Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed Charles Lichtman about his fascinating career, what inspires him, and the creative process that went into his new novel, The Sword Of David.
Tell me a bit about who you are?
I’m a lawyer by trade having practiced complex business litigation in South Florida for forty years. I’ve twice been awarded “Lawyer of the Year” by the leading attorney rating service, Best Lawyers in America. I’m a civic activist at heart, having worked on elections for fifty years, including founding a national voter protection program immediately following my representation of Vice President Gore in the 2000 Bush/Gore Recount.
That organization was merged into the Democratic National Committee and is utilized nationally every election cycle, and I have also served as lead counsel in Florida for John Kerry, Barack Obama and Joe Biden working to make sure that EVERY voter, regardless of political party affiliation, has the right to vote and that their vote gets counted.
Notwithstanding, in my mind I have always been and will be a writer. Writing is in my blood and I am now spending more time writing than anything else. In connection with my writing, long ago I developed expertise in terrorism and Middle East affairs, and that comes out in my novels.
When did you first want to write a book?
One night when I was a young boy, my Uncle Al took me to go see the James Bond movie, From Russia With Love. After the show, Uncle Al asked me what I thought, and I told him effectively it was the coolest, greatest movie ever, and that I loved James Bond. Uncle Al went upstairs and came back a few minutes later with a bag filled with nine paperback versions of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels. I read them one after another and then literally announced to my parents that when I grew up, I wanted to write spy novels. I never strayed from that goal, although I became a lawyer, and The Sword of David is now my second Middle East based thriller.
When did you take a step to start writing?
I don’t remember when I started writing, but my best guess it was around the time I saw From Russia With Love. I do know that by the time I graduated high school, I wrote numerous short stories, a play (which I also produced and turned a profit), many editorials to the local newspaper, and I was on the high school newspaper and served as its Editor-in-Chief. There has never been a point where I wasn’t writing something.
How long did it take to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
Approximately five years. On January 20, 1993 I was watching the first Clinton Inaugural Ball (then called the National Ball) on television, taking place in the Kennedy Center, with every dignitary you can imagine being in the room. It hit me that if our enemies really wanted to damage the United States, they’d attack the National Ball. I grabbed a legal pad, and worked on an outline until almost 6:00 a.m. I began researching and writing the story immediately thereafter. I finished it a few years later, then it took a while to find an agent, and then another period of time before my agent found a publisher. The Last Inauguration was released in 1998.
How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?
From start to finish it took about fifteen years to get The Sword of David in final form and published. Once the book was written, I actually found an agent and publisher quickly. However, given a combination of my being a dad to two then teenage girls, having significant law firm and client responsibilities, and given my work on elections and growing my voter protection organization, writing had to come last.
What made you want to write The Sword of David?
The Last Inauguration was a great story and well-received, but I concluded after the fact that it was written with the same formula as every other espionage type thriller: Good guy hero chases bad guy to stop some significant threat, and at the end, the good guy prevails. I’ve read and love Ludlam, Clancy, Silva and ten more great spy thriller writers’ stories and I enjoyed them all. But I realized that I wanted to write an espionage thriller and break the formulaic mold doing so. Thus, my goal was to fashion not just a storyline that no one else had written, but that it wouldn’t just end with the antagonist losing or dying. And I wanted to tell a story based on world events and actual history that upon reaching the conclusion, would move people to conversation about the state of the world.
So with those concepts in mind, I outlined the conclusion to the story first, being aware that no one period had written a story with this arc and particularly, this ending. Then I somewhat outlined backwards to figure out how to get to the conclusion with the pieces of the story fitting together. Over time, the outline changed a lot as I interwove issues, facts and the present day realities of the Jewish people, Israel, the Palestinians, Christianity, Islam, Middle East politics and terrorism. Most of that was easy for me because as to the Middle East and terrorism, I had been studying those arenas very closely, nonstop since 1972, when I was only seventeen. The more I outlined, thought things through and sketched out characters, the more convinced I was that The Sword of David would be and indeed is, a truly unique story.
What were your biggest challenges writing The Sword Of David?
Making sure that by the time I finished writing, that the very complicated story flowed smoothly into the conclusion. To accomplish this, I extensively researched all of the historical events, religious and cultural issues, and visited every locale I wrote about, where feasible. For instance, I made numerous trips to Israel and spent a significant amount of time in Jerusalem, including where the Palestinians generally lived being East Jerusalem and the Arab Quarter of the Old City. But I also visited Ramallah and Hebron in the West Bank. I spent time talking to ordinary Palestinians to understand what they were thinking about Israel and the conflict in the region that has existed for far too many generations.
I also travelled to and researched in London, Paris, Rome and Istanbul. I couldn’t travel to Saudi Arabia, Lebanon or Ethiopia, so I spent a ridiculous amount of time finding photos of locales and doing deep internet searches for data on those locales, so that chapters in those places would feel authentic. As an example, an early chapter in the book takes place during the Hajj in Mecca. I’m confident the reader will feel like they are there.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist and Antagonist?
