It's hard to believe that Brent Ghelfi writes dark thrillers set in Russia. He is one of the nicest authors to appear at the Velma Teague Library for the Authors @ The Teague series.
Ghelfi grew up in Phoenix and went to college at Arizona State University, majoring in business. He went to Law School in Tucson, and now lives in Phoenix with his wife, Lisa, and their two children. And, he answered a question librarians always want to know, about his library experience. Brent said he grew up using the Yucca Branch of the Phoenix Public Library regularly. He said he's always been a reader.
So, how did a Phoenix resident become the writer of thrillers set in Russia? As a student, he went to the U.S.S.R., and it was a gray, drab country. The people were rigid, and didn't want to talk to foreigners. Of course, the tour guides were monitored by the KGB. They couldn't stray off script, and they had to file reports. If they strayed or submitted an erroneous report, they were reported by their monitors. The U.S.S.R. was such a drab, gray country that Ghelfi never thought of it as fascinating.
In the 1990s, he went back to Moscow on business. It was as if someone had turned on a light. The country had been dark and foreboding, but now Red Square was brightly lit. There was American-style consumerism. Now, he regularly goes back to Russia, but if you stray outside the big cities, it's still desolate and poverty-stricken, not that different from life there in the Middle Ages.
In the 2000s, Ghelfi was in Moscow, writing other books. He stayed at the National Hotel, which had a beautiful view over Red Square. During the Communist years, the CIA used to get rooms in the National Hotel, and monitor the May Day parades from there, watching to see where the leaders stood in relationship to each other to determine the power structure. Ghelfi had one of those rooms overlooking the Square. One night, he saw a man walking on the wall, who cut through security with no one stopping him. Then he disappeared. Ghelfi wondered about the man. Who was he?
Ghelfi then came up with the sentence that introduced Alexei Volkovoy, known as Volk. In Volk's Game, he describes himself. "Dead mother, disappeared father, late-era Soveit poverty, and five years of killing and worse in Chechnya." Volk is a metaphor for modern-day Russia. He's part of the modern military, and the illegal gangsterism that has spread throughout the world in the form of the Russian Mafia. These strains both course through Volk, a dark conflicted character who is broken in many ways. Ghelfi uses his books to loke at modern-day Russia, with a character that represents Russia.
Volk's Game, the first book in the series, was about the theft of a picture from the Hermitage. It's a self-examination of Volk and the country, how they treat people, the country, and art. The book was well-received. It was a finalist for the 2008 Barry Award for best thriller, and it received excellent reviews. It's set in today's world, a violent world that has extremes of very wealthy people and very poor people. The poor were devastated when the U.S.S.R. fell. Pensioners who could live on 300 rubles a month paid at the old rate, couldn't buy a loaf of bread a month later. This is the setting of the book, and the person of Volk.
Ghelfi said he continues to go back to Russia. It has similar problems to the U.S. His current book, Volk's Shadow, is a distorted look at us. Russia has a terrible terrorism problem. During the 1990s, and the Chechen Wars, there were apartment blasts, subway blasts, and people killed. In 1995, Russia sent tanks into Chechnya and obliterated it. It made the problem worse. Volk's Shadow deals with terrorism, and an oil company that is blown up. Volk has to discover who did it.
Brent Ghelfi went on to say that Putin discovered that the person who controls the pipelines controls everything. Russia has been aggressive in Chechnya because there's a major pipeline there. They want to control the distribution of oil.
One other theme of the book is based on the Rostov Ripper, who brutally murdered 52 people in a ten to fifteen year spree. The authorities turned a blind eye to the similarities of the crimes, denying there was a serial killer operating in Russia. The police in Russia were political enforcers rather than criminal investigators. Finally, they caught someone, and executed him, but they had put someone else to death for the crimes earlier, and the murders continued. So, they actually put two people to death for the killings. In Volk's Shadow, Volk has to deal with similar murders. He explores all those old issues, since he was a Communist and a member of the Secret Service. He's questioning what's happening, and his role.
