I wrote The Watchmen in an apartment on Fourth Street in Manhattan, not far from the site of the former World Trade Center. When the wind shifted, I could still smell the fires burning underground: a toxic mix of plastic and steel, chemicals and human remains.
The book addresses the ethics and the efficacy of so-called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ during the War on Terror. It was completed before information on the tactics actually used the CIA had leaked out. We had not yet heard of waterboarding, of Abu Ghraib, of black sites or Bagram.
To write the book, I made educated guesses (see MY PRESENTATION TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPY MUSEUM and HOW TO WRITE CONVINCING SPY FICTION ABOUT HIGHLY CLASSIFIED SUBJECTS). Upon publication, I was assured off-the-record by a former intelligence officer that my speculations had been “pretty close to the mark.”
During the writing, I felt every day fear of an imminent follow-up attack, and fury at those behind 9/11. Yet I realized that if America abandoned the principles that made it worth fighting for, the ‘War on Terror’ became a dubious proposition at best. Needless to say, the questions I was grappling with had no easy answers. Every possible road seemed to lead to more darkness.
And so The Watchmen, although on the surface a spy thriller like my other books, seems to me to be in essence a horror novel.
A monster is chained in a basement. A mad scientist experiments with split personalities and a lightning machine (“It’s Alive!”). At the end, the fantastical elements are fully revealed when the villain, wearing a black cowl, faces a hero wearing a white robe.
Our first image of said hero may evoke the “watching” of the title – but our last glimpse of Finney involves of a jack o’lantern lost in shadow, surrounded by howling wind and endless night. (And does that jack o’lantern wear a slanted and macabre grin? Oh yes. I would image that it does.)
I reached no pat conclusions about what level of ethical compromise is acceptable, in defending ourselves, if any. Instead I was brought back to the words of George Orwell: ‘People sleep peaceably in their bed at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.’ Many have said that the book provides more questions than answers. Some find this rewarding, others frustrating. More than any of my other books, The Watchmen divides readers.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this book marked the end of the first stage in my career. After so much darkness, I needed a break.
For the next several years, I would concentrate on finding light. I met my future-wife. We married, moved out of New York City, and started a family. During these years I toyed with different books, but didn’t finish anything.
After my son was born, I decided it was time to get back into the game. I found myself returning to an earlier idea. The never-written sequel to A GATHERING OF SPIES was still with me … clamoring to be brought into the world, at last.