Michael R. Davidson was raised in the Mid-West. Heeding President Kennedy’s call for more young Americans to learn Russian he studied the language, and military service took him to the White House where he served as translator for the Moscow-Washington “Hotline.” His language abilities attracted the attention of the Central Intelligence Agency, and following his military service Mr. Davidson spent the next 28 years as a Clandestine Services officer. Seventeen of those years were spent abroad in a variety of sensitive posts working against the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. In the private sector he worked as a business owner and security and economic development consultant before devoting full time to his writing.
A: I don’t know how widely known my novels might be, but thanks for the thought. To answer your question, I did not in the beginning find it particularly onerous to submit manuscripts to the CIA’s Publications Review Board. I did, after all, sign an agreement to do so, and I recognize the need to protect secrets (even if certain prominent politicians do not). The process usually was completed within an acceptable time – about a month. Today, however, I have been waiting four months for approval of a novelette, and am informed it won’t be ready before October. I recently co-authored a novel with another writer, and am told it will not be approved before sometime next year.
Q: Where did the inspiration for your historical thriller Caliphate come from? It does stand out a little on your Amazon bookshelf.
A: I’ve spoken Spanish for many years and was fortunate enough to live in Madrid for three years, where I made many friends and thoroughly enjoyed what the country had to offer. One of these offerings was a history stretching from the ancient Ibero tribes, the Celts, the Romans, the Visigoths, seven centuries of Islamic rule, the Reconquista, the Inquisition, etc. etc. etc. The first draft of Caliphate actually included both The Inquisitor and the Maiden and Retribution, but I didn’t like the way they interfered with one another and decided to separate them into two books. Frankly, The Inquisitor and the Maiden is my personal favorite, mainly because it was so much fun to write about capes and swords rather than cloaks and daggers. I think there may be another book lurking in my thoughts about old Spain.
Q: You’ve mentioned that your are well-traveled within Europe. Did you spend a lot of time researching the Caliphate novel? Where in Spain did you travel? Is history a passion of yours? Which European countries do you have fond memories of and which not?
A: I know Europe quite well, having spent many years there. South America also is familiar turf. It’s hard to say which country I love most, but it would be hard to beat the four years we spent living in Paris.
Q: We all have memories of where we were at crucial moments in history. I remember the night Elvis died. Where were you the night the Berlin Wall came down? Did you see it (have hopes) that it was the end of the Cold War or just a changing of the old guard? Did you see a novel in the making or the end of a writer’s genre?
A: Where I was when the Berlin Wall fell is classified.
Q: I would imagine the intelligence community to be quite a rarefied environment, did you meet your European counterparts (Ian Fleming, John le Carré). Do you recognize incidents from your peers’ works?
A: I’ve never met famous writers of espionage fiction. I enjoy all the James Bond stuff, but of course it has nothing to do with real espionage. In real life, Bond would be the worst secret agent ever and not likely to last more than a few days in the field. Le Carré is another story. He is an excellent writer and weaver of plots, but he invariably equates his own service (MI6) with the enemy. I am not a fan of moral relativism, and this is a trap into which Le Carré regularly falls.
Q: Ian Fleming famously had his retreat in Jamaica, where is your favorite spot in the world? Do you have a writing hideaway? Do you write with music, in silence or with the hustle and bustle of the office?
A: I don’t have a “retreat.” In fact, I began writing fiction some nine years ago when my wife suffered a serious health problem that put an end to my travelling days. We live on a mountainside in the George Washington National Forest, surrounded by the “Virginia jungle,” as I call it, with regular visits to our yard by black bears and other assorted wildlife.
Q: What for you is the most difficult aspect of being an author? Is it writing, publishing, marketing etc? How do you overcome it?
A: Marketing, for me at least, is difficult. My last literary agent, John Hawkins, ran into problems with editors who opined that stories with Russians as the bad guys just would not interest the public. I wonder what newspapers those editors were reading. John died unexpectedly, and I decided to strike out without an agent.
Q: How do you feel about the use of social media for your work? Facebook, Twitter etc. What works for you and what doesn’t?
A: Social media is useful in getting the word out, so long as others re-post the information.
Q: Which writers do you most respect, when you relax? What do you read? What are you currently reading?
A: I love Alan Furst’s stories, based on actual events. I also am a great fan of Jo Nesbo, the Norwegian mystery writer. I have to mention Jake Needham, whose wit infects all his writing and carries the reader merrily along, but I wish Jake had a higher opinion of the CIA. Of course, I read a lot of non-fiction, as well, especially concerning contemporary Russia, and authors such as Masha Gessen and Jonathan Mills merit attention. Frankly, there are just too many writers I admire to mention them all.
Q: For anyone first starting out on their road to being an author, what advice would you give? What is the best advice you feel you’ve ever been given?
A: I wouldn’t presume to give anyone advice. When my name is as familiar to readers as Le Carré’s, then maybe I’ll be so bold.
Q: Finally, how did Tom Clancy get the information on The Hunt for Red October?
A: As I understand it, Clancy did a lot of in-depth research, using open sources. The amount of accurate detail he was able to inject into The Hunt for Red October is said to have surprised and alarmed our naval officers.