an interview by Jon Maniscalco with James A. Ring
Terrorism and Fiction
James A. Ring is a retired FBI Supervisory Special Agent whose casework led to prosecutions of members of the American Cosa Nostra and of Sicilian Mafia in New England. Now retired from investigation, he and his wife life in Boston's North End, not far from the street headquarters of La Cosa Nostra. Ring now devotes his full time to writing; His novel Necessary Assets was published in 2013; his second book, 784 Broadway, appeared this spring.
JM: Tell me about your experience as an FBI agent.
JR: I became an agent in 1965, served for 25 years and specialized in New England's La Cosa Nostra, who were by far the most powerful crime syndicate back then. During my time working against the Mafia, my team obtained tape recordings of their ceremony inducting new members into the organization. Before this information was gathered, no one had ever proved the existence of the Mafia. The Italian Supreme Court had gone as far as to declare the organization, as a national criminal group, a myth.
JM: What made you decide to write a novel?
JR: As an FBI agent I was never allowed to have an opinion. I was required to say only the straight facts of a situation. There was a lack of academic reading and writing, which was making me go brain-dead. So, I attended Clark University for my Masters and Service, while still working for the FBI. While studying, I learned that I had become a poor writer. I had lost my ability to be creative after so many years writing only in law enforcement language. Now I can write something inspired by what I know, with an opinion put out there as something for people to think about. I wanted to create real characters because that's what makes good fiction. There's a lot of junk out there right now that's only printed because of how it hooks with violence, sex, or a mixture of the two. That kind of writing may sell, but it's still junk. I also wanted to write a book without the gratuitous sex and violence so my grandchildren could read my work.
JM: You create a terrifying way to harm both Boston and New York. How possible is this scenario?
JR: Both realistic and entirely possible. Al-Qaeda first tried to destroy the World Trade Center in 1993 and didn't try again until they succeeded in 2001. They have all the time in the world; why wouldn't they change their focus to the radiation from a dirty bomb? How would that be cleaned up? We can't even agree on traffic routes. LNG Tankers have a long history in this city and a terrorist cell using one is as dangerous as described in my book. Boston is an economic engine; you take out Boston, and you take out New England. People travel to this city to taste where freedom was birthed in this country. That's something these people would want to take away.
JM: Did the marathon bombings prompt you to write this?
JR: Nothing to do with it, I was done writing Necessary Assets and they were unsophisticated people with an unsophisticated weapon. Not that that type of terrorism isn't dangerous; their kind of terrorism could still happen five times a day in this country.
JM: You portray the Mafia as having made progressive changes towards women. Is there any evidence that this is true?
JR: Every organization, no matter how old, needs to admit women to survive. You aren't using all your available talents and will be bested if your opponents use those talents. It isn't too crazy to see Italian women taking part in organized crime. Italian women have always played a large role in the household, even the households of mobsters. I did think I was being original though, then I saw in a Naples newspaper they had arrested the Camorra 'godmother'.
JM: During your career your primary target was the Mafia. They were your bread and butter, so to speak. So what made you decide to make your fictional antagonists radical religious fundamentalists?
JR: They are a much bigger threat. The Mafia is pretty much dead. Terrorists are also different in their motivation; they attack your mind and spirit. It's about instilling fear; democracy doesn't work when its people don't have confidence. A famous example would be Germany in the 30s; it was fear and the economy. If a LNG Tanker blew up, how long would the hearings go on for? We would play the blame game and be lost in the endless bureaucracy that exists because homeland security was a political response to 9/11. Their danger comes from the fact that they want to infect everyone. I'm concerned about the phony brick walls we have put up to feel safe. I think American citizens are smarter than they're given credit for and can see that a lot of these precautions don't actually help.
JM: I'm sorry, but that's terrifying!
JR: I'm not an apocalyptic person. I do try to bring balance; but it's the age we live in.
JM: Your protagonist is also an FBI agent living in the Boston area. How much of yourself did you borrow to shape him?
JR: None consciously. I was interested in writing about what I knew. You have to know about what you're writing about. These characters are combinations of many people.
JM: You aren't originally from the Boston area. Do you feel you've lived and worked here long enough for the city to adopt you?
JR: Look, I decided many years ago that this was where I wanted to live.
JM: Fair enough! Let me ask that traditional literary interview question: Do you have a favorite book?
JR: I like to think I read it all. Right now I'm going through the Quran and the Old Testament simultaneously. I guess I can't really tell you a favorite book, but maybe the book that influenced me the most was Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which I read in the ninth grade. I kept asking myself: Where did all the good people go?
JM: Is that a theme that you'd like people to come away from your novel thinking about?
JR: Well, I want people to feel they've been entertained by a well-written story, one that had real people and conversation. Sure, I want them to have some questions that they'll think about later. I like people to talk; it's important to talk about important things, especially during a meal.
JM: Finally, can I ask you about your plans for future work?
JR: I've started the sequel to Necessary Assets. I want to take the parts of the first book people would want to read again and bring in some new elements to keep them interested. Like, we have a new FBI director; Mueller did a great job, but was given no room to breathe. He had some great people working for him too, but they aren't as experienced in human interaction as they could be. They are ways to become a great investigator, but they aren't in an office. I'm hoping to highlight some of these things in the sequel. \\
Readers can connect with Ring on Twitter, where he posts as @NecessaryAssets, and on his website, www.jamesring.com.
Jonathan Maniscalco is a co-editor of Clarion. He’s written recently about the appearance of homelessness in detective fiction for the newspaper Spare Change.
>> back to Issue 18, 2015