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Friday, 22 March 2019

THE FOURTH COURIER: AN INTERVIEW WITH TIMOTHY JAY SMITH

Dearest sweethearts, 

Today I have a very special treat for you: THE FOURTH COURIER: AN INTERVIEW WITH TIMOTHY JAY SMITH. This book takes place in Warsaw and the writer also lived in Warsaw for a while so he knows the city intimately ;) make sure you put this on your #MustRead list! The book is coming up in April, and you can have a paperback or an e-book - up to you! Read more about the book and the thought process below: 
1. You have a new novel coming out, The Fourth Courier, set in Poland. What’s it about? 
The Fourth Courier opens in the spring of 1992, only four months after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A series of grisly murders in Warsaw suddenly becomes an international concern when radiation is detected on the third victim’s hands, raising fears that all the victims might have smuggled nuclear material out of Russia. Poland’s new Solidarity government asks for help and the FBI sends Special Agent Jay Porter to assist in the investigation. He teams up with a gay CIA agent. When they learn that a Russian physicist who designed a portable atomic bomb is missing, the race is on to find him and the bomb before it ends up in the wrong hands. My novels have been called literary thrillers because I use an event or threat—a thriller plot—to examine what the situation means to ordinary people. In The Fourth Courier, Jay becomes intimately involved with a Polish family, giving the reader a chance to see how the Poles coped with their collective hangover from the communist era. 

2. How did you come up with the story for The Fourth Courier? 
The Fourth Courier book goes back a long way for me. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and Solidarity won the first free election in Poland in over sixty years. In the same year, Mikhail Gorbachev introduced new cooperative laws in the Soviet Union, which was an area of my expertise. I was invited to the Soviet Union as a consultant, which led to my consulting throughout the former Soviet bloc, eventually living for over two years in Poland. At the time, there was a lot of smuggling across the border between Russia and Poland, giving rise to fears that nuclear material, too, might be slipping across. While on assignment in Latvia, I met with a very unhappy decommissioned Soviet general, who completely misunderstood my purpose for being there. When an official meeting concluded, he suggested we go for a walk where we could talk without being overheard. I followed him deep into a forest. I couldn’t imagine what he wanted. Finally we stopped, and he said, “I can get you anything you want.” I must have looked puzzled because he added, “Atomic.” Then I understood. In an earlier conversation, there had been some passing remarks about the Soviets’ nuclear arsenal in Latvia, for which he had had some responsibility, and apparently still some access. While my real purpose for being there was to design a volunteer program for business specialists, he assumed that was a front and I was really a spy. Or perhaps he thought, I really did want to buy an atomic bomb! 
Timothy Jay Smith - photo by Michael Honegger
3. Have you always been a writer? 
In the sense of enjoying to write, yes. I actually wrote my first stage play in fourth grade and started a novel in sixth grade, but I didn’t become a full-time fiction writer until twenty years ago. The first half of my adult life I spent working on projects to help low income people all over the world. I always enjoyed the writing aspects of my work—reports, proposals, even two credit manuals—but I reached a point where I’d accomplished my career goals, I was only forty-six years old, and I had a story I wanted to tell. 

4. What was the story? 
For over two years, I managed the U.S. Government’s first significant project to assist Palestinians following the 1993 Oslo Accords. One thing I learned was that everyone needed to be at the negotiating table to achieve an enduring peace. So I wrote a story of reconciliation—A Vision of Angels—that weaves together the lives of four characters and their families. If anybody had ever hoped that a book might change the world, I did. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to bring about peace in the Middle East, but I’ve continued writing nevertheless. 

5. The Fourth Courier has a strong sense of place. It’s obvious that you know Warsaw well. Other than living there, what special research did you do? 
Warsaw is a city with a very distinctive character. It’s always atmospheric, verging on gloomy in winter, and the perfect location for a noir-ish thriller. I had left Warsaw several years before I decided to write a novel set there, so I went back to refresh my memory. I looked at it entirely differently. What worked dramatically? Where would I set scenes in my story? It was on that research trip when all the events along the Vistula River came together for me. There was a houseboat. There was Billy’s shack, and Billy himself whose “jaundiced features appeared pinched from a rotting apple.” There were sandbars reached by narrow concrete jetties and a derelict white building with a sign simply saying Nightclub. Fortunately, Billy’s dogs were tethered or I wouldn’t be here to answer your questions. My main character is an FBI agent, and I didn’t know much about it. A friend, who was an assistant to Attorney General Janet Reno, arranged a private tour of the FBI’s training facility in Quantico. That was before 9/11. I don’t think that could be done now. Maybe for James Bond himself but not for a wannabe writer. If I was going to write a novel about smuggling a portable atomic bomb, I needed to know what a bomb entailed. Weight, seize, basic design, fuel? How would a miniature bomb be detonated? So I blindly contacted the Department of Energy. I explained what I wanted and was soon connected to an atomic expert who agreed to meet with me. We met on the weekend at a Starbucks-like coffee shop in Rockville, MD. We met in line and were already talking about atomic bombs before we ordered our coffees. He had brought basic drawings of them. He was an expert and eager to share his knowledge. Can you imagine having that conversation in a café today, openly looking at how-to schematics for building an atomic bomb while sipping skinny lattés? 

