Monday, May 26, 2008

"The Onion Files."

[Victoria Times Colonist, May 25, 2008.]

Ex-Intelligence Chief Val Pattee Now

A Successful Author of Spy Novels.

By Sidney Allinson.

Val Pattee is fit-looking and courteous, with a wry humour and shrewd observations about the current perilous state of international affairs – a retired military general perfectly suited to his new career as writer of espionage novels. Still tanned from spending three months in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, with his artist wife Joan, he says, “Our annual winter vacation works very well for us both creatively; Joan busy at her easel, painting local scenes, and me at the keyboard almost non-stop, writing a sequel to “The Onion Files.”

That title of his first book, which came out last fall, refers to a multi-layered plot of international intrigue that reflects a good deal of his own first-hand involvement with the grim world of espionage. Starting as a young Canadian Air Force jet-fighter pilot, Maj.-Gen. Pattee eventually became Chief of Intelligence & Security at headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] in Mons, Belgium, during the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

He recalls, “Every morning, my desk would be flooded with new secret information from space satellites, signal intercepts, allied counter-intelligence services, and our espionage agents in potentially hostile countries. My job was to quickly assess all this detail and boil it down into a concise daily situation report for military and political leaders of NATO’s sixteen European member nations, including Canada, the United States, and Britain.”

Pattee also worked in Paris to help combat Action Direct terrorism, and in Germany when the Red Army Faction was creating havoc across Europe. On leaving the Canadian Forces, he moved to British Columbia to become Assistant Deputy Minister of Police Services, then the Director of BC Ambulance Services, and finally “retired” for good in Victoria five years ago.

All this front-line knowledge of dangerous international intrigue uniquely equips him to become a successful author of spy thrillers. He says, “Considering what I do these days, it’s almost funny that most of my professional life required me to compress masses of information into a very tight digest form for strategic briefings. Now, as a novelist, the situation is reversed, and I’m faced instead with the need to expand material to make entertaining novels. Usually I aim for about 96,000 words.” He did not just stumble onto that particular number, his study of the trade having found most publishers ideally prefer book-lengths to total just below 100,000 words.

Pattee obviously tackles writing novel-writing with great enjoyment. “I find the process of writing comes easy to me. I just capture related thoughts, character traits, and incidents, and flesh them out. My approach is not the usual first-draft, second-draft, and so on. I continually rewrite or rearrange the manuscript daily, as the story unfolds. That’s where my laptop word-processor is so marvellous. You can go back to revise a paragraph to suit a time-line, or move an entire chapter from here to there. The technology makes the physical act of writing so easy, I can’t imagine how authors did it in the old typewriter-and-paper days. I’ve got the second book pretty much all down already. I just have to refine it, add some details, and it should be ready for publication in a couple of months. Unlike a lot of techno-thrillers, I don’t add a lot of fluff; those clumps of extraneous details that can bore readers and don’t move the story along at all.”

There is no danger of that, judging by his first book. “The Onion Files” flings us into a fast-paced chillingly-possible scenario that never lets up. It is that rarity, a believable spy yarn, whose heroes and villains alike seem credible human beings, unlike the comic-strip characters who populate some thrillers. The lifelike opponents include a pair of intrepid agents from the Central (Defense) Intelligence Agency, abetted by a sympathetic Soviet spy, who battle evil master-mind Osama bin Laden and his fanatical cohorts across the world. They are portrayed in such an authentic atmosphere, that many so-called fictional incidents portrayed in it could have actually occurred. He confirms that by saying, “Many of the anecdotes in my book are the real stuff, encounters during my own experience, altered just enough for security’s sake.”

Not to give away the story, but his book focuses on countering a devilishly clever terrorist scheme to cause a catastrophic disaster aimed at killing millions of civilians across the United States. Drawing on his insider knowledge, Val Pattee expertly describes the technicalities of how to cause this mass atrocity so well, one hopes his novel does not fall into the wrong hands and give them another nasty idea to use against us. Moreover, “The Onion Files” could make a useful defensive primer for governmental security agencies on both sides of our border.

His strategic skills obviously helped make careful analysis of the publishing process and the modern author’s prospects for getting into print. “I find that the entire publishing trade is in a state of turmoil,” he says. “Large conventional publishing houses are overwhelmed by changes in public reading tastes, and by computer innovations that affect printing, marketing, and distribution. New print-on-demand technology that can instantly publish one or a thousand copies at push of a button is doing away with the need for bricks-and-mortar warehouses. Authors too are suffering, from the squeeze for shelf-space in bookstores, a huge increase in the number of people writing books, and most seriously by the difficulty of getting into print the old-fashioned way.”

“Prospects for most writers to get their work accepted are pretty limited today. Few if any publishing houses will accept manuscripts if they are not submitted by a literary agent. That goes to the near impossibility of getting an agent to take on new unknown authors. Time and again, agents sent back my own writing, saying, ’Good story, but you have to understand we get hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts every month, so we simply cannot handle most of them.’”

“Had I been writing twenty years ago, I might have had it much easier. This style of book was very popular then – and Clancy, Forsythe, McCarry, Ludlum, and company were very big sellers. But by the time I jumped in, I found myself way behind the power-curve in terms of readership, and that’s mainly a question of time. Societal change, too. Now, there’s what can be best described as general disinterest in espionage, military subjects, and so on. Notwithstanding people are aware of Afghanistan and Iraq, there simply are so many other diversions that people find it hard to be as interested in those conflicts the way they did back in the Sixties and Seventies when the threat of nuclear war was very real to everyone. So the market for my kind of book has shrunk somewhat.”

All of which is why Val Pattee decided to self-publish his book, and turned to Agio Publishing House, of Victoria to produce it. He seems very happy with the result. “Now here I am, an old Cold War warrior who even had to learn how to type, with a published-on-demand book in hard cover and paperback, plus a web site and a podcast. Even though the podcast doesn’t directly give me any return financially yet, the idea is to start some buzz on the Internet and spread worldwide awareness of my book’s availability. And that it’s done in spades, as my book is already the sixth most popular title on Podiobooks. Sales are definitely starting to look up, and better still, I am having a lot of fun writing -- which is the main thing after all!”

Victoria-based novelist Sidney Allinson

is a past-Director of the Royal Canadian

Military Institute.

Military history

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