by Marty Demarest
Novelist James Thayer says that the ideas for stories come "sailing at you from nowhere." The metaphor works to explain his previous thriller, Force 12, which centered on a billionaire's racing yacht, but it doesn't fit his latest book, The Gold Swan, quite as easily. Set in Hong Kong, the novel centers on the construction of a 2,500-foot-tall building in the shape of a crescent moon, gilded entirely in bronze, and the worlds of cutting-edge architecture and international politics.
"I was having lunch with my editor at Simon & amp; Schuster, at his booth at the Four Seasons in New York City," recalls Thayer, who will read this Friday at Auntie's. "And we were talking about how the restaurant was designed by Philip Johnson -- one of America's premier architects and architectural theorists -- who my editor knows. Well about a week later, I called him up to tell him that I didn't have an idea for a new novel, and a few weeks later he telephoned back asking, 'What about a novel with a Philip Johnson-type character?' The world of big-time architecture hadn't been explored recently in any thriller. That got me started."
Like any good page-turner, however, The Gold Swan needs to have tension -- something that Thayer says needs to be driving the book from the very opening. Even with the centerpiece building teetering on the verge of collapse, someone had to be the book's nemesis. "The problem for thriller and spy novel writers since the fall of communism is to find a good villain," Thayer says. "You can no longer have the Soviet secret police. It doesn't work any more. Some authors use South American drug cartels, but I didn't need a black hat like that. I was looking for something more complex. So I made the architect's vanity and complicated nature provide part of that, and the Chinese government provided the other part. Because it's a very complicated society, particularly the Chinese relationship with Hong Kong. Yes, they're encroaching on the people's freedom, but they're doing it with subtlety and sophistication."
However, even having researched 11 previous novels, Thayer -- who is a former attorney and grew up on Spokane's South Hill -- didn't know much about architecture. "But one of the nice things about writing fiction," he laughs, "is that you don't have to know a lot about a particular subject. You just have to know enough to convince the reader. And my main character is a former FBI agent who doesn't know a lot about architecture; he's falling in love with the building -- not the trigonometry of it. And that's enough."