Category Archives: Novel

Yossarian slept here: when your father betrays you

Catch-22, original book cover, from Wikimedia
Catch-22, original book cover, from Wikimedia

Would you feel betrayed by this? Imagine that your father, a famous author, wrote a novel that was clearly based directly on your own family, that it was negative in tone, that it described all his dissatisfaction with his wife, and that he included slabs of conversation that you (the daughter) actually had with your father.

That’s what Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22, did in his novel Something Happened. Heller worked on the novel for 13 years. When his daughter read the proof, she was shocked.  In the book, the writer talks about his unnamed family members, recounting their faults, and how unhappy he was with them all. He talks about his efforts to intellectually out-fox his daughter. One chapter was entitled, ‘My Daughter is Unhappy’. His daughter, Erica asks, “was this a statement or a goal?”  When she asks him why he’s done this, he replies, “What makes you think you’re interesting enough to write about?” What more devastating retort could a father make to his daughter?

In addition, Heller had an affair, which involved flying his lover in the same plane as he and his wife when they went to speaking engagements, and booking the lover into the same hotels. Yes, that’s right- he was carrying on with the lover under the same roof as his wife. When his wife Shirley employed a private detective agency and confronted him with documentary evidence such as credit card bills and photographs, he denied it, and told the rest of his family that Shirley was going crazy and needed a psychiatrist. When Heller was in hospital, Erica walked in on the lover at her father’s bed. Heller calmly introduced them. (The daughter by this time already knew the lover’s name and what she looked like.) After that, Heller reverted to denying the person ever existed. This is strange behavior indeed.

The book gives an insight into what Heller was like as a person, and the answer is, ‘not very  nice, really.’ Still, the book is an insight into one of the twentieth century’s best-known writers. It’s well worth reading. Just be prepared to have some illusions shattered. Geniuses can be petulant, vicious and vindictive in their family affairs.

On another note , my novel, Fire Damage, a terrorism thriller, is now available as a paperback, here. It’s also available as a Kindle on Amazon US and UK. It’s based on the real-life Japanese religious cult, Aum Shinrikyo, which released sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system. 


Crazy Japanese religious cults: how I got the idea for my first book

Today I thought about why I used the Japanese religious cult “Aum Shinrikyo” as the starting point for my first novel. My ex-wife and I stopped in Japan on our way back from Europe in 1985, and we visited Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima. I loved the place. The train system was fantastic, the country was full of old temples with beautiful architecture, and it was easy to get around even though we didn’t know the language.

Kyoto in autumn, from Wikimedia Commons by Wikimedia user  FG2
Kyoto in autumn, from Wikimedia Commons by Wikimedia user FG2

In between about 1988 and 1997 l learned Japanese on-and-off in evening classes. My ex- and I started home-hosting Japanese visitors and Japanese students from nearby La Trobe University. In 1989 and in 1994, I visited again, only this time on my own. I stayed with Japanese friends.

The year after my 1994 visit, the Japanese religious cult Aum Shinrikyo released Sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system. This event was a major shock to the Japanese people. They were not used to domestic terrorist groups engaging in mass killings in Japan. Soon everyone wanted to know: who are these people? The name Aum Shinrikyo means “Supreme Truth.” Their leader, Shoko Asahara, preached a mixture of Yoga, Christianity, Buddhism, and Nostradamus. He believed the end of the world was near. Don’t they all? He declared himself to be Jesus Christ. He used LSD and electric shock therapy on the group’s followers. Some were murdered.  Shoko was also big on conspiracy theories involving the Freemasons, the British Royal Family and the Jewish people. Yep, they were crazy as batshit. But the group had made a point of enrolling students from some of Japan’s top universities. They promoted themselves as the religion for the intellectual elite. After the gas attacks, Shoko and many of his followers were arrested.

When I stated my novel in the mid-1990s, I had a vague idea about a religious group mounting an attack on something in Australia. I asked: what if some of Shoko’s followers evaded arrest, invented a genetically modified virus, and threaten to release it at an international sporting event in Melbourne Australia. I invented a mini-Olympic Games that I called the “Pacific Games.” Setting the book in my own city seemed a pretty obvious thing to do. I could write scenes in Melbourne, and I had learned enough about Aum to visualize what they would do.

