Southern Oregon University adjunct professor Michael Niemann had already written plenty of academic articles before arriving in Ashland in 2008, but growing inside Niemann was a budding desire to tell the kind of stories he first was drawn to as a youngster in Germany.
An expert in political science who wrote a nonfiction book titled, “A Spatial Approach to Regionalisms in the Global Economy,” Niemann enjoyed his career in academia, but longed to try his hand at fiction. He loved to read mysteries and spy novels, particularly those written by John le Carre, and figured decades of experience studying geopolitics could give his work a certain heft.
Shortly after arriving in Ashland he joined a group of local mystery writers, one of whom later encouraged Niemann to submit one of his short stories for a forthcoming Mystery Writers of America anthology titled “Vengeance.” Niemann knew it was a long shot but threw his hat in the ring anyway. Surprise! His story, “Africa Always Needs Guns,” was selected to be included in "Vengeance," running alongside short stories by “Jack Reacher” novelist Lee Child (who doubled as the book's editor) and fellow suspense heavyweights Karin Slaughter and Michael Connelly.
Now, Niemann, 60, is about to release the second novel in a series that features his "Guns" protagonist, Valentin Vermeulen, an investigator with the United Nations Office of Internal Oversight Services, titled “Illicit Trade.” It will be released March 1 and is available to pre-order on Amazon. A book release event is tentatively scheduled for March 3 at the Schneider Museum of Art.
The Tidings spoke to Niemann about his writing process, his influences and the genesis of his Vermeulen series. Questions and answers have been edited for content and brevity.
DT: Describe your writing routine.
MN: There are those occasions where it doesn’t work but my usual routine is to get to my computer at 8:30 and spend the morning writing. And sometimes that doesn’t quite work out because stuff interferes, but I do write every day. Not necessarily on the weekends. I’m German, so that part of me is still German. I think weekends are important.
DT: Do you have a word count you try and hit every day or is it more of a time frame?
MN: I think it’s more like three, three and a half hours than a word count, although sometimes I’m happy having gotten a number of words.
DT: How long did it take you to complete your first novel, from beginning to end?
MN: About a year. And then it was the whole marketing and selling part, and that was really complicated. I did not know how that part worked and so as a result I ended up taking the first offer I got, which was a weird publisher in England. … They didn’t help me. Basically, their strategy was to throw as many ebooks at the wall and see what stuck. And so when I finished the second one, which also took me about a year … I shopped around again and then I found my current publisher, Coffeetown Press in Seattle, and it was this revelation, working with a small indy publisher. They’re still doing it the right way — reading events, giving copies to journals and review places, things like that. They also said, 'We don’t like to start a series in the middle, is there a way you can get the rights back to the first one,' and that turned out to be easy.
DT: You wrote “A Spatial Approach to Regionalism in a Global Economy” in 2000. From there, what drew you to fiction?
MN: I have always been an avid reader of international suspense and spy novels and things like that. I grew up in Germany during the Cold War so it was in many ways always present. There were British fighter jets doing patrols every day, basically, and riding my bike to school I would go right past a Belgian NATO anti-air base, see the (missiles) actually pointing to the sky. So, I was very interested in studying this, but also I was interested in John Le Carre and that kind of Cold War spy stuff. That’s always been of interest to me. I’ve read it, and I’ve read a lot of it that was overly nationalistic, good guys versus bad guys. So I was intrigued by that and I thought, I could maybe write that. So before (moving) here I lived in Connecticut and I worked at Trinity College there in Hartford, and a friend of mine was an English professor. I took sort of a summer writing course with him (in 2005), and that’s what got me really interested. When we first moved here, Maureen Battistella organized these nice mystery author readings at the Book Wagon once a month, and that’s where I met Tim Wohlforth, who was the convener of the writing group, and I said, ‘I’d like to join,’ and he said, ‘Have you written anything?’ and I just really had the beginning of a draft of a short story. And he read it and says, ‘Well, I like it, so why don’t you join us and see if you like it.’ So I joined in the fall of 2008, and I’ve been with that group ever since and it’s been a wonderful experience.
DT: How did your nonfiction work prepare you for writing a novel?
MN: The whole nonfiction part for me was knowing the field, knowing and understanding world politics. … So that sort of gave me the lay of the land. Shifting to fiction, there’s this idea of writing a compelling story, and that’s something that you don’t necessarily learn in academia — maybe that’s a problem of academia. In academia, your writing is so dry because I think all of us have forgotten that even in academia we’re still storytellers, right. But that gets shunted to the side, unfortunately. So the continuous feedback from the colleagues in my writing group and reading a lot helped me sharpen my storytelling skills.
DT: Where did the idea for your Vermeulen mystery series come from?
