Title: Exploring Espionage, Love, and Geopolitical Tensions: An Interview with J.A. Adams, Author of “Bomb Cyclone”
Bio: J.A. Adams has a PhD in English and taught English at LSU, with an emphasis on political science, until her retirement in Colorado in 2018. Her first novel, Pillars of Salt, reveals issues with oil production and corruption in Louisiana, which led to a salt mine collapse in 1980. Her latest novel, Bomb Cyclone, focuses on Ukraine after the dissolution of the Soviet Union until the beginning of the current war with Russia. The inspiration for the novel came from Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and continues until the war with Russia began, with an afterword addressing the current war in Ukraine.
- If you had to describe yourself in three words, what would they be?
Ethical Empathetic Ecological
- The work titled “Bomb cyclone” extensively engaged readers with not just the events of history but also the insecurities of contemporary times. What inspired you to write about such historical fiction?
Worldwide, we live in insecure times, intertwined with inescapable if often ignored truths, such as a warming planet, the ever-present risk of mutually ensured destruction, and the global rise of authoritarianism. Climate change is causing political and civil unrest and destroying struggling farmers’ and others’ livelihoods, triggering refugee crises globally. As wealthier nations reject the arrival of Muslims, Hispanics, and other dark-skinned refugees at their doorsteps, they turn toward authoritarian leaders to stanch the flow. (See Thom Hartmann, “How climate change accelerates the danger of worldwide fascism.)
Putin has used aggression and internet trolls (e.g., Prigozhin’s troll group) to disrupt Europe and NATO (e.g., propaganda in favor of Brexit), to influence elections, and to encourage authoritarianism worldwide and in our own country.
President Zelenskyy, the relatively new president of Ukraine, desires membership in the EU and NATO, refusing to be Putin’s puppet as past leaders had done, and leading inevitably to Putin’s aggression. When Zelenskyy asked our country for arms to defend his country, our former president demanded the “favor” of providing information against Hunter Biden. Therein lay my motivation for beginning my research.
- Geopolitics is more important than geography, as highlighted in your work “Bomb cyclone.” As a writer, how does your geographic identity affect the shaping of the book?
My geographic identity has evolved from my conservative childhood spent in small town Ohio during the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon years. During young adulthood, my family made seismic moves, first to Long Island, N.Y., a diverse and eye-opening experience, and later to Houston, diametrically opposed but no less eye-opening. A move to the Los Angeles area followed, which broadened my mind further, and two years later, I moved to Louisiana, a study in diversity unlike anyplace else. Now in Colorado, I’m thankful for the breadth of my experiences. Life in any one of those locations without access to the others would have shaped an entirely different and more closed perspective on my country and the world.
Besides multiple moves for this reason and that, I’ve had a few brief experiences traveling abroad—Costa Rica, Germany, France, Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic: all contributing to my understanding of our global similarities and differences.
Also, my studies and teaching, with an emphasis on political science, have put a finer point on my geographic and geopolitical identity.
As far as shaping my book, I believe my experiences have molded my geographic identity and opened my horizons to the universal connections we share as well as the vast differences we often fail to overcome, to our detriment.
- War is observed differently through diverse spectacles, but what war always accompanies are aggression, dominance, helplessness, and painful memories. What can readers understand about war through your book?
My book ends just as the actual full-scale war begins. Readers witness the Ukrainian Resistance against Ukrainian Separatists. Two protest “revolutions” occurred within Ukraine, the Orange (2004-’05) and Euromaidan (2013) Revolutions, both protesting President Yanukovych (Putin’s puppet, who is currently in exile in Russia, along with millions stolen from Ukraine).
The newly elected President Zelenskyy hoped to unify the country against unfathomable odds following the ouster of Yanukovych. His democratic views were too much for Putin to let go unchallenged. Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms entered Eastern Ukraine and assisted the Ukrainian Separatists. Thousands were killed before the full-scale invasion.
