February 24, 2010 / 3:25 AM / in 7 years

Fate of ex-spies fascinates writer Keith Thomson

SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - Writer Keith Thomson was fascinated by the real story of an elderly man with Alzheimer's who shocked his family when he spoke fluently in other languages, giving away his past as a secret agent.

Thomson, a former screenwriter who turned his hand to fiction in 2005 with his first novel "Pirates of Pensacola", used this story as the basis of his second novel, "Once A Spy", that will be released on March 9.

The thriller follows a former CIA agent, Drummond Clark, whose son starts to suspect his elderly father's double life when their home is blown up and they end up on the run.

Thomson spoke to Reuters from his Alabama home about writing:

Q: What made you shift from film scripts to novels?

A: "I had done a number of movie projects and after one particularly contentious meeting about a rewrite job, my agent said if you don't like it why not write a book. That day I signed up for a fiction writing course and as I result got to writing novels. Ironically this book will now be made into a movie."

Q: Was it a very different approach?

A: "Movie scripts take 4-5 months on average but averages are kind of meaningless. For a book it would take me two years of sitting down from start to finish. It probably takes about five times as long."

Q: Any tips to getting started?

A: "I think the most helpful part of this process was that I got really sick at the end of my first semester of graduate school. I had a fever for six days in a row and went to emergency and they said I had hepatitis A. The doctor said you are going to be in bed for six weeks which seemed like an eternity and I was floored by that rather than the illness, but I did have to spend that time in bed as it saps you of energy. At that time I was working on a pirate story for my teachers and I wanted to know every bit of the ship. I read 60 to 70 dusty old maritime volumes that I would never otherwise, and gained an appreciation for research. I didn't go back to school. I missed the second semester as by then I was going to be published."

Q: Where did the idea for "Once A Spy" come from?

A: "It is sort of based on a true story. I was dating a young woman ... and she told me a story about an earlier boyfriend who took her home to Virginia for Thanksgiving. Tragically Alzheimer's had forced his father into retirement in his early 60s. He had been a factory manager for a large American corporation and spent years working in foreign countries and the children thought their father was a xenophobe who went out of his way to buy Budweiser and speak English. But at this Thanksgiving everyone was stunned when the dad started speaking French fluently and then German. His cover was blown. He'd been a spy. It made me think what happened when operatives lost the ability to retain their false identity. What is the protocol for someone whose mind contains valuable secrets and whose mind is failing?"

Q: Did you always want to write?

A: "No, after college I worked drawing cartoons for a newspaper and also writing commercials for (advertising agency) Saatchi and Saatchi. I made a short film that was in the Sundance Festival ("Cupidity") and then got work in Hollywood. I always thought I would be a cartoonist but I guess telling stories is just more fun. A picture might tell 1,000 words but I guess I like telling 100,000 words."

Q: What are you working on now?

A: "I am right on the cusp of finishing a sequel to "Once A Spy" which will be published a year from now. I've enjoyed the process enormously of writing "Twice A Spy". Some of it takes place in Martinique so I went there for research and Switzerland."

Q: It all sounds as if came easily?

A: "Well, this book had no rejection letters. My agent showed it to Doubleday first and they bought it immediately. But I had rejections for the pirate book so I can tell you that isn't fun."

Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith, Editing by Miral Fahmy

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