Author Showcase, Writing Tips and Tricks

Author Q&A: MUIR’S GAMBIT and the Spy Game Trilogy by Michael Frost Beckner

Michael Beckner’s MUIR’S GAMBIT
is out now.

When I worked at Penguin Random House, I was privileged to meet some pretty cool people, but never did I actually brush with Hollywood!

That was until Hollywood scriptwriter Michael Frost Beckner, most famous for his film Spy Game, starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt, emailed me about his latest project! Having been savvy enough to retain the novelisation rights to the blockbuster hit, he wanted me to work with him on his project of publishing the Spy Game story in book form as he expanded the world of Nathan Muir and Tom Bishop. The result, a set of riveting and compelling espionage thrillers that will have you gripped!

Out now all three books in the trilogy, the first being Muir’s Gambit, are perfect for the espionage reader (or film buff) in your life! And I’m excited to say that Michael took time out of his busy publishing schedule to sit down and chat about his new project the challenge of taking the big screen down to the written page.

Scroll down to read an exclusive interview with below!

Muir’s Gambit by Michael Frost Beckner

It’s not how you play the GAME… It’s how the game plays YOU.

A prequel novel to his #1 hit motion picture, the Robert Redford/Brad Pitt thriller Spy Game, Michael Frost Beckner’s Muir’s Gambit opens with the assassination of retired CIA hero Charlie March. Mentor to Redford’s Nathan Muir, by his murder, Charlie March presents Langley the perfect opportunity to rid themselves of Cold War dinosaur Muir.

Set 48-hours before the events of Spy Game, Muir’s Gambit introduces hard-luck CIA lawyer Russell Aiken dispatched to force Muir’s confession. For Aiken, it’s as much an escape as an assignment. Running from a crime of passion, he’s the protégé Muir cast aside in favor of Tom Bishop. Tormented by Muir’s denial of his ambitions, Aiken thirsts for payback unaware that Muir launched a different game for him long ago, and he has 24-hours to learn its rules, plays, and stakes.

As the two spies play at a dangerous cat-and-mouse interrogation over the dark underbelly of forty years of CIA operations, conspiracies, assassinations, and deadly secrets, Muir’s Gambit works as a dual confession by two unreliable narrators. 

A scathing indictment of Cold War spy games, Muir’s Gambit is also an examination of the human condition, the cost to the soul when moral men sanctioned to do the immoral, have one night to regain some shred of decency before the dawn, and come to terms over the one moral spy, Tom Bishop, who stands between them.

Muir’s Gambit and the rest of the Spy Game trilogy are available now in ebook and hardback

Michael, welcome! Muir’s Gambit is the first novel in the Spy Game trilogyTell us a little more about it, and the series at large.

Muir’s Gambit began life before I’d ever contemplated Spy Game as a script. The story told in the motion picture Spy Game was the final third of a proposed and heavily outlined novel to be known as Muir’s Gambit. An opportunity in my film career came up that if I had a script, Paul Newman was looking for one last pairing with Robert Redford. I lopped off the ending of my book outline, put it into screenplay format. Newman’s health took a turn and felt the role of Muir too demanding, but he urged my reps to put Redford in the Muir role and the rest is history.

Except for the Muir’s Gambit outline. Every major studio wanted to make Spy Game. However, they didn’t want the flashbacks, the interrogation, the two main characters never meeting in present-time, and the unreliable narrator/narration. I went with an indie outfit called Beacon Pictures. They didn’t have the deep pockets, but they were going to shoot the script as is and they offered to let me keep the underlying Muir’s Gambit book, which gave me ironclad rights to the characters, their pasts/futures, and their “universe.” 

While the film didn’t turn out to be STAR WARS, it was a much bigger film than the indie production Beacon, Redford, and I had originally thought. And those special reserved rights suddenly became valuable. At the same time, I created a CIA-based series for CBS entitled The Agency and became heavily involved in television (on top of my film career) and Muir’s Gambit became something of an ongoing project I’d add to—notes and stories from contacts, things I’d get to later. Muir’s Gambit became that “wait for a rainy day”, retirement bottom-drawer file box of a dream.

In 2017, I opened that drawer. I brought the dream into the light. Blowing off the dust and sorting it all out, I found enough material for six books—the Aiken Trilogy, and a follow-up Muir Trilogy—and string of interconnected stories that focus on one of the Aiken Trilogy side-characters and her unique family, that I’m writing as about a dozen novellas.

