Different authors have varying beginnings, and as fate would have it, some are much more interesting to learn about than others. Larry Loftis is a man who ventured into writing only after years of studies and careful considerations, and as a result penned a number of renowned books revolving around law and finance. However, these lucrative ventures ultimately proved themselves to be insufficient for Larry, and so he ended up penning the work he refers to as his first real book, Into the Lion’s Mouth (Read review), where he explores in unprecedented detail the unbelievable life of Dusko Popov, the spy who shaped history and inspired the immortal James Bond character.
We’ve had the great opportunity to get in touch with Larry and ask him a few questions about his book, work as an author, and his life in a more general sense (though always through the lens of literature). What follows is one of the most detailed and insightful author interviews we’ve had the pleasure of conducting: behold the wisdom of Larry Loftis.
Q: What struck the match of inspiration and led you down the author’s path? How does one go from being a prominent lawyer to an author?
The short answer is the University of Florida Law Review. I had a friend who was ahead of me in law school and already on the Review. He explained that the best jobs went those on the Review and I needed to do everything in my power to “write on”—a writing competition dealing with the latest Florida Supreme Court cases. There were 200 people in my class and 100 submitted papers. I think they accepted ten or twelve and published four. I was fortunate enough to be one of the four. After that, my law review “Note” was published by the international journal at Suffolk University, and then my senior paper was published by the international journal at the University of Georgia.
After that, I was hooked. I published articles in the National Law Journal, Florida Bar Journal, and Florida Banking, and then took a break. Out of the blue one day, another lawyer told me that a Chicago publisher wanted a book on a topic I knew well, and that I should email the acquisitions editor. My book for them became their best-selling book in 2005, which led to two more. After that, I wanted to write a “fun” book (i.e., unrelated to law), which led me to research and write Into the Lion’s Mouth.
Q: Do you feel like your degrees in Political Science and Law have influenced your abilities as a writer? If yes, how?
Unquestionably. Political science majors do the two things authors do: read a lot and write a lot. So my undergraduate training helped me to learn the basics of research and writing. And law school is basically political science undergrad on steroids. Not only that, but your opinion on anything is irrelevant. Everything must be defended by facts or case law. A law review journal article is somewhat unique in that virtually every sentence must have a footnote to defend it. That’s the research, evaluation, and synthesis element. Then comes the writing.
Only when I decided to try out for the Law Review, however, did I realize that I really didn’t know how to write yet. Only after you memorize the Elements of Style, Chicago Manual of Style, and the Texas Law Review Manual on Style are you really equipped to begin the journey into becoming a law review editor, and, by extension (and many years), a good writer. Even as I write this, the training is revealed—I just went back to italicize the publications.
Q: Do you often turn to your experience in those fields as a source of inspiration for your as-of-yet unpublished stories, or plan to in the future? If yes, to what extent, and if no, why?
It depends on what you mean by “inspiration.” If you mean the term in the sense of finding new material, I have a treasure trove of books and national archive files in my library to repeat what I did with the Popov book for other WWII characters. If you mean the term in the sense of hope for the future, everything in the publishing business (at least until you are a branded author like Stephen King, J. K. Rowling, or John Grisham) is based on your last book’s sales figures. Fortunately, ILM (Into the Lion’s Mouth) has sold well, which allows me to stay in the game.
Q: Which authors would you say have had the greatest impact on you? If you could have a conversation with any one of them, who would they be?
Overall, my favorite is Elleston Trevor. His prose is superb and his story-telling—with Alfred Hitchcock-type suspense—is the best in the business, in my opinion. My favorite modern thriller writer is Vince Flynn, who set the bar for today’s authors. Within my espionage genre, I also like Ian Fleming and Alistair MacLean. For pure writing, I like C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, Oscar Wilde and Robert Lewis Stevenson, who has an excellent article on assonance and alliteration. Finally, Robert McKee’s Story, written primarily for screenwriters, should be required reading for writers in all genres.
As for conversation, Trevor would be my choice for authors. If I could stray beyond authors, I’d give anything for thirty minutes with Alfred Hitchcock or Billy Wilder.
Q: What are your favourite books, the ones that stayed with you since the day you’ve read them and why?
Trevor’s Quiller Memorandum and MacLean’s Where Eagles Dare are my favorite novels. No book is perfect, but these two are close. MacLean’s writing is hindered by attribution adverbs (i.e., “he said adamantly.”), but this practice was common at the time. Anyone who has read Where Eagles Dare (or has seen the movie) knows that the story crafting was remarkable. The same goes for the Quiller Memorandum, although Trevor had the misfortune of having George Segal rather than Sean Connery play his protagonist in the film adaptation. I also greatly admire the prose in three classics—Orwell’s 1984, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. On the nonfiction side, there’s no better prose than Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening—every sentence is a poem.