Such skirmishes among Ukrainians led to more Russian aggression and the Russian “annexation” of Crimea in 2014. Rather than seeing the horrors of the war after it began, my readers witness the gradual build-up of aggression, dominance, and helplessness until war inevitably begins.
- The book “Bomb cyclone” also critically analyzed the pro-Russian separatist movements that challenged internal security. Why do you think ideologies hamper internal security?
We see ideologies, hopefully on a smaller scale, hamper our own internal security as conflicting ideologies have become more and more extreme, right and left. Parallels exist between difficulties in our own country and those that led to war with Russia in Ukraine. Similar radicalization of ideologies is occurring worldwide as authoritarianism grows in popularity. We may not be threatened by Russia, but we are threatened from within, with escalating violence and insurrection, just as Ukraine was threatened from within while Putin salivated and prepared his troops.
- Oksana’s training involved the mindset training where an omnipresent image of Russia is presented, internalized, and followed without questioning. Why did you choose a woman to be a spy for the SVR rather than a man?
Oksana’s father, Aleksander, is a Ukrainian Separatist, and Oksana is expected to embrace her father’s authoritarian view of his country and his family. The Russians are familiar with Aleksander’s previous activism against Ukraine, and also with Oksana’s obedience to him and her excellence in English language studies. They also know Oksana is beautiful, innocent, naïve, and devoted to her father and his wishes.
Russian spies are aware of Mykola’s obsession with finding the coordinates of the lost bomb, having noted through surveillance, his continued university research and publications. They learn he is planning a trip to Crimea to search for the bomb.
Who better to weasel the coordinates from Mykola than a beautiful young woman? An obedient young woman whom the Russians have ordered to flirt and seduce their prey. The Russians believe a man would only have the tools to strong-arm Mykola into relinquishing the coordinates. They simply chose the path of least resistance.
- The book “Bomb cyclone” has also used Oksana’s seduction and flirtatious language as a political expression of feminine power. As a writer, what was more significant to Oksana’s character for you: seductive language, intellectual abilities, or anything else?
Aware of Oksana’s desire to please her authoritarian father, the Russians know they can easily manipulate her to their specifications. They simply instruct her to be flirtatious and seductive, though it had never been her character. I think her actions relate more to her obedience to the patriarchal order of her world than to her voluntary expression of feminine power. Her questioning of their motives after she learns her school is more than a language school shows the beginnings of her growth, but her father’s approval convinces her to continue. Additionally, in her naiveté, she selfishly relishes a year in the U.S.
As she grows in understanding of what her assignment entails, and as she becomes emotionally attached to her target, she realizes at the last minute that she can’t carry out the assignment. At the same time, she knows her failure to complete her assignment will mean she must defect, along with all it entails. Perhaps most significant to Oksana’s character is her own sacrifice of her family, her country, her identity, and nearly her life, when she finally grasps the impact of what she was supposed to do.
- Your work has also emphasized the role of ideologies, as they act not just as an element for unity but can also lead to separation and destruction. Why do you think Ilyin’s philosophy has influenced President Putin’s actions?
Putin has previously called the Soviet Union’s collapse the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” He sees himself as the remaining leader of Russia, and, as such, believes he is meant to reconstitute the USSR. Putin has taken Ilyin’s philosophy as his own: the myth that a takeover of Ukraine would be, as Vlad and Mykola discussed in the novel, “a good versus evil return to ancient Rus from 1000 years past.” Kyiv was the supposed headquarters of the ancient Rus tribe, and as such, the Mother of Russia. (See Professor Timothy Snyder, Yale)
Additionally, In Ilyin’s view, when social mobility ends, oligarchy replaces it. Putin accepts these views as justification for his illegal war and the road to oligarchy, conveniently embracing Ilyin’s philosophy as his own. Add to that his fear of NATO growing too close, and we can understand his motivation. Yet the war has backfired, as Norway joins NATO and Sweden is soon to follow, precisely because of Putin’s aggression.
- As a historical fiction writer, you have tremendously highlighted the patterns of surveillance under which characters not just survived but felt watched all the time. Do you think personal liberty or privacy is a myth in contemporary surveillance society?