Ghelfi said the Volk series is not published in Russia. It is published in countries all along the border, but not in Russia itself. Volk's Game was optioned six months ago for a movie. But, lots of books are optioned, and the movies are never made. He does think the Volk movies might succeed right now because of the darkness of the character. Dark movies are popular lately, and the grainy, fast pace would work. Ghelfi's agent said they should have a script by the end of the year. Volk is a terrific character, but the hesitation might come because Hollywood is ethnocentric. They like American settings and characters.
He was asked if the thriller genre was appropriate for the current times. Brent said in the early to mid-80's, with MTV, television went from leisurely to fast-paced. Readers expect what they read to mirror that. Even literary authors, such as Cormac McCarthy, have gone to faster paced books. His book, The Road was an Oprah selection, so it's accessible. Ghelfi said the best thrillers are literary, and have subtext.
Ghelfi said he couldn't write about Russia without writing about violence. The most ruthless, brutal men took over companies after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Many were ex-KGB. Members of the First Chief Directorate were sophisticated men who spoke multiple languages, and, since they were responsible for foreign operations and intelligence, they had contacts in other countries. Many became billionaires from oil. Kidnapping is common in Russia. Criminals learned on the ground that often a dead body is worth more than a live one after a kidnapping because the burial rituals are important, and they can ask more money. Rape, murder and theft were common in Chechnya. We like to think it happened years ago with the Nazis or Stalin, but this is still happening in our time. Putin's response to Georgia was to roll tanks into the country. That's the same response Hitler had to Czechoslovakia, and Putin used the same excuse, Russians in Georgia were not being treated well.
How did Ghelfi get into writing? He was always a huge reader. He read all his life, since he was a kid. He had a break after selling a company. He wrote a medical thriller that never sold, although Hollywood is looking at it now.
Brent Ghelfi has a contract for two more Volk books. The next one, called The VENONA Cable, has been sent to his editor. It arises out of World War II, and cables that went to New York and Moscow. The Americans broke the code, and continued the program working with code until 1980. Ghelfi referred us to the National Security Agency's website for information about the actual VENONA story. That site says, "On 1 February 1943 the U.S. Army's Signal Intelligence Service, a forerunner of the National Security Agency, began a small, very secret program, later codenamed VENONA. The original object of the VENONA program was to examine, and possibly exploit, encrypted Soviet diplomatic communications. These messages had been accumulated by the Signal Intelligence Service (later renamed the U.S. Army Signal Security Agency and commonly called "Arlington Hall" after the Virginia location of its headquarters) since 1939 but had not been studied previously. American analysts discovered that these Soviet communications dealt with not only diplomatic subjects but also espionage matters." The next Volk book is about a dead body found on Volk's property, with a cable.
He went on to discuss the codebreakers and spies. Julius Rosenberg was definitely guilty of the crimes he was executed for, spying and sending information to Russia. He discussed Churchill's visit to the U.S. to discuss a second front in Europe, and Stalin knew the answer because officer sent the information from New York. The codebreakers in Arlington Hall in Virginia dealth with 3000 cables.
The fourth Volk book will deal with college age students murdered in Russia. Ghelfi has that one outlined.
In response to a question, he said he doesn't speak Russian, but he fell in love with the Russian authors, and read them. He said he receives comments sent from his publishers blogs, but he can't read German or other languages, so he can't send those readers appropriate answers.
There's a lot going on in the Volk thrillers, and they're fast-paced. Readers can read them for the action and the pace. Or they can read them on a deeper level, for the history, culture and information about modern day Russia. Brent Ghelfi said Volk is very good and very evil, trying to navigate his own life, and reconcile his sides, trying to learn who he is.
Brent Ghelfi? He's an outstanding speaker, and talented thriller writer. We're lucky to have the author of Volk's Game and Volk's Shadow here in the Valley. We're very lucky he was willing to speak for Authors @ The Teague.
Brent Ghelfi's website is www.brentghelfi.com
Volk's Shadow by Brent Ghelfi. Henry Holt and Company, Inc., ©2008. ISBN 9780805082555 (hardcover), 320p.
Volk's Game by Brent Ghelfi. Henry Holt and Company, Inc., ©2007. ISBN 9780805082548 (hardcover), 320p.