Robert G. Williscroft is a retired submarine officer, deep-sea and saturation diver, scientist, author, and lifelong adventurer. He holds degrees in marine physics and meteorology, and a doctorate for developing a system to protect SCUBA divers in contaminated water. An author of nonfiction, Cold War thrillers and hard science fiction, he lives in Centennial, Colorado.
Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
As related in “Operation Ivy Bells,” in real life, in the Navy I was assigned as the Officer-in-Charge of the Test Operations Group—TOG, a saturation diving team specially trained in underwater espionage. In a highly classified mission, we locked out of the USS Halibut on the bottom of the Sea of Okhotsk to tap into Soviet underwater communications cables.
I spent much of my Navy career in submarines under the Arctic ice and in saturation diving mode. “Operation Ice Breaker” follows naturally from this and from my research experience in the high Arctic during my years at University of Washington.
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Following my Navy time, I transferred to the NOAA Corps and spent three years in the Arctic (above the water) and a year at the geographic South Pole. This, combined with my previous experience on and under the ice qualifies me uniquely to tell the story of the “Operation Ivy Bells” team laying acoustic arrays under the Arctic ice pack, all the while dogged by a Soviet sub trying to prevent their mission.
Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
The excerpt is the entire prologue to “Operation Ice Breaker.” It introduces the reader to Mac McDowell and gives the backstory of how and why he became involved with saturation diving. It also establishes the backstory for USS Teuthis, the specially modified submarine that plays a central role in this and subsequent novels in this series.
Incidentally, the story in the excerpt actually happened to the USS Von Steuben, although she went on to be converted from Polaris to Poseidon missiles. My first submarine as a commissioned officer was the USS Von Steuben.
Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write the book?
“Operation Ivy Bells” became a bestseller on Amazon and elsewhere. It grew out for a sequel. Several authors have written about submarines during World War II and the Cold War, and there are even several books about modern submarining.
Nobody, however, had written convincingly about submarine under-ice operations. Under-ice diving is an esoteric skill possessed by a small number of people. I happen to be one of these, and I am a passable writer.
In fact, after reading “Operation Ivy Bells” and “Operation Ice Breaker,” a retired Navy admiral said that I was “a terrific writer and a living Jack Ryan, having ‘been there and done that’.”
Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?
While researching Arctic back material for the book, I stumbled across an article about a mysterious pinging sound emanating from the ocean bottom near Fury and Hecla Strait. I had already built into my story an event where the divers place an automatic transponder deep in the waters of Boothia Sound, very near where the actual sounds were discovered in the present day.
I went back into the story and made necessary modifications so that the transponder was powered by a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG) with a 50-year lifespan. Then I placed the article in an appendix to the book. This added tremendously to the realism of the story.
What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
From my own background, I know a lot about the Arctic, but nobody really knows everything, especially the exact location of small islands and other obstructions in what is called the Northwest Passage.
For my story to be realistically accurate, I need to ensure that every sounding, every ice thickness, every animal, virtually every detail I presented was not only realistic, but entirely within the envelope of what is real in the Arctic.
Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?
Because virtually all my readers are either completely unfamiliar with submarines, saturation diving, and the Arctic, or have some limited past experience with one or the other, readers’ observations tend to cover the interesting and understandable details about submarine and saturation diving operations and details about the Arctic in general, including polar bears, narwhals, beluga whales, and Orcas.
Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
Once I have the inspiration, I plot out the general story in my mind, and then I create a chapter-by-chapter outline in Excel. I establish my characters, and write a short biography about each so that I can write consistently about each. Then I actually commence writing.
From time to time, a story will meander off in a different direction than I had originally outlined. When this happens, I modify my outline, correct earlier events to conform with the new direction, and continue writing. I write several hours every day. I write on a Microsoft Surface, so I can take it anywhere.
Are your books available in audio format?
Indeed, they are. Trenton Bennett does the audio production, deftly reading expertly adding appropriate accents and foreign pronunciations. My publisher, Fresh Ink Group (FIG), adds music and appropriate sound effects—which are especially important for submarines, diving, and underwater critters. All my books are available in audio, and all my more recent books have the FIG sound effects.
Tell us about your next project.
Besides writing Cold War technothrillers – “The Mac McDowell Missions” – I also write hard science fiction. Award-winning “The Daedalus Files” consists of four novellas about the US Navy SEALS developing a hardshell wingsuit for combat operations from low earth orbit.
I am currently writing the second volume of “The Oort Chronicles.” “Federation” is a continuation of “Icicle,” sequential stories that examine human-to-electronic uploads, immortality, government versus private enterprise, and conflict with beings from another star system.
My next “Mac McDowell Mission” will be “Operation White Out.” The USS Teuthis with Mac and his team conducted a highly classified mission in Antarctic waters and must deal with the political ramifications of North Korean and communist Chinese interference.