From Jonathan Lowe: An interview with Ted Bell, author of the Alex Hawke thriller series
Ted Bell was one of the leading talents in advertising, having won every award the industry offers, including numerous Clios and Cannes Gold Lions, and, as Worldwide Creative Director of Y&R, the Grand Prix at the prestigious Cannes Festival. A native Floridian, Bell graduated from Randolph Macon College in Virginia and is a former member of the collegeís Board of Trustees. Bell began his advertising career at Doyle Dane Bernbach, New York, as a junior copywriter in the early seventies. By age 25 heíd sold his first screenplay and become the youngest vice president in the storied history of the creative powerhouse, DDB. In 1982 he joined Leo Burnett Co., Chicago, as a creative director. He was named President, Chief Creative Officer just four years later, in 1986, at age 40. Credited with developing numerous innovative and award-winning advertising campaigns, Bell joined Young & Rubicam, London, in 1991 as Vice Chairman and Worldwide Creative Director. After 10 years at Y&R, Bell retired in 2001 to write full time.
JONATHAN LOWE: What was the origin of Alex Hawke as a character? Is he a compilation of people youíve known, or did you have another fictional character in mind at his creation, like James Bond?
TED BELL: Certainly I was inspired by Ian Fleming. But Bond was very much a mid-20th century character. Hawke is a 21st century hero. In my mindís eye, I always saw him as a combination of Errol Flynn and the sophisticated actor William Powell in the Thin Man movies. To drive his development, I created an extremely traumatic childhood with the murder of his parents, a wound that never heals. When Alex is emotionally wounded, he cries real tears. James Bond never cried.
LOWE: Alex gets to operate high powered vehicles, all the same, including a powerboat. You have a boat too, and live in Florida. What kind of horsepower do you have compared to Hawke, and is it still a thrill opening the throttle?
BELL: Iíve loved boats and the water all my life and had a number of them. My favorite was the slowest, and 1954 Hinckley Souíwester wooden sloop from Maine called Maracaya. My current boat, named Spy, is a sportfishing boat with twin 300 horsepower outboards. Itís a beast and yes, it is always a thrill opening the throttles.
LOWE: In TSAR you postulate a nefarious wannabe leader who intends to reunite and dominate the old regime in Russia. How has the machinations in the new republics influenced your outline?
BELL: I spent six months researching this book, twice as long as I usually take. I read endless biographies of Putin and used sources of mine inside the intelligence, diplomatic, and law enforcement communities to get a handle on what was really going on in Russia. Then I traveled to Russia and the Baltics (spent a whole day with our Ambassador to Estonia who is right next door to Russia). In Moscow, I spent a lot of time at our embassy and at the Ambassadorís residence, Spaso House. I spent a lot of time with a retired KGB general and talking to CIA and ICE personnel who helped me enormously. Basically, I figured out two years ago that Russia would make moves on the former Soviet client states. A few weeks after TSAR came out, Putin moved into Georgia. I had a lot of mail asking if Iíd sent an advance copy of TSAR to the Kremlin.
LOWE: What kind of research did you do with the Zeppelin? Have you ever flown in a balloon or blimp, yourself?
BELL: I researched the Hindenberg and the great ocean liners of the time to come up with the airship TSAR. Massive and luxurious. The propulsion system I described, though experimental, actually exists. Never been up in one but would jump at the chance. I wish there was transoceanic zeppelin travel now. Iíd use it.
LOWE: In the book ďThe Terminal Spy,Ē Putin is suspected of poisoning an ex KGB operative who opposed him by using a radioactive isotope. Ironically, you have Putin in a prison built over a nuclear waste dump. Poetic justice?
BELL: No. I actually donít think Putin ordered this assassination. Iíve done a ton of research and I finally think I know exactly who ordered it, but obviously I have no proof. You have to realize that to the Russians, Putin is a great hero. He has an 80% approval rating. He literally saved that country from freefall. That's why. I have him offstage for most of the book. Iím ambivalent about him, though I know he is no friend of the west. He simply wants Russia to be a superpower again. Someone told me about a prison built over a radioactive waste site, but Enegetika Prison is wholly my invention.
LOWE: A couple years ago there was a billionaire who wanted to provide laptops to the third world, although I can't recall the details. Was he the model for your idea about laptops to Americans, without giving away the plot?
BELL: No. I never heard of this billionaire. I was just tired of reading about big bombs in thrillers and so created the notion of countless little bombs. I try to go against the flow, or current trends in the genre. Itís more fun.
LOWE: Narrator John Shea is one of my favorites, primarily because he projects a natural and believable aura, and is particularly adept at Russian accents, as opposed to being rather more formal and predictably dramatic. Have you heard his reading, and what do you think of audiobooks as performance art in general?
BELL: As it happens, John Shea is a good friend of mine of some thirty years. We met on Nantucket where John still has a home. Iíve seen him on stage and he is simply a brilliant actor. When HAWKE was published, I insisted on John doing the narration, and he has done every book of mine, including NICK OF TIME. We spend a lot of time upfront talking about accents, characters, pronunciations, etc. before he records. He does his homework, literally scoring the manuscript like a composer and the results are, to me, spectacular.
LOWE: What's next for Ted Bell, and for Alex?
BELL: Two new books and maybe Hollywood for Hawke. Iím just finishing the sequel to NICK OF TIME, to be called THE REVOLUTIONARY SPY. Then Iíll get to work on the new Hawke book. There has been a lot of interest from A list male film stars since the publication of TSAR. I can smell the popcorn, but Iíll believe it when I see it actually on the screen.
(Jonathan Loweís author and audiobook website is JustSayNoWay.com)