MN: I’ve always wanted to do something that had some international component to it, but I also was leery of the way in which many thrillers were very nationalistic. They're always about a country — whatever country, you choose your country — in peril, until the protagonist saves the day. And I came across by sheer happenstance the United Nations Office of Internal Oversight, which is a real office. It was created in 1994 mostly in response to pressure from American politicians who are always complaining that the United Nations is wasting money. So their job is to make sure that the money that the member states pay is properly spent, and they have auditors, and they have investigators, and they have all kinds of things. I thought, that would be cool. So I just went to their website and studied very much what they do and I thought, OK, I could have a person there. So I just played with that, and just about that time I saw the Lynn Nottage play at OSF called “Ruined,” which took place in the eastern Congo during the civil war there. So I wrote a short story about this guy Vermeulen, who was at that point still very shallow and not very much formed as a character, being stuck in the eastern Congo during this job trying to track down somebody smuggling weapons. That was my lucky break, really, because that short story was chosen and included in a Mystery Writers of America anthology in 2012, which was edited by Lee Child. … That was a real surprise and a real big breakthrough, and I actually still get a royalty check from that short story.
DT: Do you plot your novels from beginning to end, or do you just sort of know where it was going and work it out as you went along?
MN: The first one is set in Darfur in Sudan during the civil war there and I had come across a report that the United Nations was refusing to pay Nepalese peacekeepers because they had brought lousy equipment — they had brought poor armored personnel carriers. So I started with the what-if question, and I know that these armored personnel carriers were used for patrols in refugee camps, so I knew it was going to be in a refugee camp. I knew that much, and I knew that Vermeulen was going to be there and he was going to sort it out, but that was about it.
DT: So you had a lot to figure out.
MN: Yes. I did research a lot on the peacekeeping mission in Darfur and I learned everything inside and out that I could about that. I had written one version and gave it to a friend of mine, who read it and said, ‘You know, it’s OK, but it’s kind of like, meh. The stakes weren’t really there.’ And I knew he was right. It wasn’t like you just had to turn the page because it was so good. So I rewrote the whole thing. But by that time I had a better sense of what needed to happen.
The second one I did not plot as carefully. You’re right, it’s the pantsers and the plotters — the plotters have everything figured out and the pantsers make it up as they go along. I’m sort of in between. I had a scene at the beginning. I had a scene in the middle and I had a scene at the end. The end of this one emerged in a way that I hadn’t foreseen.
DT: That’s something that, of course, could never happen when you’re writing nonfiction. What is that like to experience as the author, taking a story to a place you didn’t expect it to go?
MN: I think it’s exciting. It’s like you find a door you didn’t know was there, and you walk through that door and suddenly there’s a story there that you hadn’t even thought about yet and it was the character that basically opened that door for you. So that’s always exciting. The old Kurt Vonnegut rule is that every character in a story has to want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.
DT: You’re kind of making the case for the pantsers.
MN: I think I have a skeleton at best, and maybe that’s even saying too much. And then I just go along and fill it in.
DT: Is Valentin Vermeulen based on anybody?
MN: He’s totally fictional, not modeled on anybody I know. I purposely picked somebody from a small country, like Belgium. They don’t have any global agenda anymore. He wasn’t going to be German, that’s for sure. And I did not want him to be an American because once you have an American doing that kind of work, it’s the whole idea of it is, is it the U.S. agenda? Is it another agenda? And so forth. So I purposely wanted to have a character from a small country who wouldn’t have any ax to grind, at least not anymore. And I’m a big Lee Child, "Jack Reacher" fan, and I knew that I could never write a novel with a Jack Reacher in it or somebody like him. Jack Reacher is this super human monster if you think about it — he’s like 6-5, he’s like 250 pounds and there’s nothing he can’t beat up, no weapon he doesn’t know. He’s an intriguing character for what it’s worth, but I knew it wasn’t going to be like that. But at the same time I needed a character who could handle himself. So my character gets beaten up more often.
DT: Who are your stylistic influences?
MN: In terms of character, I’m much more indebted to the complicated characters that John le Carre develops — somewhat ambivalent. And I think in terms of style, it’s probably more like Elmore Leonard and Lee Child. I’ve tried to write more complex sentences like John le Carre and I just can’t pull it off. It got to be too wordy.
DT: Did your style evolve as you worked through your first novel?
MN: I think the style in many ways emerged from the short story that I wrote, and I’ve written several other short stories that I aren’t published yet. And then I wrote short stories before I wrote a novel, so the short story kind of pushes for economy because you have 5,000 words and you have to get a lot in there. … I think by the time I was starting writing the first Vermeulen novel I had gotten far enough in my writing to know that I had to let go of my academic inclination of explaining things. I still bring a fair amount of information in there, but I do it through action and through dialogue, rather than exposition. And that’s something I had to learn.
DT: What’s next? Will there be a third Vermeulen book?
MN: I just sent that off to the publisher last Friday, actually. And that one takes place in (Southern Africa), and it’s all about land grabs and … things like that. And I’m just now really, as of yesterday, doing some thinking, some sketching of some ideas. Basically, my protagonist basically has to go wherever the United Nations is going. I’m playing with the idea of sending him to Turkey because there are 2.8 million refugees from Syria there right now and the United Nations spends a lot of money there. One of the complaints I’ve been reading about is that the way the money is spent is not very well documented. And then I read news stories about Syrian refugees working in sweat shops making camouflage uniforms for ISIS soldiers, so I’m starting to realize that there might be some story there.
— Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.