6. You’ve mentioned ‘scenes’ a couple of times. I know you also write screenplays. Do you find it difficult to go between the different formats or styles? 
The sense of scene is crucial to my writing. It’s how I think about a story. Before I start new work, I always have the opening and closing scenes in my head, and then I ask myself what scenes do I need to get from start to finish. I think it comes from growing up in a house where the television was never turned off. My sisters and I were even allowed to watch TV while doing homework if we kept our grades up. Sometimes I joke that canned laughter was the soundtrack of my childhood. I haven’t owned a television for many years, but growing up with it exposed me to telling stories in scenes, and it’s why my readers often say they can see my stories as they read them. For me, it’s not difficult to go between prose and screenplays. In fact, I use the process of adapting a novel to a screenplay as an editing tool for the novel. It helps me sharpen the dialogue and tighten the story. 

7. In your bio, you mention traveling the world to find your characters and stories, and doing things like smuggling out plays from behind the Iron Curtain. Was it all as exciting as it sounds? 
It was only one play, and yes, I confess to having an exciting life. I’ve done some crazy things, too, and occasionally managed to put myself in dangerous situations. Frankly, when I recall some of the things I’ve done, I scare myself! By comparison, smuggling a play out of Czechoslovakia in 1974 seems tame. But I’ve always had a travel bug and wanted to go almost everywhere, so I took some chances, often traveled alone, and went to places where I could have been made to disappear without a trace. 

8. It sounds like you have a whole library full of books you could write. How do you decide what story to tell and who will be your characters
I came of age in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, so I developed a strong sense of social justice. That guided my career choice more than anything, and when I quit working to write full-time, it was natural that I wanted my books to reflect my concerns. Not in a “big message” way, but more in terms of raising awareness about things that concern me. For example, take Cooper’s Promise, my novel about a gay deserter from the war in Iraq who ends up adrift in a fictional African country. It was 2003, and in a few days, I was headed to Antwerp to research blood diamonds for a new novel. I was running errands when NPR’s Neal Conan (Talk of the Nation) came on the radio with an interview of National Geographic photographer Jodi Cobb about a project on modern-day slavery. It was the first time I heard details about human trafficking, and was so shocked by its enormity that I pulled my car off the road to listen. I decided on the spot that I needed to find a story that touched on both blood diamonds and trafficking. When I went to Antwerp a few days later, I visited the Diamond District as planned, but also visited a safe house for women who had been rescued from traffickers. 

10. In The Fourth Courier, you team up a white straight FBI agent with a black gay CIA agent. Even Publishers Weekly commented that it seemed like an ideal set-up for a sequel. Do you plan to write one? 
Probably not. My to-be-written list is already too long. I’m close to finishing the final edits on a book set in a Greek island village, which is more of a mystery about an arsonist than a thriller. I’ve already started a new novel set in Istanbul about a young refugee who’s recruited by the CIA to go deep undercover with ISIS. I’ve never written a novel set in the States but I have the idea for one. To date, my books have been stand-alones with totally different settings, characters, and plots. I try to write what I like to read: smart mysteries/thrillers with strong plots and colorful characters set in interesting places. I suppose like me, I want my stories to travel around and meet new people.

11. You’ve had gay protagonists or important characters since your first novel over twenty years ago when gay literature had not yet become mainstream. How would you say that affected your choices as a writer, or did it? 
Friends warned me that I shouldn’t become known as a gay writer because it would pigeonhole me and sideline me from consideration as a serious writer. At the time, I think the general public thought gay books were all about sex and more sex. Of course, already there were many emerging gay literary writers; it was more stigma than reality. The world of thrillers and mysteries is still largely uninhabited by gays. Hopefully I am helping to change that. I also hope that my novels expand my readers’ understanding of homosexuality in the places where I set them. In The Fourth Courier, the gay angle is key to solving the case. In my other novels, too, the plot turns on something gay, and the way it does is always something that couldn’t have happened in the same way anywhere else because of the cultural context. 

