by Chris Goff
The Long and Winding Road
It’s been a fifteen-year journey from first draft to publication. I’ve gone through multiple drafts, two agents, one who died, one who was ineffective, a previous contract for publication, and now it’s finally here. Launch day. On October 16, my espionage thriller Trojan Horse will officially debut.
Cue the balloons.
A lot has happened in my life in those fifteen years. In that time, I’ve been a teacher, a lawyer, and a caregiver for my father with Alzheimer’s. I saw both my children graduate from college, attended my daughter’s wedding, survived breast cancer, and buried both my parents. I’ve volunteered in four Presidential campaigns, moved to Vermont, and reached the semi-finals in Vermont’s funniest Comic contest. I’ve written blogs and three other novels, two of which are in the Kolya Petrov series, slated to be published, after significant rewriting and editing. And I’ve become more in-tune with and interested in my Jewish identity.
There have been a few changes in the world and the country as well over those years.
Given all the chances to the world and in my personal life, you might wonder what sort of changes I would have made from first draft fifteen years ago to the about to be published novel.
Quite a few, as a matter of fact.
Some of the changes, of course, involved tightening and streamlining. Like many first novels, the first draft of Trojan Horse was way too long. I took out storylines, I cut uninteresting scenes and sometimes interesting scenes that didn’t add much. There are the technology changes. In my first draft, the villain had a Blackberry. There was no texting. People had landlines for the most part. All of that has changed.
But the more significant changes revolve around characters and character development. My protagonist, American intelligence operative Kolya Petrov, was born in Russia and emigrated to the United States at the age of fourteen. When I first wrote Trojan Horse, Kolya was an ethnic Russian, with some Jewish blood, but he didn’t consider himself Jewish.
But his identity has changed, and that change mirrors my own.
In 2006, when I first wrote Trojan Horse, I was proud of my Jewish identity, but it wasn’t that important in my life. I bought raisin challah for the High Holy Days and a box of matzoh for Passover, and otherwise didn’t make that big a deal of it. Then in 2017, men marched carrying swastikas and chanting “Jews shall not replace us.” Suddenly, anti-Semitism was growing and expanding. And, I decided that if people again wanted to kill Jews, maybe it was time to reaffirm my Jewish identity. I not only sent donations to the ADL, but I joined the Jewish Community of Greater Stowe, here in Vermont where I live – and where I’ve since become active. Last summer, I ran a comedy fundraiser for the synagogue, and this year marks the second time that I’m reading the Torah for Rosh Hashanah. And, no, I don’t keep kosher, and yeah, I’m still agnostic. Nevertheless.
So last summer, before submitting Trojan Horse to Encircle Publications, I did a last rewrite, and Kolya became Jewish. Secular Jewish, because given his personality and his upbringing, neither of which I wanted to change – he would not be observant, but still – Jewish. A Jewish blond, jazz-playing, poetry reading, snarky martial arts and shooting expert – who immigrated from Russia, whose name comes from his one non-Jewish grandfather.
(And if you’re interested in how one can be Jewish but secular, even agnostic – or what exactly does it mean to be Jewish – that’s beyond the scope of this blog. There are volumes out there on the topic. Suffice it to say – secular Jews are a thing.)
It made sense to me. Not just because I’ve had my own Jewish reawakening, but because I wanted the book to reflect what is really going on in the world today, and what is really going on among the neo-Fascist types is a revival of old fashioned, conspiracy laden anti-Semitism. I felt it needed to be part of the book. It also made sense to subtly raise the question of why Kolya was the agent selected to be sacrificed.
I also liked the idea of breaking stereotypes. First, I wanted to break the stereotype of what Jews look like. Kolya is blond. Yes, blond Jews exist, as do Black Jews, and brown Jews. Next, his profession. Are there Jewish secret agents in American espionage novels or films? If there are, I’m not aware of them. Yes, of course, there’s Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon, and there’s a host of movies and books about Mossad agents. Popular culture sees Israeli Jews as tough, smart, capable of carrying out international intrigue. A book or movie portraying Jewish American secret agents? Nothing comes to mind. There is a stereotype of Jews portrayed in American popular culture. Jewish characters tend to be intellectual, neurotic, complex, interesting – think of the average protagonist in a Woody Allen movie – but not action oriented. Jews are lawyers, doctors, writers, rabbis, or movie agents. There are some novels where Jews are detectives, but they just don’t seem to have jobs in American intelligence organizations, at least not in popular culture.
Personally, I’m hoping that Kolya will start a new trend.