Spy Master

Keith Thompson

Birmingham writer Keith Thomson blends satire and suspense to perfection

by Cindy Riley     Photo by Beau Gustafson

Much like one of de Chirico’s cryptic canvases, Keith Thomson’s latest  espionage  thriller  offers a  series of twists and turns that captivate  his unsuspecting audience. “I remember actually shaking the book in disbelief a few times, as though I could shake the unpredictabilities out of it,”  says   Glenny Brock, former editor of Birmingham Weekly.

In Once A Spy and Twice A Spy, Keith packs an insane amount of technical detail into his narrative—ballistics, military strategy, U.S. history—but the story just bobs along and the reader is carried by it. And even though he writes about security and intelligence issues for one of the most successful news organizations on planet Earth, he supposedly got his start in journalism by reviewing a barbecue joint.

Thomson, a forty-something Ivy Leaguer who blogs for The Huffington Post from his Birmingham home, hadn’t envisioned  becoming an author. Having played semi-pro baseball in France, he worked as a screenwriter, filmmaker and editorial cartoonist before making the leap to novelist.

“When I was  young, mom put me in a high chair with some crayons to keep me busy. She kept bringing me more paper and I just kept drawing,” confesses Thomson, who grew up in Connecticut and earned a Bachelor’s degree from Columbia University.

“Working at Newsday was interesting. I  got to go to a cartoonist convention, which was quite an experience.  But I guess I liked telling a story that was longer than just a cartoon, so when a high school buddy asked me to help him make a short  film, I did.” Thomson’s eight-minute “Cupidity” won the Napor Award at the  Sundance Film Festival. That led to a three-picture  deal in Hollywood, although only one of Thomson’s movies  got made.

“It was called ‘The Mantis Murder,’” he laughs. “It was supposed to be a cop comedy, but it ended up being a horror film. It’s probably best not to think about it.” While working on a movie for Paramount,  Thomson became frustrated and was ultimately fired. His agent suggested he write a book.

“I remember sitting in my hotel room, signing up for an adult  fiction writing course at Stanford. I decided to write a pirate story, but at the end of the semester I contracted Hepatitis A and was told to stay in bed for six weeks. It  turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because Stanford has an unparalleled maritime collection and I was able to read between 60 to 70 books about ships. I wanted my story to be realistic and the experience gave me a real appreciation for doing research.”

His first book, the parody Pirates of Pensacola, was followed by Doubleday’s Once A Spy, which chronicles the adventures of  a father–son spy team. Drummond Clark, a retired appliance salesman and one-time CIA  agent,  suffers from Alzheimer’s, and his gambler son Charlie owes money  to Russian loan sharks. After Charlie rescues his dad from the Brooklyn streets, their house blows up and the two  narrowly  escape. They  find themselves on the run, targeted by  CIA assassins. The story  is loosely based on a real-life Alzheimer’s victim who stunned his family when they learned he’d been a secret agent.

“I like escapism,” explains Thomson, who moved to Birmingham in 2005 to be close to his wife’s family. “I also believe the men and women of the clandestine service are our most under appreciated heroes.” Sony has already purchased the film rights to his debut spy book. His followup, Twice A Spy, debuts this month, and finds the spy team hiding in Switzerland, dealing with the abduction of Charlie’s lover. Except for the time his computer broke, Thomson says penning a sequel was a joyful experience.

“It was one big dessert after Once A Spy, which was written on spec while my wife and I were in the midst of having babies.” Thomson, who  writes  from  his  Southside   office, also enjoys the travel involved in his research.

“Writing about spies gets you to more exotic locales than writing about actuaries. I went to Martinique two years ago, when I was starting the book. I needed to see it to give the story the requisite reality. If I hadn’t gone, I probably would have portrayed the island as another tropical dot in the Caribbean, but in reality, the city, Fort-de-France is more like Paris than the Caribbean I know, except it’s more futuristic.”

Longtime Alabama writer Verna Gates adds, “Having lunch with a guy who just got back from having a few beers with the head of the CIA makes for so much better  repartee than local gossip. Keith’s stories from deep in the spy world amaze and fascinate. His dry sense of humor also delights me.”

Inspired by David Ignatius, Robert Ludlum and Charles McCarry, Thomson is busy paving his own literary path. “I’m working on a new thriller. I’d like to be doing the same sort of work in five or ten years, maybe a project at some juncture involving drawing or a non-fiction book—possibly based on an article I wrote about Area 51. I’d love to look into the future if I could.”

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