The real man behind a character

WYDKN - Family Athens 67If you’ve read What You Don’t Know Now, you may have read the Author’s Note I wrote at the back of the book. Or you may not have realized it’s there.

While the book was going through edits with Cynthia Kolko, Cynthia had some very strong reactions to the character of Hugh Nowell, Bridey’s uncle. She didn’t like him at all, couldn’t figure out who he was, and why he seemed to be so connected to interests in Jordan. She questioned whether certain historical events and references mentioned in the book actually happened.

And that’s okay. But at a point, I realized I needed to clue her in to the fact that this character was based on a real person — a person in my family.

When Hugh Nowell arrives on the scene, Bridey and her family are in Athens, Greece, staying at the Hilton:

The official line to his family was that he worked for the British Foreign Office in whatever country to which he was assigned. Worked at what, no one said. Only his wife knew his real work. It was his eyes and carriage that gave hint to the observant. Even walking through the crowded area of the hotel pool, hands in pockets, he had an aura of power. It was the power of those with access to secrets the world might never know: who was trading weapons to whom; who could be deposed; where the armies might be sent; who could be persuaded to betray, and why.

I decided I needed to write an Author’s Note for the reader, because there were details and a real circumstance that led me to be in Athens with my uncle and aunt and to create the story for Bridey so many years later. I’d been there, and if it were not for my very real uncle, I would never have had that rich and transformational experience to pull from.

That’s my uncle at the head of the table in the photo above, taken at the Athens Hilton. I’m the duded-up girl on the right cutting my little cousin’s meat for him. We used the pattern of that dress for the cover of the novel.

Here’s the Author’s Note I wrote:

Although this book is a work of fiction, it does contain some real situations in Europe and the Middle East during the historic summer of 1967.
“The character of Hugh Nowell is based on my late uncle, Jack O’Connell, who was known as a CIA “legend.” My uncle was the Middle East Chief of Station for the CIA during the 1960s and into the early 1970s. He was a spy, a very big and important spy, but his own children didn’t know what he did until they saw one of the CIA directors on the cover of Time magazine when they were teens, and asked their dad, “Why is ‘Uncle So & So’ on this magazine?” My uncle told them then what he did while they grew up in Beirut and Jordan. He was out of the CIA by that time, working in international law and serving as U.S. legal counsel to His Majesty King Hussein and the country of Jordan. My aunt knew he was CIA, of course. She was with him from the start in Pakistan, Lebanon and Jordan. Sadly, she died suddenly right after they finally came home to the United States. Her death led to my uncle leaving the CIA to be able to care for their children left motherless.
When the Six Day War of 1967 started, all British and American dependents were evacuated out of Israel, Jordan, and other countries. Dependents stationed in Jordan were sent to Greece.
My Uncle Jack remained a close friend and advisor to King Hussein right up to the King’s death in 1999. Hussein asked my uncle to write the unknown story of Hussein’s life-long desire for peace in the Middle East and the King’s behind-the-scenes, repeated efforts to bring peace about. My uncle was involved in all the peace processes over a 40-year period, both as a CIA intelligence officer and in his international law practice. He fulfilled his promise to Hussein when he wrote King’s Counsel: A Memoir of War, Espionage, and Diplomacy in the Middle East (W.W.Norton & Company) with veteran Washington journalist Vernon Loeb. The book was OK’d by the CIA but it was not published until after my uncle’s death in 2010.
About five years before my uncle died, he asked me to help him with a novel he was writing. Over the next six months working on the book, I learned the most fascinating things about espionage. He finished the book but it remains unpublished. Helping my uncle with his book finally felt like being at “the grown-ups table” with him.”

My aunt is sitting to his left in the photo. Though the two of them spent most of my growing-up years living in other countries, with only periodic home visits until 1971, they both had a huge impact on my life and view of the world.

To tell the truth, I was afraid of my uncle until I was an adult. Not because he was dangerous to me, or mean, but because he was mysterious and remote (and also tall and athletic). Like Bridey, I was afraid I wouldn’t measure up somehow in his estimation. He wasn’t a cuddly uncle, and he didn’t know how to joke with little kids.

Jack O’Connell was brilliant and moved in the company of powerful men. He was on the “inside” of history. My aunt adored him and worried about him — her letters home are a book in themselves. But his life and career took her health down.

Imagine the stress of being married to a man the Russians wanted dead. (There was an assassination attempt on his life but the assassins went to the wrong house — next door — and killed his neighbor by mistake. Truth. It’s in his book.) She was only 46 when she died of a massive heart attack, just a few days away from an appointment with a cardiac specialist, after they’d moved back to the States and D.C. for my uncle’s next position at the CIA (a promotion).

When you have a person who is larger than life in your family, well, you can’t resist mining that gold for a character.

You should read King’s Counsel. I learned things about him that astounded me.

If you ever want to know more about him, or what is real in my  book and what is pure fiction, I’d be happy to talk with your book club, or group, or in an interview. Just contact me.

PS — I loved the earrings I’m wearing in the photo. They were lime green silky tassels. SO late 60s!!