My interview this week is with M. Eugene Smith, author of The American Mandarin. I know Michael as “Utah” over at the libertarian blog Rio Norte Line, so I’m not really surprised to discover that he is a published author of novels of political intrigue and espionage. Tell us something about yourself.
Thanks for the opportunity to chat, Lela. I’m certainly not a writer by trade, I’m trained as a mechanical engineer and I also hold degrees in finance and economics as well as a MBA. My entire career has been about making things – essentially manufacturing companies. My business career is equally divided into aerospace/defense, automotive and oil and gas. I am currently the Chief Operating Officer for a subsea technology company serving the military, scientific and research and oil and gas markets. We do everything from submarine rescue vehicles to subsea communication networks.
A little bit about me – I grew up in rural Mississippi, I have one younger brother. I have been married to my lovely and talented wife Debbie for 34 years, we have three adult children (who all are productive members of society – they are almost off the Smith Household payroll!) and two large black Labrador retrievers. I have offices in Houston, Texas and Vancouver, British Columbia but we make our home in Park City, Utah, a little ski town nestled in the Wasatch Mountains of northern Utah.
Love Utah! And Labs! We have a yellow now, but our favorite was a black. Great dogs! So, the nickname makes sense now.
The nickname of “Utah” sort of stuck after I was the president of a business in Utah and my username at work was utahprez – eventually it was shortened to Utah – which is a little strange because I was always tagged as “Mississippi” in college (after my home state and the character James Cann played in the John Wayne movie, El Dorado) – I guess I have a thing for state names!
American Mandarin is your first published novel, but you have a history as a blogger and ( … ??? you can fill in this blank on your writing history … What’s the first writing you did and how old were you, what got you into blogging, ….)
I’ve been blogging for about 15 years, mostly political stuff but a little satire and humor stuffed in once in a while. I sort of lost enthusiasm for the format as politics runs in cycles and I found myself writing the same things over and over, just using different words…that’s when, a few years ago, I decided to write a novel.
Yeah, I have had a similar experience.
Even with that sort of heavy industry career background, I have always had a love of literature and anything that has a good story. I found my passion for writing and storytelling in high school when I was fortunate to have met one of the greatest influences of my life, my senior English teacher (she was also one of my best friend’s mom), Mary Brassfield. She taught me the power of a broad vocabulary and how written words could conjure up all sorts of ideas and places in the mind – even if you have never physically been there or will ever be able to go, you can be there in your own imagination! That this could happen was a transformative experience for me.
I’ve had the greatest opportunities to travel thanks to my career. We have lived all over the lower 48 and I have spent a significant amount of time in China and the Far East, India and Europe and we actually had the honor of living abroad in Scotland for almost three years. I have so many great experiences and have seen so many different cultures and geographies that I felt compelled to capture them in my books.
I’ve found such a positive release and sense of freedom in writing and I hope that comes through in my books.
What are you passionate about?
America – I hope that doesn’t sound too preachy – but I have traveled all over the world, circumnavigating it at least two dozen times and I kiss the ground every time I land on American soil. There is no place on earth like it. The precedence of my allegiance is the same as that of our great fighting men, God, country and family. I have a great respect for the men and women who put their lives on the line for their fellow citizens back home – both on the battlefield and in the covert operations arena.
I’m also an avid shooter and outdoorsman, big college football fan and love all outdoor sports.
Tell us about the Rio Norte Line.
My blog is a collection of characters with varying viewpoints – as contributors, we have an actress, a Marine, a Texas lawyer, an employee of the Florida correctional system (a prison guard) and little ole me. It was inspired by Ayn Rand’s book, Atlas Shrugged. The current site was born on January 18, 2011 and is written from a classical liberal/conservative/libertarian viewpoint.
The Rio Norte Line was the key productive asset for the Taggart Transcontinental Railway and had fallen into disrepair. The protagonist, Dagny Taggart, sought to repair the line, realizing that the foundation must be solid for any enterprise to be successful. Her efforts to save this key asset were frustrated from many fronts ranging from personal to political but eventually she found a way to do it. In the long term, the “looters” milked the line for short term gain, and when faced with disaster, instead of addressing the foundations, sought to plaster over it with political solutions including restrictions of others, expropriation of their revenues and political favoritism.
The Rio Norte Line seems an apt allegory for today’s America.
So, tell me about your philosophy on how it is reflected in the Rio Norte Line.
I think I am more of a classical liberal/minarchist than a libertarian – the blog leans to the libertarian side by the sheer weight of the contributors being true Constitutialists but we generally have a softer edge than most libertarians. We all are committed Christians and truly believe that one of the keys to America’s greatness is its roots in Judeo-Christian tradition. And note that a classical liberal is not the “liberal” we speak of in America – it is just the opposite. I’m probably closer to a Jeffersonian Whig than any contemporary political party, a student of philosophers like John Locke, Charles Montesquieu, Frédéric Bastiat and modern thinkers like Ayn Rand and economists like Milton Friedman.
My motto is the epitaph that it written on the stone under which Robert the Bruce’s heart is buried: “A noble hart may have nane ease, gif freedom failye” (A noble heart cannot rest if freedom fails.)
Tell us about The American Mandarin. (Was it inspired by the Boston Bombing, or was that just circumstance?).
I’m going to sort of cheat here and recite the synopsis from Amazon
A wife is killed and a husband critically wounded in the Boston Marathon bombing – it was an act of terrorism – but was it also an assassination attempt?
This tragedy initiates a chain of events that tie past to future and forces into the open revelations of a life lived in secret. The story goes back to 1989 when, in partnership with rogue elements in the Chinese government, a young American businessman was kidnapped by the largest and most ambitious Triad in China, the Sun Ye On. The Chinese government wants him for his DNA – but the head of the SYO Triad wants him for a slightly different reason. One man’s unique genetic makeup holds the key to advanced weapons, assassination tools and genetic poisons.
The American Mandarin is the first book in the thirty year story of Michael Scott and his family. It is the story of domestic and international political intrigue, espionage, genetic manipulation, the science of epigenetics (genetic memory) and how Michael, his wife Catherine (a federal prosecutor) and their unsuspecting family gets caught in the middle of a generational battle between two superpowers and their proxies.
I wanted to use my experiences in China as a background for a story and they seemed to be a villain that not many were thinking about. In the American Mandarin, I sow the seeds for how the Triad gangs in China may have helped Middle Eastern radical Islamists and set the stage for 9/11 and the eventual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – and Michael Scott is right in the middle of all of it!
My first book was inspired by two things, one of which was the Boston Bombing – the other was the the death of Vince Flynn, the author of the Mitch Rapp series of books. I had been plugging along with a really rough manuscript and lacked enough commitment to finish it. I was shocked when Flynn passed at the young age of 47. His death reminded me that one should never delay doing something they cared about. When Flynn passed away in June of 2013, I got really engaged in my writing. I had just finished reading Flynn’s last book, “American Assassin” and The American Mandarin sort of became a personal mission at that point.
When will the second book come out?
I have two books coming out soon. The first is the second book in the Michael Scott series – a follow up on “The American Mandarin” – called “What Lies Beneath”. This follows the exploits of Michael Scott as he continues his clandestine work for the special anti-terror group that was created after his earlier exploits in China in the 1980’s.
The second is a murder mystery tentatively titled “The Peddler” set in rural Mississippi in the late 1940’s and involves a family who gets involved in solving a series of murders and disappearances after suspicion is cast on one of their own family members. I plan to finish this one for publication in late fall/early winter this year.
Links, websites, cover images, author pic.