Your question nails it. I believe privacy and personal liberty are being attacked more often and more severely, as people with certain ideologies spout having their “freedom,” such as to carry AR 15s, etc., while simultaneously depriving citizens with different ideologies of their freedoms: Freedom to cast their ballot, freedom to have autonomy over their own bodies, freedom from harassment and threats because of their race, religion, or whom they love.
As technology’s ability to track our movements, even our thoughts, becomes more advanced, privacy and personal liberty no longer exist in any real sense. Who hasn’t had a similar experience to mine, when I mention to my husband something I need to buy, privately, in our home, and then find endless ads for that product on our phones when we next open them.
In my book, surveillance becomes even more pervasive, with Russian spies seeking Oksana through CCTV and personal searches that necessitate a move and change of appearance. Meanwhile, our own CIA keeps track of and limits her movements and any contact with her past. Mykola has also been surveilled throughout his research and teaching career, as well as being physically followed when they think he’s visiting Oksana. Even his school is keeping tabs, putting him on probation when they worry about his Ukrainian connection upsetting local citizens.
- As a reader, one can easily connect emotionally with the book, which is full of friendship and brotherhood moments but still shows loyalty towards one’s nation differently. It’s hard to choose a favorite character between Mykola, who is risking his life for the nation, and Vlad, who is dying for the nation. Which character is your favorite in the book?
I don’t really have a favorite character, though I can relate viscerally with Oksana’s, Mykola’s, and Vlad’s individual dilemmas.
Perhaps Vlad is the most selfless, evidenced by his willingness to fight for his country despite risks to his life, followed by capture and torture. He refuses to abandon his comrades even as Mykola begs him and offers him the means to escape. He only agrees finally to emigrate when Avel, his nurse in the infirmary, needs to escape sure death for defecting. Vlad’s own move to safety is predicated on his friend’s safety and his own realization that during his convalescence, he would only hinder, not be able to help his comrades.
Mykola moved with his family to the U.S. at 17, so his move was not his choice, though he has no desire to return and fight. Mykola’s attributes are loyalty to his friends, honesty, and the ability to love and to forgive. He is finally able to secure passage to the U.S. for his lifelong friend. And his motives for finding the bomb and reporting the coordinates to the U.S. Embassy are admirable.
Oksana is an interesting character. She started on a journey to find her life’s calling. When ice-skating was removed as a choice, she turned to languages at her father’s urging and dove as deeply into that as she had before to her skating. The child of a patriarchal family, her choices were thrust upon her, and she obeyed willingly. She was used to obeying and did so at the “language” school even after learning of the fraudulent deception. She obeyed orders in seducing Mykola, until the moment she realized the true impact of what she was meant to do. She made the admirable choice despite realizing the severe consequences of her choice. Would she have made the same choice if she had not fallen in love? I would like to attribute her decision to her own personal growth to a subjective understanding of humanity. Whatever the reason, she paid dearly, almost with her life, for her decision.
- The incidents of war, bloodshed, and trauma lead to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. While writing such a novel that largely deals with violence and suffering, how does this writing affect your daily mental health?
Writing a novel where violence leads to more violence and finally to the promise of the ultimate violence is of course an emotional experience, but violence is the reality of the world we live in, the world we see on the news every night. I wanted to highlight the good in people in the face of such cruelty as well as to reveal “man’s inhumanity to man,” as Robert Burns put it, or in the character Kurtz’ last words in Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness: “The horror! The horror,”
Incivility and selfishness seem to be growing concerns in our society and in our world. I’d like readers not just to say from there armchairs, “Oh, there’s a war in Ukraine, wherever that is,” but to understand what real human beings are going through every day in real places. In that sense, writing the novel was cathartic to me.
- The book “Bomb cyclone” also delved into the conditions of the war camp and how the rights of the prisoners are violated with torture and excessive physical and mental abuse. What was the biggest source for Vlad’s determination towards his country?
