Interview With Rebecca Strunk-Moatz!

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Rebecca Moatz (pen name R.L. Moatz) is another of my earliest Internet friends and colleagues whose autobiographical story, It Happened At A Lutheran Church, was one of the first e-books I reviewed. She provided us with an in-depth interview and a behind the scenes look into an intimate and harrowing episode in her personal life.

 

It Happened At A Lutheran Church must have had a major impact in your community. What updates can you provide since the publication of your book?

I anticipated the same reaction and even braced myself for it, especially where my son’s privacy was concerned.  However, by most accounts it feels like the community as a whole is embarrassed by the book.  When the initial press releases went out, not a single local newspaper, radio station or television news station responded.  I was eventually interviewed by a reporter from the Reading Eagle newspaper in January, 2014, but the article didn’t go to press until April, eleven months after the book was published.

Reading has been a city in socio-economic decline since the 1960’s.  What was once a beautiful and safe place to work and raise a family has crumbled into urban decay.  Since the new millennium, we have held the dubious distinctions of holding both the highest poverty rate and highest murder rate in the nation.  More and more kids are selling drugs, joining gangs and using guns to settle their disputes.  Philadelphia news vans are here on a regular basis covering one tragedy after another.  As a result, different groups have formed whose focus has been to take back our streets, rebuild our communities, and generate positive press.

Dedicated people have worked very hard to make downtown Reading a place that Berks countians will want to come to work and enjoy recreational activities in.  But it’s been an uphill battle for them in many respects, especially with the press.  A book like mine, detailing the emotional abuse of a child in one of the largest Lutheran churches in the city is probably not something outsiders to know about.

The book has gotten very good feedback online, however.  Nearly everyone who has read it tells me they have walked away with something positive, and I have readers worldwide on nearly every continent.  I have been interviewed on The Christian Authors Radio Show and featured on Lighthouse International Ministries with Reverend Allen Smith, Bookshelf News with Maurice Tudor, Venture Galleries with Caleb Pirtle, Brook Cottage Books with JB Johnston, and The Story Reading Ape with Christopher Graham.

 

Your family endured great tribulation throughout the timeframe narrated in your account. What were the long-term effects? Would you say that the family emerged stronger, or did the psychological trauma take its toll?

The long-term effects have been many and have evolved over the years, mainly because Joshua was only ten years old when the incidents took place.  He grew into adulthood from that point on having to work through someone else’s issues, anger, and attitude that he didn’t even initially understand.  Adults whom he had received love and support from for five years suddenly began looking at him and talking to him as if he was “bad” and kids whom he thought were his friends didn’t like him anymore.  Then, just as it was all far enough behind him to start fading away, we ran into Pastor Kehler.

When the memories came flooding back, he was then old enough to figure out what he was actually being accused of.  It was both horrifying and embarrassing for a 13-year-old boy to realize the depth of their depravity!  Adults in a place where he was supposed to feel safe and loved actually thought these terrible things about him, and they told all the other adults, and everyone believed it!  And worse yet, the other kids believed that he had done something really horrible!  And the one person who had always been a stable force in his life, the person who was supposed to keep him safe, his mother, kept taking him back there!

He developed trust issues as a result, and he became very selective when it came to making new friends.  Prior to the incident, Joshua was the type of child who made friends with everyone everywhere.  Our house was the kid house; everyone was always here and in the summer and during school vacations, at least one kid always spent the night.  He was the only “only child” I ever met who had bunk beds in his room, and we easily could have used a second set!  After the incident, his inner circle gradually grew smaller as time went on.  As the city declined, many families moved, and the number of friends he brought home declined with it.

Fortunately, the lines of communication between us stayed open, and we talked through a great deal of his emotions over the years, always at his pace, of course.  Whether the conversation was a direct result of what happened at St. Paul’s or secondary to it, the discussions took place only when he initiated them.  I’ve never wanted him to feel pressured or to feel as though I was prying, because I realize that there will always be some thoughts he will choose to keep to himself.

Overall, I think both individually and as a family, we are all stronger as a result of what happened.  Most importantly, both Joshua and I are using our past experiences to help others, and we are both enjoying new careers based on a life of service.  His father and I couldn’t be more pleased with his accomplishments and his choices.

 

Obviously the title of your book had its own significance. Do you still consider yourself a member of the Lutheran Church? Has the hierarchy ever reached out and offered an apology?

That is a very good question and one that I’ve had to answer several times recently.  I consider myself a member of the Lutheran faith, but I am currently without a Church home.  The question has come up, because I’ve been battling some new health issues and have been in and out of the hospital for the past few months.  The first time I went in and I was asked to confirm my religious status, I did hesitate for a moment.  What am I now?  After all, I haven’t yet found another church home, and I don’t know when I will.  I am not completely opposed to the idea; it just hasn’t happened yet.  I did visit another church a few years ago with someone whom I thought was a friend, but he turned out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  One would think that experience would have been the proverbial straw, but it wasn’t.

We are all sinners, and as Abigail Van Buren once said, “Churches are supposed to be hospitals for sinners, not museums for saints.”  With that in mind, I don’t have any great expectations, nor do I think the odds of having something as devastating as what happened before will happen again.  When the time and place are right, the Lord will make it known, and I will try again.  Until then, He and I have an understanding.

Sadly, no one from St. Paul’s or any level of the Lutheran Church has ever reached out to Joshua or our family, not even after the Reading Eagle finally did run the story.  The only person I heard from was the president of the Church council.  It was shortly after I left the Church, and I had sent her a letter of resignation.  She left me a message asking me to return a notebook of documents that is given to each member of council.  Nothing else was said.  Not “I’m sorry you are leaving.”  Not, “Why are you leaving?”  Nothing.  At the time, I thought what had happened to us was an isolated incident, so it never occurred to me that it might benefit others if I reported what had happened.  I have since learned that this is an ongoing problem in our country, however, and your question has prompted me to give it some prayer.  Perhaps the time has come to take the next step.

