Novelist Keith Thomson’s Office Has Some Just-for-Fun Spy Gadgets
Journal Features Writer
At first glance, Keith Thomson’s office in downtown Birmingham seems like a fairly standard workspace. There’s a utilitarian desk, table and bookcase.
You’ll get a clue about his profession from posters advertising his two most recent books. And you’ll figure out he’s a baseball fan when you see a diagram of Yankee Stadium on the wall and autographed bats propped up beside the bookcase.
Then the 47-year-old novelist brings out the really cool stuff.
He has an iPhone-controlled mini-drone that’s equipped with video cameras. On his desk is a pen that’s also a camera and camcorder, along with a motion-activated clock that also shoots videos.
Those items don’t mean Thomson’s office is a covert operations center. They’re just fun for the author of two books with secret agent themes to have.
“People asked me about the pen so much that I have it for sale on my website,” he said. “I think we’ve sold about three.”
Thomson has had much more success in the literary world than in the retail market. He’s the author of “Pirates of Pensacola,” his debut novel, and of New York Times bestseller “Once a Spy” and its sequel, “Twice a Spy.”
He also writes a column about security matters for the Huffington Post. His articles have appeared in publications like the New York Times and Garden and Gun magazine, and he’s writing a baseball column for Birmingham’s Weld magazine.
Unlike many authors who say they grew up with pens and notebooks in hand, Thomson’s childhood dreams didn’t include writing.
“I had no thoughts about being a writer,” he said.
As a teenager in Greenwich, Conn., he worked for a local newspaper as a political cartoonist, he said. He continued doing that as a student at Columbia University, where he majored in history.
“I thought I’d be a cartoonist,” he said. “I drew a lot when I was a kid.”
After graduating from Columbia, Thomson worked as an ad agency copywriter.
“I began to think it would be nice to write something longer than 30 seconds—and about something other than Cheerios,” said Thomson.
A new door opened when Thomson reconnected with a high school friend.
“He was like the fifth assistant cameraman on Karate Kid 4,” Thomson said, laughing.
Because his friend got leftover film for free, the two decided to make a short film. To their surprise, their venture made it into the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, a top showcase for independent films.
“That got me into writing movies,” Thomson said. “I signed a three-movie contract with TriStar.”
None of the movies were made, he said, but that’s not unusual.
“I’d have happily cleaned the floors for what they were paying me,” Thomson said.
But after a particularly taxing meeting one day, he said, he ran into an agent “who must have seen something in my body language” that told him Thomson might be ready for a career change.
“The agent told me, if you write a book, a novel, they don’t really change anything,” Thomson said.
At the time, Thomson often stayed in a Los Angeles hotel to be close to work. But he and his wife, Birmingham native Karen Shepard, had a home in Palo Alto, Calif., where Stanford University is located.
“I looked up Stanford’s continuing education programs and signed up for a writing class,” he said. “My thesis ended up being published as ‘Pirates of Pensacola.’”
Thomson met his future wife at a writers’ party at the Yale Club in New York City, he said.
“That was my first writers’ party—and my only one,” he said. “I went hoping to meet someone smart and pretty, and that’s what I did.”
The Thomsons, who have two children, live in Mountain Brook.
Thomson said he chose a pirate theme for his first novel for a simple reason.
“I grew up in a coastal town, and I liked pirates,” he said.
His two latest novels were inspired by a strange story he heard from a former girlfriend, he said, about a spy who had Alzheimer’s disease.
The story involved a successful financier who’d traveled around the world on business, Thomson said.
“He was like Archie Bunker—a xenophobic, jingoistic American—and he spoke only English,” Thomson said. “Unfortunately, he developed early-onset Alzheimer’s.”
Thomson’s friend told him she had attended a Thanksgiving dinner party with the man’s son.
“The dad was there, and all of a sudden he started talking in fluent French,” Thomson said. “Then he switched to fluent German.”
Those at the party, Thomson said, concluded that the man’s business had been a cover and that he must have been a spy.
Thomson put the story to good use. Drummond Clark, one of the main characters in “Once a Spy” and “Twice a Spy,” is believed to be a retired appliance salesman. But when Drummond develops Alzheimer’s, his son Charlie realizes that his father has a mysterious past.
Thomson has an interesting past himself—though not in the world of espionage. His resume includes something not many Americans can claim: He played semiprofessional baseball in France.
“In 1986, I was on my junior year abroad in France, and I saw a poster about a Paris baseball team in a championship game,” he said. “They were playing Nice.”
Thomson learned that French teams were “starved for Americans who could play baseball.”
“I had played in high school,” he said. “It seemed like a great opportunity with all the travel.”
While Thomson enjoyed the experience, he downplays it.
“Pretty much any American who’s ambulatory and can throw a ball could play in France,” he said.
While the rules were the same as for American baseball, the game atmosphere was decidedly different, he said.
“Most of the fans don’t know the rules,” he said, “So they have canned cheering that they play when somebody makes a good play.”
Thomson is now working on his fourth book, “7 Grams of Lead.” The title, he said, comes from a term used by Russian dictator Joseph Stalin.
“That was his ‘solution’ to problems—a bullet to the back of the head,” Thomson said.
He’s working on the book at the office he’s had for seven years. He doesn’t have an office phone or the internet there.
“Those are big distractions,” he said.
Thomson’s inner muse didn’t draw him to his office. The classified ads did.
“I liked this building,” he said. “It’s nice to have proximity to walk to Five Points to eat lunch.”
Also, he said, smiling, “There’s a soda machine here. And I have an old car in need of fixing, and there are all these car shops around here.”