Sometimes I look at other writers and ask, “How did they get their idea?” How did Philip Hose Farmer get the idea to write Jesus  on Mars? (You guessed it: Earth detects some ancient Greek letters carved on a doorway into a mountain on Mars. They go inside and who do they find? Jesus and a bunch of guys following first century Judaism. I won’t spoil the plot.)

So, what’s the most unusual story idea you’ve seen in a book, and where do you think it came from?

I’d love to hear from you.

Note: this is my blog site.   For information about editing an academic thesis, click here.

My novel Fire Damage, an action thriller, is available on Amazon Kindle, here : the novel is based on the Japanese religious cult Aum Shinrikyo, which released Sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system in the 1990s. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can download the app to read it on your computer or phone from here. For the paperback version, click here.

How many characters spoil the plot?

Last night I saw Prometheus, the supposed prequel to 1973 film Alien, with Sigourney Weaver. Frankly, the plot didn’t impress me, and the film suffered from what I suspect is a common fault in films and books: too many “main” characters. It becomes difficult to emotionally identify with any one character. I felt no real identification with any of the on-screen characters in Prometheus. When I think back over some of the best films, there are usually one or two, maybe three main characters, but that’s the limit. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoohas Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist.

Poster for 1984, from Wikipedia

Catch 22 has Captain Yossarian. We see the other characters, but none of them gets even remotely equal time with Yossarian.  George Orwell’s 1984 has Winston Smith. As best I recall we never see his lover, Julia, nor his torturer, O’Brien, without him. As a result, we are totally invested in Winston. Even though Harry Potter has Hermione, Ron, Dumbledore, and Snape, we know who the main character is. (And Rowling had the advantage of seven books over which to tell her story.) Steel Magnolias had half a dozen, but we are mostly invested in Julia Roberts, as Shelby, who is diabetic, not expected to be able to carry a child, and becomes pregnant anyway. She needs a kidney transplant, gets it, it fails, and finally she has to be disconnected from life support.

In order for me to be invested in the fate of a character, they need to be centre-front. They need to have a problem I can identify with.

So what about you? Do too many characters make it hard for you to get invested in a film or book? What’s your limit? what do you prefer? when you think about the films you thought were “best” films, how many lead characters did they have?

(On an unrelated topic, Piper Bayard and Holmes have an interesting article on spy ships between WWI and WWII. at

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My novel ‘Fire Damage,’ an action thriller, is available on Amazon Kindle, at:
The novel is based on the Japanese religious cult Aum Shinrikyo, which released Sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system in the 1990s. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can download the app to read it on your computer or phone from here:

Why is John le Carre such a good spy / thriller writer?

I first came across John Le Carre’s novels 30 years ago. The first book of his I read was “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.” It dealt with a theme that recurs constantly through the remainder of le Carres’s books: betrayal, and the way intelligence services use and the dispose of people. The main character is sent on a mission where he risks his life going into East Germany during the cold war. He makes a shocking discovery at the end of the novel: a central belief he has held all the through the book, something he based his whole actions on, is in fact a lie. And the people who sent him into East Germany knew it, and used him to spread that lie, at the risk of his own life and that of his girlfriend. The book doesn’t have a happy ending.

In real life, le Carre (real name John Cornwall) was a spy.

He worked for the British Army’s Intelligence Corp in Germany in 1950, returned to England in 1952 where he spied on suspected communists for MI5 at Oxford, and he became a full time MI5 officer in 1958. In 1960, he transferred to MI6, and left the service in 1964 after ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” became a success. By this time, Cornwall’s cover as an MI6 agent had been blown by the real-life Kim Philby, a British agent secretly working for the Soviet Union.

What makes le Carre’s characters so interesting is that they often very flawed people. His own life experience gives him ample justification for books based on secrets, deceit and betrayal. Perhaps his best ever book was written in  1986. The cold war was still on. Le Carre writes  “A Perfect Spy”. It tells the story of a young man who has a conman for a father. The conman father is based on le Carre’s own father, who went bankrupt several times and ended up in jail for insurance fraud.

