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Robert Ferrigno sits down to talk about his soon to be released novel “Monkey Boyz”

Robert Ferrigno is a New York Times bestselling novelist and author of Horse Latitudes, the Assassins futuristic trilogy Prayers for the Assassin, Sins of the Assassin (Mystery Writers of America 2009 Edgar Award Finalist), Heart of the Assassin and other novels.


Ken Coffman is the author of Hartz String Theory, Steel Waters and other novels.


This interview took place near Seattle on August 20, 2009.


KLC: I’m not much for organized religion, but when we were in Mexico we took a tour of a church and I was struck by soot on the walls from a siege in the 1700’s. The people are attacked so they go to the stone church built better than anything else around…in this case there is a real benefit to having the community church there.


RF: It’s nice to go to a place where people actually care about you. There’s someone there to greet you—someone happy to see you who knows your family. I’m not a hierarchy kind of guy, often the normal, average people are great, but the people who gravitate to senior positions? I hate them. It seems to be true in every field. I like the regular people, the guy sitting next to me in the pew, but I usually have trouble with the people in positions of authority.


KLC: The same with politics. Can you imagine what they have to put up with to get their success?


RF: The things they have to say and do… Meetings are half of their lives. Even if I’m the star of the meeting, I’d rather be doing something else. I never wanted a job where meetings are the main thing you do.


KLC: Some people love meetings…


RF: Those people are really scary. Let’s avoid them if we can.


KLC: I want to talk with you a bit about poker. You know that Bill Gates played poker?


RF: Yes, I can imagine it. The killer instinct, you know?


KLC: My guess is that your skill at poker has helped you navigate through life and with negotiations and contracts…


RF: You know the business books like Things you can learn from Attila the Hun? Everything useful in life I learned either from the movie The Godfather or at the poker table. In poker you learn about risk and reward. You learn how to read other people. You learn how to take chances—sometimes you have to bet on yourself. Sometimes you have to get up and go away—you have to recognize that the guy across the table is better than you are. There’s a cliché, if you look around the table and you don’t see the fish, then you’re the fish. There’s always a game where you’re the best—you have to find it. A lot of the lesson is in the willingness to take a risk. There’s an expression: The best thing in the world is playing poker and winning, the second best is playing poker and losing. So, the best thing is the game itself, win or lose. It’s okay to take a risk for something you love even if you’re not always successful.


KLC: I’ve played some and I’m not very good. I remember figuring out that if there are six guys at the table, your average chance of winning is one in six, so if you play out every hand, you will lose. Being trained as an engineer, you’d think I would figure that out quickly, but it took me a while. The other part that got me is the bluffing. You have to bluff and you have to get caught. If you only bet big when you have a great hand, your winning pots will be small.


RF: Statistically, over the course of your life, everyone gets the same hands. You have to be in the game and lay traps and get caught laying traps. Here’s the oldest joke in the world:

In a small town railroad station, two old poker players meet. One is new in town, the other has been around a while.


Player One: “Is there a game around?”


Player Two: “As a matter of fact, I’m on my way to a game right now.”


Player One: “What’s the game like?”


Player Two: “Dark, smoky room, toilet’s overflowing, the house takes too big of a rake and the other players cheat.”


Player One: “Why are you going?”


Player Two: “It’s the only game in town.”


Player One: “Oh, then let’s go.”


RF: That’s my favorite joke in the world. It’s interesting how many of the top players have technical and mathematical backgrounds. You see the bios, degrees from Wharton, MIT, CalTech. One guy they call Jesus because of his long hair, Chris Ferguson, has a PhD in Computer Science from UCLA. Poker is about making decisions based on minute differences, like the difference between a one-in-ten chance of winning compared to a one-in-eleven chance. Most people slough off the small differences, but a bond trader can make a fortune off the difference of a tenth of a penny. A lot of young guys are learning online…you can learn the math that way, but you can’t learn the psychology.


KLC: I don’t think I could handle the stress. You have to distance yourself. Even when its two bucks on the table I worry too much about whether I will win or lose.


RF: You get used to it. You can’t think of the pot as money. It’s harder with physical cash, that’s why the house uses chips. I’ve been in cash games and it’s scary when you see a mound of bills on the table. Rent for a couple of months.


KLC: How important is it to mislead the table?


