A conversation with Monica Ramirez, author of Balance of Power – by David Francs
In Monica Ramirez’s Balance of Power, the third book in the Alina Marinescu series, the central character Alina Marinescu seems to be a young, independent woman, whose interests lie in travelling the world, free climbing, admiring landscapes, and enjoying a good bottle of wine. Or is she?
Onetime intelligence operator and assassin, it does not take much training to kick-start the killer in her. After being removed from the scene for a few years, she re-emerges on the international crime circuit as the feared cold op and assassin Mina, at least for a while. In a bid for freedom, she assumes a variety of aliases to discover the true identity of Bashir Al-Fadhee – a renowned Al’Qaeda top ranking leader. Her search is plagued by violence and corruption, yet amidst this shady underworld, Alina discovers something she hadn′t banked on: true love.
We spoke to Monica Danetiu-Pana to find out more about Balance of Power in particular and the Alina Marinescu series in general.
D: What inspired you to write Balance of Power?
M: As you know, it′s the third book of a series of six books to feature Alina Marinescu, so the inspiration to write the whole series came right at the beginning. I wanted to write about this woman who ends up being an assassin. Well, she′s really rather more than an assassin. This series of books are not just six separate adventures, they′re actually six stages in her life. When I retire her, she′ll be about thirty-eight or thirty-nine and I have a very definite idea of what kind of woman she′ll be then.
So it′s not so much that I was inspired to write about terrorism in special or anything like that, it was just that she′d moved on from the person she was in The Unwilling Assassin, the first book of the series and even more from the woman she was in the second one, Whispered Identities. She′s older when the third book starts, she’s evolved a lot, especially as far as her emotions are involved, or better yet, the way she now knows how to control her emotions.
Quite often you read books which have the same central character, but they don′t seem to noticeably age or change very much and I really wanted to do a series of books where the central character does change. Alina adapts to suit her circumstances and when necessary is able to become an emotionless assassin.
D: Critics and readers alike have hailed both Alina Marinescu and Alex Therein as fascinating characters. But they’re not the typical hero and heroine, are they?
M: No, they’re not. Not at all. If you allow me to remind the readers a bit about the two previous books, Alina prefers her coffee with lots of milk, music and candlelight whenever home, and a 9mm Glock when she’s out in the field. Alex loves to take long walks, misses his previous life bitterly, and is capable of killing a man with a simple flick of his wrist. Under orders from the Section Special Operations, the Communist Romanian Secret Police, he seduced, recruited, and turned her into an assassin.
Then he saved her from the SSO’s reach, only to recruit her yet again on behalf of Elite Counter-terrorism Covert Ops, a secretive organization that doesn’t exist, run by people who don’t exist. An organization without label or official title, not registered anywhere. There are no secret codes of reference for it and it forms no part of any intelligence or security services. Elite exists beyond existence itself, not constrained by law or scrutiny from the media.
Alex is Alina’s husband, although their marriage is nothing more than a convenient cover for Elite’s missions. He’s her friend, her lover, her mentor, the foundation of her destruction. The person responsible for turning her into one of the most efficient killing machines in Elite’s arsenal. Sometimes she can’t help wondering what it would be like to have a normal life. After all, normality is hard to find in a ghostly existence while working for an inexistent organization.
Although at first Alina is hesitant about her new life, she evolves into the warrior Alex trained her to be. She may not like what she does, but she does it efficiently. She has been trained to fight and kill, and though she may regret her position in life, that is what she does. While Alina and Alex work as a perfectly synchronized team, their tense personal relationship is complicated by the many lies and betrayals standing firm between them, as well as by Alina’s internal drama of having her whole life stolen from her. They decide to be together, even if their togetherness has razor edges to it. Every time the phone rings, and they are called back to their real identities, one of them might not survive. If only…there are so many if only, starting with if only they would be free to spend their lives together, and ending with if only Alex had not been forced to ruin Alina’s life by recruiting her.
At the end of the second book, she witnesses Alex apparently getting killed during a routine mission in Iraq. He dies in her arms. Or does he? You never know when you deal with Elite. However, Elite decides to give Alina some time off to live a normal life, away from the field. The third book finds her returning to her duties and not completely out of free will.
D: Does Balance of Power illustrate that personality is in part a matter of choice?
