Author Interview with Tom Birk

(1)       How long have you been writing?

            I started writing seriously in 2007 and produced a first novel called “The Shoetree.”  The Shoetree was never published but part of its plot has been written into “Beneath The Rock,” the novel I published prior to Zero God.  Additionally, I am a lawyer and have written much for the courts and clients.  However, talent for legal writing does not translate into talent for novel writing.  I’ve had teachers in grade school and high school – and one at Purdue – suggest that I had at least some talent in creative writing and they encouraged me to continue.  But, again, I did not take up serious writing until circa 2007.

(2)       What is your favorite genre to write?

            I can’t say, yet.  I have written solely in the third person thriller genre and it looks like I will stay there for my third novel.

(3)       Which genre have you never tried before, but would you like to try out?

            I would like to write a Young Adult novel.  I live in Indiana.  Indiana has been agog over basketball since the early 20th century. In Indiana, basketball is not a game.  It is a religion.  The YA novel would involve a boys’ 7th – and then 8th – grade basketball team.  The basketball story would be a strong subplot to the major plot, written in the thriller or mystery genre.  I also might work in a fantasy of “forest spirits” but leave the reality of the fantasy up to the reader.

(4)       A Synopsis of “Zero God.”


            A secretive but highly influential organization called the Foundation, based in Washington, DC and led by a charismatic leader, seeks to turn their apocalyptic vision of a future based on the “Kingdom of Jesus” into reality. They operate in the open as modern day evangelists but, because of their twisted interpretations of certain passages of the bible, they eschew the terms “evangelism” and “christian” and, instead, call themselves “Followers of Jesus.”  In the open, they pray with corrupt world leaders to, they say, bring them to Jesus Christ.  Out of sight, however, they pray a different tune.  Their method of operation is to first, gain an audience with the corrupt leader, second, pray with him, and third, bribe him into offering them profitable contracts to develop the nation’s natural resources.

            The Foundation doesn’t stop there, of course.  Behind the scenes and well hidden, and bolstered by a series of “Dark Jesuses” born of a nonsensical mathematical equation, they work to undermine American democracy. They believe that democracy is an affront to God and must be eliminated. Their ultimate goal is a complete takeover of the US Government. The Foundation will then have the vast resources of America, particularly its military, to impose a fascist regime on America and begin their conquests of other nations.  To this end they nurture and then place a “Manchurian” candidate, Lincoln Kincaid, into the presidential race. Kincaid becomes the leading candidate for president by running on a popular liberal record he amassed as governor in conservative Indiana.

However, Kincaid is not what he appears to the American people and, in an odd twist of plot, to the Foundation.  Yet, he is all but ensured election to the presidency. Americans are well aware of their external adversaries such as Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran, but are ignorant of their most dangerous adversary, the Foundation as Puppet Master to a President Kincaid.

An emotionally damaged small town lawyer, Andy Balbach, and his estranged investigative reporter wife, Rhonda O’Malley, stand in the way of national disaster. Set in the gently rolling hills of Southwestern Indiana, Zero God begins with Andy Balbach’s innocent jog on a cold February morning.  From there, it is anything but innocent as Andy and Rhonda, along with a cast of interesting characters amidst a host of secret locations, take on the Foundation and Kincaid to thwart their goal of hijacking the American government.


(5)       My most and least favored characters?

Very tough question. A writer tends to love all characters regardless of their moral standings in the plot.  I can approach this in one of two ways:

(a)        From the point of view of the reader who is likely to love the “good guys,” disdain the “bad guys,” and hope like hell that the good beats the bad; or

(b)        From the point of view of the author who is divorced from the good – bad characters.

I choose the latter.

            The best novel is one that is so powerful that it changes the reader, if ever so slightly, between the first and last pages. Such a novel must therefore include one or more compelling characters who also undergo change. Additionally, this character must suffer the pain of her metamorphosis. My favorite character is therefore Polly Thompson. Polly undergoes a very personal and painful transition from that of an assassin for her father, Earl Thompson, the charismatic head of the Foundation, to that of a person who gains a conscience. She summons the courage to throw away her father’s relativistic morality, posit good and evil as basic forces in the universe, and journey across the void between her father’s world, which offers her no pangs of conscience, to the world of decent human beings who have souls and must face tough moral choices.  I believe the plot improves, not only with Polly’s new-found soul, but also with the fact that she becomes at odds with her father and the Foundation, and is hunted down for it.

