Stuart Cohen met with killers and pacifists, revolutionaries and radicals before writing his new novel, "The Army of the Republic."
The Juneau novelist set his fourth book largely in Seattle, although like all his books, this one has been influenced by his extensive travels to South America and Asia. An entrepreneur as well as a writer, Cohen imports silk, cashmere and textiles for his Juneau store, Invisible World - also the name of his first novel, published in 1997. His travels and contacts in the second and third worlds inspire his characters and his stories.
Cohen's last novel, "The Stone Angels," was translated into nine languages. A murder mystery set amid tangos and police corruption in Buenos Aires, it was a hit in Russia, where he sold out the printing of 12,500 copies.
St. Martin's Press has published "The Army of the Republic" and has set Sept. 2 as a national release date. Cohen will do readings and a presentation on Sept. 4 and 5 at Hearthside Books before launching a West Coast book signing tour.
With his newest work, Cohen has built on his appreciation for international intrigue, but anchored his book firmly on American soil.
"I talked with organizers of the 1999 WTO protests, the 'Battle of Seattle,' as the media called it, as well as revolutionaries in Argentina for this book," Cohen said. "Originally it was going to be set in Argentina, but over time I realized it needed to be set in the United States. I wondered what an insurgency would look like in this country. A lot of the things I saw imposed on Latin America - privatization, cronyism, corruption and disregard for a well-run bureaucracy - I saw coming to pass in the United States."
"The Army of the Republic" is set in the near future. After an economic crash, the country is in the hands of a pseudo-democracy, where rigged elections keep a corporate-influenced government in uneasy power. It's a book about people, Cohen said, three in particular.
"Lando is a 20-something guerrilla leader in Seattle," Cohen said. "He's charismatic, and he's brought the left and the right together to overthrow the government - by violent means. He has an uneasy relationship with a group led by Emily (another major character), a group that is trying to build a mass movement to overthrow the government peacefully. The third character is James Sands, who has built a billion-dollar business privatizing bankrupt municipal water supplies. All three are interrelated, they're all trying to 'save the country' in their own way."
Cohen said there are very few bad guys in the book - even the guys who run death squads are sympathetic.
"It's just not simple," he said. "Terrorists aren't good guys, but they aren't simply bad guys. It's about people in an insurgency and the incredibly horrifying choices they have to make - on both sides - the insurgents and the people backing the government. It's about loyalty and friendship and family. What is the power of the people? What is democracy's bottom line?"
Cohen wrote the book between 2004 and 2007.
"In 2002 I started researching propaganda and how it works," he said. From Moses to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, the dogma of ideology fascinated Cohen. He kept talking to people on the left and the right, with experience in revolution, protest, law enforcement and democracy-building, developing his characters and story as he learned from their experiences and insights.
He's recently been working with a small army at St. Martin's Press - editors, graphic artists, Web designers, publicists and marketers - in preparation for the book's release. He's fortunate that he has the backing of the senior editor.
"This book was acquired by the editor-in-chief, and he's making sure the book works," Cohen said. "It's the lead fiction title for the fall, which is a real honor."
Publishing is a complicated and convoluted aspect of what Cohen calls the entertainment business -largely unrelated to writing, but it's taught Cohen a great deal.
"My next book is going to be about the music business," he said. "Of all three entertainment businesses, music, movies and books, music is the cruelest."
Riley Woodford is a writer living in Juneau.
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