Snake Eater: James Stejskal Interview

James Stejskal

James Stejskal talks Iran, the Shah and his new novel.
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James Stejskal, your new novel is set around the Iranian revolution and the seizure of the US Embassy – why did you pick this event to write about?

It’s an event I experienced first-hand as a member of a Special Forces unit that was involved in the rescue attempt. Most of the characters in my story are based on the men and women who participated in the mission. Mostly, however, I wanted to celebrate the success of one aspect of the operation, the infiltration of a small team into Tehran to collect intelligence. It actually happened and they all came home safely.

How did you go about researching the historical events for your novel?

My experiences inform much of what I write about, so I often use my memories to begin the writing process. When I need specific details about events I use historical records, archives, photography, and even technical manuals. Additionally, my books transport the reader to many places — Berlin, Athens, and Zanzibar among others — and to describe them I rely on maps, interviews, and the good fortune to have actually lived or worked in many of them. When I haven’t visited a place, I try to go there to experience it first hand. In the end, I try to imagine what it would be like for my characters to be at the heart of the event.

The US Embassy seizure by the Iranians was an event that shocked the world, but Iranian suspicion of the US had been brewing for over 20 years. Looking back, do you think there was an appreciation in the US administration of that hostility, before the revolution and then during it, which of course happened earlier on in the year.

One would have thought that the administration should have recognized how bad things were when the Embassy was threatened earlier that year. Carter also had ample warning that allowing the Shah to enter the US would be a problem but it seems no one ever imagined our diplomats would actually be taken hostage.  Additionally, the CIA had lost much of its intelligence capabilities in the country when the revolution took place. Still, there were many signs that were ignored or downplayed.

Iranians are often presented in the west as quite one dimensional in movies etc., but you haven’t allowed your characters to fall into this trap – was it a challenge to put yourself into the mind of an Iranian in 1979?

One benefit of living overseas is the opportunity it gives you to experience each country’s or region’s peoples. Iran is no different and I try to highlight the fact that Persians have a rich and diverse culture not defined by just one ideology.  My characters reflect at least four different aspects of that culture, both positive and negative – which is the case in every culture in the world.

How sympathetic should we be to Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, otherwise known as the Shah? On the one hand he was something of a pariah after the revolution, travelling from country to country whilst undergoing cancer treatment, but on the other he himself ruled over a pretty horrible regime.

The Shah in 1973

The governments of the United States and Britain put the Shah in power and he used his power to turn Iran into an absolute monarchy that was maintained by fear and terror.  In my opinion, we shouldn’t be sympathetic to Pahlavi at all. Of course that view comes from years of retrospection. More to the point, we should have more sympathy for the Iranian people who suffered under his rule as well as under the rule of the current theocracy. We must remember that the USA and UK bear some responsibility for the resentment that built up and finally boiled over.

How much did the Embassy seizure impact the US Elections that year between Carter and Reagan?

Although the nation initially stood behind President Carter after the Embassy was seized, as the year wore on, a bad economy and the continuing crisis dragged Carter down. Moreover, the failure of the Operation Eagle Claw rescue mission at Desert One, which I describe in the book, allowed Reagan to use his powerful messaging apparatus to gain a decisive edge to win an overwhelming victory beginning the so-called “Reagan Era.”

Without regime change in Iran, will there continue to be hostility between the two countries?

First, regime change can only take place if it is the will of the Iranian people. Beyond that, hostility will remain between the USA and Iran (and other countries in the region) until the Iranian leadership changes its stand on Israel and ceases to use its forces to foment instability in the region.

For any of our readers interested in finding out more, is there a non-fiction book you recommend?

There are just a few that cover the entirety of the Iranian Revolution and its consequences. Guests of the Ayatollah by Mark Bowden does an excellent job of describing it as well as the ordeal of the American hostages. He has also managed to bring in interviews of some of the Iranians who took part in the seizure. Ken Follett wrote a brilliant book called On Wings of Eagles. It describes the rescue of two American business executives from a prison in Tehran. It took place in 1978 during the earliest stages of the revolution and was a private mission funded by CEO Ross Perot and carried out by retired Army Colonel “Bull” Simons. There are several books about Desert One but only one history describes the successful intelligence collection mission into Tehran — Special Forces Berlin: Clandestine Operations of the U.S. Army’s Elite, a book I wrote to document the history of a very special army unit.

You’ve had led an interesting life, having previously served in the army, as an intelligence officer, an archaeologist and now as a writer and historian. Which one do you enjoy most?

Having your life described as “interesting” always sounds like a curse. That said, I have enjoyed all my different endeavors and, although there have been moments of tedium or terror, I haven’t regretted a single moment. But I wouldn’t go back to redo them, I’m either too old or too jaded to repeat things. My life has progressed rather well to this point, especially because I have a wonderful partner to share it with.

What are you working on next?

The “Snake Eaters” have more stories to tell. My next book takes Paul Stavros and his comrades into the maelstrom of the Troubles in Northern Ireland during the 1980s. I visited there during that time period, so I wrote what I remembered of the place and put my characters into the scene. It tells a story that is based in fact but I’ve changed it a wee bit to make the security reviewers happy. I promise you it will be a thrilling ride!

James Stejskal is the author of the Snake Eater Chronicles, the latest of which is Appointment in Tehran and published by Casemate.