M: I would disagree. I would say that training and discipline can allow Alina to overcome personality. She is drawn back into the world she thought she left behind, so when she′s forced to go on her first mission, it′s with reluctance. She′s offered a choice, but the alternative is so unappealing she really doesn′t have a choice. The fact that she goes through with it shows that she overcomes what is her true personality. Her true personality would never allow herself to go back into that world. I do believe that regardless of personality, if the circumstances are right, people are capable of almost anything. I think personality only goes so far. The circumstances may have to be extreme, but it would take somebody who′s really unusual to stand up and martyr themselves for what they believe in. I would say personality is not part of choice. It′s who you are.
D: Let’s talk a bit about the other central character of the previous two books, Alex Therein. What sort of man is he?
M: He’s not someone you’d actually like to spend a lot of time around. In fact, that’s one of the reasons he’s so interesting to write about. He’s not the friendliest person in the world, and there are very few people in the world who actually know who he is. He’s incredibly gifted and very smart. From the moment Alina meets the enigmatic Alex, she knows that he would steal her heart as surely as he fulfils his secret mission of recruiting her. But love is the furthest thing from Alex’s mind. He is a man with a dark past. The blank-faced, often emotionless, and coldly efficient operative must kill to survive. No questions asked. He is more of a ghost that finds it too easy to just die, as in the life he leads there are only two choices: you live, or you die. So he chooses to live, but extinguishes his emotions completely. Despite the fact that he was a free spirit before his own recruitment and brutal indoctrination into an automaton assassin, Alex is as deadly and dangerous as he is sensual, enigmatic, and intriguing. His ruthless training transformed him into an emotionless machine that follows orders regardless of their implications. He almost cannot remember who he used to be before the SSO – he had buried his true nature so deeply that he has to struggle to find himself again.
But he’s by no means a killer for fun. He knows what it means to lose loved ones. For me, it has been such a joy to work with this character. I just find him so compelling. There’s something about him that makes him impossible not to watch. He allows me to write the way I want to write. I always thought it strange when writers became so attached to their characters that they’d talk about them as if they were real people, but Alex Therein has definitely become a real person for me. He’s just there. He is. He exists. And Alina Marinescu does too.
D: Writers of fiction will often say their characters become so alive that they end up doing things the writer hadn’t intended them to do. Did that happen with Alina and Alex?
M: Definitely. What I try to do is create the character first, as opposed to first creating the line I want the character to walk through the novel. If I do it right, I end up with a character who’s multidimensional, a character who will lead me by the hand, not through the grand arc of the story but rather through interesting little side journeys. And those are the things that usually make a novel memorable.
D: Why do so many of your stories center around this notion of the world guided by men of the secret world?
M: Because I think history is about 80 percent classified. I believe that intelligence agencies guide the course of history much more than we’ll ever really know. I think men of the secret world really have had a tremendous influence on the course of human history.
D: In Balance of Power people are not only killed for money, but also for humane and moral reasons. Are you suggesting that there are right reasons and wrong reasons for killing people?
M: It′s the old Hitler question. If you could go back to 1939 and could kill Hitler, would you do it, knowing what we know now? I don′t believe killing is right. I don′t believe for instance the death penalty is right, but if you put the Hitler question to me, it′s very hard to say that I wouldn′t kill him, knowing what followed. As for the right and wrong reasons, it really depends if the ends justify the means. As a blank statement, no it′s never justifiable, not even in the circumstances in which Alina finds herself. But if you look at the bigger picture, then you can make an argument for it.
D: Brett Taylor, her superior officer, believes the secret world of Elite is reality, whilst at first Alina disputes this and asserts that ordinary people going about their daily business are in the real world. Is reality merely a matter of perception?
M: Yes, it is. Today more than ever and increasingly I would say that ordinary real life is quite odd. If you take a good look, a lot of the things preoccupying most of the people are quite superficial and trivial. Life in its most basic form, as Brett points out and Alina disputes, is: you′re born, there′s a fight for survival and then you die. In a really simplistic fashion, it’s quite true. People do give an inordinate amount of their attention to things that are really insignificant.
So I actually think Brett is right, although as usual with him, he takes it too far. But I also think Alina rejects that assertion when he puts it to her, just because it′s in her nature to reject anything he says. That′s just the way she feels about him. But in this third book, I think she increasingly comes to the conclusion that there′s part of him that′s right.
