Sunday, February 04, 2007

New Psychological Thriller - Head Game, by Tim Downs


What would it take to make you quit, give up on life and perhaps kill yourself? There are those whose specialty is just that—psychological operations. They will find your weaknesses, exploiting them until you have nothing left but fear.

Cale Caldwell and his two comrades, Kirby and Pug, worked Desert Storm with America’s Psy Ops team dropping leaflets on the enemy to affect their surrender. Years later, a defeated Iraqi commander is out for revenge. Having lost his honor, family and home, he will not stop short of seeing all three men under a granite headstone.

This is a psychological thriller to die for (pardon the pun). From the author of the “bug man” novels and Plague Maker, this novel is a suspense lovers’ heaven. Everyone likes a good mind game, as long as they aren’t the object of one, and this plot is full of them.

The enemy has already caused one tragedy, and his uncanny knowledge of every aspect of Cale’s life almost drives him crazy. Nothing of Cale’s is safe—his wife’s memory, daughter’s life, and even beloved dog are in jeopardy. Can Cale and Pug turn the tables on their pursuer before someone else’s life is threatened? Will Cale cling to what he knows is true instead of the lies being lodged in his brain?

Cale’s teenage daughter being wooed by a new girl in school who isn’t who she says she is provided an interesting subplot. Downs created a realistic character in the rebellious, hurting daughter and in the prostitute turned would-be friend as well.

It has been a long time since I’ve seen such a believable and brilliant plot. Many times, novels contain what I call the “oh, get real” factor, abandoning the suspension of disbelief. None of that happens here. The reader is left guessing and rooting for the heroes until a spectacular twist creates a very satisfying ending.

The only down side I found was a fair bit of character back story that slowed down the pace in several areas. I prefer faster page-turners, but regardless, this novel is still worth the read.

And lastly, kudos to the author on the comic-like opening of the book. I’m impressed. Okay, I know that authors are multi-talented, but color me surprised. I recently found out that Downs is a nationally syndicated cartoonist—hence the professional quality artwork. The frames that open chapter one are drawn expertly and added an enjoyable dimension to an already great story.


1. How did you get the idea for Head Game?
During Operation Desert Storm I read an article about psychological warfare—our deliberate efforts to capitalize on the enemy’s fears and vulnerabilities and induce them to surrender. These efforts had remarkable success—during Desert Storm our forces dropped 29 million leaflets on enemy positions, and as a result 87,000 soldiers laid down their arms and surrendered. That was one quarter of their entire army! The process was simple and straightforward: the goal was to create doubt and fear. We asked frontline troops why they had been positioned in the most vulnerable positions, we asked enlisted men if their officers shared the same risk, we asked if they had adequate ammunition and equipment, we showed them photographs of our own weapons, we even sent them our daily menu and asked them what they had been eating lately!

It occurred to me that this same process occurs in every human life: There are voices that speak to each of us—voices that work on our doubts and fears. Why does your life matter? Who really cares about you? Does it really matter what you do or what choices you make? I asked myself the question, “What if someone launched a deliberate psychological attack on me? What are my fears and doubts? What would it take before I would be willing to surrender, and what voices would keep me from giving in?” That’s when the idea for Head Game was born.

2. Your graphic comic at the beginning of the book is astounding. When did you start drawing?
Like a lot of the boys of my generation I grew up reading comic books, and I learned to draw by copying my favorite superheroes. In my junior year of college I started drawing a daily comic strip called "Downstown" for my college newspaper, the Indiana Daily Student. "Downstown" was later syndicated by Universal Press Syndicate (the syndicate that handled Doonesbury, Cathy, The Far Side, and Calvin & Hobbes) and it appeared it daily newspapers all over the U.S. for six years. I drew about 2,500 comic strips during that time, so I had a little experience with cartooning. When I created the character of Kirby in Head Game—a comic book artist who decides to draw his own suicide note—my publisher suggested that I draw the note instead of simply describing it. That’s where the idea came from, and it was great fun to have the chance to draw again.

