JANUARY 27, 2012 7:40AM

Interview with German thriller author Tom Sneyders

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THRILLER AUTHOR TOM SNEYDERS has experienced far more than most of us can ever conceive of attempting. He has been a soldier, military trainer, political prisoner, champion weightlifter, businessman, world traveler, and action-adventure writer. I caught up with him in his home outside Berlin to talk about his military career, East German communism, prison life, tsunamis, and his experiences as a pioneering e-book author.

Mr. Sneyders, your thrillers reveal a remarkable knowledge of military tactics and weapons. What was your own military service like?

As a raw youth of just twenty-eight, straight out of high school, I volunteered for the {East German} National People’s Army. I wanted to earn money for my university education. The requirements were easy for me and I soon became one of the best sergeants.

Then I became an overseas military adviser and introduced young men from all over the world to the craft of war. But today, after Germany has abolished the draft, there is a broad rejection of all things military in this country. The people and the army have gone their separate ways. Today nobody wants to hear about army stories, and certainly not about foreign missions like mine. But of course, these things leave a last impression on a person. You can see that in my novel September 11, 2001 – Ten Years Later. It was essential to me to include the precise military features in the plot.

What was the most dangerous experience you had in Africa?

Military advisers aren’t supposed to become involved in combat, of course, but I once ended up leading a squad of not completely trained Africans into battle. I had no choice, and all I could do was do my best to take care of my boys. It was a near-disaster – we barely withstood the bitter counterattack by a dictator’s army. I myself was only eighteen, and many of the boys in the rebel army we were supporting were even younger! But nobody ever asked me about my age. I was big and strong, and many Africans have a hard time estimating a white’s age. If they had known how young I was, they might never have accepted me as their commander.

As you were growing up in East Germany and serving in the National People’s Army, what was your attitude toward communism and the dictatorship of the Socialist Unity Party (SED)?

We scarcely even took notice of it as a regime back then. I was a child of the 1960s, raised in the schools and organizations of the communist state. We were young, we had our fun, and didn’t give any thought to politics. The blah-blah of the politicians blew right past us. As a good student in high school I had no problems at all and I planned to study medicine later on. My grandmother used to tell us an old saying that still applies to a lot of people today: “The one who pays the piper calls the tune.”

Today the little people all over the world still cling to this bit of wisdom. As for me, I served in the army like every other man. I was gratified that our army didn’t support the dictators but always the liberation movements. I could support that!

So I had no plans to change anything. Nobody gave a damn about what the population thought, anyway. That’s how it has always been, and politicians will always treat their subjects that way – even if they have since found more elegant ways of doing so.

When did your attitude change? After all, you soon came into conflict with the Stasi {East German State Security Service} and did time in one of their prisons.

Yes, the Stasi accused me of using my military knowledge to help friends escape to West Germany, even though they had no proof.

Now when you’re sitting in solitary confinement and in coercive detention, where they only let you into the exercise yard alone and in a tiger cage, you find yourself with plenty of time to think things over.

After they let me out again, after forcing me to sign a non-disclosure agreement, they spied on me in earnest and prohibited me from studying. One university expelled me on the direct orders of the secret police. That opened my eyes. I wasn’t an enemy, but I was treated like one.

I’m waiting to see my Stasi file. I requested it from the authority responsible for such things. I will be making a book out of it, and I will let copies of the original Stasi reports about me speak for themselves. I will show how even normal citizens were made into enemies of the state, as described in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Anybody who wants to understand the East German system has to read that book, or at least watch the movie!

Your previous books take place in Thailand and adjoining areas. What fascinates you about this part of the world?

I’ve got a simple answer to that: I feel good there! I can’t always say the same for Germany.

Soon after I started traveling there I began feeling like I was home every time I climbed out of the plane. Everything there is great for me, from the weather to the food. I like the people and the people like me. I have lots of local friends who have no financial expectations from me. They frequently say “khun” to me, a respectful title equivalent to “sir.” I am considering settling down there for good.

In your latest novel, Tsunami: The Battle for Paradise, you tell a modern, two-year-long Robinson Crusoe story that takes place on an island in the Sea of Andaman. Not only do the hero and his companions have to figure out how to get by under extreme conditions, they also end up battling Indonesian pirates. Do you think that your training and your later experiences as a soldier and champion weightlifter would help you to survive such an ordeal?

Definitely! Only an organized person could get through all that. Military experience would also be helpful when it comes to the physical challenges. The people of today have only lived in luxury! It sounds to me like a joke when people {in former East Germany} say, “We didn’t have anything back then!” But that’s the whole point!

Take the cellphones, iPhones, and laptops away from today’s soldiers and the troops will stage a mutiny.

My own international weightlifting career was only possible through strict self-discipline. You can never become world champion through talent alone – years of hard work lie behind the title. And if you truly have talent, well, you’ll find people from all over the world who also have talent.

My readers will have to forgive me for weaving such aspects into Tsunami, but it’s details like that that make a story authentic.

As a twenty-first century author, you have focused entirely on modern technologies and distribution methods. What advantages have e-books and Kindle had for you personally?

I was forced to go this route! You see, when I finished writing September 11, the German publishers all said “no thank-you.” They didn’t want to touch a hot potato like that. So I had to do everything myself. I have also published the first two books as paperbacks.

First, as a newcomer without any previous experience, I naturally realized there was no way to publish these days without using the Internet. I read an interview with the boss of Amazon – he reported that e-books would win out over printed books as of early 2011. So I prepared my e-book and published two titles each in 2011 – first in German, and then in an English and Spanish translation! This was only possible using the e-book format. But as with any athletic endeavor, technology is no substitute for self-discipline!

The Internet helped me find translators and sped up the entire process. My online friends were my test readers. At this rate, I see good chances for the books being picked up by a traditional publisher. But without influential friends in the background, it is almost impossible to be published in print these days. The major publishers prefer to flood us with the ghostwritten memoirs of twenty-sex year-old pop stars!

What advice would you give a hopeful e-author?

In the beginning, there were books. E-books came along later. Today many books exist only as e-books, and there are more out there all the time. The publishers are provoking this development, and technology favors the e-book.

In basic terms, an e-book also has to be exciting and entertaining. The reader should be able to get through it in a few days. I think that books with more than 300 pages aren’t really suitable as e-books. I think most of those will be confined to physical bookshelves for the time being.

And like printed books, e-books should contain as few errors as possible (even though many printed books contain hair-raising errors).

I also think that books written in a flowing style also come across in a flowing style. A bitter struggle for every completed page means a tough read for the readers. If you really have to slash and burn your way through a text for years on end, you may be in the wrong profession!

Mr. Sneyders, thank-you for this discussion.

Tom Sneyders is the author of September 11, 2001: Ten Years Later and Tsunami: The Battle for Paradise.


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[r] fascinating read! ty!