Q: You have published numerous scholarly articles in the legal field, how would you compare that experience to publishing your historical book?
Ironically enough, the process is quite similar. For both, you have to read everything on the topic. In essence, you have to become the world’s expert in that narrow topic. Where it gets tricky is when the material conflicts. Courts render different decisions on similar fact patterns; eye witnesses record different accounts of events. With Into the Lion’s Mouth, for example, I found discrepancies often. Fortunately, lawyers are equipped with the rules of evidence, which assist in ranking the likelihood of accuracy. Something written is generally more accurate than something repeated verbally; something recorded at or near the time it occurred is more reliable than something written years later; primary sources are valued over secondary sources; and so on. Whether a legal article or a nonfiction book, the goal is the same—accuracy.
Q: At the University of Florida you occupied the positions of Senior Executive Editor and Senior Articles Editor. What did your experience under those roles teach you about the art of editing and publishing?
More than anything else, my experience in those roles reminds me of the difficult jobs of an author’s editor and copy editor. The reading is painstaking and, aside from typos, the editing is almost always subjective. Yet, it has to be done. I remember when I graduated from law school all of my colleagues split for the beach the next day. Not me. I was the Sr. Executive Editor of the Review at the time and I was editing our lead article from a Harvard law professor. Unfortunately, it needed quite a bit of editing and I had to remain at school another four or five days after everyone in the town, it seemed, had left. Editors in New York have the same problem every few months—the publishing calendar determines when you can leave for vacation or the holidays.
Q: Considering the genre of your first book it seems you feel a stronger pull towards writing non-fiction literature. Is there any particular reason for that?
Into the Lion’s Mouth was my fourth book, actually. But since my prior books were in an entirely different genre (legal/real estate), I don’t count them. With ILM, I chose to write a book that I’d like to read … a nonfiction thriller. I love thrillers, espionage books, and WWII books, but I had never come across a book that combined all elements … a book that read like an Alfred Hitchcock movie but was actually true. On top of that, I wanted the writing backed up by scholarly research and law review-type citations.
I think I heard it on a Thrillerfest lecture that I downloaded years ago: “Write the book you want to read.” I thought that was brilliant advice.
The best accolade I have received for Into the Lion’s Mouth—which bears on this topic—came quite unexpectedly. Someone sent me an email through my website one day, in essence just saying how much he liked the book and that he had ordered two copies for his sons. But what impressed me was what he called the book—”a scholarly thriller.” That made my day because that was really my goal. He signed it, “Bob.” I looked down to the bottom and saw that “Bob” was Dr. Robert Kuckuck, a nuclear physicist and former Director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, the top espionage/science research facility in the world.
Q: Could you walk us through the writing and publishing process that went into creating Into the Lion’s Mouth? Did anything remarkable happen during that time? Where there any great obstacles to overcome?
Surprise number one: It takes longer to get an agent than it does to write the book!
Surprise number two: It takes longer to get the book from final submission to printing than it does to write the book. From the time I turned in my manuscript to the time the book was released was 16 months.
In terms of the research and writing process for Into the Lion’s Mouth, I spent one full year doing research, a second year where I spent half the time researching and half writing, and a third year of just writing and editing.
Q: Have you developed a specific process for writing books? If so what is it (if it’s not too much of a secret)?
Indeed, there is a process. Since I work in the genre of nonfiction, the first step is to find a story that:
a) includes an exciting protagonist who accomplished something in WWII;
b) has not been researched in depth; and c) has sufficient material available (i.e., memoirs, national archive files, etc.) to allow for research.
The second step is to review enough of the research material to allow me to provide an outline. Since I only want to write nonfiction thrillers, the story has to provide enough cliffhangers throughout to keep a swift pace.
If the story is still viable, I essentially order or read everything in print about that person and the persons involved in the story. Invariably, I always find more exciting things to add during this part. Sometimes these rabbit trails lead to nothing, but often they reveal interesting tidbits. For example, doing this for Into the Lion’s Mouth, I researched an obscure character in the story named Walter Winchell (a syndicated columnist who accidentally almost blew Popov’s cover). Turns out, he did two movies with Simon Simone (Popov’s love interest in 1942) and was one of the most powerful people in America at that time. There’s more but I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t read ILM yet.
Q: What exactly pushed you to write the story of Dusko Popov and how did you come to learn about him? Did something in particular fascinate you?
My original plan was to write historical fiction, an espionage thriller not unlike a John Le Carré novel. Since I wanted a believable story, I started doing research on “greatest spy ever,” “most daring spy ever,” and the like to see what real spies did. In short, all roads led to Popov; he did more in real life than I was making up for my character! At that point I decided it would be more fun to do a book about him than a novel.
Q: How did you end up choosing the style in which you wrote the book (a thriller-like narration)?