RF: You do have to change your game depending on the players. One thing to keep in mind: you can’t bluff stupid people. You can run a brilliant move, but it doesn’t work if your opponents are bad players. It only works against the really good players. If, over the course of the evening, you deliberately give a false ‘tell’ then spring your deception at the right moment, it’s wasted if the guy hasn’t paid attention. You have to judge your opponent and see if they’re smart enough to fool.


KLC: Your publisher wants you to create a brand, and you did that…we have these southern California crime thrillers, and one day it pops in your head to do something different…


RF: It’s my personality…my grandfather used to always say I was an ‘aginner’. It didn’t matter, if you were for something, I was ‘aginn’ it. If you said black, I’d say white. My friends are liberals and I’m libertarian-conservative…if my friends were libertarian-conservative, who knows, I’d be a Michael Moore advocate…


KLC: You’d be a Buddhist.


RF: Yeah. I end up taking the rougher road. I don’t know why. It could be a good thing because it makes me strong or could just be a quirk of personality and I like to create problems for myself. I truly recognize that I do. One of my publishers who was helpful to my career, she said very honestly, not trying to get anything out of me, ‘You make it very difficult for a publisher. You are not an easy writer, I love your work, I love you, but you make things difficult for people like me.’ I get it. It’s not like I’m looking for trouble, but if there are two roads, I seem to pick the rocky one. I don’t think it’s particularly noble, it’s just what I do.


KLC: Why did she say that? Is it because she wants to guide you and you are not going to be guided?


RF: Yes. She says their goal is to focus me and my goal is to go where I want—never by the smooth path. I used to think there was nobility in being contrary, but now I see it as a temperamental thing. I’m not even consciously aware of it.


KLC: A friend told me I’m a libertrarian and that struck me as being accurate. I’m automatically against the herd.


RF: Like that Brando line from The Wild Ones.

What are you rebelling against?

What do you got?

It’s not calculated, it’s instinctive.


KLC: It’s a balance. I’ve been married forever and have a stable home life, so it’s something I can work against.


RF: Exactly. I’ve been married forever, got a bunch of kids. It’s probably true, if I had a life as chaotic as my creative life, it would be horrible. I’d be living in a trailer and gambling twelve hours a day. It wouldn’t be good.


KLC: It took courage to make the change in the direction of your writing. I’d like to explore that. What were you thinking in 2000? This was before many people were thinking about Islam. There were a few incidents, but it wasn’t something the general public paid any attention to. What was it that captured your attention?


RF: I just thought it was a wonderful idea. I always have a sense of my own mortality. If this was the last book I write, this is what I want to write about. Most people assume they’re going to live forever, where I think I’m going to die tomorrow. That doesn’t mean I have to live like an idiot, but what I’m doing has to have a lot of meaning. The idea of a Muslim hero in Prayers for the Assassin felt really comfortable. If there’s an entry on my admission form in heaven or hell, the Assassins trilogy will be the first thing on the list. I’m happy with that.


KLC: Did you have a backup plan?


RF: No.


KLC: Did you tell your wife if this doesn’t work, you’ll do something else?


RF: No. When I mention what I did to other writers, they’re more impressed with my wife than with me. ‘You have a wife and four kids and you’re telling her you’re doing a controversial book like this where the research will take eight or ten months when you don’t make a dime…’ She certainly had doubts about it—she thought I might get killed, but she had faith. One way or another, I’d pull it off. It’s nerve-wracking to be me, but I think it’s even more nerve-wracking for her. Spouses of creative people deserve more credit—I deal with a high level of uncertainty, live and die by the book and I have a responsibility for a wife and four kids, but I think it’s harder for someone in the role of taking care of the house and kids, but not knowing the future.

When I lived in Seattle before, I had a furniture moving business off and on, was hustling poker, putting on comic book conventions and living the hustling low life. I went to California and came back as a novelist. My friend said, ‘other than the fact that you have a nice house now, you basically have the exact same life you had then. You set your own hours, live by your skills and wits, you have no boss and you never know how things are going to work out next week’. It’s true. I don’t have to take the bus because I have a vehicle, but he’s exactly right, in terms of the dynamics I’m comfortable with, my life has stayed the same.

