Wednesday, September 01, 2004


Notes from the making of a bestseller.

by Raelynn Hillhouse

Copyright © 2004 by Raelynn Hillhouse

(Aug. 29) Well, you heard it here first. In the Aug. 19 blog entry below, I warned you how if you’re reading RIFT ZONE and you think something is too far-fetched, chances are it’s pulled from real life—my life. Today in a fun review in the Detroit Free Press a reviewer wrote, "She [my heroine] is pressed into service (somewhat unbelievably) by the East Germans."

Somewhat unbelieveably, huh?

Guess what.

Whitney's recruitment by the East German secret police was lifted from my life, but toned down to make believable fiction. (And to add a dash of irony, the event was when I was a Michigan grad student…)

So I should've said in the essay below, that truth is stranger than fiction not only because fiction has an editor, but because fiction has reviewers as well…

Check out the blog entry below to find the even more far-fetched reality of the spy world.



Notes from the making of a bestseller.

by Raelynn Hillhouse

Copyright © 2004 by Raelynn Hillhouse

(Aug. 19). As my debut novel about a female smuggler finds its way into bookstores and readers' hands, it seemed like a good time to write about the real life experiences the book is based on. If you’re reading RIFT ZONE and you think something is too far-fetched, chances are it’s pulled from real life—my life. As I wrote the spy novel, time and time again I found myself having to tone down things that had really happened to me because no one would believe it. I started to understand why truth is stranger than fiction: Truth doesn't have to get past an editor.

Take the first chapter of RIFT ZONE, for instance. It opens with scenes in which the East German secret police try to set up the main character in a sting by luring her into working for them. They hope to entrap her by convincing her to smuggle a decrepit Western-made computer to the West, then nail her at the border for stealing state property. They even follow her through the Wall to the West.

Sounds far-fetched, huh?

Nope. It happened to me. But the Stasi tried to entrap me using a Xerox machine, not a computer. You see, back behind the Wall, you had to have a security clearance just to operate a simple copy machine. The clearance wasn’t restricted to those working with the darkest of state secrets, but to anyone and everyone who was near a copier. The paranoid commie regimes didn’t want to risk that someone could copy anti-communist literature or even worse—set up a free underground press. Thus, there weren’t many copiers in the East and the security clearance wasn’t given out easily. (Not to mention East Germans really didn’t want to invite the secret police to root around in their past to process their clearance!) But a novel with the secret police doing a sting with a portable Xerox machine seemed too over the top, so I toned it down and wrote about a computer instead.

I lived in West Berlin in the mid-1980s the summer before I was to study in East Berlin as a guest of a government-sponsored propaganda agency, The League for Friendship of the Peoples. It was a given that the League was more or less a Stasi front organization for international espionage (think USIA & CIA), but their sponsorship was only way that I could get access to this self-isolated state for an entire year.

Not long before I was scheduled to move over to the East, roommates and I started noticing the telltale clicking of a bugged phone (or at least telltale for old-fashioned phones and antiquated phone systems.) Then I got the call from my contact, Egon, at the League.

At the time there were less than a dozen phone lines between both halves of the city of 3 million and it took hours and hours of dialing before striking it lucky and getting a line. Somehow my guy managed to get lucky every day that August—and at just about the same time each day. I suspected Egon wasn’t playing the same phone lottery as everyone else.

Egon tried to convince me I could help out the League by schlepping a broken Xerox machine through East Berlin, through the Wall and to their special repairman in the West. He wasn't suggesting that I smuggle it, but carry it through the border under the noses of the Stasi border guards. If I complied, he saw no problem in sponsoring me for a multiple entry visa that would grant me a privilege only a handful of civilians of any nationality had: permission to cross through the Berlin Wall at will.

We went through a crazy dance for months. My visa would get approved, then mysteriously revoked. I stalled. And I stalled. The Stasi was not an organization that took rejection well, so I figured it was best to play hard to get. I came up with every possible reason why I didn't want to entrap myself with that damn copier. For every excuse, Egon had a work-around:

Worried the guards would think I was stealing State property? No problem. He'd write the Stasi border guards a note. Too heavy? He'd carry it most of the way for me. Too heavy in the West? They'd even spring for a taxi in the West and advised that I cross at Charlie instead of Friedrichstrasse because it would be easier to catch a taxi there—although he'd never been across the border. The cost of repair? Not to worry. Even though it was illegal for him to have West German Marks, he just happened to have some in their petty cash.

Yeah, right.

And my visa? It was going to take a few more days…

The Stasi was deadly, but it also had a Keystone cop/B-spy movie side to it as well:

Once in East Germany, a tiny police car packed with 5 guys, screeched to a halt not far from where I was traipsing through the woods. I watched as a guy with dark glasses, black leather jacket and an attaché case handcuffed to his arm popped from the car, then disappeared into the brush.

I’ve seen people (clandestinely, they thought) open up hollow coins on the border to flash a secret badge to the Stasi border guard.

In a restaurant in Krakow, Poland I had a stranger come up and ask to swap chairs with me—not places, but the actual chair, with the explanation that there might not seem to be any difference to me, but there was a big one to him. The chairs looked identical, but we can only guess that one was wired a little differently…

In Prague I was once awakened in my hotel room by a sound suddenly coming from the nightstand--that of reel-to-reel tape recorder automatically rewinding.

Now would you honestly believe any of this if it were in a spy novel? Probably not. Implausible and over the top are the words the critics would grab for. But these things really happened to me. So my challenge with RIFT ZONE was to recreate that bizarre, shadowy world of spies in a way that was both true to the actual historical circumstances, but toned down enough to seem plausible to the reader. And that Xerox machine? They finally gave up. But not until after I altered a few of their documents and the People's Police dutifully issued me that visa that allowed me free passage after all.

But then it got revoked again…

And then there was the time the border checkpoint was closed and I had no visa, but I talked the border guards into allowing me to enter East Berlin anyway….Nah, would never make it past my editor.

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