I combined my interests. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of action thrillers (i.e., novels of Vince Flynn, Elleston Trevor, Alistair MacLean, Ian Fleming, et al.). On the other, I’m also fascinated by WWII. When I found the Popov story, I realized that I had an historical character who was, as the Orlando Sentinel put it, “bolder than Bond.” The challenge, of course, is that there are very few true stories that have the action, drama, suspense, reversals, and cliffhangers needed for a genuine thriller. My job is to find them.
Q: Did you have to fill in many blanks with the help of your imagination? If so, to what extent would you say the book is factually accurate?
Nonfiction is self-defining. If it is not 100% factually accurate, it is not nonfiction, but historical fiction. Into the Lion’s Mouth is 100% factually accurate, which is why my original manuscript also included 75 pages of end notes. And this brings us full circle, back to the law review training. If anyone questions the veracity of any point or statement in my book, they need only review the end notes for source validation/verification.
Q: Personally-speaking, what is your subjective opinion of Dusko Popov, as if you were the judge, jury and executioner at a trial examining his whole life?
The obvious answer is that he was, in a very real sense, James Bond. Everything that Fleming saw in Popov he included in the Bond character: handsome, charming, courageous, bold, flirtatious, intelligent, and all the rest. But as I point out in the Sources and Acknowledgements section, Popov was also kind, generous, and loyal to a fault. Naturally, like Bond—like all of us—Popov had his flaws; he was a notorious playboy and an awful spendthrift.
All of that said, he risked his life time and again long before his country was even in the war. Had his warning about Pearl Harbor been heeded, he would have saved over 2,000 lives. His work regarding D-Day unquestionably saved thousands of American lives.
Q: How big of a role do you believe he played in shaping history and directing the course of the war? Are his contributions criminally-overlooked?
A magnificent question. Indeed, this is why I wrote the book. Yes, the Bond connection is fun and exciting, but, at the end of the day, how did he affect history? You nailed it in asking if his contributions have been “criminally-overlooked.” Indeed, they have. When a CIA Director (Michael Morell) and two four-star admirals (Lyons and Zlatoper), both of whom commanded the U.S. Pacific Fleet based at Pearl Harbor, tell you that they knew nothing of Popov’s warning to J. Edgar Hoover, that pretty much sums it up. Popov’s Pearl Harbor warning has been criminally overlooked. Hopefully, my book will correct this.
Q: How would you gauge his influence on modern culture? Was he truly the inspirational figure for James Bond, creating an archetype the love for which persists throughout decades?
I wouldn’t say he’s had any affect on modern culture, but without question he was the inspiration for Bond, which is why it is in the subtitle of the book. Anyone who reads the book, including the charts, appendices, and notes, will agree that Popov was undoubtedly Fleming’s inspiration for Bond. Not one review whether from the USA Today, New York Post, Parade, or even the sensitive Bond websites has questioned this conclusion to my research.
Q: What precisely do you hope to achieve or communicate through this book? If the readers could only take away one message, what would you have it be?
On the historical side, my aim was to recognize Popov’s achievements (warning of Pearl Harbor, helping to save D-Day), and prove who he was (the inspiration for Bond). On the writing side, my goal was to deliver the content in an entertaining way—as a thriller—but also to deliver it with quality prose. I spent as much time paying attention to the alliteration and assonance in sentences, for example, as I did with the research to back up those sentences. Ideally, I want every sentence to flow like a poem.
As for the take-away, I want the reader asking, “When does Larry’s next book come out?”!
Q: What advice would you give to aspiring authors looking to realize their dreams? What steps should they take?
First, learn the craft. Memorize The Elements of Style. If you don’t know what the Oxford comma is, or the difference between an em dash and an en dash, you’re probably not ready.
Second, read Robert McKee’s Story a couple of times. With a highlighter. I don’t follow his guidelines on structure, but his passing comments here and there are pure manna. An example: “You don’t hold the reader’s attention by giving them information, but by withholding it.”
Third, read great screenplays—Casablanca, Chinatown, Schindler’s List, Charade, Tombstone. Most authors today don’t know how to do dialogue; screenwriters do. The biggest pacekiller in a book is “on the nose” dialogue, which I see everywhere in today’s books. It just tells me the author hasn’t read McKee’s Story or screenplays.
Fourth, find a great Beta reader. Easier said than done, of course, but if you find one you’ll never let him/her go. A Beta reader is someone who catches the little things, and is not afraid to tell you, “What were you thinking?! This has to go.” The favorite four words of my BR are: “This can be better.”
Q: Do you see yourself giving other genres a shot at some point, or do you plan on sticking with historical non-fiction?
For the time being, I’m staying with “narrative nonfiction thriller” until I run out of people. At some point I may dabble in historical fiction, but it would still be a narrative thriller.
Q: When can we expect your next book, and what will it be about?
I’m shooting for 2018. It’s about two highly decorated WWII spies (a man and a woman) who operated in France. I could tell you more, but … well, you know.