The main character (Magnus Pym) is a British intelligence officer who forms a relationship with a Czechoslovak intelligence officer in which they exchange documents so each can claim to have a valuable mole on the other side. The book contains a line that struck me as brilliant. When Magnus leaves home to hand over his first batch of documents, le Carre writes “…and Magnus stepped out into the night and became his father.”

And let’s be realistic: what do  intelligence agencies like MI6 and MI5 do? They get people from other countries to betray their countries. They burgle, they bug, and they spy on their own colleagues. Just read Spycatcher , the autobiography of MI5 officer peter Wright, who spied on his own boss in an attempt to discover if the boss was a soviet mole.

In the world of James Bond, good is good and evil is evil and James Bond never stabs anyone in the back. In le Carre’s world, intelligence agencies are prepared to cut people loose after they used them. The interests of your country matter more than the life of some informant.

In some ways, le Carre’s books remind me of the American film “Fair Game” (see here, and here ) about real life CIA agent Valerie Plame, who was exposed as a covert CIA agent by the White House when her ex-Diplomat husband criticised intelligence suggesting that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy yellow cake from Niger. Plame had scientists ready to defect from Iraq to the US, and they were left high and dry when Plame was exposed. (Gordon Libby got a jail sentence of two and a half years for exposing Plame, but George. W. Bush commuted his sentence.) Which just goes to show you what murky world intelligence can be. And le Carre takes through that murkiness in all its sordid detail. That’s one reason why his books are so compelling. There’s something fascinating about people who lie, burgle and bug for a living, and do it with the blessing of their country. Most of them believe that that they’re doing it for a “good” purpose, because “my country” is a good country. Don’t most of us think that? I’ll be sad when le Carre dies. I wonder who’ll take his place?

Any thoughts on why spy novels continue to be popular? Please, leave a comment!!!

Richard Snow

twitter: Richard_A_Snow

Describing setting in novels.

I’ve been thinking lately about setting: that is, how we describe the place where the action in our novel is happening. Think of the things your character can observe about a place.


What color are the walls? What color is the furniture? Is it old or new, does to belong to  a certain period? Has the place been recently renovated? What are the floor coverings? Are they new, worn, threadbare, or old fashioned? Are there any bench tops? What surface do they have – Formica, wooden, aluminium, granite? Is the place clean, dusty, dirty, disorganized, or neat? What are the light fittings like? Remember, when describing something visual, it’s not just colors; it’s also shiny or dull, rough or smooth.

Are there any smells? Of food? Of cleaning products?

What does your character feel about this place? Does it bring back memories of some pleasant or unpleasant experience? Name three feelings that things in this place might evoke.


If you’re in a back yard or front yard, is it neat or unkempt, are the plants healthy or dehydrated, are there weeds? What season is it and is your description consistent with that? Does the ground slope, and what’s the texture underfoot as your character walks? Smooth, sloping, uneven, sand, concrete, gravel?

In public places, how many people are there? Are there shops you wouldn’t expect there? Have they changed since the last time your character was there? What can our character hear? Is it pleasant or unpleasant? What can they smell? Petrol fumes? Cooking from a food outlet?

What does your character fell about this place? Irritation about the noise or the smells? Do they feel safe here? Name three feelings that things in this place might evoke in your character.

If anyone has more things they include please leave a comment.

A great article on describing watery scenes by Sharla Rae is at

For those new to this Blog, my email is and on twitter I’m @Richard_A_Snow.  Best wishes. Richard Snow

Passing as another race – what I’m reading this week

Passing as another race: what I’m reading this week.

The book-reading group I belong to is going to be talking about Philip Roth’s “The Human Stain” next month. This deals with a topic I’ve only seen mentioned in one other book: people of African American decent “passing” as white. I’ve been vaguely aware that this exists in America, but it’s never been something I’ve had any reason to think about or discuss with any of my American friends. So, first a summary and then a few questions.