The book (and series) is quite international, with the characters jumping across the the globe, dealing with world-changing matters. What was it about having such a large ‘stage’ that appealed?

All my stories take their starting point from actual intelligence operations and intelligence operatives I know and have known. The common thread I’ve found in the real world is that geopolitical threads are woven across the globe as an entire fabric that works to hold itself together from all ends at all times with a dozen agendas interconnected and each one vying for power. Since my books build drama and suspense from what it is to be a spy rather than what it is to spy, I’m not looking for missions with a clear bad guy who has a singular goal that runs from point A to point B around the globe under a ticking clock. The clock ticking loudest in my books are the timebombs my characters spend their lives building inside themselves… Everyone, to some extent, builds these for themselves… My characters just happen to be spies—and personal/psychological shit can be a little more dangerous when involved in that line of work.       

Who inspired you to start writing? Have your influences changed since then?

Love of reading creates desire for writing. Love of reading, in my life, comes from my earliest memories of being read to and the seduction of my imagination by the power of words. I consciously chose to become a writer when I was seven years old and, having read Joy Adamson’s Born Free, decided I would be an African game warden and wildlife writer. I set about doing just that and wrote frequently and inventively about my cat. But it wasn’t my cat. And I’ve never done any wildlife writing since. 

Later, university days, I was selected for a writing program under T.C. Boyle. He threw out the old saw “write what you know,” and promptly threw it out adding something like, “unless it’s something everyone else knows, and thinks, and you have nothing new to add to it.”  As it turned out, I knew a whole lot about espionage, and people previously or currently involved in it, and it wasn’t anything like James Bond or Jason Bourne… nor were they. 

The way I personally tell/craft my stories come from one specific influence, not a writer, but a storyteller; a former Marine, CIA operative in Laos during our Vietnam War, a smoke jumper/mountain rescue operator who led groups of us teenagers in the San Fernando Valley up into the High Sierras on survival treks. No radio, no TV, certainly no phones way back then… We’d sit around the campfire, and he’d tell war stories and rescue and smoke-jumping tales. Now, the stories were exciting, just the kind of thing teenagers hang on to every word, but for me, it was the man telling the stories. It was his ability to portray the moment with high realism and emotion and then step away from it and walk his words and his point of view all around the story he’d told and tell the other story of what it’s like to tell that story. I can’t get this properly into words, but he told stories about telling stories and what calls to us from inside ourselves to do it.

Nathan Muir’s life and specific circumstances is drawn from the lives and circumstances of at a least a dozen men I’ve come to know. But Nathan Muir’s voice. His peculiar perspective on life and espionage, well, forty years after those backpacking trips, after growing up and not seeing or communicating with the man who led them, the man who told stories around the fire, since back in the 1970s. My wife and I were in the local village—we do have villages in Los Angeles, this one called Montrose Village, which is at the base of the Verdugo Mountains that abut the city—the little shopping street that my office apartment faces holds local holiday events where the firemen come out and the boutiques have sidewalk sales and crafters sell their knitting, and I heard a familiar voice. My old survival coach was with the mountain search & rescue crew, dressed in his old uniform, he was speaking about wildfires and the equipment, or some such thing, but for me it was like being struck by the lightning that started the fire inside me years ago. I hadn’t recognized Coach H’s voice. It’s that I heard the voice I’d imagined and written for “Nathan Muir” in the flesh.

Literary influences: Mark Helprin, Tim O’Brien, John Le Carre, Frederick Forsythe, Raymond Chandler, Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens. 

Why did you choose to write thriller/crime?

I didn’t get to Africa and a game reserve—not just logistically, but my biggest fear of the worst way to die is being eaten alive on land, so the Born Free thing is out of the question. 

I grew up meeting a lot of veterans and old spooks. Once I began my writing career, I’d meet more during research, and then later still, once I’d established myself as a writer of military and espionage thrillers for film—naively thinking this was coincidental—I’d have “chance meetings” with intelligence figures from different services, like at bars, or on airplane flights, or bookstores, or randomly invited to join organizations that I shouldn’t have been asked to join (but jumped at the chance). This sort of thing would lead to friendships and influence on my work; before Spy Game and certainly before 9/11, I had a robust circle go-to experts or creative advisors.

You started your writing career in screenwriting and film. How is it different writing for the pages as opposed to the screen? Also as this is a novelisation of film as opposed to a new project, did you feel the pressure when adapting the story?

