What happened on K Street–murder and robbery–might take a while to unravel using conventional methods. That’s why Kay Hamilton employs her intelligence, determination, and every connection she has, to annihilate the red-tape blocking her from the truth. This hard-edged heroine plows forward to find the answers she needs. She had her doubts about working for the Callahan Group, but when her boss, Thomas Callahan, is attacked, and his safe is stolen, she follows the trail of evidence like a DEA detection dog tracking cocaine.
If you haven’t already met her, you’re going to admire Hamilton’s unmitigated skill and dauntless attitude. With every page, you’ll feel like you’re chasing down the bad guys right by her side. Her creator, Mike Lawson, joins us today to take us behind the scenes of his engaging thriller, K Street.
Mike Lawson: The main thing I wanted to do was create a character that wasn’t conventional, and I hope I’ve succeeded. Kay’s extremely flawed, especially in the first book. She can be arrogant and pushy. And, she doesn’t get along that well with others. At the same time, she’s incredibly bright and brave. It was a balancing act to create a character that wasn’t necessarily 100% likable but was admirable and extremely driven. That’s what I was trying to achieve. Readers can decide if I’ve accomplished it.
AH: Don’t worry, you did! Besides, it would be hard to imagine a super polite, easy to get along with person carrying out some of the things Kay is forced to do.
ML: The way the series started was a little odd. There’s a television producer who produces for Lifetime. He likes the DeMarco books, especially the Emma character. He called me up one day asking if I wanted to work on a thriller with a female protagonist. He described Lifetime as a chick-flick channel so he thought it would be a good fit. I considered it and pounded out a screenplay, which was basically the story line of Rosarito Beach. I called him back and told him what I had. I’d set the story in San Diego and Mexico, but that wasn’t going to work because they shoot all their stuff in Ontario to hold down production costs. I thought about revising the screenplay but decided the heck with it and turned it into a novel instead. But, the fact that it was going to be for Lifetime influenced my decision to make the female protagonist different from the typical fare on that channel. So, that’s where it started.
AH: As K Street unfolds, it’s not always easy to discern between the good guys and the bad guys. With the CIA, FBI, and NSA involved, things get more convoluted. What are your thoughts on the morality of government agencies and those involved in them? Do the ends justify the means?
ML: To tell you the truth, and this sentiment would never come across in one of my thrillers, I think most of the people involved in agencies like the CIA and FBI are really good people. I would say 99% of them are sterling men and women. They are incredibly competent and have an extremely hard job. They always have to walk the line between what’s necessary to catch someone and what’s the law. They don’t have easy decisions to make, I but I think most of them do the right thing.
Of course, when you’re writing fiction it’s literally another story. You want to take a character and twist them a bit. You probably have to make them more power hungry than most real people are. And, fiction would be pretty boring if you followed all the complex rules and regulations of an agency like the NSA. Real investigations go on for years because they’re accountable to all those things. Fictional characters aren’t.
ML: K Street wasn’t, and it’s more of an exception for me. With Viking Bay, there was an odd coincidence between my fiction and reality. The plot of the novel has to do with an entity that’s trying to take over the rights to all the lithium in Afghanistan. In the book, a character wants to bribe a politician in Afghanistan, and I plucked out the amount of the bribe from the air–$30 million. Afterward, I saw an article in The New York Times by James Risen describing how the Chinese tried to bribe the Afghan Minister of Mines with $50 million for the copper rights in the country. So even though I made it all up, it wasn’t that far from reality. Most of my other books have something in them that links to the news, an article, or just something that’s true and gave me an idea.
AH: Kay Hamilton refuses to be anyone’s pawn. In fact, she has a way of getting others to work for her even if they think it’s supposed to be the other way around. I think a lot of people will admire that trait in her. It seems to be a driving force for her. What’s her backstory? Did the events of her life strengthen this resolve?
ML: Most of the backstory is found in Rosarito Beach. Kay is the daughter of a cop so carrying a weapon is kind of in her DNA. She knew from the beginning she wanted to be in law enforcement. She figured something like the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) would be the most fun in terms of what they do, the weapons they carry, and what they engage in. But, by virtue of her personality she had a hard time taking orders and working well with other people on her team. But to her, it was the best game in town–cops against the bad guys.
AH: Your heroine works for the Callahan Group, although she’s literally on her way to quit when she enters into the tail end of a shoot-out at the company’s office on K Street. She wants to leave because she’s beginning to doubt the uprightness of her employer. At the same time, she shows loyalty to Thomas Callahan and wants to keep him safe. Tell us about these two sides of Kay.
