Friday, July 24, 2015

Jonathan Pollard: the story behind the story and what it means for the future of the Middle East

This article was written in February of 2007. It has never before been published.

In 1984, Israeli Intelligence (with the aid of a compliant CIA analyst named Jonathan Pollard now serving a life sentence) gained access to top-secret CIA satellite spy photos which showed the Chinese parading some 'hot' Chinese Ballistic Missiles in front of a Saudi audience at a top-secret missile complex. Apparently, Saudi King Fahd had authorized a $20 Billion payday for delivery of said missiles and the construction of a launching site deep in the Arabian desert that no onenot the Americans, and certainly not the Israeliswas ever supposed to find out about.  Enter Jonathan Pollard.*

Jonathan Pollard in a photo published by the Washington Post.

The Saudis were going for a nuclear payload that of course threatened to upset the entire balance of power in the Middle East.  Once the Israelis found out what was going on, they sent a stern warning to King Fahd in the form of a "special delivery" of live pigs from C-130's right onto the Saudi runway. Of course this message infuriated and humiliated King Fahd, but he got the message loud and clear:  "You can buy all the missiles you want, but the Israelis own the sky. We can penetrate your airspace, we can destroy your entire country. Don't get any ideas."


There is an old Arab saying, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."  The Saudi royals fear for their safety and perpetuity in the new climate of Islamo-Fascism and "Bin Laden Worship," especially that of the Shia Faction being exported from Iran and the imminent readiness of Iran's own nuclear weapons program.  There are at least 13 Iranian nuclear facilities, some in underground bunkers.  The key target according to Military Sources (obtained from the Southern Command Website) is the Natanz Nuclear Facility, some 200 miles south of Tehran that houses at least one centrifuge cascade that is thought to be where nuclear fuel for weapons is being developed.  There is also the Bushehr nuclear reactor on the Persian Gulf and any bombing at this site could prove deadly for the scores of Russian Contractors working there.  Military Sources also predict that Israel would launch an attack during daylight hours in order to expedite all the technicians and scientists working there.**


Let's face it, the only Air Force in that part of the world with the experience, determination and capability of pulling off a job of this caliber belongs to Israel. The Saudis learned their lesson about who owns the sky. But there is one major complication: a refueling base is of utmost necessity, but where? The Saudis will have to realize that their peninsula is the only practical strategic choice.  The question that remains is, Is the imminent threat of a hostile, nuclear Iran catalyst enough for a quiet, secret alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia? Can past humiliations such as the Pollard Affair  be 'swept under the carpet'?   Can the Saudi Monarch, King Abdullah, finally acquiesce to releasing him as a show of good faith? Okay, so this is a little far-fetched, but in the course of Israeli-Saudi affairs, stranger things have occurred. In the 1990's, just before the start of the Gulf War, the Saudis gave $15 million as a down payment to members of the Russian mafia for the purchase of $75 million worth of red mercury, which, the Saudis believed, was a substance that could be used to make a nuclear bomb. In reality, it had no fissionable potential at all. Unbeknownst to the Saudis, the $15 million was paid to con men. It was only after the money was spent that the Saudis began to wonder if the sellers were not Russians at all but Israelis. Truth is always stranger than fiction. But I have digressed....


*For the fascinating story about how the CIA pieced together that the Chinese and the Saudis had entered into a secret missile deal please read "The Gold of Exodus: The Discover of the True Mount Sinai" by Howard Blum.


**Although this was not the case when the Israelis bombed Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981, which was manned mostly by Frenchmen. As I recall, they bombed it on a Sunday to minimize any loss of life.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Check out my interview with Publishers Weekly

Want to Succeed in Self-Publishing? Revise Wisely: Tips From an Indie Author


As a writer of historical fiction, indie author Sophie Schiller has always wanted to bring her “own unique brand of adventure” to life. In 2013, she self-published her first novel, Spy Island—and notes that going indie opened up a host of new opportunities.
Publishers Weekly praised her latest novel, Race to Tibet, with our reviewer saying it did “a solid job of transforming an obscure real-life Victorian expedition into a thrilling yarn.” Looking back, Schiller is happy with her self-publishing journey: “In a way, I'm glad I learned everything one step at a time. Everything that pertains to publishing your novel, from conceptualizing to creating your cover image, to articulating the back blurb, to hiring an editor, to marketing your book, can only be learned through experience. The best advice is to take it one step at a time and don't rush your book to press.”