The other point to make is that of course people like him and, to an extent, people like her, are giving direction to people′s lives without them knowing it. All those kind of people in those kinds of positions are influencing people′s lives, although people on the street don′t realize it. So Brett is right in that respect as well.
D: Although Alina is training to work without emotion, she eventually sacrifices her freedom for love. Does this suggest that love is the ultimate force?
M: I think it certainly is the ultimate human force. People do things for love which they really wouldn′t do for anything else. Someone might dispute that and say, for example, that Steve Biko died because he believed in fighting the oppression in South Africa, but actually that was for love of his country and people. When love is in that raw state it is incredibly powerful and people can be persuaded to make these great sacrifices.
In Alina′s case, she is persuaded to make that sacrifice through love, but it′s not entirely selfless. There is also a selfish aspect because it proves to her that she’s capable of love and that makes her feel better about herself. Because of everything she′s gone through and all the barriers she′s had to erect, there′s always a belief that she just isn′t capable of giving blindly without expecting a reward or return. So, although it′s very upsetting for her on one level, on another level it′s quite affirming for her too.
D: How difficult is it to write from the perspective of an assassin?
M: Obviously I have to try and view things from an assassin’s perspective, especially in those sequences when I′m writing in the first person, and I’m referring now to the fourth book of the series. Knowing her well is the key. There are also moments when she doesn′t behave in a very stereotypically female fashion. She′s not your everyday woman.
D : What sort of research did you carry out to write Balance of Power?
M: Quite a lot! The research actually was rather more extensive than it needed to be. I find that tends to be the case: you end up doing much more than you ever use, but you really need to do it because you need to know what to discard. For instance, there was a lot of stuff about biological warfare that I looked into, but in the end it hardly gets a mention.
My primary goal is to tell a good story and to entertain the reader. That said, I do select topics that I want to learn more about. But I always try to dramatize the material rather than simply tell it. As for my research, it involves a great deal of reading, but I also speak with experts and utilize trusted sources.
D: What attracted you to writing thrillers?
M: Basically I like reading and watching them. Film and writing to me are pretty close in terms of the pleasure I get out of them when they′re good. When I′m writing, there′s a part of me that feels as though I′m directing my own film. But the beauty is that I don′t have to worry about temperamental actors or producers, or any of the rest of it.
I′ve always liked good thrillers, but I was rather frustrated that quite often the best stories had poor characters and vice versa. I tried to combine the two so that the character is actually what drives the story.
A literary agent once said to me: “Character is everything and plot is detail.” To an extent, I think he′s right. I think it′s important, especially in thrillers more than any other format, to have a good plot not just detail. But the spirit of what he′s saying is correct. When I look back at the thrillers I′ve really enjoyed, the common thing to all of them is that the central character is very strong.
And besides, Balance of Power, like all the books in the series, is not only a spy thriller, but also a love story. A heart-stopping, edge-of-your-seat, and sometimes extremely violent love story, but a love story nonetheless. I feel as if I’ve developed a real bond with my readers, and I’ve learned something extremely valuable from them. While they’re captivated by Alina and Alex’s adventures, they also follow their personal trials and misfortunes very carefully—especially my female readers. Alex has had a complicated history with women, to say the least, but I’ve discovered that many of my female readers have a bit of a crush on him. Frankly, I’m a bit surprised by this. He’s moody and prone to periods of melancholia. But he’s also a very intriguing and attractive character.
D: Yes, the love story. But this time, in the third book, everything is different. Or is it? We also get introduced to a new and very compelling character.
M: Yes, Marius Stephano, a CIA top operative. Just to give readers a bit of a head start, in the third book, Alina Marinescu has finally reached a sense of necessary resignation to the realities of her existence, finally accepted that life within Elite is not about right and wrong as she used to believe, but about survival. She doesn’t know how many assassins Elite operates, but she knows she is unique among them. She had been trained for more, taught to infiltrate, seduce, eavesdrop, steal, kill. She’d learned how to withstand pain and how to inflict it. She would have recoiled in disgust at such an offer when she was still Alina Marinescu, not having to assume a different identity every month. But not anymore.
When the executive oversight behind Elite, The Council, decides that the recent progress against terrorism is no longer satisfactory on a planet-wide scale, it presents Elite’s leader, Brett Taylor, with an ultimatum: locate and capture Bashir Al-Fadhee, one of Al’Qaeda’s top ranking leaders, or risk a major scale-back of his lifelong work. Alina is chosen as one of the few operatives to be involved in the secretive operation. Elite’s campaign to capture Bashir Al-Fadhee unknowingly collides with the CIA’s, resulting in Alina’s apprehension by American agents.
