Monday, October 26, 2009

A Smashing Good Read - An Interview with Keith Raffel

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I'm excited to welcome thriller writer (and fellow Norcal'er) Keith Raffel to the Kill Zone - and to my very own 'hot seat' to answer some questions about his newest thriller, Smasher.

So Keith, what can readers of your first book, Dot Dead, expect from Smasher? What’s in store this time for Ian and Rowena?

Ian’s facing a “smash and grab” for his company engineered by a Silicon Valley billionaire. Rowena, a deputy district attorney, is trying her first homicide. Ian’s mom is insisting that he get credit for her dead aunt who made a major discovery in particle physics. And then while the couple is on an early-morning run, a car comes out of the darkness and smashes Ian’s leg and leaves Rowena in a coma.

I’m intrigued (and let’s face it an ignoramus) when it comes to physics – what research did you have to do (or how sexy is the Stanford Linear Accelerator really?)

accelerator at Stanford is a two-mile long rifle barrel that shoots electrons at its targets at over 99% of the speed of light. Back in the 1960s it was the center of world particle physics research, the place where the building blocks of the universe were discovered. I took a tour of the building at SLAC where those revolutionary discoveries were made four decades ago. And you know what? It’s filled with dusty boxes. Now, Edison’s lab is a national monument. Where the Wright Brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk is a national memorial. But in the midst of Silicon Valley, the very place where scientists first identified the particles that make up everything in the universe is a warehouse. (Not too sexy, is it?)

I’m a history major, so I had experts like
Professor Martin Breidenbach who is at SLAC vet my physics. I figured if a person was zapped by countless electrons traveling at well over 99% of the speed of light, it would mean death-by-raygun. Nope. Marty told me the electron beam would pass right through a person. Unless, of course, the person was wearing a piece of lead that would diffuse the beam and cook him alive! (Is that sexy enough?)

Writing is a solitary profession – how and where do you write? Do you have a writing routine?

Writing may be a solitary profession, but I write surrounded by people at a café that’s a seven-minute walk from my house. To the consternation of my wife, I don’t use my beautiful office for writing at all. When I tried writing there, I’d stop to think about what came next. Then I’d just take a little peek at my email. About ten minutes later, I’d be reading a Wikipedia article about the generalship of
Gustavus Adolphus during the Thirty Years War.

At the café, I have no Internet connection. When working on a manuscript, I walk over every day for about a five-hour stint. The staff is great. When I come in, they turn down the music. I put on my noise-canceling headphones. They keep me supplied with fresh pots of a special green tea which is the gasoline for my writing engine. I finished the first draft of Smasher there in about four months.

Are you an outliner or a ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ kind of guy?

I do not outline. Here’s why. I write in the first person and try to get in the skin of that person, be that person. I experience what he experiences, hear what he hears. I can’t know what’s going to happen. I need to be surprised. What I’m saying is that I try to inhabit an alternative reality while I’m writing. It’s exhilarating and addictive. Who wouldn’t want to be someone who’s better-looking, smarter, braver, and more attractive to women? (Yes,
Walter Mitty is definitely a kindred spirit.) On days when I don’t fly off to Fictionland, I miss it. I get grouchy. Sounds a little aberrant, doesn’t it? I thought so, too, until I read what E.L. Doctorow said: “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” I am so glad to know what I do is socially acceptable.

People are always intrigued by a writer’s path to publication – tell us a bit about yours (I mean Silicon Valley techie and CEO to writer – not that common!)

I was a little bored at the office so I signed up for a mystery-writing class at the
University of California Extension with Margaret Lucke. I wrote about the first third of Dot Dead, but in the end, I was still a little bored at work and decided to leave and start a company called UpShot. That was over six years of obsession. Then in 2003 we sold UpShot to Siebel Systems, and I came back to that manuscript. The story of finding an agent follows a more familiar path. I queried over 30 of them before finding Randi Murray (who’s left the business). She in turn found several interested publishers and we went with Midnight Ink. In February 2007 I left Oracle, which had swallowed Siebel, and went to work writing full-time.

Which writers have been most influential for you?