We asked Schiller for some advice for aspiring indie authors:
Kill Your Television
“If you want to be a serious writer, throw away your TV. The life of a serious writer and a TV-watcher are incompatible.”
Revise Wisely
“Don't waste too much time editing your manuscript until the first draft is complete, [and when you’re done] use beta readers—hopefully with some knowledge about your book's subject matter—to tweak your manuscripts before the final edit and publishing.”
Do Your Research
“Start with memoirs, letters, and diaries from the era, and, to acquire a larger grasp of the period, study history books, newspaper articles, and biographies…For dialogue, I suggest watching theatrical performances, to attune your ear to the speech patterns and vocabulary of the time. The more you as the writer immerse yourself in that period, the more the material will start to flow from your subconscious. Above all, you must let go of any preconceived notions about how an individual from that era should speak, think, and act. Aim for authenticity. Let your characters speak and act in the most natural way possible for their time and place.”

Saturday, April 18, 2015

One of those "a-ha"moments...

     Today I had one of those "a-ha" moments when I saw this painting, Chez Tortoni by Edouard Manet. 
Chez Tortoni by Edouard Manet (1878-80). Cafe Tortoni earned an international reputation by its famous clientele as well as its frozen desserts.
     While I was writing Race to Tibet, I had set the first scene of the novel—an altercation between Gabriel Bonvalot and General Prejevalsky that may or may not be realin Café Tortoni, a well-known café on the Rue des Italiens in Paris. But until today I had never known about the existence of this painting, even though I had been to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston numerous times, although not prior to March 18, 1990, the day it was stolen. To me, Cafe Tortoni, with its sophisticated ambiance and suave reputation, known for being the meeting place of politicians, intellectuals, scholars, dandies, and ladies of the demi-monde seemed to be the perfect setting to place two opposing characters, and how much more so now that I can see it through Manet's eyes. All I can say is, "Wow!" and pray that some day Chez Tortoni is restored to its rightful place in the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, one of Boston's great cultural treasures.
Cafe Tortoni on the Boulevard des Italiens, Paris.
Incidentally, the FBI is offering a $5 million reward for the return of Chez Tortoni.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

How an Obscure Danish Princess led me to write Race to Tibet

The idea for writing Race to Tibet came about in an unusual manner. While I was researching my first book, a historical novel set in the Danish West Indies, I came across an obscure, outspoken Danish princess whose life story gripped me. Princess Marie Valdemar was born in 1865 as Princess Marie d'Orléans, the daughter of Prince Robert, Duke of Chartres, a Grandson of King Louis-Philippe of France and a Pretender to the French throne.

Portrait study of Princess Marie of Denmark by Albert Edelfelt (1894)

Through her marriage to Prince Valdemar (the youngest son of Christian IX of Denmark), Princess Marie developed a great love of Denmark and the Danish people. In addition, she strongly opposed the sale of the Danish West Indies to the United States. Out of curiosity, I began to look into the life of Princess Marie d'Orléans, and was struck by how tragic and poignant it was, and how much it paralleled the life of Princess Diana with its tale of unrequited love and early death. Before long I decided to write a novel about her life, but after months of knocking on doors, I realized I would never be able to gain access to the Royal Danish Archives where the obscure details of her life lay locked up. Instead of giving up, I started searching for other sources. I made a list of all her relatives and searched for any diaries or memoirs they might have left behind, anything to fill in the missing gaps in her tragic life. As it turned out, the only relative of Princess Marie's who wrote an extensive number of books was her younger brother, Prince Henri d'Orléans, a notable French explorer who died at the age of thirty-three.

Prince Henri made headlines all throughout Europe for his 1897 duel with the Count of Turin Vittorio Emanuele.

During his brief life, Prince Henri earned a reputation as a ladies' man, a dilettante, and a hot-headed dueler, but he earned the Gold Medal of the French Geographical Society twice, once in 1891 for a  daring expedition to Tibet he made with the French explorer, Gabriel Bonvalot, and again in 1896 for his expedition from the Gulf of Tonkin to the Gulf of Bengal. 

By 1889, no living Westerner had been to the Potala Palace in Lhasa or met the Dalai Lama.

The more I read about Prince Henri's expedition to Tibet, and all the hardships and difficulties it entailed, the more I became enthralled with the story until I found myself studying it in great depth. Not only did I focus on the expedition, I also threw myself into the study of the Great Game, Central Asian history and geography, famous explorers, and the history of Europe's obsession with Tibet.

The French explorer Gabriel Bonvalot had connections with Russian Generals like Korolkoff  in Russian Turkestan that made him a lesser-known player in the Great Game.