Except for the small portion in Aiken in Check that retells some of the events from the film Spy Game (from a new perspective with new characters and new agendas), these books are not novelizations. They’re anything but, as the language and use of language between a screenplay and a novel are vastly different. I’ve adapted other novelists: John Le Carre’s The Night Manager for Sydney Pollack years ago, Ken Follett, Tom Clancy, Alistair MacLean for various studios and it’s a process of synthesizing place and action, creating new pacing, and transforming characterization that authors put into descriptive prose, entirely into dialogue. Theme into action and event.

My novels are novels because they do the exact opposite of what’s wanted or required in a film or television script. They are internal and psychological. Novel writing for me is about the language and the writing of it—the words and their arrangement—for the activity of active/experiential reading. 

Effective screenwriting is like writing a great recipe: you write the instructions correctly, so that following them is completely clear to the reader, what is produced from following a good script is a film or TV production that is exactly as promised on the page. A book is the whole pie, flavor and all. 

What is the biggest challenge you faced when writing your first novel? How did you overcome it?

Voice is key. Successful screenwriters all have a voice on the page. The screenwriter’s voice has nothing to do with the film/episode their writing, but their personal signature that is unique to all the scripts they write regardless of genre, content, character. In my books, the Spy Game series particularly, there is the first-person narration of Russell Aiken, which needs to be him both in how he speaks and behaves with others, but also in how he thinks internally and how he recalls himself in the past. All that must be distinctive and unified with Aiken, and yet, Muir who dominates all three books, and Bishop who is the primary focus of the second book—as an author I needed to make their voices distinct and utterly different than Aiken’s. Furthermore, with Muir’s Gambit, Nathan Muir is being interrogated by Aiken and telling the story of Charlie March. More difficult, but more dramatic and suspenseful for the present action of the story, I didn’t break into strict flashback for these sections but made them dialogue (Muir telling the story in real-time) which necessitated (as happens as much in day to day conversation as interrogation) the need for Muir to recreate dialogue between himself and Charlie March, told in novel’s present to Aiken, who is narrating the whole thing as author of the interrogation confession/book.

Do you like to plan the action of your novels [plotter] or do you just let them write themselves (pantser!)? 

I begin with a plot and a set of parallel timelines. The plot is going to happen regardless of what any of my characters say or do—and I leave that pretty open, they seem to know better than I what that will be and how they’ll get in and out (or not) of the troubles they involve themselves in or are thrust into). What’s going to happen is going to happen, my characters can’t escape that, but my books are about how they deal with their involvements in the larger plots, how they account for themselves and with one another. I mention the timelines. One is moving forward what they’re learning, discovering, acting upon, the other is moving backwards, what they’ve come from, what they’re experience is teaching them about who they are (that which has made them which has brought them to where the are and what they will do). All that seems to write itself and most of the time surprises me as it comes up. That makes the process a kick-in-the-pantser for me.  

I hear that Spy Game the film might be getting a reboot! Can you tell us any more?  

Beacon Pictures who originally purchased the Spy Game screenplay share the film and TV rights with me. We are currently working with Universal (who distributed the movie) to find the best landing platform for the reboot. I can’t go too much further into detail, but to say that we had a great set-up for a series of 80–90-minute episodes based on each of my three books, but with interest in those books much greater than originally predicted, that plan/streaming format may be kicked off by a much larger feature film based on and updating the original.

With already three novels in the Spy Game series, can we keep our fingers crossed for a fourth, or what are your next writing plans?

Once I finish the launch of the Aiken Trilogy, I release in August my WWII thriller Berlin Mesa. Based on a fascinating curl of history overlooked and forgotten in America, that of the 400,000 German POWs in camps spread out across the US, and the numerous escapes from said camps, this story revolves around a particular escape of Nazis infiltrated into the camp for a specific mission…and, presto, you got Cowboys vs. Nazis. Ken Follett meets Larry McMurtry.

Available for pre-order now, Berlin Mesa, releases Oct 14. It’s a real rollercoaster ride, much closer to my cinematic roots. But after that, I jump into Kaleidoscope: 4th of July. This is a novella, an offshoot from the main Nathan Muir branch of Spy Game. It takes place the “day after tomorrow,” so to speak, and catches up with Lynn Kingston 20 years after events of the Aiken Trilogy (in which, as a young officer, she plays a pivotal role in the final book). She’s remained at the Agency and only now does the CIA/former KGB Operation KALEIDOSCOPE come back into focus from where we left them with her frightening father, Silas, in Aiken in Check. As much a spy story, it is also a saga of the Kingston family: Lynn, her two brothers, and Silas… and the Cold War ghost that comes back to life to haunt them, their significant others, their work, and their children.