My answer here is a little embarrassing. It’s not a writer who’s the biggest influence, it’s a movie director –
Alfred Hitchcock. In a prototypical Hitchcock film, some regular American or Briton is leading a comfortable life when he or she gets caught up in some murderous conspiracy. Think North by Northwest, The 39 Steps, The Man Who Knew Too Much, or Shadow of a Doubt. As I said above, I love getting in the skin of the hero-narrator of the books I write and testing how he fares when confronted with a life-and-death challenge.

What is the most challenging aspect of the writing process?

Characters and setting are not easy, but they don’t drive me crazy. It’s that damned plot. In Smasher, well, the protagonists were carried over from Dot Dead and the setting is Silicon Valley, my stomping ground. But what about the plot, what was the twist? That’s always the toughest challenge for me. I tried several drafts that went nowhere. Then one Saturday night my wife and I went out to dinner with Brian Rosenthal and his wife Cindy on Castro Street in downtown
Mountain View, California. We took a postprandial stroll. Our wives were up ahead window-shopping. Brian and I were talking about this and that when he made a comment and a supernova went off in my head. Ten seconds after that almost-literal brainstorm, I had the plot for Smasher. What’s funny to me is that Brian has read the book and still doesn’t remember what he said that inspired the plot.

If you were to give an aspiring thriller writer one bit of advice, what would it be?

After you’ve finished your manuscript and made it the best it can be, find an agent. In the old days, unpublished writers would send manuscripts into publishers who would have hired bright grads from the Ivy League or Seven Sisters to sift through the slush pile. Now that’s been outsourced. Most publishers won’t accept unagented manuscripts. And you want to get a publisher to have credibility and to obtain distribution for your book. Self-publishing is not the answer. Sure we hear about self-publishing leading to success as with the remarkable
MJ Rose. But that’s a one in a thousand chance. She’s a marketing genius, too, and not that many of us are. It’s not easy to find one, I know, but your odds are a heckuva lot better with an agent.

Is there anything you don't like about being a crime fiction novelist? What's the downside of life as a writer?"

Just thinking about the answer to this one gets me pissed off. I’m writing full-time now. So people ask me if I’m enjoying life since I “stopped working.” Stopped working? What the hell? There’s the research, the writing, the editing, the finding an agent, signing with a publisher, the touring. I just sent off the manuscript of my next book to my agent. The launch of Smasher was last Tuesday and I have thirty more events by Thanksgiving.
Dr. Johnson wrote, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” So how is writing not working?

Does this happen to anyone else? Do your friends and family treat your writing career as though it’s recreation, a hobby? Go ahead and kvetch in the comments. I want some moral support.

I have to confess I get this all the time, Keith, so I say go ahead everyone kvetch while you can!!


As counsel to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Keith Raffel held a top secret clearance to watch over CIA activities. As a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, he founded UpShot Corporation, the award-winning Internet software company. These days he stays busy writing his mysteries and thrillers in his hometown of Palo Alto, California. His latest novel, Smasher, is out this month. Check out his website and book trailer at


  1. Nice interview, Keith (and Clare). I'll be sure to leave my lead underwear at home the next time I visit a supercollider.

    I know what you mean about people thinking writing isn't working. I get calls all the time to help out with stuff, because people think I'm never busy! Hah!

    Can't wait to read SMASHER!

  2. Always wear underwear sounds like a good motto for life:)...though like you Alan I'm going to leave the lead undies at home!

  3. Hey, Keith, thanks for stopping by. Your friends are right, btw, writing is not a real job. You so rarely get to drink while working- I believe that's the distinction.
    Excited to read the book, I'm really hoping you fried someone with lead panties.

  4. Hey Keith, best of luck with SMASHER.

  5. Thanks for the good wishes Alan and Joe. Thanks for the chance to post on your terrific Kill Zone, Clare, Joe, and Michelle. Are there lead panties in Smasher? Almost.

  6. Good stuff, Keith. Thanks. I am a Hitchcock fan, too. He was my specialty in film school, and I love the ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances trope. North by Northwest, baby.