I formulated both the Protagonist and Antagonist only by how I wanted them to be viewed by the reader. As to my Protagonist, Chaim Klein, I designed a complicated character who has some deep seeded personal issues and flaws. I love James Bond, Jack Ryan and Gabriel Allon, but those wonderful characters and most of the heroes in spy thrillers don’t have many warts on them.
I wanted my lead character to be different and be significantly flawed, yet still strong enough for the reader to identify with him. That’s because everyone has flaws, even including me, so my belief is that people can still identify with a very heroic but flawed character.
The antagonist is a bit more stereotyped, because he is a trained and experienced terrorist. As I mentioned above, I’ve been studying terrorism just shy of 50 years. My observation is that the typical Jihadi terrorist mentality is pretty much universal; they believe the Koran says if you don’t strictly abide by the fundamentalist version of the Koran, then you should be killed. These people have absolutely no regard for human life. So once you accept that notion as fact, terrorists are simply trained to create havoc and commit murder. There is an on-point couple of pages involving the Taliban, based on actual events that are disturbing, yet they are reality.
I know that I understand terrorism and the terrorist mentality, and that I get it right. The antagonist in The Last Inauguration was the real life Carlos the Jackal. Very shortly after I finished writing that novel, Carlos was finally arrested after committing some of the most notorious terrorist acts ever. I contacted his lawyer in Paris, Isabelle Coutant Peyre, and after some discussion through her, Carlos actually agreed to give me his first interview ever, but not until he read my novel. After doing so, Carlos hand wrote me a letter from LaSante Prison in Paris where he was being held, which I still have to this day. He wrote, “I have just finished reading ‘The Last Inauguration,’ and I must admit that although I am depicted as a rogue mercenary mass murderer, I did have a few good laughs seeing myself in the most unseemly situations, some of which could have happened in real life.” Doesn’t that say it all?
What is the main conflict in The Sword Of David?
It’s a 1000 year old conflict. The Catholic Church, through Popes and European Kings, invaded the Middle East to commit the Holy War that we know today as the Crusades. Even now much of the Arab world has never forgotten that multi-hundred year systemic war and great animosity on their part still exists, even though the last crusade ended in 1271. As a result of the Crusades and other historic events, the radical Islamist hate Christians almost as much as they hate Jews. This is still most evident in Israel given the continuing battles the Jewish community faced in ‘Palestine’ long before Israel became a country in 1948. Look at the Middle East map: Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan, plus of course, part of the Palestinian population, whether located in Jerusalem, the West Bank or Gaza are all located north and in close proximity to Israel. All of these enemies stated goal is to “drive the Jews into the sea.” This conflict is far greater than that of communism versus democracy.
Did you plot The Sword Of David in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
Because of how I outlined the book to make sure that I had a logical progression to get to my ending, I knew where I was going on a chapter-by-chapter basis. That being said, as I wrote every chapter I wrote freely, and all sorts of ideas popped into my head. Those impromptu thoughts led me down all sorts of rabbit holes and to me somewhat overwriting the book. In fact, my initial completed and edited first draft of the book was almost double the pages of what is being printed, so there was a lot of clean-up work to do.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did The Sword Of David need?
As a lawyer whose job is to write, and as a trained journalist, I certainly learned long ago how to edit. Notwithstanding, I knew the book needed a substantial fiction edit because as I’ve indicated, my first final version was very long. Thankfully, my agent, Tom Miller, was formerly a fiction editor for one of the major publishing houses, so he took a crack at part of the book and convinced me that if I wanted the book sold, no matter how good my first version was, it would be deemed too long for publication. He hooked me up with another free-lance editor, Dana Isaacson who helped me immensely in shortening the book while keeping the entire story effectively intact. What got cut out was lots of accurate description about people, places and history. I actually still love that version of the book, but the reader will truly enjoy the final version of The Sword of David because it’s a great story with enough detail, and it reads very fast with lots of action.
What’s the first piece of advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
I have been asked that question literally at least 100 times by people who say they have a great story and want to write a novel. My response has always been, “Then write the book. Writer’s write.” It’s that simple. I have heard numerous times that only 1 out of 100 people who say they want to write a novel actually finish it. Again, writer’s write.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I think my readers will like to see where my story of my hero, Chaim Klein, goes next, as well as how I deal with the ending of The Sword of David. I’m already outlining his continuing saga. But I also have lots of notes of other stories I’d like to write, so we’ll see.
And, finally, are you proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
Absolutely, it’s a totally unique , fun, educational and thought provoking story. I’ve attained my goal. My hope is that the book sells tons of copies, NOT for the money, but for people to understand the message of the book and to start a conversation about what needs to be different out there in the world.
All the links so readers can find Charles Lichtman:
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