 

Many readers would contemplate the fact that most of these injustices occurred on the watch of a female pastor. In retrospect, do you feel that this might have been less likely to happen under a male pastor? Do you feel that Pastor Kehler was reluctant to pass judgment on an issue involving two mothers, where a male pastor might have been more objective?

No, I don’t, simply because I have had the leadership of female pastors before meeting, working with, and worshipping under Pastor Kehler.  Nor do I feel it was any more or less likely to happen under a male pastor.  I can certainly understand why these facts would be contemplated and how the arguments would be made, but at the end of the day, I think it comes down to individual personalities, backgrounds and life experience.

In Pastor Kehler’s case, although she is around my age, St. Paul’s was her first parish.  While all ministers are going to take the success or failure of their particular parish personally, I think it may have been more intense for her, because it was a total life change.  She had been married, but had no children, and was working for state government prior to becoming a minister.  After her marriage ended, she decided to pursue a pastoral career, so in many ways, she was starting over.  She was also from another county, so moving to Reading and becoming the pastor of St. Paul’s probably seemed like the beginning of a brand new life for her.

Before the incident happened, she and I talked a great deal about what she called time and talents.  I never had much money to put in the collection plate, but she always reassured me that didn’t matter, because I gave generously of my time and talents, which were equally important to the sustainability of the Church.  At the time of the incident, however, I had been sick for a few months, and Sue Ann had begun taking over some of the programs I had created and/or used to run.

One of those programs was the Junior Youth Group.  We were having a really hard time recruiting more kids, and the group was getting smaller as some of the older ones started moving up to the Senior Youth Group.  And although Sue Ann was no longer working outside the home since the birth of her third child, her husband had a very good job, so I don’t think the loss of her income impacted their tithing much.  Instead, Sue Ann was now giving of her time and talents, doing what I no longer could.  And when it came to building up the Junior Youth Group, she did an outstanding job.  She lived just outside of the city, and her children went to a different school district.  Consequently, she was able to recruit children and families who could better afford to tithe.  The end result was she was of more value to the Church than I was, and I believe that is what motivated Pastor Kehler’s decisions.

 

You’ve been running a blog site, The Controversial Christian. Have you been discouraged by the Lutherans’ failure to adhere to fundamental Christian tenets? Would you consider yourself a mainstream Christian, or possibly a liberal?

Yes, I have been discouraged, both by my own experience and because it seems that there are more and more “Sunday Christians” out there these days.  Growing up, I had friends who were Catholic, and I always had a problem with the way many of them incorrectly interpreted their faith, which was, “one can do pretty much whatever they want as long as they go to confession”.   As a Lutheran, more accountability for my actions was expected.  The flip side of that coin, however, is that I found many of my fellow Lutherans to be more judgmental of one another, which is where the “museum mentality” I referred to earlier comes into play.  I have since learned that neither attitude is healthy or realistic.

I call myself the Controversial Christian, because my goal is to keep it real.  I am a fallible human being who lives in a world that is complicated and messy, and to quote a friend, “I have no problem being a sheep in wolf’s clothing”.  Christ was born into a poor family and He walked among the common people.  By all accounts, He didn’t put on airs or act without emotion.  Even anger had it’s place.  So why should we, his followers, hold ourselves to a standard we can’t even begin to keep?  So yes, I would consider myself a liberal Christian.  But I am also starting to see other Christians go in the same direction, and I believe we may be heading towards a time when liberal is the new mainstream.

 

Have you been approached by believers in other denominations who found that basic Christian principles are being eschewed in favor of Church politics? Do you feel that more or less people are speaking out when wronged by their congregation?

Yes, I have been approached by believers in several other denominations, and in some of those cases the parties involved found they were finally able to make a decision with regard to their own Church challenges.  It always feels good to know that something I wrote played a role in that, in helping someone find their serenity.  Sadly, the sordid business of Church politics has been around for a very long time, and very few people have spoken out, which is why I thought that what happened to us was an isolated incident.  It wasn’t until after I published the book that I began to learn what a widespread problem it really is.

Lutherans are generally a stoic bunch, so I think that’s why these problems have been able to fester for as long as they have.  I can remember when I was just a kid growing up in the 60s and 70s, my father had repeatedly turned down nominations for Church council, and when I asked him why, he said he didn’t want to get involved in Church politics.  I didn’t give those old conversations any thought for years until after this happened to us.  My father had already passed when the incident happened at St. Paul’s, so I wasn’t able to discuss it with him.  One of my goals in promoting the book is to encourage people to speak out, especially those folks who are part of a culture like mine where it is ingrained in you to do otherwise.

 

You describe your lifestyle as being exclusively Pennsylvanian. Do you have any life experiences in big-city environments such as Philadelphia or Pittsburgh? Have any of your kids become young urban professionals?

I have never been to Pittsburgh, but I have spent a good deal of time in Philadelphia with my son for his health care.  He was seen at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children at ages four and six and at Temple and Temple Children’s Hospitals between the ages of six and eleven for numerous surgeries and follow up appointments secondary to specialized health care that he required due to being born with a rare vascular syndrome called AVM.  A good many of those trips were made by Capitol Trailways bus, and the Philadelphia terminal is located in Chinatown, where Joshua’s love of Asian culture was born.

During the follow up appointments, we had ample time between leaving the office and boarding the next bus back to Reading, so we used that time to explore Chinatown together.  After one of his last doctor appointments, we had lunch a lovely restaurant where we both enjoyed our first taste of authentic Chinese tea.  Another time we explored Fairmont Park and yet another time, we set out to see if we could cross the bridge over into New Jersey and back before having to head back to the terminal.  It was a very hot day, but we made it half way before we gave in and turned around.

Joshua is an only child and is definitely very comfortable in an urban environment.  He was only three when we moved into the city, so besides time spent at my childhood home with family up until he was about seven, urban life is really all he knows.  There was a time when he thought he might want to study art in Philadelphia, but he has so many interests that he has changed his mind several times since then.  He has since completed four years in the MCJROTC program at Reading High School where he earned an Outstanding Achievement Award and planned to continue his education through the National Guard.