            My least favorite character is one who does have a conscience and the intelligence to grasp that other persons or entities with whom he interacts are criminals, but who lacks the courage to bring them to justice.  In Zero God, this character is Garrett Jennings.  To be fair to Garrett, he does somewhat redeem himself.

(6)       What was the hardest part about writing Zero God?

            A serious novelist must summon the strength to:

(a)        Work, work, & then work, and then more work. He must write, rewrite, research, research, work, work, work, and then repeat this process again and again.  The previous sentence is nonsensical to a non-writer.  To a novelist, it makes all the sense in the world;

(b)        Look inside himself and confront his confront his internal conflicts which generally spring from growing up in a dysfunctional – even if loving – family.  These conflicts, while painful, generate creativity;

(c)        Endure loneliness because he must accept the fact that creative writing is not a group activity but the sole activity of the author; and

(d)       Risk the occupational risks of a writer:  Loneliness, depression, alcoholism, and suicide.

I am accustomed to hard work and pressure, and I live with my internal conflicts in all parts of my life.  However, the journey of writing Zero God meant grasping all journeys, whether pleasant or not but which are necessary to produce a believable story with believable characters.  Why?  So I do not breach the faith of the reader who suspends disbelief.  I suffer the loneliness and sometimes depression inherent in novel writing.  I tried alcoholism but I couldn’t handle the hangovers!  And suicide is off the table because then I would never again experience the deep pleasure of producing what I like to believe are fine pieces of writing.

(7)        My writing routine.

I am lucky enough to be able to set aside time for writing during my workday.  After that are weekends and holidays.  However, there is a curious aspect to my routine:  “I don’t write the book when I’m writing the book.”

This sounds a little crazy but to a large extent it is true.  For me, the truly creative parts of writing occur when I am not writing.  This may be true of other writers but I have not sounded them out.  The writer’s subconscious mind works on these things when he’s not conscious of them.  For example, there are times when, in the evening, I reach a thorny problem as to plot, staging, timing, developing characters, and so on.  I have no answers then.  It’s all confusion.  However, some or all of the answers may be clear the next morning when I awake.  I also “write the book” when I’m jogging, in a boring seminar, and maybe just meeting with family and friends over a beer and annoying the hell out of them when I launch into a daydream of novel problem solving.

As to the conditions for a writing session, all I need is a computer with an independent keyboard.  And, believe it or not, I need some noise around me.  Never underestimate the power of ADHD!

(8)       How long did it take to write Zero God?

            My best estimate is a little over a year.

(9)       The Editing Process.

            No matter how much time and effort I spent on a certain paragraph or chapter and editing and reediting it, there is always the feeling that it could be written better.  This feeling can haunt a writer.  However, I found that, so long as an edit did not involve my publisher, actually editing something I wrote maybe a week before can at times be pleasurable.  This is the point at which I begin having fun with the project.  It’s like Winston Churchill, who wrote and published many books, said:  The book you’re working on becomes like an old friend, holding it at your side, and looking to it at any time for solace.”

            However, the real work starts when the book is finished and my publisher IS involved.  I rewrote Zero God no fewer than 10 times before my publisher was satisfied.  I accepted most of my publisher’s advice and demands for revision.  After all, my publisher knows one helluva lot more about publishing novels than I do. However, there were times when I disagreed with my publisher and did not take its advice.  There are reasons why I want to keep that paragraph or tweak a character’s personality or forego a lead-in sentence.

(10)     Is Zero God a part of a series?

            I don’t yet know.  I have been researching my next book and, at this point, it looks like the second book in a series.  I have given little though to the number of installments in the series.  However, I introduced many characters in Zero God who would fit nicely in a sequel or series.


(11)     Do I have any advice for aspiring authors?

            There is much advice for aspiring writers.  Much of it is irrelevant.  Some of it is not.  The best I can offer to a new writer is this:  The book you start out with Ain’t – A – Gonna – Be the book you end up with.  Put another way, as you write the book, you are likely to find better plot lines and more interesting characters.  If you are lucky enough to be under the tutelage of a good writing coach (as I have), you will disdain many of his or her suggestions, but eventually you will find that he or she’s right!  And, always keep in mind the endgame:  Someday, after all the noise and angst and work and research, you will publish the book and, in so doing, experience a sense of satisfaction known only by writers.