Upon making contact to discuss this particular situation, the two organizations agree that for the sake of their common goal a temporary coalition would better serve the final outcome for both agencies. Alina is teamed with Marius Stephano, a CIA agent specialized in Islamic Middle Eastern terrorism, and their relationship is far from simple, especially since it appears that a mole has infiltrated the organization and a mysterious assassin closely linked with Marius’s past is killing deep cover operatives one by one. And the next one on the list might very well be Alina.
D: She now plays by the CIA rules?
M: Yes and no.
D: What are the CIA rules and are they real?
M: They are real, and every spy and intelligence officer knows them. For example, during the Cold War, Moscow was by far the toughest, most dangerous city in the world to work. So the CIA created a set of operating principles. They applied not only to Moscow, but other rough stations and bases as well. When I started researching the book, I tried to find an official list of the rules, but I discovered from friends at the CIA that the agency never really bothered to write them down. I suppose they did that on purpose. Some of the rules are quite chilling, like: Assume everyone you meet is under opposition control, or Assume every telephone is tapped and every room is bugged. Some are hysterical: Murphy was right, and Technology will always let you down. My personal favorite is: Don’t look back. You are never completely alone. That rule serves as the spine of this book.
D: And what about your settings? In Balance of Power, but also in the other books of the Alina Marinescu series, the reader is swept from Europe to Asia, to the US, to Australia. Do you actually visit the places you write about?
M: I used to work on cruise ships, so I travelled intensely in my life. Yes, I visited most of the settings found in my books. Some of them are even very familiar to me, since our ship happened to dock in one place or another on a regular basis.
D: Your books are not only addictive page-turners, but sophisticated stories told with beautiful prose. What is your writing process like? And has it become easier over the years?
M: I wish I could say it’s become easier. I always thought that once I had a few books under my belt, I would discover some magic secret to writing one. But the truth is, there is no magic secret. Each book is a unique and surprising journey and when I get to the end of it, I’m always a bit surprised I actually made it.
D: Do you outline your stories first?
M: I tried to write an outline once, but it really didn’t work for me. In fact, when I finished the book and looked back at the original outline, they had very little in common other than the broad themes and the title. Basically, once I’ve brought it to life on the page, I try to stand aside and let the characters take over. As for my writing schedule, it’s fairly intense. Most people think a writer’s life is idyllic—don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining—but, in reality, I work seven days a week. I also put tremendous pressure on myself. It may sound odd, but when someone tells me they loved my last book, or that it was my best yet, all I can think is, “Now I have to write a better one.”
D: Do you know the ending of a book before you start writing it?
M: Not always. In this case, I did. But I had only the vaguest idea of how to get there.
D: What do you want readers to get out of this book?
M: First and foremost, I want them to be entertained. I want them to be swept away in a fast-paced story with moments of great human drama and excitement. The greatest compliment readers give me is when they complain that I kept them up all night. If I’m also able to teach them a little something along the way, that’s great too.
D: What makes the spy thriller such a compelling genre?
M: First of all, I should say that I consider myself a writer of international intrigue stories as opposed to a writer of pure espionage thrillers. I like the genre because it gives you more license. There are no police procedures or rules of evidence to hem you in.
D: So what’s next for Alina Marinescu?
M: I’ve learned many lessons since I’ve started writing books, and one of them is that it’s never wise to talk about the book you intend to write, because they never come out the way you think they will…at least mine don’t. Suffice it to say that it’s a dangerous world out there. And I have no doubt someone is going to require Alina’s services in the very near future. After all, she is Alina Marinescu.
D: Drawing from your own experiences, what advice can you give to aspiring authors?
M: Well, firstly you′ve got to just do it. A lot of people tell me, “I′ve got a great idea for a book” and I always say that the first thing you′ve got to do is actually write it. I believe it′s crucial, because you′ve got to prove it to yourself before you prove it to anyone else that you can actually produce a full length novel. And then, if you′re going to do these sorts of books, what I said before about the central character applies. You have to make sure you have a central character who′s going to drag the reader through, drive them and keep their attention focused the whole way. You have to have a multidimensional central character and everything must go through them. If you can create someone who′s really interesting, you′re a long way there already.