As for Spy Game proper, I’ve begun Drought, Book 1 of the Muir Trilogy which picks up the day after Nathan Muir zoomed away from Langley at the end of the movie Spy Game and carries his story forward three novels across the 1990s to the weeks before the events that begin Bishop’s Endgame. As with the film and the Aiken Trilogy, the Muir Trilogy tells a parallel story of the Vietnam War and what Nathan Muir was really doing around the time he recruited Tom Bishop. 

With the publication of the Spy Game trilogy, it also sees the birth of your own publishing company, Montrose Station Press. Tell us a bit more about that.

In making the shift from screenwriting to prose fiction, I had a choice of two paths: traditional publishers or self-publishing. My film/TV agency had a robust presence in the New York publishing industry. My manager’s (at the time) main client focus was published (and quite famous, I might add) novelists. He’d pursued me to join his roster with the idea that I could attach to the bestsellers of some of his authors who didn’t bother with screenwriting but wanted package control through the management firm. On the other side of it, he’d introduce me to the major publishing houses to help move my career as a novelist. 

What I immediately discovered as it pertained to mainstream publishing is that what I wanted to write, the way I wanted to write it, did not fit the genre/marketing expectations the major house had for me. Screenwriters—especially one as fortunate as I’d been with abundant success—were uniformly looked down upon as not particularly skilled at the writing part of, well, writing. Certainly not artistic, literary writing. All I landed was the opportunity to ghostwrite for some very famous bestselling authors who apparently don’t write all the books their names appear on. (Shocking, but I’m naive—I’ve heard subsequently that this is a not an uncommon practice.)

I passed. I didn’t like the idea of editors telling me I don’t have what it takes to write my own book, but would certainly pass muster writing a book pretending to be someone much more revered as an author who’d be happy not to do the work their name is on and farm it out to me.

To be fair, there were editors that legitimately appreciated my work, but didn’t find it met their taste, and there were others who honestly did praise my work but didn’t have a fit for it on their list or with their outfit in general. In the end, I didn’t explore mainstream publish much further. I realized I didn’t really need it, as there are more opportunities in the world of self-publishing that fit my goals better than a major publisher.

So, I looked at my goals. I have, through my films and television work, a much larger audience than most first-time authors—those projects I’ve received credit on and the hundreds more I participated in as a script doctor or executive producer where credit was eschewed. From Spy Game, the Sniper series, and over 50 episodes of The Agency that were “hits”, to CUTTHROAT ISLAND (considered by many as the biggest flop in Hollywood history—but to my defense, when I sold it, Michael Douglas was the star, not Geena Davis), to CSI, and Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame—the audience that has enjoyed work is much larger than all but the very top novelists. I’m not looking to start a career. Fame and fortune are a ring I’ve been lucky enough to have snatched, and blessed to understand that said ring is not gold, but brass and worth very little to what is important in life. 

I could achieve what I wanted by simply writing and releasing ebooks and been creatively satisfied. But when I began writing the Spy Game novels—and experienced the creative satisfaction they gave me—I realized there are numerous other screenwriters who probably wish stories they told, characters and worlds they created, that came to life in one-off stories, lived on in their imaginations, and some of these writers A: might want to continue exploring them, and B: probably didn’t realize that through the Writers Guild of America (our screen and television union) held the rights to continue writing about in all media that wasn’t film/television.

I chose to invest in the creation of a unique publishing company through which I could publish and release my novels at the highest quality hardcover, paperback, and digital—indistinguishable from the major publishing houses in construction and presentation—which would make what I’ve done myself available to other screenwriters and my goals.

My mission statement puts it pretty well:

“Our primary focus is on established screen television writers interested in broadening their talents into publishing novels, preferably expanding universes they have created in produced film and television projects for which they have already established an audience, and to which they maintain their Writers Guild of America guaranteed sole separated publishing rights.”

Further to that, there are hundreds of screenplays by beloved film and television writers that sell every year or are optioned year after year that for whatever production reason are never made. Today’s readers are not adverse to reading good scripts. And more and more, scripts of hit movies and television are published not as novelizations, but as screenplays. I’ve found, however, that the quality of the presentation is either straight reproduction of script pages in script format—a ugly typeface, style, and pagination that has remained unchanged in film/TV production due to production necessity that is a novelty at first blush to the reader, but difficult on the eye. Others are published in stage play format—Samuel French style—that doesn’t meld well with the technical format/writing unique to screenplays. So, I found one of the very best typesetters in America who has worked with the major NY publishers on numerous bestselling works of fiction and non-fiction and engaged her services to create a new template and style for publishing screenplays. Her work is stunning and will be transformative in creating a new format for published screen works.