Fierce devotion to his comrades and his country made Vlad impervious to the guards’ attempts to extract the location of the bomb from him. After severe beatings in the infirmary, and with the lack of supplies such as antibiotics, Vlad developed septicemia and nearly died.
Had he revealed the location, the Separatists might have used it as a dirty bomb against his comrades. His determination was always toward protecting his comrades and his country, risking death as only a true patriot could.
- One of the things that fascinates me and also amazed me was the identity dilemma. How Oksana’s identity was not in her control and she was identified with a new name without her choice. Do you think the loss of identity affects Oksana’s understanding of oneself?
Although Oksana, as a defector, must change her name and location, she herself has made the difficult choice to proceed rather than to face almost certain death in Russia for failing her mission. She had been duped and manipulated into agreeing to take the assignment. Naturally, she feels lost and alone after being separated from everything and everyone she has known and loved. She is lonely and reflects on her past and what has meant the most to her. Though she often doesn’t know who she is anymore, the new identity is to protect her, much like a disguise, so she won’t be recognized by people who mean her harm. Though the disguise lasts for several years, she emerges as the same person she had always been, now with subjective growth and understanding more than any outward changes.
- Mistakes are forgiven only when done in the name of national interest, and sincerity is punished if done against the interest of the nation. The transition of Oksana from being a Russian asset to a traitor is a whole learning journey. According to you, why did you choose SVR as an institute to expose this oligarchy hypocrisy?
When Director Andropov says Oksana must tell no one about her mission and warns that “any slips…may be detrimental to our goals. And to you personally,” she becomes acutely aware of the consequences of disobeying orders. Similarly, when Oksana becomes concerned that the Director has been less than honest about the school’s actual purpose, her roommate, Svetlana, warns, “I wouldn’t question it if I were you. There could be consequences.” Oksana has begun to realize the hypocrisy in Andropov’s portrayal of the school as a language school rather than a spy training school. Still her father wants her to continue.
I chose the SVR, the successor to the KGB where Putin had been an agent, as the perpetrator of the fraud because the SVR is Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, which would oversee Oksana’s and other spies’ training and preparation to work outside of Russia, as opposed to the FSB, Russia’s internal intelligence service.
- “Bomb cyclone” exposed how technology, which is meant for advancement, is also acting as the biggest destructive tool in the contemporary world through CCTVs, etc. Do you think technology blurs the lines between its negative and positive impacts?
I touched on this in my answer to #9, but I’ll continue. I believe my book illustrates some negative as well as positive uses of technology. Phones can be traced and followed, yet they also provide us with a dictionary, an encyclopedia, a talking map that tells us how to get where we’re going, all the news and much of the research we could need. AI is a marvel, but some scientists warn us it could destroy humanity. We now have ChatGPT, which I’m sure is the bane of college professors trying to figure out which students actually wrote their essays. We have realistic fakes of people and voices, like the notorious realistic video of a fake Tom Hanks. There’s no shortage of bad actors who use technology for evil purposes, photo-shopping pictures and altering text for propagandistic purposes. We live in a world of “alternative” facts, fake news, and real news called fake news. I can’t even guess where technology could lead next. We can no longer live without technology, but can we live with it?
- One of the most influential sentences of your book “Bomb cyclone” is “I know they’re protecting me, but they also imprison me.” What was the inspiration behind such a powerful understanding?
Oksana, or Zoey at this stage, has wanted desperately to see the only friend she has and the love of her life, but she has been prohibited from seeing him. Not only is the CIA forbidding her to see him, the SVR is constantly on the lookout for her as she keeps a low profile. She feels as though everyone is her enemy and wonders who she is anymore.
She had succeeded in clandestinely seeing Mykola once, but now she wants to visit him in Ohio for Christmas, and she knows she will be forbidden. She decides to go anyway, defiantly telling agent Abbott, “I’m not asking permission, just letting you know.”
Of course, we learn it was a bad decision, as the SVR finds her with Mykola and manages to poison her with the Russian weapon of choice: a nerve agent. She nearly loses her life, but she and Mykola are reunited at last. However, they must always continue to worry about surveillance, finally escaping to Canada.