Unfortunately, his bilateral hearing loss secondary to the AVM stood in the way of that, so he then decided to pursue a degree in Criminal Justice from Everest University where he made the Dean’s List.  He recently found a degreed position at Abraxas Academy as a Youth Care Specialist, working with troubled youth, many of whom are from Reading, who have either been sentenced to the detention center for various crimes or removed from their homes by Children and Youth Services.  He is also currently pursuing his Bachelor’s degree in Network Security from the University of Advancing Technology, where he recently designed an anti-stalking technology program entitled Incognito This, patent pending.  I had been the victim of a stalker a mere year before the project was assigned, and I was both touched by his choice and proud of his design, which received high marks from all four professors on the board.

 

How has life in Reading impacted your career as a writer? Do you feel as if your environment has helped or hindered your worldview as an author, and as a Christian?

Reading is a small city that is huge in history.  John Updike went to the same high school that my family and I did, only back in the 40s, it was called Shillington High School; now it is Governor Mifflin School District.  He was in the same class as my mother’s younger twin sisters.  Rabbit Run was filmed here in Reading, and the pool scene was shot at the East Reading Pool, the same pool that is just two blocks from my home, where Joshua and I spent many happy summers when he was in grade school.

We also have a Japanese Pagoda that sits atop Mt. Penn that is lit up every night.  I am fortunate enough to be able to see it from my back door window.  Commissioned in 1906 at a cost of $50,000 by William A. Witman, Sr. to cover his stone quarry, the Pagoda was completed in 1908.  The bell on the 7th floor was cast in Japan in 1739.  It was purchased by Witman in 1906 and shipped via the Suez Canal to the New York Harbor and arrived in Reading on May 5, 1906 by rail.  By 1910, the Pagoda and surrounding ten acres were deeded to local business owner, Jonathon Mould and his wife, Julia.  On April 21, 1911, they sold it to the City of Reading for $1, and since then the Pagoda has been owned, loved, and cared for by the citizens and City of Reading.  Reading also has a long-standing tradition on Christmas Eve; promptly at 9:00 p.m. the red lights that adorn the Pagoda begin flashing.  It is a signal to the children to hurry off to bed, because Santa is on his way.  And since New Year’s Eve, 1999-2000, we have an annual fireworks display that lights up the night sky above it.  There is also a writer’s club that meets there on the first Saturday of the month that I intend to visit in the near future.

And although I was raised in the country home I mentioned earlier, outside of Reading, my mother’s maternal side of the family has roots in the City of Reading.  Her grandfather came over through Ellis Island from Germany when he was just a boy and worked his way up through the local iron industry.  She remembers growing up during the Great Depression and visiting her grandparents, who lived on the same street I do now, and watching her grandmother buy food from the various vendors who came around in those days and give it to their neighbors, a total of seven families.  My great-grandmother helped keep her six children and their families fed along with those seven other families during those days.  My mother is a great historian, and as a result, I learned at an early age that charity really does begin at home.

So I believe that living in Reading has definitely enhanced my writing.  Big dreams have been fulfilled by folks who started out here, and big city problems are being faced every day here.  All of it is an opportunity for me to become a better Christian and a better writer.

 

We’ve been looking forward to more works by Rebecca Moatz. Are you planning on writing religious-themed books, or personal encouragement tomes, or will we see any fiction novels?

All of the above!  Until recently, I thought I would stay with what I know, writing about the many challenges I have faced and overcame, sharing how my faith played a part and ultimately grew, and providing encouragement to folks who are going through a similar situation.  However, I recently had an idea for a work of fiction that I think will really take off.  It’s based on some truth, of course, but taken and turned a different way that I think the reader will find quite intriguing.  If it is well received, my plan is to create a book series.

Unfortunately, I haven’t done much writing during the past several months due to the health issues I mentioned earlier.  Part of that has to do with being diagnosed with something called non-Celiac gluten sensitivity.  In other words, I have the same reaction to gluten that people with Celiac disease do, even though I don’t have Celiac disease, so it took the docs a little longer to figure it out.  And gluten is in foods you would never even imagine, like corn syrup, for example, and corn syrup is in practically everything.  So, it’s been quite a process to get well.  Now I am beginning the process of learning how to cook all over again.

 

What advice to you have for fellow Christians who have been wrongly treated by their congregation? Do you feel it is a duty to bring the matter before the elders according to Scripture, or in this day and age, should they turn the other cheek and walk away?

I think each situation needs to be taken on its own account.  Common sense should prevail.  If it’s an isolated incident where one person behaves badly, but nothing else changes, certainly, turn the other cheek.  I try to treat other people the way I would want to be treated, and if I have a bad day and behave regrettably, I would hope someone would cut me a break.  I would also hope I would recognize my human error and apologize.

That being said, if you feel it’s more serious than that, if you feel as though you’ve been shunned or judged, or worse yet, you feel your child is being mistreated, please do not ignore it!  Do not make the mistake I did, thinking that because you are in God’s house, all you have to do is hold your head high and the truth will prevail.

Follow protocol, certainly.  Speak to your Church elders.  But if the situation is not addressed appropriately or resolved, don’t stop there, especially if a child is involved – I can’t stress that part enough, even if it’s not your child.  Someone needs to look out for that child!  If nothing is done, not only is that child going to suffer, but who knows how many other children may suffer in the future, because no one spoke up.  There is no turning the other cheek when a child is involved.  My child and I learned that the hard way.

As I said, each situation has to be taken on its own account.  Pray and listen; the Lord will guide you.  Whether it be to go to your Pastor, contact the Bishop, or worst case scenario, leave the Church, do whatever it is you need to do to protect that child, or yourself, for that matter.  No one should be judged or shunned in the house of the Lord.

