Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The loveable assassin - Glen Barrera

I admit to being intrigued by Glen Barrera, the man behind the assassin who can't dance, a man who routinely shoots people and blows them up. (Glen will smile at the deliberate ambiguity - he's a writer who notices nuances.) So who is he exactly?

Glen, a former partner in a real estate appraisal company, who still takes appraisal assignments from time to time, now writes. Over the years he's edited a company newsletter, written short stories (one a contest winner) and poetry. It wasn't until he divorced a few years ago, however, that he finally found time to take a writing course while working on his first novel. The Assassin Who Couldn't Dance and a follow-up novel, A Capable and Wide Revenge (now available), were tutored by Michael Mirolla, a published Canadian writer. He is now working on a third novel with the working title, Sweet Peach. Glen grew up in Chicago, with college at Western Illinois University, College of DuPage and the University of Illinois, Chicago. He studied Isshinryu Karate for fourteen years, sailed for seven years out of Burnham Harbor, practices Tai Chi and plays classical guitar. A Chicago boy at heart, he now lives in a western suburb.
You say you started writing classes after your divorce. Was the personal change a catalyst in looking at your professional future? Had you always wanted to write?
I believe the idea to write was an extension of the countless books I’d read, an “I can do that” mentality, whether for better or worse in actuality. My first novel was written in the 1980s, on an Underwood typewriter (yeah, carbon copy), with no recourse other than a full re-type if I screwed up after fifty pages and needed to correct a plot-point back at page twenty-five (I think I still have the rejection slips). With a wife, two children and a demanding career, however, writing had to take a back seat to life. I was still writing, but in a technical environment. But even before the divorce, I knew I wanted to write fiction again. Writing classes, then, were a natural progression, to get me back into the rhythm and structure of the story. So no, there were no ambitions to write as a professional – I simply wanted to write.      
I often wonder whether I could have written at all if I'd had to hand-write or type a manuscript - redrafting and edits would have been a nightmare!

I know that you care deeply about work being well-written and well-edited. What have you gained from writing classes? Would you recommend them? Do you still go?
Writing classes were the best prelude to writing fiction that I could imagine. I signed up with an internet class from Canada, twenty lessons, coached by a published Canadian writer. The later part of the lessons took me through most of my first novel. It wasn’t a “gravy” adventure with accolades galore for my brilliant writing. Instead, my tutor, serious about the craft of writing, had no problem in correcting my errant ways with countless raps on my knuckles with his five pound cyber ruler. It stings. 

After two years, with very sore knuckles and a humbled opinion of my genius, I learned. So yes, I recommend writing classes. Taped to my desk is a quote (from Quality of Course): “Nice writing isn’t enough. It isn’t enough to have smooth and pretty language. You have to surprise the reader frequently, you can’t just be nice all the time. Provoke the reader. Astonish the reader. Writing that has no surprises is as bland as oatmeal…” Now, rather than classes, I meet every week with a very talented writers group of seven, all working on novels. I can bring in my weeks’ worth of writing, six copies, and have everyone read, correct and comment. I still get rapped on the knuckles occasionally, only this time verbally. 

Hector is an endearing character (for an assassin :) ) How did you come up with the idea of 'the assassin who couldn't dance' (and of course a great title for the book. Did you know straight away that Hector would be such a key character?
The idea for Hector came about through my belief that a good person isn’t always good – and a bad person isn’t always bad. I had been reading any and all thrillers I could find at the time, and the plots became boringly consistent: the “good” guys always against the “bad” middle-eastern terrorists. I decided to bend the rule. I knew Hector would be a key character. From seven years old until the age of twenty-three, along with classroom studies he’d been taught to kill. His target being the U.S. Army officers responsible for the deaths of his father and brother. He didn’t have a choice. But with little social interaction during those years - friends never made and family hardly known - he is emotionally vulnerable as he sets out on his quest of vengeance. He asks himself at one point in the story: If his family had moved to the States sixteen years before, would he have a girlfriend now? Would he have learned how to dance? It was such an innocent query, so like the character, I decided to use it in the title.  