- The characters who are seen having defection in the novel are not due to a change in their intellectual mindset but their hearts. Do you think subjective understanding of war is missing in contemporary times?
I believe subjective understanding of war has always been “missing” among the general population. As General Eisenhower said, “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.” People who have never fought in wars may often be guilty of overlooking or misunderstanding a war being fought on the other side of the world. I feel strongly about the senseless and illegal war in Ukraine and wanted to add the subjective understanding of those who are a part of it. If my readers can relate sympathetically to my characters, perhaps they can more subjectively understand the suffering and resiliency involved in living through the war.
- This novel also acts as a holistic medicine for all people having diverse interests in history, from the journey of self-interest to national interest and ending with collective interest. Why did you choose to describe political issues of war through the personal troubles of people? What lessons do you want readers to learn from this novel?
Only through the eyes of the people experiencing the war can we put a human cost on the suffering. Self-interest has no shortages in our country. National interest, beginning with patriotism, can sometimes be carried to extremes of jingoism. Collective interest is somewhat more difficult to attain, yet therein lies our country’s hope. I guess my goal is to pique collective interest.
- “Bomb cyclone” has, as a reader, urged not just my mind but also my soul to look towards the diversity of people, which is misunderstood as differences among us. What is your stance on the contemporary Ukraine and Russia crisis?
In my view, one of Putin’s many flaws as an autocrat (which is perhaps his first flaw), is misunderstanding the Ukrainian people. In his view they are all Russians, Ukraine is a part of Russia, and Kyiv is “the Mother of Russia.” Putin reportedly expected to be welcomed by Russian speakers, of which there are many in Ukraine. But the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, 32 years ago. A new generation of native Ukrainians, who have never been a part of Russia, have come of age in that time. Many of the Russian Separatists have even had their eyes opened by Russia’s cruel aggression and no longer want to be a part of Russia, such as Avel, Vlad’s nurse. My stance on the crisis is that Ukraine should never welcome Russia and should fight with the determination that Zelenskyy has avowed to expel the Russians.
- There are so many twists and transitions in the story of “Bomb cyclone” that excite and develop a quest for more reading. What was the most challenging turn in the story to portray in the book?
I too became involved emotionally with the characters. Oksana’s poisoning and near death comes to mind first. She has struggled undercover for so many years, and when she is finally emboldened to a small-scale rebellion against her restrictions, she is poisoned with nerve gas, often Russia’s murder of choice for dissidents. Her recovery takes a full year, with yet more healing time to follow.
Also, I found Vlad’s septicemia traumatic, after valiantly helping his comrades for so long.
I couldn’t let either of their traumas end in death. It would have been too difficult for me, and I think, for the reader.
- Do you have other writers in the family and friends?
My brother, an organizational psychologist, has written some academic books and many studies. My writing tends more toward fiction.
- Would you like to share something about your upcoming work and what is the driving force behind the coming works ?
Unfortunately, I have not had any event grab me like Bomb Cyclone. I’m still searching.
- What advice would you give to a writer working on their first book? What are common traps for new authors?
My advice to a new writer would be to read, read, read. Open your mind to new possibilities. After you’ve written a draft, revise, revise, revise and polish, polish, polish. Find someone to critique your work.
Also, expect to be discouraged, and don’t let rejection notices deter you. I understand that finding an agent and a publisher is more difficult today than ever before. Often self-publishing or hybrid publishing (paying a fee to a reputable company that you have vetted) is the best way to go. Finally, don’t let them get you down. Keep trying. Oh, and don’t quit your day job! Good luck.
“Bomb Cyclone” by J.A. Adams is a thrilling espionage novel set amidst Ukraine’s tumultuous history. Follow Oksana, a Ukrainian spy, as she navigates a dangerous love affair and evades Russian agents while trying to uncover the truth. This captivating book explores themes of love, geopolitics, and personal sacrifice. Available now on Amazon, it’s a must-read for fans of espionage thrillers.