(12)     Why should everyone read Zero God?

            Not everyone should read Zero God.  Zero God is a warning to the people who live in democracies and abide by the rule of law that these things can easily morph into totalitarianism if they are not vigilant.  These people should read Zero God.  Those who already live in repressive regimes might read it.  I suppose Zero God can go both ways:  First, how to lose a democracy, and second, how to gain a democracy.  Zero God’s plot line is the former but not the latter.  However, an astute reader can glean the plot in a “backwards” sense and maybe gain insight into the means of returning their country to liberal democracy and the rule of law.

(13)     If I could meet 3 authors, dead or alive, which would I choose?

(a)        Definitely Harper Lee who wrote my favorite novel, To Kill A Mockingbird.  She died last year.

(b)        William Kent Kruger who writes novels about Native American tribes in north Minnesota and Canada.

(c)        Pat Conroy who wrote several of my favorites:  “The Great Santini,” “The Water is Wide,” the “Prince of Tides, and the “Lords of Discipline.”

I have stated that my one criterion for judging a novel is the extent to which that novel changes the reader.  Every one of these authors, and many not named, have written books that have moved me, imbued into me concepts of which I had been ignorant, and changed me.

(14)     What inspired me to write Zero God?

            History and politics have fascinated me since I was a child.  I have been personally involved in the political world for at least 30 years.  I’ve watched my country take on inklings of totalitarianism.  Nothing overt, of course, but it’s there, moving slowly and, so many uninformed believe, gently.  Zero God is a warning to Americans and all free peoples around the world that there is no universal law that says they will always be a vibrant democracy and need not fear their country’s takeover by totalitarianism.  I had conceived Zero God’s plot about a year before Donald Trump came onto the scene.  Zero God is a warning of a Donald Trump.  I personally despise the man and everything he stands for.  He has and will continue to damage America and the world.

            I’ve written in a blog that Donald Trump would sneer at Zero God. In Zero God, the true natures of Lincoln Kincaid and the Foundation are hidden from Americans.  Americans haven’t gleaned that the most dangerous enemies are those that hide in plain site.  Trump would laugh and point out that there is no need for secrecy.  After all, he amassed tens of millions of followers with his foul messages.  He offered something to his followers that no one can have:  Simple solutions to complex problems.  To their eternal shame, they elected the man.

(15)     What I’m working on now.

Another thriller that might be the next in a series of which Zero God is the first.  Although, as I’ve said above, I haven’t made any decision.

I have another reason for writing novels:  The world is faced with new issues of right and wrong almost daily.  Given the roles of our science, engineering, and technology, these issues arrive at an ever-accelerating pace.  The danger is what I have called “moral relativism,” the belief that there are no set rules of good and bad and what we might consider “wrong” today could very well be “right” tomorrow.  This is a dangerous notion in that it frees humans from their moral obligation to tackle hard choices.

I am not overtly religious.  However, I posit right and wrong as basic forces in the universe.  Some very smart people disagree with me and I honor that.  I do not honor at all those people who have ceded away their responsibility to identify and then struggle against wrong and for right.

All this morphs into my view of history:  History is not so much a record of the past as of the future.  This does not mean that I agree with those who predict the future as nothing more than an arc in a round cycle.  Quite the contrary.  History is a prediction of the future only to the extent that humans either respect or disrespect their imbued talent for rationality.

About the Author:

Tommy Birk was raised in Jasper (pop. 14,000), a community mostly of German descent, located in Southwestern Indiana. His interests include the history of German immigration to America, reading thrillers and mysteries, and studying ‘cutting edge’ and futuristic science. He particularly enjoys fiction writing, which includes real historical events and imagined future events. Tommy traces his fascination with woodlands back to his German forbears from Bavaria and the Black Forest of Germany. His family owns forested lands and these spark many of his ideas. But his writings go further; Tommy has been an activist of the type that embraces a changing world, one which struggles daily with new questions of right and wrong. He admits that his writings reflect his opinions. Tommy still lives in his hometown, jogs and lifts weights, and makes his living as a lawyer. He is a graduate of the Purdue University School of Engineering and the Vanderbilt University School of Law.