Former Sen. Bob Graham puts inside knowledge to use in new novel 'Keys to the Kingdom'

Sen. Bob Graham could be resting on his laurels.

Governor of Florida for two terms and a U.S. senator for three terms, Graham retired from politics in 2005. Since then he has stayed busy teaching at Harvard, founding two centers in Florida to train future political leaders, and serving as chairman of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism and co-chairman of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.

Now Graham, 74, has added "novelist" to his resume. Keys to the Kingdom is a spy thriller that draws from Graham's decade on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which he chaired before and after the 9/11 attacks.

Graham has published three nonfiction books, but this is his first foray into fiction. He talked about the book by phone just before it was published on June 7.

Why write a novel?

The impetus here was not a good motive, but anger. I knew that what came out of the 9/11 investigation was a lot of unanswered questions. There were answers, but because of a very effective, very systematic coverup, those answers did not become public.

The final report from the commission was heavily redacted, including a full chapter about the Saudis' involvement that was redacted.

While I was at the Kennedy School (at Harvard), I knew Joseph Nye, who had been an assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration. He was interested in writing a nonfiction book about his experiences, but he realized the censorship would be so strict he wouldn't be able to say what he wanted to say. So he wrote a novel, The Power Game.

So that made me think that maybe I could tell the story I wanted to tell in novel form.

How much of Keys to the Kingdom is factual, how much fictional?

It does start from two factual situations. One is the unanswered questions about 9/11 and the coverup. And also, there's the situation involving BAE (an international defense contractor) and the Saudi princes. (In the mid 2000s, the British government investigated a multimillion-dollar "slush fund" BAE was alleged to maintain for bribing powerful Saudis.)

I fictionally merge them. In the novel, the BAE money is used not to pay off the Saudi princes but to fund a Saudi nuclear program.

Did the Central Intelligence Agency vet the book for classified material?

Yes. Throughout the process, as I would finish a draft, I would send it to the CIA review board. I'm a member of the CIA's external advisory board, and as such I have a very high security clearance, but I also have the obligation to allow them to read the material.

Did they ask you to remove anything?

No.

You've published three nonfiction books; this is your first work of fiction. Was it harder or easier to write?

I would use the word "different." It's harder in the sense that with a nonfiction book you're writing essentially about past events, so there's a road map you can follow.

Fiction is a series of blank pages. I worked on this book for five years. I started in 2006. I would say it was a very enjoyable experience. I found it very interesting to think about the characters, about how they would change as a result of these events, about their interrelationships with other characters.

You create one character, a retired senator named John Billington, who shares much of your resume and your personal life. Why did you kill him off early in the book?

Clearly Billington shares a lot of similarities with me. His death becomes, next to that nuclear bomb in Mumbai (which detonates in the prologue), the impetus for the plot. They spend the rest of the book trying to figure out who killed Billington.

How did you develop your protagonist, Tony Ramos? In some ways, he's a typical thriller hero — ex-Special Ops turned State Department research analyst — while in others, such as his Afro-Cuban heritage, he's not. Is he based on anyone you know?

He's a composite. He grew up in Guana- bacoa, a suburb of Havana, and I know people from that community. They're fiercely loyal to it even if they haven't lived there in 50 years.

Tony's father and grandfather played baseball. My father was an avid baseball fan, and when I was young we went to many games in the Florida International League, where we saw the Cuban teams play. There were a lot of very good ballplayers of African heritage.

You have four daughters whose names are used for Billington's daughters, but you also give him a fifth daughter who is not at all a nice person, the celebrity photographer Laura Billington.

She's also a composite of people I have known and people I know about through the media. I believe she's close enough to people I have known not to be an overdone character. She probably has the most transition of any character in the book. She starts out as this very snotty, overbearing individual and ends up making a great sacrifice — maybe not intentionally.

For your nonfiction books, you worked with co-authors. Did you have help with this book?

This one I did myself. I was not alone in the process. I worked very closely with Mark Olshaker (a novelist, screenwriter and nonfiction author). I would describe him as my editor.

My friend (crime fiction writer) James Hall wrote a book called Magic City, set in Miami. It started with a real incident in the 1960s, the Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston fight. A photograph taken at that fight that showed some of the people in the audience became a key to the fictional plot. That was another one of those motivating events that helped give me the idea of using real events in fiction.

Are you planning to write more novels?

If you've read the last chapter of Keys to the Kingdom, you know it contains a tease for the next book. But I told my publisher that before I start investing my time in writing another one, I want to see how well this one goes.

I started writing this while I was at the Kennedy School, and I was very focused on the threat of nuclear weapons. I now believe we're more likely to have to deal with a biological weapon of mass destruction than a nuclear one, so the next book would be about that.

How do you feel now that Keys to the Kingdom has been published?

Obviously I've never been through the experience of birthing a child, but I think this must be somewhat similar. You want the baby to be happy and healthy and have 10 fingers and 10 toes, but you're anxious. You want people to enjoy the book. I hope they'll be entertained, I hope they'll be educated.

I also hope that it will promote some better understanding of how the intelligence community does its work and the importance of intelligence to our national security.

This will sound immodest, and it is, but there is only a handful of people who could have written this book. I had a front-row seat during the 9/11 investigation, and I hope to give the people a front-row seat, too.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

Bob Graham discussed Saudi Arabia's alleged involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks in the nonfiction book Intelligence Matters, published in 2004. The Republican National Committee said he was irresponsible to draw a connection. It issued a press release headlined, "Graham Loses Notebooks," a jab at his penchant for scribbling little notes.

Former Sen. Bob Graham puts inside knowledge to use in new novel 'Keys to the Kingdom' 06/15/11 [Last modified: Friday, June 17, 2011 3:53pm]

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