It’s more weighty if you have a family. If you’re a single guy, nobody can touch you. My first kid was born when I was almost 40. I’ll never get to retire, but I feel like I’ve been retired for twenty years…since I became a novelist.


KLC: Something stuck in your head about Islam…you were thinking about it a couple of years before 9/11.


RF: Yes. I’m always online and I read lots of blogs, and I got a feeling…embassies in Africa were getting blown up. Bin Laden literally declared war on the U.S. long before 9/11, but few noticed. A lot of political bloggers were saying we should think about this because the Ayatollah Khomeini used to be a guy like this…a street preacher exiled in France making tapes to pass out…what could be more unlikely than him taking over a whole nation? And, because of my own interest in spirituality. Islam is an interesting faith. You pray five times a day. There’s a constant affirmation of the faith. You can be what they call a jack Mormon or a backsliding Christian, but with Muslims, there’s an off/on switch, you’re either a practicing Muslim praying five times a day which imbues your life, or you’re a Muslim in name only and you might as well have a ham sandwich.


KLC: What do you think of when you see ladies wearing burkas at the airport?


RF: I’m intrigued by it—it disturbs me at a profound level. Strangely enough, a lot of observant women come to my readings with the hijab head dress and I think they look beautiful, it really focuses your attention on their features. I don’t remember ever seeing a woman who didn’t look beautiful with that, but the burka seems like an insult. I get the drift of what it’s supposed to be about, but it’s not in the Quran. I think it’s a violation of the Quran and human rights.


KLC: It seems barbaric, but at the same time I believe people should live as they wish.


RF: You have to show your face if you want a driver’s license. Some argue against that.


KLC: One thing I take from your work…in modern society, we replace religion and certainty with consumerism…commercial and political forces do this on purpose. They don’t want people with educated opinions, they want people who can be influenced. If your head is filled with nonsense, then you’re a good customer because you’ll buy the right watch or right car or right hamburger.


RF: If your self-worth is determined by the car you buy as opposed to a relationship with God, then you’ll buy a lot of cars. You’ll be useful to a consumer culture. But there’s a good part of our culture. There’s a reason 95% of Nobel Prize winners in fields that actually count (as opposed to the Nobel Peace Prize) are won by Westerners.


KLC: We lose our innovation and creativity at our own peril.


RF: That’s my point. By book three of the Assassins trilogy, both countries [The Bible Belt and the Islamic Republic] are running down because they don’t nurture innovation, intellectualism and self-doubt. The scientific method can be seen as hostile to religion. It need not be, I would argue, but that’s why both countries are running down at the heels. They need to reform so spiritual values are affirmed, but live in a real world. If I have appendicitis, I don’t want to be prayed over. Get me to a good doctor.


KLC: The genius of the series, to me, is bridging the gap at the end. It would have been real easy for you to create another Armageddon, but you end on a hopeful note. The coming-together might be implemented by cynical and contrived methods, but we’re going to bridge the gap. If you are a strong believer and I’m a strong believer, there is a commonality. We should be able to live together.


RF: Fundamentalists are all cut from the same cloth. They want to kill each other for not being perfect.


KLC: I would fight that battle with everything I have.


RF: I wouldn’t last ten minutes in a fundamentalist regime. It would be like being back at the fundamentalist church of my childhood, only infinitely worse. No way out.


KLC: An atheist culture can be a fundamentalist culture.

RF: We have religions in this country. The global warming movement is a religious movement. Humans have a need for meaning, if you don’t fill it with God, you fill it with something else.


KLC: Something you shoot in your arm…


RF: What you fill your life with can be a lot worse than God.


KLC: The Soviet Union was a good example of a Godless society.


RF: That’s my reason for putting the Simone de Beauvoir quote in the first book. ‘You can abolish water, but you can’t abolish thirst’. She was a famous atheist, but she knew emptiness.


KLC: I appreciate the benefit of living in a moral culture. It’s a luxury we shouldn’t take for granted. If we were all soulless creeps…


RF: It would be horrible. A nightmare.


