I recently had the pleasure of reading Paul Mark Tag’s second novel Prophecy, and it is a riveting page turner. The concept behind the plot is just wild enough to give you pause for thought. When I read a great book, and Prophecy certainly qualifies in the category, I just feel the urge to track down the author and have a chat. Paul was gracious enough to agree.

Can you tell us a little about yourself ?

First of all, Simon, thank you for this opportunity.

Although I’ve lived in California since the early 1970s, I grew up in Pennsylvania. There, I took advantage of my closeness to Pennsylvania State University, majoring in meteorology for three degrees. My entire career has been with the Navy, where I worked as a research scientist, delving into areas as diverse as weather modification, numerical weather prediction, and artificial intelligence. I came to California when the facility I was working at in Norfolk, Virginia, closed. I retired from the Naval Research Laboratory in 2001 to write fiction fulltime. You’ll notice that the two principal characters in my novels, Victor Silverstein and Linda Kipling, work where I did. In fact, Silverstein has my old office. I try to interject one other interest of mine into my novels. Early in my career, I spent two years studying magic so that I could pass the professional magician test for joining the Magic Castle in Hollywood. Whenever I can, I weave magic into my stories.

My wife Becky is originally from Kansas. She puts up with my writing by tolerating my strict schedule and agreeing to go with me to locations important to my book. For example, we spent a week in Bermuda finding the locations (someone had to do it) for various chapters in my first novel, Category 5. For Prophecy, we did the same in Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania. When we locate suitable sites for my chapter scenes, I take the GPS coordinates. If you go to my web site, you’ll see Google Earth pictures for most locations in my books.

By the way, for more information on me (and my books), please visit my web site, www.paulmarktag.com.

Where did the idea for Prophecy come from?

It came from a lot of brainstorming with my primary reader, Robin Brody. After I completed Category 5, my first novel, I started looking for an exciting topic for novel two. At the time, I couldn’t think of as good a meteorological subject as I had used in novel one. So, Robin and I spent months coming up with a new topic. The result was a “prophecy” gene, which meant that I had to do a bunch of research into genetics and the genome, so that I could explain the premise with some sort of scientific clarity.

ESP was something that was of great interest to the major players during the Cold War; do you think it is still being pursued?

Sorry, but I can’t shed any light there. I must add, though, that as a writer, I can give my imagination free rein. From my viewpoint as a scientist, however, I don’t give much credence to ESP. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t things out there that we don’t understand. But, in relation to the basics of science, composed of physical laws and principles that have been painstakingly developed over centuries and which provide the basis for modern scientific understanding, there is little to suggest such capability. In Prophecy, I allude to this. The Amazing Randi, magician turned cynic, has made a profession of debunking the supernatural. I think it is noteworthy that no one yet has laid claim to his offer of one million dollars: to anyone who can demonstrate in a laboratory setting (designed and administered by Randi to prevent cheating) the ability to divine random symbols on a hidden display. With all the soothsayers that seem to be out there, I think that this statement speaks for itself.

One aspect that is a common theme among authors is to base their characters on real people. I see that prior to writing you were a meteorologist, are there other likenesses between you and Dr Silverstein?

I wish! To make things interesting, you make characters larger than life. Dr. Silverstein has a photographic memory and has a genius IQ. I could have used those qualities. And, he has a fascinating background as an African-American who grew up with white parents. Of course, he knows he’s smart, but he’s also arrogant and has little tolerance for fools. I hope that I don’t have any of these latter qualities. All of this said, Dr. Silverstein does work for the Naval Research Laboratory as I did and, in fact, has my old office. His background in numerical modeling, satellite meteorology, and artificial intelligence does mirror my own.

I loved the idea of the ‘prophecy gene’, and given today’s scientific wonders I have no doubt that it could be cloned if found. But how useful would it be? As you say in the book, the predictions are often fuzzy and very unclear. Would this be something that governments would seek?

I think that a “prophecy gene” is in the realm of science fiction. It’s easy to have fun with it in a novel and create interesting scenarios for its use, but I don’t think it’s possible. From stories we’ve heard in the past concerning such research in the government, I guess it wouldn’t surprise me for a scientist to make a proposal to research such a thing and have it funded.