Gradually, my focus changed from writing about Princess Marie's life to writing about Prince Henri d'Orléans and Gabriel Bonvalot's expedition to Tibet. To this end, I researched this famous journey both in the original French and in the English translation. But still there were many unanswered questions about what really happened to these hardy explorers on the Roof of the World. Victorian writers are known more for the details they left out than for what they chose to tell; this was an era when propriety and discretion were at their zenith. Luckily, after months and months of unrelenting searching and digging, I came upon another version of the events, this one written by Father Constant de Deken, a Belgian missionary who had accompanied the famous explorers. I had struck gold.

Rare for a European missionary of his era, Father De Deken could speak Chinese and ride and shoot like a cavalry officer.

Unusual for his generation, Father Constant de Deken was fluent in Chinese and wrote about his experiences with uncharacteristic candor, telling details that would have raised eyebrows in polite society. His input added a whole new dimension to the story, filling it with more danger and suspense, and for that I am eternally grateful. By combining both versions and adding some fictional elements of my own, the end result is this account of an historic journey into mysterious Tibet. But it only came about because of this tragic Danish princess and her sad, poignant life. And so, I owe this lovely lady all the gratitude in the world for leading me to this fascinating story. Without Princess Marie d'Orléans, Race to Tibet would not have been possible.


Thursday, March 26, 2015

I love this review from Publishers Weekly!

Race to Tibet

Sophie Schiller, Author

Fans of Jules Verne’s travel adventures will find Schiller (Transfer Day) has done a solid job of transforming an obscure real-life Victorian expedition into a thrilling yarn. A sex scandal blights the name of Prince Henri d’Orléans in 1888 Paris, and his father, the Duke of Chartres, fears that his continued misconduct will only further weaken the royalist cause. The duke’s solution is to make the prince’s inheritance contingent on his leaving France for a year to stay out of trouble, a plan that neatly coincides with explorer Gabriel Bonvalot’s desire to be the first Westerner to reach Lhasa. Gabriel lacks the funding to finance the complex and dangerous venture and agrees to take Henri along in exchange for the duke’s backing. Schiller makes the physical challenges of the trip palpable. There are occasional lapses into purple prose (“I’ve had enough of your callousness, you fiendish devil”), but for the most part Schiller succeeds in keeping readers engaged in the plot. (BookLife)

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Victorian Era's Fascination with Explorers

The late Victorian period was the first age of mass advertising. In previous decades, it was considered ungentlemanly to aggressively advertise a product. Now, for the first time advertising became powerfully visual: photography and art were used to sell goods and soon celebrities were sought to endorse products. And during the Victorian era, there were no greater heroes than explorers.

Explorers were the Victorian age's movie stars, rock stars, and astronauts. No detail about their life was considered too minor or insignificant. Their memoirs and travel books were best sellers and they spoke to sell-out crowds. From the fate of the missing Scottish missionary David Livingstone to Ernest Shackleton and his ill-fated voyage to the South Pole, the public's fascination with explorers knew no bounds.

My novel RACE TO TIBET tells the dramatic story of Gabriel Bonvalot, a Victorian age explorer who attempted to reach the Forbidden City of Lhasa on horseback. Accompanying Bonvalot was Prince Henri d'Orléans, a budding young explorer, and Father Constant de Deken, a Chinese-speaking Belgian missionary, and a team of hardy Turki caravaneers, Bonvalot made his way across the Tibetan Chang Tang during the height of winter, a heretofore impossible feat.

As can be expected, when he returned to France Gabriel Bonvalot scored his country's Gold Medal in Geographical Exploration as well as a slew of product endorsement, including French chocolate company Guérin-Boutron, Lu Biscuits, and a French wax company:


This chocolate label featuring Gabriel Bonvalot shows the rigors of traveling across the Tibetan high plain.
Bonvalot on the cover of Lu Biscuits. No explorer left home without his trusty Winchester or a box of Lu Biscuits.
Gabriel Bonvalot and Prince Henri on a wax label.

Even the bespectacled Belgian Missionary Father Dedeken who accompanied Bonvalot as official Chinese translator got his own product endorsement with French Chocolatier Félix Potin:


What other explorers scored product endorsement deals? Take a look at a few:

Sir Ernest Shackleton was a polar explorer who led three British expeditions to the Antarctic, and was one of the principal figures of the period known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration:


The heroic face of American Arctic explorer Robert Peary graced cigar boxes:


As Peary's partner, Matthew Henson was among the first explorers to reach the Geographic North Pole in 1909. He was later made a member of the prestigious Explorer's Club:


The Swedish explorer, Sven Hedin, scored multiple product endorsements, including German sewing thread. Here he is greeting Tibetans in what looks to be native dress:

