Q. Why did you write “Circle William”?
A. My adult life has been
spent as a professional communicator. I’ve written speeches, press releases and
articles for publication under other people’s name. I always wondered if I could
write a novel not for my boss but for myself. In the fall of 1996 I finally sat down and
gave it a shot. “Circle William” is the result.Q. How did you come up with the storyline?A. I’ve been very lucky in my professional career. I’ve been places and seen
things that most people will never be able to match. So I tried to find a way to describe
the things I knew best – the Navy and the Washington political/media scene. It seemed
unlikely that any main character in the novel could bridge both worlds…so I invented
the brothers Schmidt who would provide a plausible mechanism for these two divergent
worlds to meet.Q. Where did the plot come from?A. My interest was sparked by some public testimony by the then-Director of Central
Intelligence about a suspected chemical weapons plant in Tarhounah, Libya. The U.S. Navy
has often been called upon to put Muammar Gadhafi in his place when he acts up. So I
speculated on how the Navy might have to do so again in the future…and then began
thinking about how this scenario would be played out in Washington as well.
Q. Did you know how it was going to come out when you started?
A. No. I started with a very rough outline with alternating chapters between a ship at
sea and Washington. I knew that the good guys would win…but I didn’t know how
until long after I started filling in the outline.
Q. The seagoing chapters seem very realistic. Did you ever command a Navy ship?
A. No. Early in my career I qualified as an officer of the deck underway aboard an
aircraft carrier. But after that tour of duty I became a public affairs specialist in the
Navy. My subsequent duty was as a spokesman for the Navy but not as an operator. Many of
my friends, however, are surface line officers. They were the source of most of the
realistic details that you see in the seagoing chapters of Circle William. I owe them a
huge debt of gratitude.
Q. Aren’t you worried about giving away any secrets?
A. I took great care to make sure that I did not inadvertently reveal any classified
information. I submitted the manuscript to the Department of Defense’s Security
Review office which helped make sure that the copy was unclassified. At about the time the
book was submitted to the publisher, I retired from the Navy and took a civilian job as
Director of Public Affairs at the Central Intelligence Agency. Even though it was not
required, I also submitted the book to the Agency’s Publication Review Board which
vetted it to ensure that no classified material was revealed.
Q. The CIA doesn’t seem to play a very big role in the book. Isn’t
that odd given your current position?
A. I wrote the book during the final year of my twenty five year career in the U.S.
Navy. My desire was to make the men and women of the U.S. Navy appear as hardworking,
heroic and fun loving as I know them to be. Other Agencies…such as the CIA are in the
book to further the story along but the Navy and the White House Press Secretary are
clearly the heroes. If I were to write another book, now that I am at the CIA and am made
aware on a daily basis of the tremendous work Agency officers do, I would make sure that
their courage and valor would also be reflected.
Q. Are the characters based on real people?
A. Most characters are composites of a variety of people and are intended to represent
types of people that one encounters at sea, at the White House and in the news media. Some
readers have told me that they know exactly who a particular character is based upon.
Quite often they mention someone who I don’t know or who was never in my mind when
writing “Circle William.”
Q. Which brother is you?
A. Neither. And both. There are elements of my personality in Jim and Bill Schmidt but
there are many parts of their personalities and experiences that are quite different than
Q. How did you come up with the title?
A. Initially I intended for the book to focus quite a bit on the antics of the two
brothers – so the original working title was “Schmidt Happens.”
Fortunately, wiser heads convinced me to look for something else. I wanted something which
conveyed an insider’s understanding of shipboard life and the threat of chemical
weapons. So I seized upon the shipboard symbol which identifies openings which need to be
closed when there is a chemical, biological, or nuclear attack imminent – Circle
William. Once I settled on that name, I went back and changed the name of the destroyer
captain from “Dave” to “Bill” to tie in with the “William”
Q. How long did it take you to write the book?
A. It took about nine months, working nights and weekends, from the time I started
until I had a completed manuscript which I was ready to show to outsiders.
Q. How did you find a publisher?
A. I was very lucky. In June of 1997 I was invited to take part in a panel discussion
about media/government relations at the Maxwell School of Government at Syracuse
University. One of the other panelists, Tom Ricks, Pentagon Correspondent for the Wall
Street Journal, mentioned privately that he had a non-fiction book coming out that fall.
(“Making the Corps,” a terrific book, by the way.) I was carrying a copy of my
manuscript around with me trying to up the courage to show it to someone. I asked Tom if
he would be willing to read it to let me know if it had any commercial prospects. The next
day Tom called me to say that he had finished the entire book in one sitting. He was quite
complimentary and asked if I would mind if he mentioned it to his editor at Scribner.
Mind? I told him to go right ahead. Within hours Tom’s editor, Scott Moyers called
asking if I could send him a copy. I did…and before long I went from being a hobbyist
to an author with a contract.
Q. If that was in mid-1997, why has it taken until February, 1999 to publish
A. No novel, and particularly none by a first time author gets published the way it is
first submitted. Scott Moyers did an excellent job of working with me to improve the
product. “Circle William” was originally scheduled for publication in mid-1998,
but for promotional reasons, the publisher decided it would be best to launch it in early
Q. Isn’t it unusual for a civil servant to write a novel?
A. It may not be common but it is not unheard of. I know of several military and civilian
Pentagon officials who have written novels, sometimes using pseudonyms. One of my
predecessors at the CIA wrote two novels. I have come across public servants working
everywhere from the Consumer Products Safety Commission to the U.S. Congress who have also
Q. How did you do the research for Circle William?
A. Much of it I lived. For most of the settings – I’ve been there and done
that. I’ve been fortunate enough to work in the White House press office for four
years. I’ve worked for the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of the Navy and have
stood duty on the bridge of a ship. For things that I was not current on…I relied on
the advice of friends who had first hand experience…and I relied extensively in the
Internet. How anyone researched and wrote a book before the WWW and PCs were born,
I’ll never know.
Q. What is the purpose of the “Circle William” website?
A. It is both an advertising medium and a method to answer questions of people who have
already read the book. Novels like “Circle William” introduce readers to the
often unfamiliar world of the White House, media, and the Navy. The website is a great way
to let readers pick and choose the things in the book they want to learn more about.
Q. Who built the website?
A. It is the work of my sister, Peggy. Herself a retired naval officer, Peggy now works as
an analyst at Johns Hopkins/Applied Physics Laboratory and her duties include extensive
involvement in the new media like the Internet. I asked her to help put together the
website because of her understanding of the Navy and Washington…and because she works
cheaper than hiring outsiders.
Q. What authors do you read?
A. Among others, I enjoy Christopher Buckley, David Ignatius, P.J. O’Rourke, and Dan
Silva. I also like reading biographies and non-fiction works about the media and the
Washington power structure.
Q. Are you planning another book?
A. Yes, I am working on a second book that would include many of the same characters.
I’ve got a plot outline, but my current job at the CIA is quite demanding and it is
difficult to devote as much time to the project as I might like.