12. What do you want your readers to take away from The Fourth Courier? 
What motivated me to write The Fourth Courier was a desire to portray what happened to ordinary Polish people at an exciting albeit unsettling moment in their country’s history. I hope my readers like my characters as much as I do—at least the good guys. The people are what made Poland such a great experience. The Fourth Courier is my thank-you note to them. 

Photo done by Michael Honegger. You can see more of his work on his website:  www.michaelhoneggerphotos.com 

Yours sincerely, 
The Twisted Red LadyBug That Loves Books about Poland 
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Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Krakow: Bon Ami Coffee and Pastries

Dearest sweethearts,

The greatest moments in life are the moments we spend next to the ones we love. As we grow older we realise we don't need material things to make us happy, we need to have peace and quiet and the people we love by our side. We realise we would - somehow - like to keep them forever with us. Spending time with family and friends is always time well spent. That is why I enjoy immensely going out with my daughter, my mother and my granny out. Seeing things through the eye of a child can teach you so much more... learn to respect and worship the sun for smiling upon you, run after pidgeons trying to catch them (right after feeding them... pidgeons must also exercise!)... My Little LadyBug Baby Girl loves going out and discovering Krakow makes her happy - first she is afraid of new places and new things, and she cries,  but she still wants to test new food/deserts. If I have something on my plate and start eating, she will instantly be at my side asking to try out. That is how we realised she loves spaghetti Bolognese, for example ;) 
One of my favourite coffee shops in Krakow was Bona Kawa I Ksiaszka - located on ulica Kanonicza 11. Everybody whom has been to Krakow must have been on Kraków's oldest street, the most picturesque street in town: Kanonicza. It is a cobbled alley going towards the Wawel Castle. It holds lovely old buildings with amazing architectural elements and colorful murals and unique passageways leasing to hotels and restaurants that are one of a kind! Kanonicza street runs parallel to the Grodzka street and the 2 streets are joined together by the St. Maria Magdalene square (where Maria Magdalene church used to reside a couple dozen years back). This offers an amazing view of the St. Peter and Paul Church - my absolute favourite church in Krakow. 
In this particular spot there: St. Maria Magdalene square, there used to be the Bona Kawa I Ksiaszka. Due to some issues with the rent of the location, the coffee/bookshop closed and in October 2018, the Bon Ami Coffee and Pastries shop opened its doors. The Bon Ami is a sweets and pastry/coffee shop and - since October last year till now March 2019 - it has also brought in books to sell (mainly for kids or travel guides for Kraków). There are remnants of the old bookstore (the shelves in the first room, as you enter, but they are filled now with pots of flowers) and it still has a bohemian vibe about it: wooden chairs and tables & always fresh flowers and seasonal arrangements. There are a couple of seats outside, from late spring to late fall, when the weather clears up and there is plenty of sun and less rain in sight. 
The coffee-sweets shop has 2 main rooms but you can also rent special rooms in the cool and quiet basement for a party of your own ;) The sweets menu will be given to you as soon as you select your spot and menus are bilingual: Polish-English. You can choose sweets made by the renowned Starowicz Cukiernia (Cukiernia = Sweets Shop). There are plenty of traditional Polish sweets to choose from: kremowka (cream cake - the late Pope John Paul the 2nd's favourite sweet), szarlotka (apple pie with cinnamon), serniczek (the Polish cheesecake and my absolute favourite). They also have their own creations: Krolowa Bona (Queen Bona (Sforza)) or Krol Kazihmierz (King Kazimierz) or the famous Dzwon Zygmunta (Zigmund's Bell - like the main bell of the Wawel Cathedral, that is being wrung only at very special occasions). 
The team that serves is small so have patience if the place is filled to the brim. They are very nice and friendly and the place is pet and children friendly. They have a kids corner with puzzles and cars and wooden toys and books,  that my daughter loved from the very first moment she came to Bon Ami. The only minus (and it is a big one) is the fact that it has only one toilet room (both for women and men) and it is down the stairs - not reachable by people in wheelchairs. It always has toilet paper and paper to dry hands and soap and it is clean and has hot & cold water. It also has a small loo that your child may use, in case of emergency. There is no table to change the child, although, in case major things happen... Anyway, the Bon Ami is open daily between 10 AM and 8 PM. There are seasonal ofgers as well, like mulled wine or hot choco in winter or paczki and chrust (donuts and angel wings) for the lent period (before Easter). But without any further ado, here are some photos ( #PhonePhotography ) of the Bon Ami. Enjoy! 

