Check out Rebecca’s Amazon page at http://www.amazon.com/R.-L.-Moatz/e/B00IPPVAWY/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1403272363&sr=1-2-ent

Interview With Susanne Leist

Profile

Susanne Leist is a good friend and mutual supporter whose Dead Game is an innovative addition to the indie horror genre. A fellow native Brooklynite, Susanne brings her unique insights and lively personality to Center Stage for our interview…

The town of Oasis was the home of an upscale community in your novel. Did your current hometown of Woodmere, New York provide an inspiration for your story? Did you envision the same kind of people and places when describing Oasis?

The town of Oasis is the polar opposite of Woodmere, Long Island. In Woodmere, no one ever walks. People take their cars everywhere, even to the corner store. Most people don’t bother to say hello when they pass you on the street. Strollers aren’t pushed by mothers but by their housekeepers or maids.

In Oasis, Linda loves to walk each morning through town, waving hello to everyone she meets. Only Charles Wolf refuses to wave back, but that leads to another part of the story. Oasis is a friendly town, except for the supernatural element, but I’m getting ahead of myself again.

Dead Game was an innovative contribution to the vampire genre in incorporating the surrealistic hallucination angle. Was this your original game plan, or did you add the vampire to the concept of End House?

My books was originally going to be a simple murder mystery. A murder mystery in small town. It was to begin with End House and the mysterious party. Two of the young residents were to be murdered. The rest of the book was supposed to be the journey to find the murderer.

Instead, End House became alive to me with trap doors and deadly saws. This turned out to be only the beginning of the whole story. Dead bodies turn up on the beach. The reclusive residents don’t come out at night. The story snowballed into a supernatural thriller with a surprise ending.

Charles Wolf was undoubtedly the bad guy in this novel, but it seemed he took a back seat to Todd Morrison as the more sympathetic figure. Are we going to see more of Morrison, or are you planning a Dead Game II?

The Dead Game is the first book of two books. The first book resolves the murder mystery, but at the same time, opens a Pandora box of new mysteries. Its surprise ending will lead to more surprises.

I  have just begun to work on the sequel. My outline and notes are ready.  My writing often leads me in unknown directions, so I won’t know how the book will end until it does.

Todd Morrison will play an important role in the next book as his relationship with Linda becomes more complicated. That’s all I’m going to say for now.

The novel seemed to portray the guests at End House as being upwardly-mobile professionals who would be considered somewhat materialistic. Could the hallucinations at End House be perceived as an allegory of their self-delusuons and conceits?

No, please no. I left the world of finance to escape into the world of my imagination. My imagination doesn’t include allegories or self-righteousness.

This would be an extenuation of the last question. Could it be argued that the vampires were a further metaphor symbolizing what many feel is upper-class society, feeding on the working class, having the tables turned on them?

Vampires are the upper class. They’re the upper class of all creatures. That’s why they’re bad and have to be stopped.  And now we’ve brought politics into my imagination.

Readers could be excused for perceiving a homosexual relationship between Mike and David. It seemed as if David played a feminine role throughout the novel.

If women are silly and scared all the time, then David played a feminine role. But not all women are silly and easily frightened. And not all men are heroes and act brave. And who wins the woman at the end? Not Mike.

Father John seems as if the stereotypical religious figure in the novel. Were you just going with the generic flow in the horror category, or was there a reason you didn’t choose an evangelical preacher or a rabbi?

I used a priest because that’s who I’ve usually seen in horror movies and read about in books. I can’t picture one of my rabbis running after a vampire or chanting spells.

The church and devil worship have a long-standing relationship. I was just continuing the myth.

Most of your Facebook friends would describe you as a religious person. Does it play an important part in your daily life? Do you feel that writing provides a platform for believers?

My religion guides me on all matters. It has taught me to be kind to others and never to embarrass anyone—ever. My religion has a lot of rules so it definitely affects my everyday life. I usually miss out on a lot of things. The Sabbath, each week, keeps me grounded.

Writing could be a very important platform if used properly. However, I’m not using my writing for this purpose. I’m writing to bring adventure and enjoyment to my readers, and a little escape from the humdrum of day to day living.

You moved from Brooklyn to Woodmere. As a fellow Brooklynite, I’ve seen it change enormously in my time. Do you still have family and friends in Brooklyn, and do you see it evolving when you visit?

After my parents passed away, I had no one left in Brooklyn to visit. All their friends are gone. Everyone my age has left the neighborhood behind. I do go back to see Sheepshead Bay. It was and still is a very beautiful area.

Check out Susanne’s Amazon page!!!

http://www.amazon.com/Susanne-Leist/e/B00F253FE6/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1402512364&sr=1-2-ent

Interview With Khalid Muhammad

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I recently had the pleasure of meeting Khalid Muhammad online and reviewing his novel, Agency Rules – Never an Easy Day at the Office. This is an unblinking look at the battle against insurgency in Pakistan, and Khalid narrates the tale with ‘been there done that’ authenticity. So, without further ado, let’s take a look at this upcoming indie author.

The subtitle of your novel, Never An Easy Day At The Office, seems almost cavalier when considering the tone of the novel and the subject matter. Was there a particular reason why you chose it?

Kamal, coming from a wealthy Pathan family, is looking for his identity. He finds it when he joins the Pakistan Army – he is a soldier. We see his growth through the story from soldier to precision sniper to intelligence officer and at no point does he have an easy time with it. Those who have traveled this journey will tell you that it’s never easy to reach that level in the military.

So the title of the novel actually comes from his internal struggle with growing into the roles that he embodies throughout the story. It really is never an easy day at the office for Kamal at any point throughout the book. I am sure that it does come off as cavalier, but it was not meant to be that way at all. It was crafted to help portray Kamal’s journey.

 

 You moved from Michigan into a war zone. Was this a business or personal decision?

It was a bit of both, but I think I have to provide a little background here before I answer your question. I spent the first 27 years of my life in the United States so I am not one of those who left Pakistan to study at an American university. I went through the US public school system and learned my values from both my parents and those who I associated with. While I am quite proud of the US upbringing and values that I gained, I was always going to be Pakistani, so after working for a major technology company for six years, I packed up my things and moved to Pakistan with a six month plan.