'A Capable and Wide Revenge' is another interesting title. How did you come up with this one?
It’s been a long time since I’ve read the complete works of Shakespeare, so I can’t say I remembered the line from Othello. But the quote I used (from Dictionary of Quotations by Bergen Evens), which reflected exactly what I had in mind, read: “Till that a capable and wide revenge swallow them up.” Shakespeare: Othello III.iii 

amazon link

Your thrillers detail special ops and Middle East politics. How do you get your background information? Or should I call it 'intel' :) ?
Most of the background information came from books, the internet, and two Marine vets with experience in Iraq. I probably went through four or five books relating to the Gulf War. The internet also offered a wealth of information. In the second book  A Capable and Wide Revenge  I used an armored Humvee, mounted with a 50 cal. machine gun. Not only were pictures plentiful for research, but videos of the Humvee with the machine gun in action came along as a nice bonus. Articles pertaining to political structure in Baghdad, street views, neighborhoods and militant groups were there for the taking. I’ll confess, I’ve taken many liberties with the truth in the course of my novels, but then again, I don’t feel I was too far from the actuality.  

Events in your novels seem to me to be mirrored in events that hit the news. Have you had a moment where you switched on the TV and there it was - your fictional story come to life?
Yes. The first book took place in 2006, the second in 2009. The destabilization and turmoil in Iraq, and its effects, were a given even as I wrote. With approximately one million (+) U.S. dollars funneled into Iraq each day, corruption was rife and militant groups controlled areas police were loath to enter. The U.S. pulled the last of its troops in December 2011, leaving a vacuum to be filled – and it was, as is apparent today. The geopolitical nature of the area would rule out a direct correlation to the Vietnam fiasco, but as a student of military history I’d have to quote Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Do you worry that your books might attract attention from terrorists or militant groups?
Not really. For the most part I try to be somewhat vague. In Capable and Wide, I noted actual names for the militant groups in and around Baghdad at the time, but the names I eventually used for my “bad guy” groups – Sword of the Righteous Lions and Green Shields of Allah – were made up, using bits and pieces of the others. I can’t get into too much trouble with that…I think (he said, looking over his shoulder).

What do you hope readers will get from reading your books?
My original theme was the relationship of family and friends within conflict, that they will support each other no matter the odds. But I found myself writing another theme as well – that is, everyone is searching for someone special to love, and when that love is found you don’t want to let it go. In The Assassin, Lucy and Hector/Morgan and Gil were looking for that love. In Capable and Wide, it was Wes Easterly, Darien and Colin, and even twelve-year-old Ashi who needed that special belonging. I guess I’ve always rooted for the underdog, faced-off against the bully that life, and people, can sometimes be.  

What are your future projects?
I’m currently working on a book titled, Sweet Peach. The first line of her introduction to the story is: Sweet Peach (yeah, momma was slugging beers right through the midwife’s delivery) stumbled out of her battered Honda Civic. 

The story takes place in Tennessee. Hector, Gil and Morgan, and the others will be back. It’s a bit different from the previous books that used Iraq as a backdrop. I’m currently working on some “bad guys” as worthy adversaries, of the drug-running, cartel type. This time they’re from Mexico. 

What are your own favourite books?Strangely, as I write fiction, many of my top picks are non-fiction. I’ve read The Outline of History by H.G. Wells (originally written in 1920, revised in 1976) three times. Not just for its historical significance, but for its literary elegance. H.G. is a great writer! In contrast, I finally read Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire three years ago. It was written (first volume) in 1776. The history is good for the period, imbued with the bias and prejudice of the time, but the writing tends to be stifled, flat, and exciting as year-old fruitcake (all the footnotes are in Latin, and even with my two years of study, plus copious notes taken from Google translation, I could only pick up about 60%). Of course, Tolkien is still a favorite. I re-read him every year or two. I’m currently reading a lot of Indie publications, and have found some very good writers. But as I read so many, I can’t recall the title of the book I read last week, or who wrote it. I could give a list of authors I like, but I’d likely leave someone out. 