The Prices:
- cakes (multiple models and flavours) - 12 zloty per serving piece 
- a small plate of chrust (chrust = angel wings, pictured above, specific Polish treat for Lent period) = 7 zloty 
- lemonade = 9 zloty (very good. I recommend if you are in a group to get a "jug of lemonade" instead - it is more than enough for 3 people and costs 25 zloty)
- szarlotka (apple pie) = 10 zloty
- serniczek (cheesecake) = 10 zloty 
- hot cocoa = 6 zloty 
- tea (good one, fresh fruit and leaves, not bags! I recommend the fruity ones) = 8 zloty (the pot holds 2 drinks) 

***I was not payed to write my opinion, nor did I receive anything else. I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy the Bon Ami Coffee and Pastries shop  ;) hope you will like it too and let me know your thoughts and feelings in the comments sector below***

Yours sincerely,
The Twisted Red LadyBug That Loves Krakow
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Friday, 8 March 2019

What Makes YOU Happy You Are A Woman?

Dearest sweethearts,

Today the world is celebrating the International Women's Day - 8th of March. The company I work for has many CSR initiatives that are meant for people to feel more included in the company. One such initiative is actually a very cool network called Poland Diversity and Inclusion network. For this month, for this wonderful date, International Women's Day, on this occasion they wanted to write an article with few quotes and pictures of employees. I have been chosen as one of the women for the article and if I was asked to answer the below two questions:
1.What makes you happy that you are a woman?
2.What would you like to share with other women?
Those are not 2 straightforward questions and you could talk ages on that subject or have nothing to say at all... where does one begin explaining why one loves it's own nature... But I tried and I wanted to share with you my answers. I would really really appreciate it if you could tell me your thoughts as well :)
1. Being a Woman makes me happy due to several things :) Let me just point a few: 
1) it is in our way, that we were constructed, to be able to make babies - to create life and let us be the ones that take care of the continuity of life on Earth (and beyond). That also implies that we become mother, grandmother and if we are lucky and live well, even gran-grandmothers. That allows us to mold life, to see children grow and educate them to be the best version of themselves; 
2) I can be a Strong Woman in a Men's World - not more than a few dozen of years ago, men were seen as the one who ruled the world. I think that is a misconception and as a wise person said, behind every powerful man there is a powerful woman ;) So I am happy I am a woman, I am happy that I have worked in IT (that is still being seen as a "Men only department"). If a woman sets her mind to something she will conquer the world. 
3) Women can change the world - We have, throughout time, increased the power to change. Take for example the wonderful Marie Curie Sklodowska - she is thethe first person and only woman to win twice, and the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences. Not very long ago the women were not even accepted in Universities and now they reach out to every level of every science and every job possible. We understand the world both on a detailed and "Grand picture" way, we can multitask, we can do things from scratch and make miracles ;) 
But being happy to be something, someone, is such a complicated issue - are you happy? that is a complicated question in itself. Happiness is different for women and different for men, different according to age - location - culture... But in the end, what makes us happy? Men verbalize things more and women ruminate over things before speaking out loud. We get constant moods and we love to express happiness, warmth and we enjoy social bonding. Men, research shows, display more anger, pride and contempt... I guess this is why the world needs us - to be the smile for those in need, the handkerchief when you need a shoulder to cry on. Women are that helping hand that is always reached out. That is why I love being a woman - because we are always there, to save the world :)
2. What would I like to share to other women.... let me think :)
“I’m selfish, impatient and a little insecure. I make mistakes, I am out of control and at times hard to handle. But if you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best.” - Marilyn Monroe
I've always loved this quote and I think that it shows fully how women are. They are often underappreciated and often they underappreciate themselves. Most don't know their true worth and due to that they guide themselves by some rules they see on the Social Media (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter... you name it!). They get their souls sucked out by following the herd and trying to be popular, famous, posh, good looking, hoping that with looks they can buy fame, fortune or a good husband. They measure themselves through other people eyes, not their own. What I would like to share today, and I wish everyone that reads these lines will also understand this, is the fact that we all are beautiful, we all are perfect in our own way, with our own imperfections. The key of being happy is knowing yourself and respecting and understanding what you truly want from life. Understanding what you are worth and never settling for less than you deserve. Because The One might or might not eventually come, but when he does, he will love you at your best but also at your worst. Loving someone does not come in halves - when you love someone you love them all the way, for every things that they do. So love yourself - fully - and appreciate your real value. Nobody will raise you a statue if you don't believe yourself that you are of value!

With this being said, I would like to say: Happy happy birthday to all the lovely, amazing, strong women out there. You are important and special and loved, each and every one of you! Stay creative, stay kind and most important: be yourselves and be happy for what you are and what you have achieved! You are perfect in your own imperfections :*

Yours very very very sincerely, 
The Twisted Red LadyBug 
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