KLC: You don’t need God to have a moral or spiritual code, but the concepts are tied together for a lot of people. I have a good sense of what you think of the events in Afghanistan, but no sense of what you think of the nation-building or democracy-building in Iraq…


RF: If we thought we were being jeopardized by what was going on in Iraq, we were justified in taking the regime out. But, when they started talking about nation-building, I assumed they weren’t serious, that they were just saying it for the world press. Like ‘we’re going to tear it apart, but honest, we’ll put it back together’. It seemed absolutely insane. Not only is this a collection of people with a culture two- or three-thousand years old, where I would think they know what’s best for them more than us, but I think democracy in a Muslim country will be inimical to us. I’m a great believer in the clash of civilizations. You had a fair vote in Pakistan—they hate our guts. In every poll, 80% of the people: who is their greatest enemy? It’s us! I like the idea of finding some badass that runs the country, keep him in power and make a deal. We did it with the Shah of Iran who was a prick, but he was our prick. The idea that you’ll spend hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of our guy’s lives…I don’t care about their lives, I care about our lives. I understand intellectually why this will make us safer, but the idea of a democratic Middle East where they are all like the Israelis and have elections? The likelihood is between slim and none.


KLC: They vote in Palestine…


RF: They thought Arafat’s party, Fatah, was too liberal, so they went to Hamas. They thought Fatah was too mushy. That was a fair election and that’s what you get. I liked General Musharaff running Pakistan better than the woman who got popped [Benazir Bhutto]. I’m a believer in real-politick in an ungovernable place or where the people will vote against our interest. I’m an American and I want our guys to win. I don’t want our guys to die. I’m happy to have a strong man we can deal with. Now that we’re pulling back, Iraq not going to be a garden spot where we go on vacation. In three to five years, I don’t think we’re going to say it was worth it. If we thought he was building nukes and weapons of mass destruction, then take his ass out. It would have been better to buddy-up with him. We should be much more scared of Iran. Saddam Hussein was a counterbalance against Iran which is why we originally cultivated him.


KLC: When they were busy killing each other, they weren’t thinking about us so much.


RF: Let that war go on a long time. Maybe we did reach out to Saddam and maybe he was nuts. As history is written, I would like to know how we lost him. He was our boy for a while and he was useful. He kept the Iranians off-balance and sold us plenty of oil. He had elections and got 99% of the vote for as much as you believe that.


KLC: Jimmy Carter would approve.


RF: Yeah. When I heard we were going to bring Democracy to Iraq I thought he was just saying that to appease The New York Times and did not believe it, but I think he really did. Bush was a good guy, but the Iraq war is not what I think of as a good deal.


KLC: I remember when the tanks were going in and the troops were massing, the only thing that made sense to me is if they were going to turn the tanks around at the last instant and go into Saudi Arabia.


RF: That makes a lot of sense.


KLC: I voted for him because I thought he was the least of the two evils.


RF: We created a power vacuum that will be filled with something inimical to our interests. The Iranians are smart in terms of politics. That’s their part of the world and they know the players better than we do.


KLC: I imagine Mark Steyn is very angry with you…


RF: [laughing] No, Mark Steyn likes me. He likes my stuff and I like his stuff.


KLC: I’m being facetious, but you got him in trouble north of the border.


RF: That’s true. It was funny. I teased him about that. I said ‘I like the idea that in writing about me, you got the blame—you took the guff for what I wrote’. It wasn’t so funny for him, he had to defend himself against the idiots.


KLC: He mines the experience…


RF: He’s a brilliant writer…


KLC: and clever guy…


RF: I should give him credit for taking the heat on my behalf with the Canadian Human Rights Board. I don’t like to travel, so I wouldn’t want to go there to defend myself.


KLC: One thing that struck me about your imagining of the new Islamic Republic is that people could still lead normal lives even though the whole structure of society had changed. I think that’s very wise because even in war times, people still farmed and lived. Things were harder, but life went on.


RF: That’s the whole idea…going along to get along… In the past when Muslims would conquer an area, you’d have to convert, but it was like, okay, whether you really believed or not, you just had to bend a knee. You can’t run a country where everyone is killing each other. So, you have to do this or that, okay…


KLC: Give it lip service.


RF: Right, and now I can go back to the office.


KLC: It doesn’t do any good to take over rubble.


RF: It works when there is an outlet for the really hardcore, they could gravitate to the Bible Belt. I don’t think most people’s religious faith runs all that deep. The fundamentalists would always theorize, suppose someone put a gun to your head and asked you to spit on the Bible. What would you do? You’re supposed to say you die first, but I don’t want to die. I figure most people are like me, I spit on the Bible, then go home and have a beer or a cup of tea. I can live with it and God will forgive me. Just get the gun away from head, that’s all.