What about the private Glen Barrera? What are your favourite activities apart from writing and reading? Can you dance?
Ha! Yes, I can dance fairly well. I also play classical and blues guitar (although, I don’t pick up my guitars as much as I used to). I sailed on Lake Michigan for a few years on a Rhodes 22 and a Seaward 26. Unfortunately, we had to sell the boat when my ex and I divorced. I still practice Karate kata (formalized movements like Tai Chi, but faster and with full force) and Tai Chi. I was in Florida this past November, staying with my sister who works with horses as a trainer/dressage teacher/coach. It’s been a long time since I’ve been on a horse, let alone one showing at a dressage-trained level. It was a very interesting experience, with riding nuances to boggle the mind. A new endeavor perhaps? 

Which question do you wish somebody would ask in interview?
Can you sing?
And the answer is?
Yes. I was a member of the Bogan (my Chicago High School) Boys Choir. Except, our “choir” relied on one of us getting dad’s car, getting an older guy to buy beer for the four or five of us, and then cruise around singing songs on the car radio (okay, and trying to pick up girls). 

The Assassin Who Couldn't Dance

The Story
Blue-eyed Hector Munoz (his present name) is fluent in five languages, can kill a man a hundred different ways and yet, at twenty-three had learned almost nothing about life and love. His father and brother were brutally murdered by corrupt U.S. military officers when he was seven. The teacher, a close friend of his father, took control of the boy’s life, as well as the future debt to be paid. Now, after years of rigorous training, the assassin is judged ready. But is he?

The plan to draw out the officers has been set into motion. Hector has only to illegally cross the border from Mexico and retrieve keys to safe deposit boxes containing eight-million dollars and incriminating documents before the officers can respond. It shouldn’t be a problem. But then Hector’s plan didn’t include Mexican bandits; ruthless mercenaries also after the keys and led by a sadistic cowboy; or a sleazy Chicago mob figure. Things get more complicated for him when a third party joins the search for the keys, the crazed leader of a militia group with a secret room in his basement reserved for “guests” – and then falling in love with an escaped guest, Lucy. Hector also didn’t realize that the mercenaries’ target, an ex-Force Recon team holding the keys and the last four men to see his father alive, were far from old and rusty.

In the race for the keys, Hector must confront the emotional emptiness in his life that he wasn’t allowed to experience in his quest for vengeance. With time running out, he is forced to make a choice: follow the assassination plan or ally with the surviving recon team, their families, and Lucy before they are eliminated; and, maybe discover who he really is.

amazon link

The Assassin Who Couldn't Dance 

My Review

Loyalty between friends in all-action special ops thriller
I was worried the book might be too violent for my taste but Glen Barrera's judgement stayed within what worked for me as part of a fast-paced all-action story. The opening scene is as violent as the book gets so that sets the tone - and gets you straight into the twists of the plot and some of the key players. If the guerilla warfare and killing can be gutsy, the romance is the opposite - tender and implicit.

What I think sets this at the top of its genre is the portrayal of loyalty and trust in the midst of warfare. We see traditional military values (and weapons) in the midst of criminal chaos and outright warfare and we care about this band of brothers. I want a new term to replace 'band of brothers' because what the author does really well is to include women as equals in that band. The links of loyalty and trust unite the whole group, with romances being more like special friendships within the overall bonds. Crime novels often show the bond between detective partners but this is the first book I've read which really shows group friendship in extreme duress. Imagine the Famous Five in the army, having adventures in which people are killed.

'The Assassin' and 'A Wide and Capable Revenge' give you no time to draw breath but across the two books the reader gets to know the characters more. The language is suitably muscular and when there is a little description, it always fits the scene and the characters - I'd enjoy more of that but then, I guess I'm reading out of my usual genre and I'm not used to all that gunfire!

Coming Soon! Twisted Tales

Glen and I will be keeping each other company in this collection of short stories from Readers' Circle of Avenue Park. The Burglar by Glen Barrera is about a burglar's chance meeting with a large unfriendly dog. My story The 13th Sign also features a dog of sorts... Perhaps Twisted Tails may be more appropriate. I'll keep you posted re publication as it looks like great holiday reading.