SIDNEY — It’s not every self-published author whose first novel is said by an important reviewer to “rival a James Bond adventure.”
But that’s just what the prestigious Kirkus Reviews wrote about New Bremen native Robert Gilberg’s “Alice Chang.”
“In this debut thriller, an engineer investigates a plane crash only to discover a global conspiracy to hack digital satellite television systems that may involve a woman from his past,” the review says. “… The more he uncovers about the scheme and Alice’s role in it, the more danger he finds himself in … A fast-paced technology tale with enough international intrigue and luxurious details to rival a James Bond adventure.”
Gilberg, of San Diego, California, is a retired engineer who took up writing just a few years ago. He published a memoir in early 2015 about growing up in New Bremen, “The Last Road Rebel — And Other Lost Stories: Growing Up in a Small Town — And Never Getting Over It.” That book took 10 years to write. Not so “Alice Chang,” which was completed in a year and a half; although, the idea for the fictional tale had presented itself 15 years ago.
“When I was working, we had a piracy problem,” Gilberg said by phone recently. In the 1990s, TV set-top boxes were satellite receivers, each with its own secret code. Pirates would steal the codes and make clone boxes, allowing the people with the clones to get free satellite TV feeds.
“In today’s world, people spend $150 a month for satellite TV, so that’s hundreds of millions of dollars being stolen from companies who put programs on satellite,” Gilberg said. “I came up with concepts for protecting secret information in the microchip, so hackers couldn’t get the information without destroying the chip. I wanted to write a factual account of that. I needed records from the company, which had been bought by Motorola. But they weren’t interested in that. A friend who was an English teacher said, ‘You should fictionalize this.’”
As he worked on the memoir, Gilberg joined a writers’ group at San Diego Writers Ink. Fellow members were all writing fiction and urged him to do so, too.
“It’s so liberating. You can make up whatever you want someone to say,” they told him.
So, when “Road Rebel” was finished, Gilberg went back to the tech piracy and his idea for a novel.
The plot of “Alice Chang” involves Steve Barton, a retired engineer, who happens to see a plane crash into a structure near a remote California village. The small, private plane had hit an isolated building. As Barton arrives, a beautiful woman speeds past him to get away. He catches just a glimpse of her.
The building seems to have been used for technical piracy of satellite TV codes. Barton becomes involved in solving the mystery of who was working in the building. He discovers that the woman in the car was Alice Chang, his former coworker who had been kidnapped by the hackers and forced to work for them.
As romance between Alice and Steve deepens, so does the hacking plot, which takes the protagonists all the way to China, among other places.
That part of the story “sort of came from today’s PC world, where there are hackers all over the world, including China. All the pirates we were dealing with (in the actual piracy) were pretty much in the states,” Gilberg said.
Having Barton and Chang run up against a Chinese syndicate is just one of the fictions the writer created. He admits that there’s a lot of himself in Barton.
“Steve Barton likes to drive his cars in the back country. So do I,” Gilberg said. Other elements are based in something real, too.
“Some years ago, I stumbled across this town of Fernbrook. I immediately thought, ‘This place is where some mystery should take place.’ When I worked in Silicon Valley in the ’80s, I used to see this woman driving into Silicon Valley in her Porsch. She was a very pretty woman. Oriental. I always wondered who she was, what she did,” he said.
He made Alice look like her.
A man from Gilberg’s past became the genesis for Jim Schmidt, a not-quite-reformed hippie in the novel.
“I knew a guy like (Schmidt) who was a motocycle nut. He was a very eccentric kind of guy,” the novelist said.
But in the end, all the characters became composites of multiple people Gilberg has known. There are aspects of Barton, for instance, that are not at all like Gilberg. Barton is divorced.
“I’ve been married almost 50 years,” Gilberg said.
The book went through four major rewrites before it was printed by CreateSpace in August.
“When I first wrote it, the characters were almost skeleton characters. In subsequent drafts, I went back and put flesh on those skeletons,” the author said.
It is available in paperback or a downloadable Kindle edition at Amazon.com and in paperback at CreateSpace.com, Barnes&Noble.com and at Gilberg’s website, www.tamborrelwriter.com.
The hardest thing for self-published authors to do is to get the word out about their books. That’s why Gilberg paid to have Kirkus Reviews look at his novel. While Kirkus offers the review service to independent authors for a fee, it doesn’t guarantee a good review.
“You might spend several hundreds of dollars and get a bad review that you just throw away,” Gilberg said. “Indie publishers just have to spend the money if they want to promote their books.”
Kirkus reviews are anonymous; however, Gilberg has met someone in San Diego who is one of them. That’s how he learned that what Kirkus said about “Alice Chang” is special.
“It’s very hard to get a review like (yours),” the reviewer told him.
Gilberg’s next novel is all but ready to hit the presses. “A Simple Twist of Fate” is a Bob Dylanesque folk rock novel, he said.
“I’m writing every day,” he admitted. “I just love writing.” Another novel is even now germinating in his mind even as he works on the folk rock one.
“My next idea is taking the character of Jim Schmidt (from “Alice Chang”) and basing a story around him. He’s a really juicy character,” he said.
Gilberg has a title for that next novel already. He’ll call it “Starvation Mountain.”
“It’s a real mountain on which I owned an avocado grove once,” he said. “It’s the perfect setting for a strange group of people to be living. I can almost taste some possibilities in that story.”
Does he think of himself now as a writer? Is this his retirement career?
“I think that someone who is a ‘writer’ is someone who makes a living from it,” Gilberg said. “That probably won’t ever happen to me. I don’t really care. I just like telling a good story.”
Patricia Ann Speelman provided feedback to Robert Gilberg on an early version of “Alice Chang.” Her promotional statement about the book appears on book’s cover. Reach her at 937-538-4824.