3. Is there really such a PsyOps division in our military? If so, how did you do your research for this?
Like all of my novels, most of the story is based on fact. Yes, there is a 4th Psychological Operations Group based at Fort Bragg, NC, just about an hour from where I live. All of the examples of PsyOps included in Head Game are true. It would be difficult to invent anything more amazing than the things these people have actually done. My chief source for this information was a man named Ed Rouse, a retired Army major and a twenty year veteran of PsyOps going back to Vietnam. He was a gold mine of anecdotes and information, and he directed me to a lot of other helpful sources as well.

4. What is your favorite part of writing?
I like every part of it: the research and interviews, creating the basic storyline, working out the plot summary, and then the writing itself. I like creative projects that involve a number of different skills. That’s what I enjoy about writing. It’s not just one thing.

5. It seems to me that the spiritual aspect of this story is downplayed (that's neither a positive or negative statement). Was that your intention? For example, I saw the power of friendship more prominently than the power of God.
As a Christian writer, I’m trying to explore what makes a story Christian. In recent years the concept of “Christian fiction” has been fairly straightforward and limited: books about Christians doing Christian things, or books about non-Christians coming to faith. But Christian fiction has a long history, and historically Christians have attempted to express their faith in many different ways. John Bunyan wrote allegory, C.S. Lewis wrote thinly-veiled fable and science fiction, Tolkein wrote about imaginary worlds that operate by the same moral laws ours does so we could view our world in a fresh way. In Head Game, I wanted to try a much more subtle approach. The Scriptures warn us repeatedly not to lose heart and to encourage one another. That’s the theme I wanted to explore in this story. What are the voices that discourage us? What are the voices that keep us hanging on? The antagonist in my story, Hashim, is a symbol of Satan, while the graveyard caretaker, Walter, is a symbol of God. Which voice will Cale listen to? His very survival depends upon his answer.

This spiritual aspect of the story is definitely subtle, and I intended it that way. I believe there is great power in subtle and indirect communication, as many Christian writers in the past have discovered and demonstrated. My inspiration and model for communicating this way is the Lord himself, who often chose to communicate through parable and story. His words were sometimes confusing and ambiguous to his listeners—even to his own disciples—but his style made his listeners work hard to engage him and to understand. Think of it this way: Jesus could have been more clear—but apparently he didn’t think it would be more effective.

(Karri here: Wonderful answer. I couldn't agree more.)

6. You write a mean psychological thriller, and in my opinion, they are too few and far between. Is there a trick to writing this kind of story?
The foundational principle of writing a good psychological story is found in the first epistle to the Corinthians: “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man…” To understand and describe the motives of a character—even those of a sociopath or serial killer—the place to begin is by exploring the dark places of your own heart. The trick to writing a psychological thriller is to balance psychological insight with a fast-moving plot—which is never easy, but something I was trying to accomplish in Head Game.

7. What do you want readers to come away with after reading this novel?
I want readers to consider the voices that operate within their own minds, and I want them to consider which voices they are choosing to believe. From a biblical perspective, we are all victims of psychological attack: There is an Accuser out there who knows our fears and doubts and preys on them, hoping to create fear and discouragement and to cause us to surrender. I want readers to see themselves in this story and to draw the same conclusion that Cale did: I am under attack, but I can do something about it.

8. Tell us about your next project.
My next novel is entitled First the Dead (Nelson, December 2007) and it will once again feature forensic entomologist Dr. Nick Polchak, the lead character of my first two novels (Shoofly Pie and Chop Shop). The story is set in New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina. Nick is there volunteering with an organization known as DMORT (Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team) to help recover bodies after the disaster. It’s a very fast-paced, very atmospheric story set in the flooded city and the isolated bayous that surround it. Best of all, it features Nick—the brilliant wise guy who always has the right comeback. It was a lot of fun to write! There’s even a little romance in this one—something unusual for a Bug Man story.

Thanks for your time, Tim. You're a great interviewee! May God continue to bless your writing.

Visit Tim's websitehere.

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