I’d like to go off topic for a minute, and talk technical. My mother always told me not to judge a book by its cover. I disagree, the cover tells you a lot about the inside. You opted to take the ‘Print On Demand’ path, and that is a path that often leads to problems. Yet Prophecy is technically perfect, the typesetting, layout, and editing is flawless, how did you do it?

Thank you so much for that last compliment; it means a lot to me. I will answer your last question and then back up to address the print on demand (POD) path that I took for Prophecy.

In terms of the final product, iUniverse did a great job in doing the typesetting and layout. In terms of the content and editing, I first have to thank my personal team of reviewers who found numerous errors and kept me on the straight and narrow. After they had had their final say, and before I sent the manuscript to iUniverse, I spent months proofing the final manuscript before I sent it off to iUniverse; I’d say I went through it between ten and fifteen times. The initial editorial review from iUniverse was excellent as well, pointing out inconsistencies, etc. Finally, I hired a copyeditor (through iUniverse) who did an outstanding job of standardizing everything according to the Chicago Manual of Style.

Oh, one more thing. You mentioned the cover. I must credit entirely the artistic design staff at iUniverse. My original idea was to use a photograph of the graveyard for the “unknowns” from the Johnstown flood. Wisely, the designer assigned to me said that was hardly an appropriate cover for a thriller. They alone came up with the idea of the double helix. After they suggested that, I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it. It was perfect.

Now, concerning your mention of the POD route that I took. Prophecy is the sequel to my first novel, Category 5. I tried to find an agent for Category 5, but was unsuccessful and turned to iUniverse. I was a new author and figured that it would be tough. However, by the time I had completed Prophecy, I had sold over a thousand copies of Category 5—which isn’t bad for a first-time author doing all his own publicity. So, I figured that I’d have no problem finding an agent for Prophecy. I was wrong. After 123 queries to agents and a few publishers, I gave up. Not one of them would end up reading the manuscript. Those who would talk to me said that it was next to impossible to get a publisher interested in a new fiction author. So, I returned to iUniverse.

Prophecy is your second adventure into the book writing world, does it get easier or harder?

In terms of the creation and writing of the story, it seems to be about the same. It took me 2 ½ years to write Category 5 and about the same for Prophecy. What was nice about my first book was that I had no marketing duties. With two books now, it seems that I spend half of my time doing marketing, and that’s not nearly as much fun as writing.

Paul Mark Tag is clearly a name to watch out for, what is your next project. I have never met an author that stops at two?

Later this year, I’m publishing a book of short stories, again through iUniverse. The title will be The Errant Ricochet: Max Raeburn’s Legacy. (I figured that there was no point in trying to find an agent for a book of short stories.) For six years prior to my starting Category 5, that’s all I did, write short stories to teach myself the skills involved in storytelling. (My mentor was Arline Chase, author and publisher.) Although I published a number of these in literary magazines, some of my favorites did not make the cut. So, I decided to put them all together in a small book. The stories cover a range of genres; I think there’s something for everyone.

In terms of my next novel, I’ve been working on it for about seven months now. It will be a follow-on to the first two, with the same protagonists. What will be different is that the main protagonist will not be Victor Silverstein, but will be his assistant, Linda Kipling. She has evolved into such a strong character that it only makes sense to give her the lead. As you know, both Silverstein and Kipling are meteorologists, with Category 5 having had a meteorological premise (hurricanes). Because at the time I could not come up with another meteorological theme worthy of a complex thriller, I delved off into genetics with Prophecy. I’ve felt guilty about that diversion and have decided to return to my roots in novel three. This book will revolve around global climate change. It’s the topic of the decade, and I figure I’d be a fool not to take advantage. That said, it was not easy to come up with an angle worthy of a complex thriller. It took Robin Brody and me three months to hone a premise. Now that I’m on my way with the writing, I feel confident that it will make a good story.

I have one last question for you. With your background in weather, you might be the only person I talk to that can answer it. I hear a lot of talk about global warming, but it has not happened here in Calgary. We have snow, and it is icky. Can we expect a warm spell anytime soon?