ML: Well, one of the important things is that Callahan is a likable guy. He’s sneaky and devious, but his heart is in the right place, regarding trying to do the right things for national security. But, he’s not always honest, and he often holds things back. And, Kay’s the type of person who can’t stand being kept in the dark and not know what’s going on. She’s practically killed in Viking Bay and she blames Callahan for that. All of those things are in the mix at the beginning of K Street. She’s decided she wants to move on and be with people she can trust.
But yes, she’s also loyal. If you go and shoot one of her friends, she’s going to do something about it!
AH: Olivia Prescott, who works for the NSA, is smart, tenacious but also conniving. She’s met her match in Kay and the dynamic between them is fraught with tension. How did Prescott come to life for you?
ML: I don’t know if you watched the congressional hearings regarding the Russians’ hacking that may or may not have affected the election. The head of the NSA is a three-star Navy Admiral, an incredibly competent, bright guy. That’s the kind of character I wanted for Prescott. The NSA hires mathematicians, encryptors, and people with technological knowledge. Olivia Prescott is extraordinarily intelligent, probably smarter than Kay when you get right down to it. But, she’s done some questionable things, and she doesn’t want to be exposed, so she becomes Kay’s adversary.
AH: I’m always impressed by the amount of high-tech surveillance and spying-capability shown in thrillers. I keep on asking myself is that stuff real? For example, phones that record everything around them without the owner knowing they’re doing it, even if they’re turned off. Or, being able to find out almost anything about anyone at will. How much is fiction and how much is reality?
ML: In the case of the phones, when I was working for the government, the kind of job I had was a top-secret job, and often when we went to meetings we’d be told to leave our phones outside the room. Even though your phone was turned off, they refused to let us have phones in the meeting because of the security risk. And, I’m sure technology has advanced a lot more since then.
You read all the time online how someone can get into your computer and watch you over the camera on your computer. So, the technology stuff in the books is pretty real. In fact, in one of the DeMarco books, I needed a way to track a person with their phone, which I figured you could do through the Google maps app. I found out you could go online and buy software that you could download onto any phone, and it would enable you to track whoever had that phone.
If you take a city like New York, the number of cameras that are all over is astounding. The city has a very sophisticated camera system called The Ring of Steel, which is modified from one based in London. The cameras are programmed with facial recognition so you can actually find a face in a crowd. It’s an amazing world in terms of surveillance capability.
AH: I just watched the newest Bourne movie, and I wondered if there were actually that many cameras around. I guess there are!
ML: I had a related thought. There are all those cameras, but how you can link into them simultaneously in another story.
AH: You mentioned your top-secret job. You have an interesting background for a writer. At one time, you were a senior civilian executive for the U.S. Navy. What made you turn to creating novels?
ML: Everybody asks me that. I was an engineer and manager, working on a reactor plant for submarines and aircraft carriers in Bremerton, WA. I think most folks think that engineers are so left-brained they can’t imagine us writing books. Of course, all the writers I know had a day job before they got into writing. The short answer to how I began to write starts with being someone who always read a lot.
Years and years ago I wanted to write a book, but it was mechanically difficult. Trying to write a book with a typewriter and white-out was daunting, especially since you’re constantly re-writing. The invention of the laptop computer and word processing programs was the first thing that really helped me. The second thing that facilitated my writing was the forty minute ferry ride I took from Seattle to Bremerton, two times a day, five days a week. In the morning I’d work on Navy stuff, but in the evening I had forty minutes of uninterrupted time to write, which in retrospect was a huge advantage most people don’t have. It’s hard to carve out that time when you have a family and are working a full-time job.
The third thing that got me started was reading a book by a very successful author that just wasn’t that good. I thought to myself I could write a book as bad as that one. I wrote one even worse. It never got published, but it gave me the confidence that I could write novels. It went on from there.
AH: Sure did! You have more than a dozen published novels. Is the next Kay Hamilton book already slated for publication?
ML: Not yet. I’m working on a couple of other things right now that I need to finish before I launch into something else. One is in the DeMarco series and the other one, not to sound secretive, but I can’t talk about it.
AH: That does sound secretive! And, exciting! We wish you all the best with your latest projects. Thanks for chatting with BCB, Mike!
ML: Thanks, Amy.
M.A. Lawson is the pen name for award-winning novelist Mike Lawson, a former senior civilian executive for the U.S. Navy and creator of the eleven novels in the Joe DeMarco series.