ECHO — “Hi there Mr. Neal. Thank you for sitting down with me today. I’m glad I have a chance to talk to you about your books. Have you always been a writer, or did you start writing because you had an important story to tell?”
Neal — ”Actually, one sort of led to the other. My first book, ‘Washtub Gold’, was written after I discovered that a cadre of ‘Stay-Behind-Agents’ had been recruited in Alaska during the Cold War years. A carefully selected cross-section of the population of the Territory, totaling about 90 people, was vetted, recruited, and trained to remain in Alaska if the Soviet Union took over. They were to act as ‘moles’ and transmit intelligence to the lower 48 which would aid in a recapture of the Territory.
“The program, codenamed ‘Operation Washtub’, was highly classified until very recently. The agents were big game guides, commercial fishermen, dock workers, store owners, bush pilots—virtually anyone who could be expected to come and go at will in connection with their normal occupations.
“As far as I was aware, this program was unknown, or, at least, unpublicized until a classified document release in 2015. I decided that it was a significant part of Alaska history which deserved to be told, so I did a lot of research and put together a fact-based, fiction mystery novel telling the story.”
ECHO — “Wow. I can’t wait to read them! I’m so glad you decided to do a series. I get attached to characters. What made you decide to keep writing after ‘Washtub Gold?”
Neal — ”Well, I guess I fell in love with my characters, especially the easy-going protagonist, Ben Hunnicutt and his sometimes forceful girlfriend FBI Agent Elise Nichole. Then I recalled another untold Alaskan Cold War story that I thought needed telling.
“During my time in the Army, I spent ten years working with the Army’s Nike Hercules missile units which surrounded Anchorage and Fairbanks. These were surface-to-air weapons for protection against a sneak attack by the Russian Bear bombers which constantly attempted to intrude on our airspace. Life in a constant ‘cocked-and-ready-to-fire’ situation is hard on young troopers, and no less so for their bosses who may have to make world-shaking decisions with no notice and little information.
“I decided that the Air Defense soldiers also deserved recognition for their grueling service, so I managed to get my boy Ben Hunnicutt into some interesting trouble in my second book, ‘Warhead’, when he has to deal with a high-jacked Nike Hercules nuclear warhead. I also brought in some of my old characters from Washtub and added a few unlikely new ones.
So I guess you could say that, at first, I had stories to tell. Then I found that I liked writing—which brought about my third book, ‘CrossKill’.”
ECHO — “Is CrossKill based on more Alaska Cold War history?”
Neal — “No. I wrote that one just for fun. Ben gets caught up in a murder investigation that leads to a personal vendetta. Again, I kept many of my old friends, the characters from my first two books.”
ECHO — “Do you have another career to distract you while you were turning out novels?”
Neal — “I retired after 28 years in the Army, and then worked nearly ten more years as an occupational safety professional and accident investigator. By the time I got the itch to write a novel, I was permanently unemployed. At that time, I had been widowed for five years, and had few distractions; writing helped fill my time.”
ECHO — “What convinced you to go ahead and publish your books?”
Neal — “I had written a lot while in the service, but it was all technical and doctrinal material. I never thought about writing fiction or publishing a novel. I did jot down a few descriptions of meaningful events of my boyhood, mostly to give my grandkids an idea what it was like growing up in the 1930s and 40s.
“My late brother and I had put together a book in which each of us set forth an abbreviated account of our lives. My brother, Robert, had written four technical books and scores of magazine articles, so he handled the publishing and printing. It was a sloppy book, inadequately edited and proofed, as he was in the last year of his life, but it filled a place in the family archives. But in no way did I ever consider myself as a candidate for writing fiction.
“My younger daughter, however, is Lynn Lovegreen, the author of four books for young people, all based on Alaska history. When I told her of the Washtub project, she began nudging me toward getting it done. When her sister, Deb, added her weight to the nudging, I gave in and launched the project.”
ECHO — “There’s good and bad to everything. How was writing for you? The good must outweigh the bad for you to continue, but did you learn anything you’d like to share?
Neal — “Strangely enough, I knew from the start how I wanted the story to end. It was hard to steer the plot toward that particular finale without seeming to force it. And I’m choosy about words; I’ve been known to spend an hour looking for just the right word—then quitting until the next day, knowing that sooner or later it would pop into my mind.
“I found that I was a bit fanatical about getting details correct for the timeframe of a scene. For instance, I had Ben and his friend Joe Doan sitting in a bar in Seward in 1952. I couldn’t rest until I had done enough research to come up with the name of a bar that was actually in Seward in 1952 and what music was apt to be on the jukebox at that time.
“I did similar research throughout my writing and began to find it an enjoyable break from the keyboard. When I advanced the setting into the 1970s, it was easier because I had been in Alaska since 1968 and my memory covered most of my questions.”
ECHO — “Who do you think reads your books? Who is your intended audience?”
Neal —“I don’t believe I consciously aimed them at any particular audience, but I later realized that I was always concerned that any inaccuracies might be criticized by fellow Alaskans. I think I could now say that they were slanted toward Alaskan readers.
“And, I can honestly say that I deliberately steered away from the more vile forms of profanity that seem to infest today’s literature. Of course, you can’t write about soldiers, miners, and trappers without an occasional ‘hell’ or ‘damn’, but I only rarely ventured beyond that. I’m comfortable with the fact that young people in their mid-teens can read my stuff.”
ECHO — “Do you get much feedback from your readers?”
Neal — “My Alaska readers often comment on the accuracy of locale descriptions, saying that the story is more interesting because they recognize, and have been in, the places, communities, or scenes where the action takes place. Many also seem to like the dry humor displayed by Ben Hunnicutt, who can never take himself too seriously. Ben can be serious, however, when dealing with the bad guys; he looks for raw justice, not due process.”
ECHO — “That begs the question – is Ben based on a real person?”
Neal — “Some of my characters seem to closely resemble people I have known over the years—purely by chance, of course! But I do have a little fun with names!
“If I develop a character who turns out to be a touch despicable, his name may be a lot like that of someone with whom I crossed swords in real life. I have also created transient characters to commemorate friends who have passed on, but they are unlikely to be recognized by anyone except my close friends. And the name of Ben’s FBI girlfriend, Elise Nichole, was taken from the names of the two daughters of a good friend; they are called Elise and Nichole.”
ECHO — “Will we see Ben Hunnicutt again?”
Neal — “I’m about halfway through the fourth book now. The first, ‘Washtub Gold’, had Ben as a young Army lieutenant on temporary duty in Alaska in 1952 helping set up the Stay-Behind-Agent program. He’s then sent on to fight in Korea, and we don’t meet him again until after his retirement to Alaska 15 years later.
“The second, ‘Warhead’, takes place in Alaska in 1969 and is followed by ‘CrossKill’ which carries him into 1970 and ’71.
“Book #4, yet untitled, will flash back to his combat time in Korea through the war’s end in 1953, then pick up on his retired life in Alaska in early 1972. The escapade in which he becomes next involved has threads tracing back to his time in Korea.
“What happens to him in the fourth book largely depends on Ben himself. I find that my characters often seem to go their own way, regardless of my own ideas of how the plot should progress.”