Writer to Writer: A Conversation With Raymond Khoury

Raymond Khoury is the bestselling author of several novels, including. Born in Lebanon, Raymond and his family were evacuated from Beirut's civil war, and fled to New York when he was 14.
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Raymond Khoury is the bestselling author of several novels, including The Last Templar, The Templar Salvation and The Sign. Born in Lebanon, Raymond and his family were evacuated from Beirut's civil war, and fled to New York when he was 14. He worked as an architect and investment banker before becoming a screenwriter and producer for networks such as NBC and BBC. Since the success of The Last Templar, his debut novel, he has focused solely on writing fiction. His works have been translated into over 40 languages. Rasputin's Shadow is his sixth novel.

Rasputin was an elusive figure in Russian history. What drew you to him as a character in Rasputin's Shadow?
An element in The Devil's Elixir did it. It involved the notion of mind control which is central to this novel. While doing research, I learned of a Russian scientist who worked during the Cold War. He was referred to as having Rasputin-like powers. That one sentence prompted me. Rasputin was the perfect historical character on whom to hang the full story. The idea just came to me within 15 seconds after reading that sentence.

Speaking of history and Rasputin, your novels are steeped in history. How do you research these subjects?

I dread thinking of how writers used to do research before the Internet. We have so many phenomenal tools at our disposal now. We can obtain obscure books never found at a local library. It's now easy to track them down. Even though I'm writing fiction, I do a lot of research because the stories should be steeped in reality -- set in a factual world. If I'm writing a chapter that takes place in 13-century Turkey, I want to know what they ate at the time, how they dressed, where they slept. Even if it's only one line in the novel, I want that line to reflect authenticity. It takes a great deal of time, but I think it's worth it because you end up with readers sensing they're experiencing something genuinely well-researched.

Speaking of research and authenticity, I was struck in Rasputin's Shadow by your descriptions of New York City and Brooklyn. I wondered if you'd visited these places or lived there.
Yes, I did live in New York for two years. And I travel to New York a lot. My daughter is starting her freshman year in college there. I was able to go there and have a look while writing the novel. Beyond that, you can never spend enough time in these places, and there are some places you simply can't go. For instance, for The Sanctuary, there were chapters set in Baghdad during the war, and it just wasn't a great idea to go there. Google Maps is a phenomenal tool that enables you to virtually drive around these places. It doesn't give you the same feel as actually being there, but it's very helpful. I've actually visited places like Istanbul and Naples when writing novels. I like to set my scenes in a real environment; if I can't actually get there, I'll visit using Google Earth and literally follow the car as it's going along.

You've had a varied career, more than most novelists. You worked as an architect and an investment banker. How did you make the transition to becoming a novelist?

I look back and I think my life is peppered with happy endings, strange circumstances, with coincidence and chance. I'm an architect by profession. When I came to Europe because of the second onset of war in Lebanon, there was no work for architects. So I got an MBA and went into investment banking, which I hated. But it allowed me to pay the bills and live decently. I wasn't happy. I'm a creative person, and architecture provided a nice balance between creativity and the business world. It all happened by coincidence.

I was on a beach talking with this chap who invested in screenplays. I told him about an idea I had for a movie and he thought it was a great idea. He suggested we hire a screenwriter. At that time, I had no idea about the process. We hired a screenwriter who wrote an outline, but it wasn't the way I'd envisioned it. So he redid it, but it still wasn't right. I decided to write some notes, and the other fellow, after having read them, said it would be best if I wrote the screenplay. So, I did. It ended up being nominated for a Fulbright scholarship in screenplay writing. Then came another one and in 1996 I wrote The Last Templar which triggered my screenwriting career. I then worked on a number of TV shows.

How has being as screenwriter impacted your novel-writing?
It impacted it in a huge way. My first novel was an adaptation of my screenplay. It was very much the novel I'd imagined as a screenplay. It was very visual, which I like. I enjoy looking beyond a scene of people running around or chasing each other. It's in my makeup as a writer, I think. The discipline of being a screenwriter has made its way into my novels. Many of my readers say, 'It's like watching a movie. I can see what's going on in your novels.'