Here is Sven Hedin promoting French chocolates:


And here he is endorsing a French beef consommé product (showing another exciting scene in Tibet):

Cigarette cards were perennial favorites. Here is a quartet of  Victorian giants, from the Tsar's favorite Great Gamer, Nikolai Prejevalsky, to the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (who trounced Admiral Robert Falcon in the South Pole), to the Norwegian explorer and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Fridtjof Nansen, to the erstwhile Livingstone:

Nikolai Prejevalsky stalking through Central Asia.
Roald Amundsen



















Fridtjof Nansen
David Livingstone























Here is the ill-fated Captain Scott and his Siberian pony "Nobby" on a package of Fry's Cocoa & Chocolate:




A rare image of Scottish explorer Hugh Clapperton on a cigarette card. Did Clapperton's image sell more cigarettes?



The mother of all cigarette cards: Marco Polo and the Great Wall of China:


A fitting tribute to Sir Richard Burton, who traveled in disguise to Mecca:




James Clark Ross discovered the position of the North Magnetic Pole in 1831:


Prince Luigi Amadeo (The Duke of Abruzzi) was an Italian mountaineer and explorer. He is known for his Arctic explorations and mountaineering expeditions, particularly to Mount Saint Elias and K2 in the Karakorums:

 

A Cigarette Card dedicated to Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world and the dream of every mountain climber-explorer:




And finally, a cigarette card dedicated to the fallen heroes on Mount Everest: George Mallory and Sandy Irvine:



Annie Smith Peck was an accomplished mountaineer and explorer, primarily in Peru and Bolivia:


You can read more about Gabriel Bonvalot's exciting expedition to Tibet in RACE TO TIBET, now available at Amazon and Barnes and Nobel:


 Race to Tibet




Saturday, January 24, 2015

Race to Tibet: Meet the Characters

RACE TO TIBET is an exciting historical adventure about a group of intrepid explorers headed by Gabriel Bonvalot, who attempt to become the first living Europeans to reach Lhasa, the mysterious capital of Tibet. Along the way they are besieged by ferocious winds, freezing cold, sandstorms, hostile Tibetans, but they are resolved to beat the odds and reach the legendary Potala Palace, the seat of the famed Dalai Lama.





Gabriel Bonvalot is a rugged French explorer who has accomplished many daring expeditions throughout Central Asia on horseback, especially one harrowing journey over the Pamir and Hindu Kush Mountains at the height of winter. After the death of Nikolai Prejevaksly, his Russian rival, he comes up with the daring plan to reach Lhasa, the forbidden capital of Tibet by trekking overland from Paris to Tonkin and veering off into Tibet. The dangers were real: the Tibetan authorities are known for putting to death any stranger caught infiltrating their holy city. For a man like Bonvalot, the challenge is irresistible.





Prince Henri d'Orleans is a pompous, incorrigible aristocrat who can't keep his name out of the gutter press. When he goes too far, his father, the Duke of Chartres, comes up with an audacious plan to get ride of him. He offers to finance Bonvalot's next expedition to Tibet on condition he takes along the wayward prince. After many scrapes and near-death experiences, Bonvalot must muster every ounce of self-control to not take the young prince to task.









Father Constant de Deken is a Belgian Missionary with an unusual dossier. He speaks fluent Chinese and knows every trick on getting under the skin of the Qing authorities. Bonvalot persuades de Deken to accompany him on his journey to Tibet and soon the fearless missionary is an invaluable member of the team. It doesn't hurt that he shoots with impeccable accuracy and rides like a cavalry officer.









Camille Dancourt is the beautiful, strong-willed wife of a French surveyor who went missing inside Tibet. At the outset, she is determined to join Bonvalot's caravan to search for her husband, but Bonvalot refuses, citing the danger. Instead of giving up, Camille comes up with another plan for infiltrating Tibet and soon their paths meet again…





Rachmed is Bonvalot's trusted Uzbek caravan leader. Rachmed is a giant of a man, as strong as Goliath and the veteran of many rough scrapes and near-death experiences; he even spent a month spent in the Mehtar of Chitral's dungeon. But when Rachmed goes missing on the Tibetan Chang Tang for 3 days straight during a blinding blizzard, Bonvalot faces the prospect of losing his companion forever…










Princess Pema is a beautiful Tibetan noblewoman who is literally running for her life. After escaping from the Chinese Ambans, she is desperately trying to make her way back to Lhasa and sees Bonvalot as the answer to her prayers. She joins his caravan, and when they discover her secret, they realize all their lives are in danger. And when Prince Henri falls head over heels in love with the Buddhist princess, sparks fly!