Roth’s book revolves around Coleman Silk, a college professor who is incorrectly accused of racism because one day, as he’s marking the attendance roll, he refers to two students who have never shown up for class by saying “Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?” I’ve never heard the word used in this sense, but apparently “spooks” is one term for African Americans. I’ve always thought a spook was either a ghost or a spy. In fact the two students are black, and lodge a complaint against Silk, which ends with him leaving his college. In fact Silk is actually a green-eyed, white-skinned African American who enrolled in the Navy in WWII passing as white. When he left the navy he got a scholarship to university as a white. For 50 years he has pretended to be white, in fact, to be Jewish. It is not until after Silks death that the narrator of the book meets Silk’s sister, at his funeral, and she tells the narrator of Silk’s history. Silk has just been buried as a Jew. He has, intentionally, married a woman with crinkly hair in case any of his children were born with crinkly hair. Silk’s only communication with his family has only been telephone calls between him and the sister, since he could never allow the two worlds to meet.

When he decided, 50 years ago what he was going to do, he told his mother and she said she realised his (future) children would never know her as their grandmother.

The book is set in 1989, during the time of the Monika Lewinsky scandal, i.e., it’s fairly recent in historical terms.

In Australia, the opposite issue to “passing” has arisen recently in a court case involving journalist Andrew Bolt, who suggested in a newspaper article that some fair skinned people of mixed descent identify as aboriginal in order to get art prizes and jobs reserved for aboriginals. But these people acknowledge their Austrian or English ancestry is not a secret – they couldn’t really hide it even if they wanted to) so the issue is not quite the same as in Roth’s book. (There’s a Wikipedia article on Bolt with links to his articles.)

It set me wondering: do light skinned African Americans today feel a need / or see a benefit from “passing” as white? How often on forms do people have to state their race? (I can’t recall any internet forms asking me my race (even just for ‘statistical purposes). Is it regarded as treachery to one’s group? Anybody got any thoughts? Anybody want to enlighten me?

Should novels have a “Moral”?

I recently posted this a facebook page to do with fiction writing, in response to a thread, “Do you think a fictional story should teach (or attempt to teach) a moral lesson?”

Should novels ” teach a moral lesson?” Well it depends on what you want. If I want to learn something theological, I’ll buy a theology book. If I want to know why an author claims that evolutionary biology supports atheism, I’ll buy something by Richard Dawkins. If I want to earn about a certain political view, I’ll buy a book from someone in that political movement. If I read Aayan Hirsi Ali about her experiences growing up Muslim, I know what I’m in for: but she writes as a polemicist, not a novelist.

But if I buy a thriller – and pay money -and THEN discover that I’m getting someone’s political or theological view  I’m likely to get a little irritated and think that my $10 (or whatever) has obtained under false pretenses.

An example is Michael Chrichton’s State of Fear. I know it got to #1, and  I do like Michael Crichton – I have several books of his on my shelf. But in State of Fear, one of his characters gave long lectures about how climate change modeling doesn’t prove anything. Well of course it doesn’t. Modelling never does. A model consistes largely of beliefs put into eqautions and then distured in some way: If we assume, or believe, that the world includes like A, B and C which between them produce X, and we change C by this much, the result is  X changes this much. Of course the model doesnt proove that climate change is real: that’s not a model’s job. They illustrate.

Chrighton’s points would be appropriate (or not) in a scientific work if it had come from a reputable scientist. Crichton stuck in numerous footnotes and graphs to plug his views: I thought footnotes in a thriller??)  For me they became, a boring and tedious diversion from the plot . Chrichton is entitled to his view, and he’s entitled to give lectures and write a straightforward polemical book about this. And he IS entitled to write the novel he did if that’s what he wants. We all have our rights. But doing this  comes at a cost. The cost is detracting from the quality of the novel by making his characters clumsy mouthpieces for his own views.

If you want the novel to have a ‘moral’ it requires great subtlety. “The Other Boleyn Girl” might  be read as a story with a moral about getting too involved in high stakes conniving and double dealing when you can’t control the one thing your life will ultimately depend upon (the ability to produce a live baby boy.) But it doesn’t have a character who constantly preaches that Ann will end up dead. We can see the risks she’s running for ourselves. The readers have brains. (And some readers know their history.) If you want to have a moral in your story, a bit of subtlety and ambiguity go a long way: try My Sister’s Keeper by Jody Picoult.

But Michael Crighton obviously disagrees. and his not here to defend himself. He died just after the book was published. It’s a pity. I would have liked to read more of him – but without the footnotes and graphs.