The first novel that I satisfactorily completed, The Brass Ring, came out of my first venture in the wine business. I had sent a pallet of California zinfandel to some rugby friends in London with a UK-based import-export firm, but the venture never got off the ground because of a high US dollar and cheap imports from Europe. However, I came across an obscure fact in my research: Colombia, third largest importer of American wine, had just stopped bringing it in as part of a trade deal with Chile and Argentina. Any California wine exporters suddenly lost their third biggest overseas market.
This “reversal of fortunes” came some time after the now-famous 1976 accolades achieved by California wine in Paris (world news in the trade press and in the film Bottle Shock). A good deal of marketing, investment, and expansion had followed that Paris event, and now American exporters to Colombia had that recognition advantage stripped away. In the pragmatic world of business, how could someone adventurous and willing to take risks compensate for these losses? One idea came to mind. It would take imagination and research, but most of all time.
One of my favorite quotes is attributed to Isaac Newton: “If I have seen far, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” I have had a number of crazy ideas of my own, but it was by mooching off the experience of others that allowed me to develop some of them into stories. The late Manuel Godinez, a university friend, worked undercover for the DEA. Two other university friends (who shall remain nameless, since they’re still breathing) were officials in the State Department. I had the good fortune to travel, live, and work in several overseas countries, including a substantial time in Brazil and two weeks on a Polish freighter. Pieces of these experiences coalesced into The Brass Ring.
The central figure in Ring is Alex Corlett. Through some hard challenges in life, he returns to California to begin a wine export business. As he gets some traction, he crosses paths with David Gilbért, a wine industry magnate who, with his brother Georges, got whipsawed in the Colombian withdrawal. They made up their losses with creative importing (read: smuggling) and off-shore banking (read: money-laundering), and are now trying to get out. The mechanics of their methods were very satisfying to work out in the story, like playing chess with history, shaping the characters’ moves and the plot events to both merge with the story while being faithful to chemistry, economics, and the practical facts of import-export and the wine trade.
While I relied heavily on friends who were experts in foreign commerce, the illegal drug trade, lethal weapons, and the wine industry, I also gained great personal satisfaction as a storyteller one evening in Pretoria, South Africa. I had written the first draft of Ring, and had explained it to my State Department friend with whom I was visiting. As I was scribbling notes in the lounge, he called me into the TV room.
“You have to see this,” he said, pointing to the television.
There were uniformed and plainclothes policemen running around on-screen, and a lot of weapons and bottles and bags of drugs scattered around the room. The story that unfolded was of a major bust of Nigerian cocaine smugglers who were bringing in the drugs using precisely the same methods—chemistry, packaging, smuggling—that I had thought up for the Gilbért brothers in The Brass Ring (though in Africa they used rum rather than wine). These are the moments when you want to look in the mirror and kiss yourself. That’s not intended as a boast; it’s just one of the lessons you learn: in most cases, you’re the best judge of what will work in your story, in your writing. I had worked that plot element around in my head for years before I could begin writing “full-time” and build a plot around it. I have indeed been blessed with great friends, and have “stood on the shoulders of giants,” but sometimes you just have to put your ears back and run to daylight.