KLC: Sometimes I have to admit I’m wrong. For example when China took over Hong Kong, I didn’t think they’d be able to keep their hands off. I was wrong.


RF: You know why? Because the Chinese are better capitalists than we are.


KLC: Having that economic engine running is a benefit to them.


RF: They make an excuse and keep this little enclave of raw capitalism. Their business model is working better than ours at this point. If it wasn’t for their business model, we’d be belly-up. The Chinese government is buying our T-bills.


KLC: Scary.


RF: Yes.


KLC: Your circle of friends has changed since 2000…


RF: It has. I actually have friends now. [laughs]. Most of my old friends are still hyper-libs, artists, graphics designers, writers, all in Michael Moore territory. I’m not sure how it happened, but in the election between Bush and Kerry [2004], National Review sent out a questionnaire for thirty writers. Out of all of them, there were only three voting for Bush. In a dangerous world, I counted more on Bush to protect my kids, rather than John Kerry who turned on his fellow soldiers. I got a ton of mail, mostly positive, and when Prayers for the Assassin came out, the National Review crowd was super supportive.


KLC: You said something controversial the other night which reminded me of the trouble John Lennon got in when he said, with wasted sarcasm, that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. I just want to get it on the record…you said: “My book is filled with sex and violence and profanity—like the Bible only cranked up to 11.”

RF: That’s right, the Bible, particularly the old testament, is filled stories about everybody in the city being put to the sword and all sorts of sex and violence and people cursing God…the F-word is not used in the Bible, but there’s lots of ‘begatting’…

KLC: And ‘knowing’…

RF: Right.


KLC: The Bible is a fascinating historical document. I don’t read too much beyond this world into it, but the history and what it says is amazing.


RF: The Old Testament in particular is filled with great stories.


KLC: Lets talk about your next novel: Monkey Boyz


RF: I assume it comes out in the summer of 2010. A trio of radical environmentalists kidnap a woman and hold her for ransom. Things go awry for all concerned. It’s set in the northwest, mostly in Seattle and surrounding areas. It will be my first book set up here.


KC: In the Assassins trilogy, you don’t hammer the left very much, but Monkey Boyz seems like you’re going after them a bit more. Are you worried about upsetting them?


RF: No, that’s part of the fun. In Sins, the episode that takes place in Mount Carmel, or Waco in real life, is an intended attack on the left, but you’re right, it’s oblique. A gas station attendant says the truest thing about our recent history. While embassies were exploding and bin Laden was plotting against us, we worried about guys selling guns in Idaho and religious nuts in Waco. I don’t want to write a polemic, but the whole thing in Sins about Castroland is oblique…the third book [Heart of the Assassin] will raise more hackles.


KLC: How much are you influenced by sociological books like 1984, Brave New World, Atlas Shrugged and Michael Crichton’s State of Fear?


RF: Not very much. We’re all reacting to the same stuff.


KLC: You did confess to looking for something less disposable to make your mark.


RF: Definitely. But we’re reacting to the same sociological and social trends and problems in different ways. I see our country at a flash point…a dangerous point in our nation’s history.


KLC: In 2000, as far as I can see, your goals as a writer completely changed.


RF: That’s true. I wanted to set the bar a lot higher. To challenge myself as a writer and a human being and to write about things that were bigger in scope, that required more from me as a writer and a thinker.


KLC: I don’t want to invoke a jinx on your work in progress, but you’re working on something more biblical?


RF: Yes, a contemporary religious thriller.


KLC: Is there a working title?


RF: There is, but I can’t tell you. You’ll hear about it soon enough. It’s another book that I have to write.


One Response »

  1. I think half the enjoyment in reading thrillers is seeing the author’s poking at the hornet’s nest. Plus, fictitiously, you’re able to draw conclusions based on suppositions. Sometimes, those conclusions are very accurate.

    I agree, Robert, the country is at a flash point right now, or as I prefer to say, razors edge because no matter which way things move it will cost in blood.

    Nice interview, Ken and Robert.

    Sia McKye’s Thoughts…OVER COFFEE