, then I let go.
What was your favorite part of putting this project together?
By far the most rewarding part of writing and publishing this spy novel was the conception and planning stage, the part that began way before I put any word to paper. At that phase the novel was perfect, its plot flawless, its characters intriguing, and its narrative flowing.
Cyberwars: David Knight Goes to Moscow is a departure from your nonfiction work. Why did you choose to go in this direction?
I had written five books and numerous articles before this spy novel. They were mostly nonfiction, dictated by the mind and driven by facts, although my memoir, Finding Home: An immigrant Journey, and several of my short stories allowed me certain literary freedoms associated with writing fiction that I found pleasing. But Cyberwars is fiction based on true events. In this respect it is a departure from my other literary works. I chose this fiction route because it afforded me the privilege of creative writing, which I found liberating and appealing. There was another reason why this spy novel had to be written as fiction. Had I gone the nonfiction route, I could have harmed some of my sources, which I wouldn’t do.
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.