Robert G Williscroft is a retired submarine officer, deep sea and saturation diver, scientist, author and lifelong adventurer. He has degrees in marine physics and meteorology and a PhD for developing a system to protect divers in contaminated water. He is a writer of non-fiction, cold war thrillers and hard sci-fi and lives in Centennial, Colorado.
Tell us the backstory of this book. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme come from?
As described in “Operation Ivy Bells,” I was assigned to the real-life Navy as the officer in charge of the Test Operations Group – TOG, a saturation diving team specially trained for underwater espionage. In a top secret mission, we locked the USS Halibut at the bottom of the Sea of Okhotsk to tap Soviet underwater communications cables.
I have spent much of my naval career in submarines under the arctic ice and in saturation diving mode. “Operation Ice Breaker” flows naturally from that and from my research experience in the high Arctic during my years at the University of Washington.
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
After my Navy time, I joined the NOAA Corps and spent three years in the Arctic (above the water) and one year at the Geographic South Pole. This, combined with my previous experience on and under the ice, uniquely qualifies me to tell the story of the Operation Ivy Bells team, who laid acoustic arrays beneath the Arctic pack ice while being pursued by a Soviet submarine is attempting to prevent their mission.
Put this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you choose it?
The excerpt is the entire prologue to Operation Ice Breaker. It introduces the reader to Mac McDowell and provides the backstory of how and why he became involved with saturation diving. It also sets the backstory for the 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 with the USS Von Steuben, although it was later converted from Polaris to Poseidon missiles. My first submarine as an NCO was the USS Von Steuben.
Tell us about the making of this book. What influences and/or experiences shaped the project before you actually sat down to write the book?
“Operation Ivy Bells” became a bestseller on Amazon and elsewhere. It screamed for a sequel. Several authors have written about submarines during WWII and the Cold War, and there are even several books on modern submarines.
However, no one had written convincingly about submarine operations under the ice. Submarine driving under the ice is an esoteric skill few people possess. I happen to be one of them, and I’m a passable writer.
In fact, after reading “Operation Ivy Bells” and “Operation Ice Breaker,” a retired Navy admiral said that I was “a great writer and a living Jack Ryan who ‘was there and did that.'”
After you started writing, has the story taken you in unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?
While researching arctic background material for the book, I stumbled across an article about a mysterious ping noise emanating from the seabed near Fury and Hecla Strait. I had already included an event in my story where the divers place an automatic transponder deep in the waters of Boothia Sound, very close to where the actual sounds were discovered today.
I went back in history and made the necessary modifications so that the transponder was powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) with a lifespan of 50 years. Then I put the article in an appendix to the book. This added enormously to the realism of the story.
What were the biggest challenges or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
I know a lot about the Arctic from my own experience, but nobody really knows everything, especially not the exact location of small islands and other obstacles in the so-called Northwest Passage.
In order for my story to be realistically accurate, I must ensure that every sounding, every thickness of ice, every animal, virtually every detail I presented was not only realistic, but entirely within the shell of what is real in the Arctic.
Did the book raise questions or elicit strong opinions from your readers? How did you address her?
Since virtually all of my readers are either unfamiliar with submarines, saturation diving, and the Arctic, or have limited experience with one or the other, readers’ observations tend to detract from the interesting and understandable details about submarine and saturation diving operations and – Cover details about the Arctic in general, including polar bears, narwhals, beluga whales and orcas.
Accompany us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
Once I have the inspiration, I sketch out the general story in my head and then create a chapter-by-chapter outline in Excel. I establish my characters and write a short bio about each one so I can write about each consistently. Then I actually start writing.
From time to time, a story will meander in a different direction than I originally sketched. When this happens, I change my outline, correct previous events to fit the new direction, and keep 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 handles the audio production, reads deftly and expertly adds appropriate accents and foreign language pronunciations. My publisher, Fresh Ink Group (FIG), adds music and appropriate sound effects—which are especially important for submarines, divers, and marine life. All of my books are available in audio, and all of my more recent books have the FIG sound effects.
Tell us about your next project.
In addition to writing Cold War techno-thrillers – The Mac-McDowell Missions – I also write hard sci-fi. The award-winning The Daedalus Files consists of four novellas about the US Navy SEALS developing a hard-shell wingsuit for combat missions from low Earth orbit.
I’m currently writing the second volume of the Oort Chronicles. “Federation” is a sequel to “Icicle,” sequential stories exploring human-to-electronic uploads, immortality, government versus private enterprise, and conflicts with beings from another star system.
My next Mac McDowell mission will be Operation White Out. The USS Teuthis carries Mac and his team on a top-secret mission in Antarctic waters and must deal with the political ramifications of North Korean and Chinese communist interference.