Q & A WITH ALY FOR BLACK BEAR

This is the fourth Peter Cotton book. Was the experience of writing it very different?
The first thing is that Black Bear is a much more internal book than the others. Following a drug assault, the book opens with Cotton literally trying to piece his mind together again and to work out what has happened, who is responsible and why. But he’s no longer secure in his appreciation of what’s happening. He can’t trust his own perceptions. The process of writing it was interesting. I enjoyed getting inside his mind. Cotton, by nature and education is personally discreet, but here he is necessarily thrown inside himself, and his situation provided an opportunity to explore new things.

The structure of Black Bear is rather different from the previous Cotton books. You have three settings - New York, Narragansett and New York again.
Yes, the first part is in the clinic, the second part is set in Narragansett, a small seaside town in Rhode Island, where he goes to hole up and recuperate after being discharged from the clinic – and finds that he is being watched. The third part takes him back to New York.

Why Narragansett?
Well, I wanted to show something more of small town America, as a contrast to the power centre of New York. I chose Narragansett because I know it a little. Narragansett is also interesting because by 1947 it had become Newport’s unsuccessful twin across the bay. Newport would remain a holiday place for political power for some years more but Narragansett never quite came back into favour as the kind of holiday destination it had been. The Towers have now been restored but in 1947 they were not. I also liked the idea of taking Cotton out of the city, putting him into small town life and not finding the experience that restful. His experience of Narragansett, with its clumsy small town dramas, personal alliances and gossip, acts as both a counterpoint and a parallel to the doings of the intelligence world depicted in the book.

You have mentioned that an important part of your research consists of talks with ‘just-living sources’. Could you tell us a bit about that?
The generation of people who lived through this period is gradually dying out. Some of the people I have used as sources - among them some relatives and family friends - have died since I began the series. There are very few left now. You can read about one - who I call the ‘real Peter Cotton’ – on the Beyond the Books page on this website (click here http://www.alymonroe.com/peter-cotton-meet-the-real-01.htm.) The experience Cotton goes through in Black Bear, including the specific drugs used on him, is partly based on something that happened to this person. Written ‘official’ history and films have tended to glamourise or heroise people and events. I went to still-living sources to hear the realities as they remembered them. I have noticed that those who are still alive, and can still express themselves, have become more and more honest about the messy, incompetent and often casually cruel way in which things happened. This is part of the subject of Black Bear.

In your conversations with ‘the real Peter Cotton’, you discussed the need to tackle the question of violence. Do you consider that Black Bear does this?
The story in Black Bear is about extreme, bloodless, quiet violence that has been inflicted on Cotton, off stage, before the opening of the story. It’s particularly horrible because you have no means of preparing to defend yourself – you can’t arm yourself against a possible attack.
The thriller genre often deals with tests that involve physical violence, pain, and endurance. In Black Bear, I wanted to tackle another sort of assault, with some physiological elements but mostly one involving psychological and mental trials. This seemed to me more in keeping with the time post WW2, in this instance 1947, when the Cold War and the consequent witch-hunt in the USA had already started.

Project Chatter was begun by the US Navy, ostensibly to look for truth drugs or serums that would replace other interrogation techniques. Operation Paperclip was also ongoing. This operation converted scientists who had worked for the Nazis during the war into American citizens. The rationale was, of course, the Cold War. Probably the most famous example was Werner Von Braun whose knowledge of rockets and their propulsion had been developed designing the V1 and particularly the V2 during the war. But there were many other scientific fields of interest involved. The justification was mostly that the Soviets had their German scientists too and nobody wanted to fall behind.

Project Chatter was eventually judged a failure and ended, to be immediately replaced (in 1953) by a CIA programme. Information on what was and what was not discovered is impossible to come by because many records were destroyed in 1973, but we do know that several thousand people were subjected to ‘research’ on mind-altering substances. While some (often doing national service) volunteered, most were unaware of what they would be subjected to. Others were not told at all and had no suspicion of what was happening to them until they began to think they were going mad. There were some suicides.

Physical violence, dealing with a threat of life, the danger of losing it etc. is one thing. Not knowing quite who you are and without the usual mental and psychological strengths to rely on is another. This kind of violence is much more insidious than physical brutality; it attacks personality, brain chemistry and identity.  

It has been mentioned in previous books of the series that, during the war, Cotton was injured in Sicily.  In Black Bear we learn something more about this, but only as a result of the memories and hallucinations thrown up as a result of his drug experience. Is this a comment on Cotton’s character?
To an extent yes – but it’s also a comment on a whole generation. There was a reticence to talk about their experiences. This was part of how men were expected to behave. Following his drug assault Cotton loses his short term memory but other fragments of memory are unleashed, including bits of his experience in Sicily. He never talks about it directly, but it is a part of what he deals with in the book. 

You mention Dr Goebbels as a horrible sort of reference for the post-war.
Well, it is certainly true that various government agencies looked at his techniques to see what they could learn, if ostensibly only to protect their own nations. In retrospect, the speed with which some powerful Americans lost confidence in an electorate that had done so well in a ‘hot’ war is striking. They felt the need to heat up the cold war. I think it’s fair to say the Red Menace was inflated and manipulated for reasons of domestic control and patriotic support. I don’t think this is the kind of observation that will shock readers. The manipulation of perception in democracies has always existed and continues to do so. What changes are the technologies and techniques involved. I suspect the Goebbels handbook is still required reading however, but possibly renamed or re-spun.

Is there a Cotton 5?
Yes. It is called Needle-Bearer and carries on almost immediately after Black Bear.

Why did you call the book Black Bear?
Ah - there’s a little bit of a Goya etching there – ‘The sleep of reason produces monsters’ – and then there is the ‘There be monsters’ that appeared on old maps when the cartographer had no information.

The monster became a bear for two reasons. The image of a dancing bear influenced what I saw as having happened to Cotton, reduced to a fuddled performer by drugs.

And of course there is the raucous bagpipe tune beloved of Scottish regiments, that comes back to Cotton as a gut reaction to keep going.