An Interview with Walter Wager
by Joan McIver
(Copyright 2000,Orchard Press Holdings - used w/o permission)
Author Walter Wager, former national executive vice-president of the Mystery Writers of America and the organization's current secretary, thinks big -- and very bad. In his latest heart-thumping thriller, Tunnel, the Beirut Brigade, a team of international terrorists armed with high-tech explosives and led by an evil genius has a deadly plan to bring New York City crashing into the Hudson River. Unless, that is, the city forks over $10 million in used $50 bills or NYPD Captain Jake Malloy, an ex-Navy SEAL, nails the killers and defuses the complex plot.
Only a native New Yorker like Wager could get away with wreaking such havoc on his beloved hometown. "I use the city because it saves time, I don't have to do a lot of research on the setting," says Wager. He was born in the Bronx and today lives in a Manhattan apartment with his Irish-born, second wife Winifred, a professional goldsmith and jewelry designer. "I think Tunnel reflects my own discomfort at being in a tunnel. But I made it fun."
Fun in Wager's vocabulary means ticking bombs, poison gas, flying bullets and a city trembling in the grip of bomb-happy criminals and their mysterious brainiac leader, Gunther. Wager does thorough research into modern weaponry, terrorism and law enforcement techniques. He packs his high-concept novels with action, suspense, brilliant villains and super-savvy heroes. It's a best-selling formula that's also captured the attention of Hollywood. Three of Wager's works have been made into movies – Die Hard II, starring Bruce Willis and based on¯58 Minutes; Telefon, starring Charles Bronson and Twilight's Last Gleaming, based on Viper Three and starring Burt Lancaster and Richard Widmark. "I always liked spy stories," he says. "When I was a kid I read a lot of pulp fiction and stories about G-Men. My favorite writers from the past are John LeCarre, Eric Ambler and Raymond Chandler."
Witty, sophisticated, friendly and always ready with a funny story or helpful advice, Wager shares few traits with the macho heroes and cold-blooded villains that stalk the pages of his books. He's a child of immigrants, his father a doctor from Kiev and his mother, a nurse from a western province in Czarist Russia. Always a bright student, Wager entered Columbia University at age 16 to study pre-law, then went on to earn a law degree in three years from Harvard University. In Boston, he says he also studied the female students at nearby Radcliffe.
"I passed the Bar on the first shot, "he says. "But I've never practiced law." His interest in aviation law led to a fellowship at Northwestern University, then later a past-doctoral Fulbright Scholarship to the Sorbonne in Paris. "In France, I learned about wine and cheese. I met an American woman and got married so I had to get a job."
The Israeli government hired Wager as an aviation consultant. He lived in Israel a year while working through a heap of dusty old documents to help the country negotiate a treaty regarding air space. On his return to the U.S., Wager took a job with the United Nations editing the agency's hundreds of documents. But that wasn't enough to keep Wager's fertile imagination occupied and interested. So naturally, he turned to fiction writing. "I had a friend at a paperback publishing house. I like mystery stories so I thought I could sell this kind of prose." He sold his first mystery, Death Hits the Jackpot, a story of two CIA agents who use the agency's money for gambling. The price: $3,000 from the fifth publisher he contacted.
At the same time, his job at the UN expired. No matter, Wager wrote scripts for a radio documentary that led to a deal to do a series of 13 one-hour shows. He found time to write a second thriller, Operation Intrigue, a contemporary spy story about the U.S. invading China. "Then one Monday morning, the radio show boss called and said, 'go home, there's no more money for the show," Wager says laughing at the memory. "So then I began to do freelance work." In Wager's case freelance work meant taking on a full menu of writing assignments and eventually television scripts for America After Dark, a legal soap opera. He's also worked as a public relations consultant for ASCAP, a job that involved traveling about the country and meeting top songwriters, musicians and entertainers. Ask who wrote or recorded what song and you'll get an answer plus some inside information or a juicy tidbit.
A prolific writer, Wager tackles thrillers and travel stories with imagination and eagerness. But not with modern technology. "I still use my old Olympia manual typewriter that I bought in 1964 and I'm a pretty good one-finger typist," he laughs. "I keep working under the delusion that someday a library will ask for my manuscripts." With the publication of Tunnel, his pile of 26 manuscripts surely must equal his six-foot plus height. It includes adventure and historical fiction, a young adult book as well as thrillers such as The Spirit Team, Designated Hitter, and Sledgehammer. His novels have been translated into 15 languages. "I've been with the same literary agency since 1954," Wager says. "My agent Maureen Walters is smart and loyal."
His next thriller, tentatively entitled Kelly's People, is nearing completion. When he delivers it to Forge Books, his publisher, he plans to take his wife traveling on the Orient Express in September. A dedicated husband, father and grandfather, Wager declares that marrying Winifred McIverin 1975 is the best thing that ever happened to him. His daughter Lisa Wager, a former book editor, is active in Democratic politics. She is married to New York journalist Bob Liff. The couple have Wager's favorite "little people," two and three-year old daughters -- "the most beautiful children in the world."
Next to his family, Wager is an enthusiastic booster for the aims and goals of the Mystery Writers of America and its members. He's currently working to organize a mystery tour of London for the group. A good friend of the Florida Chapter of MWA who has attended past SleuthFests, Wager has helped the local chapter; promote the event, obtain nationally-known writers and encourage aspiring writers. Wager tells struggling writers that nobody knows why some books get published and others rejected. "Remember if what you're writing doesn't excite you it won't excite anyone else," he says. "If you do get a contract, don't let editors intimidate you. But listen to what they say and think about it."