The marketing folks who promote my novels like to say that “James Grippando’s books are ripped from headlines.” I disagree. Like many writers, I stay on top of current events, but I don’t retell the past. I look for trends and forces that are destined to collide in the future, and then I ask the most important question a thriller writer can ask: “What if …?”
If I’m ripping anything from the headlines, it’s from tomorrow’s headlines.
Black Horizon (Jack Swyteck No. 11) is a perfect illustration of how I work. Last year, I launched Blood Money (Swyteck No. 10) with an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” The final question Joe Scarborough asked me in the TV interview was “What’s next?” I told him that Cuba was drilling for oil just fifty miles from the Florida coast, and Black Horizon was the story of what could happen if a drilling disaster of the magnitude of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill happened in Cuban waters. Within ten minutes of the airing of my segment on “Morning Joe,” about thirty e-mails had populated my inbox. Almost all were about Black Horizon. One was from Gwen Keenan, Director, Office of Emergency Response, Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
“You are writing about the U.S. Coast Guard’s worst nightmare,” Keenan said in her e-mail to me.
I’ve always done my own research for my novels. It’s something I enjoy. From my perspective, the best thing about being an established author is that people far more knowledgeable than I are eager to help me get the facts right. Director Keenan became that person for Black Horizon. Through her, I became aware of some startling dangers about a potential oil spill in Cuban waters. Some of these dangers stem from the eerie similarities between Cuban offshore exploration and the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. But it’s even more complicated, due to the fact that the U.S. has imposed a strict trade embargo against Cuba since 1963. (I’m told that President Kennedy ordered 1,200 Cuban cigars the night before the embargo became effective, but that could be Miami folklore.) Cigars aside, consider these facts, which collectively add up to a potential geo-political crisis:
- An estimated 5.5 billion barrels of oil and another 9.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas lie beneath a mile or more of ocean in the Cuban basin, midway between Havana and Florida. Because of the U.S. trade embargo, current exploration is being led by Russian oil companies with no U.S. oversight or involvement.
- Earlier this year (Jan. 2014), former Florida Senator and Governor Bob Graham, who co-chaired a presidential commission on the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, reported that, with the Russians’ help, Cuba and its state-owned oil company are “aggressively” pursuing plans to drill offshore, as close as 56 miles from Key West. Deepwater Horizon was 48 miles from shore.
- Cuba’s primary target is near the maritime border in waters that could be 10,000 to 12,000 feet deep. Deepwater Horizon was in 5,000 feet of water.
- Experts agree that with the Gulfstream moving at a swift 3 to 4 knots, a Cuban oil spill would impact Florida in just six to ten days. It is estimated that Cuba has only 5 percent of the resources it would need to respond to a spill on the order of Deepwater Horizon.
- The lack of any diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, let alone a maritime treaty, means that the U.S. cannot be assured of the safety standards in Cuban drilling operations. The U.S. trade embargo against Cuba means that the Coast Guard would be barred from deploying highly experienced manpower, specially designed booms, skimming equipment and vessels, and dispersants. American offshore gas and oil companies would also be barred from using well-capping stacks, remotely operated submersibles, and other vital technologies.
Pardon the pun, but with facts like these spilling out before me, the premise for Black Horizon almost wrote itself: What if an oil spill of the magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe happened in Cuban waters and the U.S. was powerless to stop it?
I’m proud of the fact that critics have heralded Black H
orizon as my “most timely book” (Huffington Post). Worsening relations between the U.S. and Russia over the crisis in the Ukraine only make the premise more timely. Most of all, however, I’m grateful to people like Gwen Keenan who help thriller writers get it right.James Grippando
is a New York Times best-selling author. His 21st novel, Black Horizon, was released in March 2014, and is the eleventh in the critically acclaimed series featuring Miami attorney Jack Swyteck. He lives and writes in South Florida, where he is Counsel at the law firm of Boies Schiller & Flexner LLP. Visit his website at: www.jamesgrippando.com