The goal was two-fold for me. First, my mother wanted me to marry a Pakistani girl, so that was in the back of my head, but I also wanted to see what the environment was like for setting up a business or working for someone in the country. When I got my first job in Pakistan, I realized that I would never get the benefits and salary I got in Pakistan in the US. They gave me a monthly salary, car and rented home all as part of my employment package! There was no way that I was going to miss this opportunity.

Now, 17 years later, I have worked for some of Pakistan’s largest technology companies, moved to London and Dubai for a period of years as part of that employment, and have owned my own company for the past 10 years. The move to Pakistan ended up being quite good for me! Oh, yeah, my wife would kill me if I didn’t mention that I got married to a Pakistani girl as well.

 

 The major protagonist, Kamal Khan, has a background curiously similar to that of Usama Bin Laden. Was this an attempt to ‘even the scales’ in light of criticism of upper-class Muslims providing financial support to terror groups?

Oh God no! I think that bin Laden was a scourge on the Muslim population as a whole. But then, I don’t classify bin Laden as a Muslim. He was a terrorist and will always be a terrorist. Religion had nothing to do with what he did, other than provide a recruitment cover for him to indoctrinate others into his personal war.

Kamal, on the other hand, is a hero in the making. He comes from a fairly affluent family, but he was never privy to the wealth that his family held. He spent most of this life, prior to joining the Army, at a boarding school in Peshawar with middle class students. He struggles, not against society, but against those who would tear his country apart with their opinions of Islam.

I haven’t fully addressed it in the first book, but the next two will get into the funding of terror groups operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Personally, I hold the position that anyone who is funding these terror groups is just as guilty of the crime as the ones who carry out the suicide attacks, car bombings and the more vicious 9/11 and 7/7 attacks. What I find funny is that these same people are involved in everything that the terror groups stand against from frequenting prostitutes to lavish lifestyles. I can’t understand how the two can get on the same page if the terror groups are really interested in establishing a Muslim society.

 

We find an inept Azam Shah backed by a more pragmatic Ahsan Chaudhry is resolving the issues facing the regime. Is there more to the storyline than what we first perceive? The competition between Pakistanis and Indians is well-known, and Chaudhry would be thought of by readers as being of Indian descent.

There is a great deal more to the story that will be revealed in the next book. Azam Shah is the typical Pakistani politician who enjoys the spoils of political leadership. He has a basic community college education. He is corrupt, firmly believes in nepotism and is, as you said, inept. This is the political leadership that Pakistan has dealt with in every democratic government, which is why the country is in the state it is in. But that is a discussion for another day.

Ahsan Chaudhry is a diametric opposite to Azam Shah. Ahsan is foreign educated, which in the 1990s meant that you had money. He understands some of the problems that Pakistan faces, but relies greatly on the advice of his core circle to guide him to decisions. The one characteristic that you see with Ahsan that I carried over from the historical model of Pakistani politicians, is the penchant to be controlled by the President and the Army to gain politicial power.

Chaudhry is a common name in both India and Pakistan. Punjab, where the majority of Chaudhrys reside, was divided into two at the time of Partition in 1947. Technically, all first generation Pakistanis are of Indian descent!

Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, has maintained a political cell inside their walls on the insistence of every democratic government. The political cell has one function – to intimidate politicians into following or supporting the government of the day’s agenda. They have been used in the past to bring independent Parliament members into the fold of the major parties. Now, here is the interesting part: when President Musharraf was in government, he shut down the ISI’s political cell. The Pakistan People’s Party government didn’t re-instate it, but when Nawaz Sharif came to power in the rigged elections of 2013, he has tried to move the ISI to reconstitute the political cell, which has failed thus far. Since the intelligence services, which fall under the scope of the Army, don’t answer to the Prime Minister, he is unable to just issue an order and have it done. The Army command must accept the order.

 

 We find General Amjad Ali trying to keep it all together amidst the political and oligarchic confusion. Yet the media makes it appear as if it is the incompetency of the military that allows the Taliban to rule supreme in neighboring Afghanistan. Is your novel an attempt to set the story straight?

Excellent question! Let’s take this in parts, and I am going to apologize in advance for the long answer.

First, the media. The Pakistani media has never known what freedom of speech really means. For decades, Pakistan had one television channel and a handful of newspapers, so the government could control what was or was not printed. The current Prime Minister has a long history of fighting with the media, having once stopped newsprint to a major Urdu publication because they wouldn’t stop writing about his rampant corruption. This was in 1997-98. Since then, the media has exploded in Pakistan.

We now have over 60 domestic television channels and more than 40 daily newspapers in both English and Urdu. This revolution in the media was initiated by President Musharraf, a military dictator, not a civilian elected government.

Even with all the freedom, the media still operates like it did in the past. There are innumerable stories of yellow journalism, false stories being created to embarrass or harass opposition politicians, and some have even been accused of extortion and blackmail. It’s well known throughout Pakistan that when you hear a news story breaking, don’t bother to pay attention because in 20 minutes the story will be different. That’s not a media. That’s the National Enquirer on a massive scale.

The Pakistan Army doesn’t have anything invested in the Taliban in Afghanistan. We did for many years pre-invasion and post-Soviet withdrawal, but that was also a democratic government’s decision. In the early 1970s, Naseer Ullah Babar, a two-star general, was commanding the Frontier Corps, the paramilitary force that patrols the tribal areas of Pakistan and the border with Afghanistan. He was tasked by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Prime Minister of Pakistan, to fund and train an Afghan mujahideen to suppress the government of Dawood Khan and his vision for a united Pukthunistan. The operation was a massive success that led to Babar resigning his commission in the Army and starting his political career with the same Pakistan People’s Party that Bhutto had founded. In 1988, Babar was appointed the “Special Advisor on Internal Affairs” in Benazir Bhutto’s first government and the Taliban was accepted as the leadership in Afghanistan by Pakistan. The ties between the Pakistan Army and the Afghan Mujahideen (later Taliban) were started during a democratic government.

