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The view from Peter and Marilyn's deck of the red rocks glowing in a golden sunset.Peter Bernhardt – Embarking on ACT II

As I approached my prime, I developed the powerful urge to write thrillers. My wife harbored the absurd suspicion that midlife crisis had struck, because I was bound in those days to courtroom and desk at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. So my dream remained just that for a long time. As soon as I retired, though, we moved to Arizona and I took things in hand by enrolling in a workshop for wannabe authors. German is my native tongue, not English, and my experience as an author consisted of the publication of a couple of student papers and law journal articles, plus cranking out numberless legal pleadings and briefs. What was I thinking?

The workshop was a bust, but it did push me into tackling my first book, The Stasi File – Opera and Espionage: A Deadly Combination, in which, following the age-old advice to “write what you know,” I wove together the unlikely combination of a German upbringing, a lifelong love of opera, and my experiences as an attorney. After a beginning that seemed to take forever, I was surprised when the challenge of creating characters and building a plot that was real and intriguing started to take over my waking hours, and a few sleeping ones too.

My skill and talent developed quickly, but there were many times they seemed almost superfluous–I was too busy holding on tight as “my” characters and their actions took over and went their own ways, leaving me to serve as their scribe and menial servant. What a journey!


Q&A WITH PETER

How did you end up in Sedona, Arizona?

I lay the blame on the Tulsa legal community. Boarding a plane in the early nineties, I found it full of lawyers and judges I knew. They were all going to the Tenth Circuit Judicial Conference in, yup, Sedona, Arizona. Knowing that those conferences are always located in cool places, the next year I made it a point to visit Sedona while on a western vacation. Marilyn and I caught what they call “red rock fever,” and vacationed in Sedona thereafter for many years before moving there in retirement.

When did you start writing?

Writing has been a lifelong passion: Composition classes in secondary school in Germany where I often received top grade; Freshman English course at Gannon College, PA, where I was an exchange student in 1967 (a couple of my compositions were published in the university’s paper); federal district court opinions in the judge’s name, of course, and legal briefs, in which I shied away from boilerplate and strived for creativity. I had harbored the idea of novel writing for some time, but didn’t do anything about it until after retirement when my wife Marilyn called my bluff.

How do you get material for your books?

By letting my imagination roam. When one reaches the age of 60 and beyond, one has had plenty of life experiences from which to draw inspiration. In my case, I mull ideas over for weeks on end, sit down at the computer and sketch out several themes until one of them grabs me. There are two kinds of writers: “pantsters” who just start writing without any kind of outline, and “plotters” who outline. I am a plotter. I outline my chapters. However, the outline changes as I write. The characters have a tendency to go their own way, and the author must follow. My outline for The Stasi File probably changed a hundred times during the course of writing the novel.

Did your legal education help you with your writing career?

What I have learned in law school and in my legal career is clear, focused, disciplined thinking and logic. These are invaluable tools for a novelist. However, in addition a novelist must learn the craft of fiction writing. What do I mean by that? Here are a few examples: learn about POV (point of view) and not switch or head-hop between characters to the point of confusing the reader; do more showing than telling; learn how to skillfully weave in essential background information without stopping the forward momentum of the plot; kill most adverbs; develop an ear for dialogue.

Who do you base your characters on?

My characters are not based on any particular individuals but are an amalgam of many of the people I have met in my life. Of course, there is a lot of me in many of my characters, including attributes I wished I had and those I’m glad I don’t.

How did you get your first book published?

Getting fiction published via the traditional route of a literary agent shopping your manuscript to the publishing houses is extremely difficult and becoming fast outmoded. After receiving numerous agent rejections for my first novel, I decided to publish it in paperback and ebook format myself. Based on this positive experience, I have since then eschewed the traditional route and have published all my books via Smashwords, Amazon and my German publisher BookRix in Munich. This way I retain complete control of content and cover image, and I can correct any errors and have the revised book back up for sale within a matter of hours.

What was the moment you felt you had made it as an author?

When the local advertising person who put the finishing touches on my book covers walked up to me at the grocery store and told me that when I first came to him he thought, oh no, not another Sedona wannabe author. But when he read my first novel, he decided that I was for real. So in the grocery store he told me that I was really good and to continue writing. Since then I have had plenty of reader feedback that keeps me in the chair and write.

What book made a lasting impression on you?

Animal Farm, by George Orwell. A close second is The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Both authors tell compelling stories with subtlety, inviting the reader’s imagination to grasp the underlying message. There is hardly a wasted word in these masterpieces, and they stayed with me long after I turned the last page. My favorite in the spy genre I write about is The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John LeCarré. It features an escape scene over the Berlin Wall in the 1960s. My latest novel, Red Romeo, does as well, but I faced greater obstacles in writing it, because by the late seventies, the East German regime had installed elaborate systems to make escape over the Wall all but impossible. There no longer was a single Wall like in the early sixties.

What is your favorite book or character that you have written?

My favorite character is a fictitious thirteen-year-old Pueblo Indian girl by the name of Teya in my novel, Kiss of the Shaman’s Daughter. How did she come to be? The sequel to The Stasi File takes place in Santa Fe, NM, and it features two plotlines 310 years apart that eventually merge. I wove the Pueblo Indian Revolt of 1680 that drove the Spanish invaders south to Mexico into the plot of archaeological smugglers in 1990 Santa Fe. To help the reader travel from 1990 to 1680 and back, I invented Teya. The chapters featuring her were the most fun I have had in writing. Don’t ask me how a German male in his seventies can get inside the head of a thirteen-year old Indian girl, but my muse somehow did it.

PETER’S NOVELS

The Stasi FileOpera and Espionage: A Deadly Combination was named a finalist for Book of the Year by the British-Arts-Council-sponsored website www.youwriteon.com, and is ranked a bestseller by the site. The novel was a quarter finalist in the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest.

The sequel, Kiss of the Shaman’s Daughter, pits The Stasi File protagonists, Sylvia and Rolf, against ruthless smugglers of Indian artifacts during Sylvia’s engagement at the Santa Fe Opera, interweaving as subplot the story of thirteen-year old Indian girl, Teya, during the Pueblo Indian Revolt of 1680 that drove the Spanish from New Mexico.

The summer of 1977 finds divided Germany locked in a fierce espionage battle in Peter’s third novel, Red Romeo. West Germany’s premier spy hunter, ambitious Sabine Maier, faces off against ruthless Stasi General, Werner Heinrich. Sabine has filled half a prison with her prodigious arrests of communist spies. Heinrich is the mastermind behind a small army of spy gigolos who prey on lonely women working in the West German government’s most secret divisions. Caught in the middle is ladies’ man Stefan Malik, a reluctant Romeo, forced to do the general’s bidding or rot in a Stasi prison.

To own your own ecopy of Peter’s most recent book, and to learn more about his passion of writing, visit his website, sedonaauthor.com.

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