Good question. I’m not an expert on this subject but I can lend you some mental ammunition that will give you perspective.

The earth has been around for almost five billion years and has gone through a number of heating/cooling cycles. Geologically speaking we are living during a period of relative warmth following the last ice advance over a hundred thousand years ago. (It’s thought that these relatively long periods of warmth and cold were initiated by a wobbling of the earth on its axis.) It is important to recognize that both climate and weather are cyclic. We all understand weather variations on different time scales: diurnal (the sun warms us during the day), weekly (that’s what forecasters get paid to predict), and seasonal (summer, fall, winter, spring). Beyond these, however, there are longer-term changes that occur over decades, or even centuries. As one proceeds from short durations to longer, we move from the realm of weather variation to the realm of climate variation.

The scientific consensus is that the earth is warming. The big question is how much of that warming is human-induced, in particular by the addition of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. There are a number of indications of that warming. The primary one making the news is that glaciers are retreating. Another is the loss of sea ice in the Arctic (the Polar bears are having a rough time). Another is the loss of permafrost in the upper latitudes. Still another is that ocean levels are increasing. These are facts.

Regarding ocean levels, I have a personal anecdote. Because I try to visit most locations for my books, last fall my wife and I visited Cartagena, Columbia, where the bad guys live in novel three (Darn! I shouldn’t have given that away. Well, too late). During our visit, we took a bus tour around town. On one stretch of road, I noticed water standing in the streets. Normally this means that there’s been a rain shower. I asked the tour guide and he said that, in fact, the water in the streets was seawater that had come in from the ocean. He said that since 1980 the sea level had risen about four inches, enough to cause problems in this low-lying area.

Back to your question as to whether the weather will change where you live. What I’d like to point out is that the atmosphere is very nonlinear—which is a fancy way of saying that one thing happening doesn’t necessarily lead to another. Here’s an example. The amount of water stored in the Greenland ice sheet is tremendous, enough to raise sea levels by over twenty feet if it were to melt. So, you say to yourself that if that happens the earth is warming. Although it might be, that doesn’t mean that everyone on the planet will experience warming. For example, the reason that western Europe stays relatively warm is because of heat transported from the tropics by way of the Gulf Stream. If a significant amount of water melted from the eastern side of Greenland, that fresh water would stay on the surface (it’s lighter) and disrupt what’s called the thermohaline (thermo referring to heat, and haline referring to salt) circulation that includes the Gulf Stream. If that were to happen, western Europe would turn colder, perhaps significantly.

So, let’s focus on the current concern. The big debate revolves around greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, that we know for a fact make life on earth habitable. If it weren’t for these gases, all heat would escape the atmosphere, and we wouldn’t survive. The nasty part is that we are adding greenhouse gases (to the atmosphere) faster than the oceans and plant life can remove them. (The ocean is a big buffer for carbon dioxide and, as we all know, plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen.) The consensus among the scientific community is that this carbon dioxide is contributing to global warming over and above any natural occurrence. The fear among scientists is that we need to control this increase before we arrive at a “tipping point” where serious climatic change is inevitable.

The way that I view the carbon dioxide issue is the following. Whether human-generated carbon dioxide is contributing 50%, 80%, or 90% of the warming that we are witnessing is irrelevant. Greenhouse gases that we are adding to the atmosphere are making things worse. And it is to the peril of us all if the global community does not get behind a coordinated effort to manage that increase.

I can’t finish this question without addressing directly your question, “Can we expect a warm spell anytime soon?” Although my meteorological forecast skills are being tested to the maximum, I can say without question that you will have warming in Calgary. As of this writing, spring is just days away.

I’d like to conclude by thanking you again for giving me this opportunity for this interview.

Thanks for doing this interview Paul, the pleasure is all mine, and I really do wish you the best with Prophecy and your future projects. And I want to point out that your weather prediction for Calgary was vague, I guess weathermen and politicians go to some of the same college classes 🙂

Simon Barrett

http://zzsimonb.blogspot.com

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