There are many things that the media doesn’t bring into the conversation, which have had a huge impact on the Pakistan we see today. The media shys away from the Saudi-Wahabi connection with extremist imams in Pakistan. They don’t highlight the billions in funding that is given to these imams to establish madrassahs to indoctrinate the ultra-fundamentalist agenda of Wahabism. They point their fingers at the Army.

I should also add that during the Musharraf government, the Army has been cleansed of the jihadi elements that General Zia espoused and promoted when he was Chief of Army Staff. It was also Musharraf’s government that took the war to the Taliban elements within Pakistan. We have seen a significant decrease in this action since Musharraf left the Presidency, because civilian politicians are unwilling to take the hard steps. Even today, as the Army has pounded the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan’s hideouts and encircled them in preparation for an all-out operation, we have major political leaders, ranging from Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif, to the religious parties, demanding that the government negotiate with the TTP, rather than deal them a death blow.

So, Agency Rules is not an attempt to set the story straight, rather it is a look behind the curtain to understand all the players, the on ground situation and how Pakistan really works beyond what the media, domestic or international, would like to portray about the country. People need to understand that there is significantly more to the story of Pakistan than the media would like to include in the discourse.

 

Shahid Aleem is your major antagonist, threatening the Pakistani nation with death and destruction. Yet one of his biggest obstacles is the paramilitary squabbles between the tribes. Do you feel the religious aspects of these arguments were fully discussed? What keeps Pakistan from becoming a self-styled theocracy like Iran?

Imam Shahid is a recruiter, which is why you see so much of him in the first book. He is the epitome of the role that many of the imams I mentioned in the previous answer play in Pakistan. He is someone’s puppet for money.

I didn’t go into a great detail about the religious aspects of these arguments in the first book because of how the story turns in the next book. Also, it is very difficult to separate the religious from the cultural in the Pathan culture. Being a Pathan myself, I have seen how imams use their version of Islam to convince “motivated” individuals to join madrassahs and jihadi movements. Most of what they are teaching these individuals is not Islamic, but a cultural or personal belief structure supported with single line verses from the Holy Quran, which is not how Islam is taught to any thinking person. The standard is different for those who come from a lower economic class. Since the imam is sure that this demographic will never read or understand the Holy Quran themselves, they are free to quote and state whatever they want without being questioned.

The next book, without giving anything away, will go into greater detail about this part of the dynamic in Pakistan. Now, that the reader has been introduced to Pakistani culture, I am able to break things down more into the cultures, beliefs and impacts.

Why has Pakistan not decended into a self-styled theocracy? We have! Pakistan had the unfortunate experience of ultra-fundamentalist General Zia-ul-Haq, who was the sitting military dictator during the Soviet invasion. Zia believed that Pakistan had become too liberal, with the clubs, bars and casinos, and wanted to reel it all in. To do so, he enacted a series of Islamic legislations. The most damning has been the Hudood Ordinance, which has set women’s rights on its head. He also created departments that put most of the decision making behind the approval of a group of imams that sat on the Council for Islamic Interests (CII). The CII’s sole responsibility is to determine if any law passed, or considered, by Parliament meets the requirements set forth in the Holy Quran. If it is not, then the law must be changed.

Pakistan is still living with these laws and departments today because of the sheer influence that the religious democratic parties have. I’ll give you an example: if someone dares to question the blasphemy law, which former Governor Punjab Salmaan Taseer did, the firebrand imams declared him worthy of death. His own security guard assassinated him as he exited his car outside an Islamabad restaurant. The killer was, and still is, considered a hero of Islam for what he did by those firebrand believers. Six years on, the killer has not been convicted of his crime, but sits in a jail cell in Rawalpindi. This is excluding the massive number of minorities that have been killed by angry mobs riled up to take action against someone who most likely made an unknowing mistake.

 

You’ve obviously done a lot of homework as regards the detailed military narrative in the novel. Do you owe any of this to real-life contacts in Karachi?

Thanks for that! I put a great deal of effort into making sure that the story flowed with the same verve that a spy thriller should. That did mean spending a lot of time with Army officers and soldiers, both retired and serving, to understand the dynamic that I had to get right. I do have a number of friends and family members that are part of Pakistan’s armed forces.

Much of what you read in the pages of Agency Rules is my own personal experience since I moved to Pakistan. I have sat and listened to Friday sermons given by these firebrand imams. I have visited some of the madrassahs in my home area of Swat. I visited the training camps and suicide bomber camps in Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa. And I have seen first-hand the destruction that the Taliban’s way of thinking has poured on Pakistan with both hands.

I can honestly say that I spent years reading everything I could get my hands on to understand all the perceptions and assumptions before I wrote a single word. The only way to get it right is to immerse yourself into the research. Then the whole story flowed as if I was living it out myself.

 

Reading the numerous reviews you’ve gotten on the novel, most of your critics are expecting a lot more in the sequel. Which aspects of your story are you planning to expound upon?

Critics? I have critics?!? I think that I have been quite fortunate with the acceptance that my novel has gotten across the world. Most of the reviews are very positive and you can tell that they really got into the flow of the story. There have been some that focused on what they wanted to see, rather than what was on the page and that’s ok. Every reader brings some of their own biases and thoughts into anything they read.

In terms of what I am planning to expound upon in the future novels, I can talk about book 2 and 3, which will most likely be released simultaneously towards the end of Fall 2014. Since Kamal is the focus of the story, we will see him grow. His growth will create more questions in his own mind about what he knows and what he sees. There is the introduction of new players in the arena including a suicide bomber, a young politician and a new Army Chief, who will help the readers understand more of the extremist teachings/agenda, the political landscape and the civil-miilitary relationship under a new government. The intent behind the Agency Rules series is not just to tell the reader a story, but to help them experience it from the eyes of those who are telling it. With Pakistan’s disparate population, the reader, like every Pakistani, will be wondering about the intentions of every player, every scenario, and every act. You get to see Pakistan through our eyes, with our pain and our struggle for peace and freedom against all the forces that would like to hamper it.

 

Where do you see the real-life situation in Karachi heading? It seems as if they’re trying to appease all sides, as is reflected by Azam Shah. Do you see a more active anti-Jihadist campaign emerging in the near future?