You know, sometimes I actually sit down and create a little story board for a novel. I look at movies such as Heat -- the bank robbery scene for instance. It could have been shot differently and been quite bland. But it was done in a way that as a viewer, you live it. You're right there as it's unfolding before you. You're on the ground with the characters. You're feeling every bullet. And that's what I try to achieve in my writing.

What do you love most about being a novelist?
The thing I appreciate most about being a novelist is the freedom to be able to live your life with your imagination and ideas. To be able to create what your mind imagines. I love having the freedom to travel and to craft something that's going to be out there forever. When you publish a book, it's out there forever. You must be proud of every page because it's never going away. For me, it's also a certain kind of freedom -- especially after screenwriting -- of knowing every word I write is mine, and there's no interference. There's no committee: There's no group of studio executives, no director, no actor who interferes with the dialogue or plotline. That's part of what was so frustrating about writing screenplays -- the interference. There are countless stories of screenwriters who've wanted their names taken off the project because the final product wasn't even vaguely similar to what they'd first written. With novels, it's a fantastic luxury to give my readers exactly the story I intended to give them.

What have been your most memorable moments as an author?

I've been blessed with many memorable moments. I was lucky that my first book was successful. Every person I've met in publishing has been delightful. They're there because they love books and publishing them. It's great to be around such people.

My first book came out six weeks before Steve Berry's, The Templar Legacy. I didn't know that world at all, and didn't really know who he was at the time. The day the book came out I got an email from Steve congratulating me on my first novel and wishing me luck. We became great friends. To receive such an email out of the blue, just floored me.

Another was the night when the preview of the New York Times bestseller list came out. It was my first novel, and I received a call from my editor saying, 'Guess what... you're number 10 on the list.' Those were wonderful moments. I was privileged to enjoy such a charmed entry into this very difficult and competitive world.

Are there any writers who have impacted you as a writer?
As a kid I was lucky enough to study Hemingway and to read Raymond Chandler novels. I had a very interesting English literature teacher who influenced me. Present day, I enjoy reading Lee Child, Nelson DeMille, Michael Connolly, Harlan Coben and Brad Meltzer. These are people who consistently write very well, and I look forward to all their books.

You have a unique personal history. How did that impact your world view and your writing?
Having lived through a civil war, I saw bullets, bombs, people being shot in front of me... it was all very visceral. I'm sure it's why my action scenes feel so real. It's there inside me, somewhere. I felt that energy, the fear, the adrenaline during the civil war, and that comes through in my writing, for sure. I feel that primal surge when I watch an Oliver Stone movie. I think he was the first director to really capture the visceral impact of war and violence, for instance, in Salvador and Born on the Fourth of July.

As for my worldview, I grew up in a region ravaged by war. It was an education in human nature, in greed, conflict, politics and religion. These larger issues interest me in novels. I'm always looking for the larger story, the big picture. Growing up where I did is definitely a big factor in what I write.

If you could have dinner with any five people from history, or with any writers -- living or dead -- who would they be?
Number one would be Jesus. On the other end of the scale -- Rasputin. Imagine having them both at the table. That would be a bit of a tense situation. Stan Lee, the creator of The Fantastic Four, Iron Man, X-Men and other superhuman figures. Carlos Ruiz Zafon, author of The Shadow of the Wind. He left Hollywood and wrote this novel that became a global success. I'm sure we'd have some things to talk about. And the fifth person would be someone like Steven Spielberg who has achieved one great movie after another.

What's coming next from Raymond Khoury?
I've got four stories I really want to write. One is the continuation of the Sean Riley series. Two others are very much about the world we're living in right now. I often have the idea for the next one while writing the present one.

Raymond Khoury's new novel, Rasputin's Shadow was released on October 8th.

To hear a podcast of this entire interview, please visit author Mark Rubinstein's
"Writer to Writer"

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