The first of these will be my three volume/twelve-episode Civil War miniseries formerly known as To Appomattox, now entitled A Nation Divided that will be released In October, November, and December of this year. 

Again, from our mission statement:

“As with the publication of A Nation Divided, if an established and credited film/television writer has a particular script that may have been purchased or optioned but never made it out of development hell, who would like to publish it in quality book form, Montrose Station Press will be happy to consider these submissions. The ‘great unproduced screenplay’ does not have to remain unknown by the public any longer.”

Finally, while we don’t have the bandwith to accept unsolicited material, we are looking for literary thrillers—character/reality based, not fantasy—from new and established writers as well.

What is your desert-island read? 

Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Polish Trilogy which includes With Fire and Sword, both volumes of The Deluge, and Fire in the Steppe.

Do you have any writing tips to share?

Writing tips are simple: Read as much as you write; write as much as you read. Right as much as your imagination gives you, then cut, cut, cut. Remember that sometimes the best writing are the words you leave out. And finally, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is indispensable. It’s a little book I read before I start any novel. 

Writing for Hollywood or the screen often involves a whole team of writers, but with fiction, the ‘team’ is much smaller. How did you find working with an editor?

As a screenwriter, I relish the interactivity with the studio/producers notes in features and the writers’ room in television. As I once said, to the particular dissatisfaction of my audience at the Sundance Film Festival, “When a producer, studio, or network requests my best writing sample, I never send out my original draft. My best drafts are those I’ve been forced to rewrite from the point of view of another reader’s eyes, and the point of their red pen.” I reminded them that screenplays are like architectural plans, they are for others to make the art from. “If you don’t want your words messed with, write books.” 

That’s what makes your job, Rebecca, a book editor’s job, that much more difficult than a producer, director, or development exec. They change, and have every right to change, the fundamental material of the script to what they need their film to communicate. Like I said, the script is a recipe. So they cut and slash and change to the peculiarities of the star if that’s what it takes to get the picture made. A good screenwriter listens hard to deliver the best version of everyone else’s wishes to the studio/director/set. You get hired again (and again), you get your award, if you deliver a screenplay that carries the picture over the finish line. That’s a movie or a television show to which your writing is only the foundation.

Novel writing is entirely different, and the role of the editor is to guide the writer into the best communication of what they are attempting to produce—it’s just going to be the book. Working with, Rebecca, as an editor I was immediately struck by your ability to discern what I want my books to be and all your notes focused on helping/guiding me toward communicating that to the very best of my ability, with the very best presentation of the language and the style used to communicate tell my story. 

The trust between author and editor is paramount and that comes when the author can see that the editor’s work on the manuscript is solely for the benefit of the author’s vision. What makes you indispensable is that you tuned right into my objectives and creativity and your editorial process is to drive me to the best version of my goals and the end product I want. Refreshing to say the least.  

What is your writing process like? Do you have a routine? A favourite place to write? 

Up at 3:30/4 a.m. Two mile walk to my converted apartment/office and library. Catch up on world events, busy work, mail from the previous day (or week[s]), calls that need the time difference… Am usually at work around 5:30/6. Work through till 12:30/1 p.m. Eat/nap for an hour, then work until 6:30/7 p.m. I’ve written at the same desk for 25-30 years. 

Also most important question. Favourite writing snack!

Coffee, pipe tobacco, trail mix.

Muir’s Gambit and the rest of the Spy Game Trilogy are out now! Grab your copies below!.

About the Author

After a degree in Novel Writing from University of Southern California under PEN/Faulkner winner T.C. Boyle, Michael Frost Beckner began a Hollywood career as writing assistant to Academy Award winner Barry Levinson. With over three decades as a screen and television writer Beckner has written close to 100 original screenplays, adaptations, and teleplays in the employ of every major film studio, television network, and cable outlet. He is best known for his CBS series The Agency, his film Spy Game, and his Sniper franchise now in release with its 9th film. As a commentator on American espionage, Beckner has appeared on CNN, Fox News, CBS News, TF1 in France, and as a featured guest of Bill Maher on HBO.

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