Karachi is a timebomb waiting to explode, but it is not the jihadis that present the biggest problem. In Karachi, we stuggle with gangs fighting for more and more terrority in the city, backed by political parties. We struggle with sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia extremist groups that find their home base in Punjab. It’s after all of this that we have the jihadi element to deal with, which is also backed by religious parties and the extremist groups.

The problem comes up when you look at the political side of it. Going back to the 1990s, the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) rose to prominence with a middle-class membership. The MQM is different than all the other political parties in Pakistan because their leadership and members are not agricultural landowners, and they find their base among disgruntled the Urdu- speaking first (emigrants from India as opposed to those already living in what is now Pakistan) and then the wider middle-class of the country. This same MQM was targeted by Naseer Ullah Baber, then Interior Minister, in Operation Clean-Up (Operation Blue Fox) where almost 15,000 members were kidnapped and executed by the Pakistan Rangers, another paramilitary force, and backed by the Pakistan Army.

We saw the power of the MQM just a few days ago when Altaf Hussain, leader and founder of the party, was arrested on money laundering charges in the UK. Karachi, a city of 20 million, was shut down completely within 20 minutes of the news being reported in Pakistan, the Karachi Stock Exchange saw a drop of almost 900 points in the span of an hour. Why did the whole city shutdown? Fear of reprecussions from the MQM.

The media, which you mentioned earlier, doesn’t help with the resolution of the problem either. For six months in 2007, a place known as Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) rose to international prominence when they illegally took over a government library to convert it into an extension for their mosque. The Lal Masjid brigade, as most Pakistanis like to call them, closed down DVD and music CD shops, kidnapped those who they thought were involved in immoral activities and kidnapped police officers that dared to come to close to their base of operations. Each kidnapped person would be released once they accepted their crimes against Islam and promised never to do it again. The media was going nuts on the fact that the Army had not taken any action even though the threat was just a few miles from Prime Minister House, Parliament and numerous foreign missions. One reporter famously asked President Musharraf why he had not ordered any action by the armed forces. Musharraf said, “I know how the media operates in Pakistan. Today, you ask me why I haven’t taken any action, but if tomorrow the government launches an operation against Lal Masjid, you will be the first ones to scream that innocents had been killed.” And that is exactly what happened.

In July when the military, led by our SSG commandos, moved in, the media changed the language from terrorist to martyr. Today, former President Musharraf stands charged with multiple counts of murder for a decision taken to protect the citizens of Islamabad.

When we talk about taking serious action against the jihadis in Karachi, people remember all that has happened in the past causing them to hesitate. The government of the day has taken the position that they must negotiate with the jihadi/TTP elements rather than taking stern military action, which has angered the public and the Army as a whole. 99% of Pakistanis want to be free of these elements in their cities. They want to live in peace, but as long as the government wants to negotiate, the Army has to sit on their hands.

 

Your biography indicates you’ve had a varied and extraordinary life journey, from Michigan to Karachi. How would you define your mission statement, and will you ever return to any of the places you once called home?

Hahaha… a mission statement. I have seen most of the US and lived in five states – Alabama, Missouri, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois. Outside the US, I lived in all the metropolitan cities of Pakistan, London for a couple of years and Dubai, not to mention the number of places I have traveled on business. I think if I were to give a mission statement, it would be simple. See. Do. Live. People get caught up in the comfortable and miss the extraordinary. I would rather have healthy doses of both in my life.

Will I ever return to any of the places? Of course. My parents and younger sister still live in the US. I have friends scattered around the world from my professional engagements. I will always go back and visit, but I want to see new places, experience new things and let my life enrich itself. It will make me a better writer and allow me to take my readers on wilder adventures!

I wanted to take a minute and thank you, John, for hosting me for this interview. Being that you have read Agency Rules, it made the interview much more interesting than the standard questions that everyone asks. I would also like to thank your readers for stopping by and reading this long discussion, I would hope that some of you would comment, share and tweet this to your friends and family. And, of course, I also hope that some of your readers will be willing to pick up Agency Rules and give it a try. I promise not to disappoint! You can get Agency Rules #1 – Never an Easy Day at the Office on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo and iTunes. It’s available in paperback and digital formats, so you have no excuse not to read it!

 

About the author…

Khalid Muhammad was born in Pakistan’s troubled Swat Valley, educated and raised in the United States, Khalid returned to Pakistan almost 17 years ago and fell in love with his country. His debut novel, Agency Rules – Never an Easy Day at the Office, is a journey behind the headlines about Pakistan, the world’s most dangerous place, to deliver an intense story that will challenge the reader to question what they have been told.

Find out more about him at agencyrules.com, @AgencyRulesPK (twitter.com/AgencyRulesPK) or the Agency Rules Facebook page (facebook.com/AgencyRulesPK).

Buy links

Amazon – http://smarturl.it/amazon-ar

B&N – http://bit.ly/BN-AR
iTunes – http://bit.ly/IT-AR
Kobo – http://bit.ly/K-AR

Interview With Elle Klass

 

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I’m pleased to open this new blog with an interview featuring a good friend and colleague. The lovely and talented Elle Klass is one of the industry’s most promising indie authors. Her novel As Snow Falls is a daring and innovative study in narrative technique, and her Baby Girl series is allowing the industry to witness the development of her unique talent. Ladies and gentlemen, without further ado…

Your first-person narrative style in As Snow Falls was highly distinctive. You went to a more traditional style in the Baby Girl series. Can you tell us more about your development process in Snow, and whether it was something you would want to try again? Was there a reason you might have thought it wouldn’t have worked in Baby Girl?

In As Snow Falls I wanted to do something that most authors are too afraid to try, something unique in the literature world. I did that. With Baby Girl I went again with the first person narrative, but there is a lot of dialogue which gives the reader different perspectives. I have some other works I will be publishing in the future, which are more traditional third person narrative. Every book is different and so is its narrator. Anything is possible in the future, but As Snow Falls will most likely stand as an exclusive literary treasure.

 Baby Girl follows an exotic storyline, with Cleo riding the rails across America in Book One before ending up in Europe in Book Two. Were you paying tribute to the classic Cinderella fairy tale? What assets and qualities did you endow Cleo with to enable her to carry such a series?

Cleo is intelligent, even though she never made it past the 6th grade. She is also a superbly hot babe who is alluring to the male gender, secretive, and not afraid to take chances. One of my favorite of her qualities is her ability to slip past trouble, however that quality wouldn’t be there if the others weren’t present.

 There’s not a whole lot of political discussion in your novels, though there are a lot of sociological overtones in Baby Girl. Considering the immigration controversy in France and the overwhelming issues facing the homeless, will Cleo possibly return to her roots in weighing in on the situation?

Cleo isn’t much for politics, she’s young and somewhat tunnel vision. Her future is finding out who she really is. That idea becomes more consuming to her as she grows older. In France she was hold up in a luxurious resort of a hotel with a devastatingly handsome and rich man. After the housing situations and poverty she grew up with she enjoyed being spoiled. In Baby Girl 3 she will make it on her own, meeting a few new characters, relationships she even holds onto long into the future. She really comes into herself in book 3. In book 4… writing that now.

We see how Didier was reminiscent of a number of protagonists in classic literature, most notably Edward Rochester in Jane Eyre. Are we looking forward to Cleo to find the mature lover in her future, or will she continue climbing the ladder to the success that she and Einstein never achieved?

There are a few surprises there. She does meet another, Fetch, who reminds her a bit of Einstein in personality. The idea scares her a little, but I hate to give away any secrets. There is another man she meets, he’s not good looking or rich. He is endearing and works himself a special place in her heart.

You were born in California, then moved to Florida. How have your life experiences influenced your novels? Was the homeless community in the two cities different for young people like Cleo and Einstein?

I have lived on each coast and travelled through most states in between. People are people. The homeless situation is bad everywhere and many kids find themselves prostituting, using drugs, or worse human trafficking or ending up dead at the hands of a psychopath. I wanted something a little lighter for my characters. When I moved to the south I was culture shocked at first, rebel flags, gun racks, Nascar and hunting were new to me. I also couldn’t understand people because of their hefty southern accents. I’m going to mention here in did an 8 year stint in Virginia before moving to Florida so when I talk about accents that was in Virginia. People where I live in Florida don’t generally have a heavy drawl, some do. For Cleo and Einstein each city was different but they never changed their M.O. get in, get out and don’t get caught.

A lot of people would have wanted to see Einstein continue alongside Cleo in her journey. What made you decide to remove him from the storyline?

They were too young and every girl needs a heartbreak. Cleo’s heartbreak stays with her and shapes her future, which will be seen more after book 4. Yes, I have Cleo’s life planned out for more books of which I may tie book 1 together and produce two more full length novels to make a trilogy. The future will see.

 Can you tell us about your days at the University of North Florida? What made you realize you were going to become a novelist?

Being a novelist is my dream, but I didn’t think it would make enough to help raise my daughters so I chose education, and have now spent 11 years teaching. Education seemed a little more stable. With all the changes in education over the past few years I unfortunately have to say that’s not true anymore. There is little to no job security now for new teachers in Florida or even for those of us who have been at it before the rules changed. Writing was something I enjoyed since I was young, my children are grown, less the job security thing I figure now is a good time to get started on my dream. As Snow Falls was the first novel I wrote after realizing teaching had one great fringe benefit (still does), summers off. I spent one entire summer plugged into my old Dell.

 Who are your favorite writers? Which of them have been your biggest influences and why?

I studied literature in college and loved some of the classics, but my favorite novelist of all time is V.C. Andrews. Her books probably influenced my style more than any other author ever. In fact ,I still have all my old trade paperbacks of the Dollanger and Heaven series. I’m thrilled that Lifetime is making them into movies! It is the intense and subtle darkness in her words that keeps me glued to the pages. Her ability to give her protagonist a fairy tale life and then take it away at the drop of a hat. By no means would I compare my writing to hers, but I do associate with the darkness, only my books are somewhat lighter with humorous overtones.

Do you have a great Elle Klass novel you’re dreaming of writing? Tell us about it.

I have a slew of novels. For starters Eye of The storm the first of a trilogy will be released this fall. Cleo’s adventures will span a few novels. This fall, for NaNoWriMo I’m contemplating between writing book 2 in my Strom series or going with a hilarious third person narrative that is currently a sketch about a biology teacher Joan, who with the aid of her students have a hilarious and somewhat disturbing day, which could also lead to a series since I have so many teaching stories to embellish on. I also have a rough draft of a stream punkish book about a teacher who lives below a serial killer and beside a group of vampires. The idea from this book comes from a personal experience. In my private thoughts I have a zombie novel forming, gruesome and funny.

 What is your biggest criticism of the indie writing scene these days? What do you think can be done to improve it?

There are so many indie authors out there it is highly competitive. I published As Snow Falls knowing nothing about publishing and little about the differences of publishing indie style or traditional. It seems there is still a lot of criticism about indie writers, not being true authors. I would like to say that is so not true. I am an avid reader and spent my childhood reading traditionally published novels. Now that I’m older I enjoy sitting down with a fantastic unknown indie published book. I may check out a traditionally published book from the library, but my money goes strictly to indies.  To improve the situation an author needs to do their research and use the same tricks the big guys use. We also need to work together as a team, getting our work out there to the public using all means possible. A few great indie authors I would recommend checking out are for starters John Reinhard Dizon, my sister and YA fiction author Terri Klaes Harper, for excellent poetry Jeniann Bowers, and for intense multi genres John Tucker. I could keep going with this list my Kindle is full of excellent indie reads. I even have a few autographed paperbacks that I cherish as much as my beloved V.C. Andrews collection.

Check out Elle’s Amazon Author Page!!!

http://www.amazon.com/Elle-Klass/e/B00F2Y48C0/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1401667781&sr=1-2-ent