How Long is a Piece of Rope: Philip Chen

Philip Chen’s Falling Star is available for 69p from Amazon UK

and $0.99 from

Here’s a little about the book:

The World is at risk; not the ordinary risk seen every night on prime time news, but a horrific one that portends the possibility of total annihilation. Mysterious but silent objects have been found buried deep in the murky depths of the ocean. However, something has suddenly happened. These objects wake up and start sending messages to outer space. Mike, pulled back into a clandestine world that he thought he had left behind to help decipher these messages, is attacked by gangs of ordinary looking Americans and must fight for his very life. Who are these attackers? Why have they targeted Mike and his colleagues in the secret agency? On top of these interwoven threats, Mike learns that a revered friend has died. With the death of this friend, is mankind’s last hope for understanding the signals lost forever in the silt and muck of the ocean bottom?


Alan Caruba, Charter Member of the National Book Critics Circle had this to say about Falling Star:

“It is rare when a novelist makes his debut with as powerful a novel as Philip Chen’s Falling Star ($15.25, available from, softcover and on Kindle). It begins in 1967 and concludes in the Oval Office in 1993. In between Chen introduces you to an array of characters, all of whom have unique talents, some of whom are U.S. Navy officers, some with the FBI, all devoted to the protection of their nation. They are a handful of people who know about mysterious entities far beneath the surface of the waters surrounding the U.S. Others are members of a rogue KGB unit, moles who lived among us, but whose mission ended when the former Soviet Union collapsed. This novel stands out for the way you are introduced not just to the characters, but the physical reality in which they live, the sights and even the smells. Slowly and then with increasing intensity, the mysteries are unraveled, the enemies identified, as life and death often hangs in the balance. Drawing on his own life as an ocean research engineer, attorney and banker, Chen brings an authenticity to the novel that provides a heart-pounding reality that forces you to ask “What if?” What if Earth was under observation by those from another planet that is circling a dying sun? What if they intended to colonize it? What if the year for this was 2013? If you read just one novel in 2011, make it Falling Star.”

Robin Hathaway, well-known mystery author of the Dr. Fenimore and other series, and an Agatha Award winner (1998) and the David G. Sasher, Sr. Award (2009) winner, writes,

“The discovery and subsequent search for a mysterious weapon buried deep in American waters, is the chilling subject of this thriller. The author’s knowledge of engineering and his use of specific detail increase the credibility of this intriguing story. A colorful cast of characters are involved in the search and their dramatic interaction is vividly portrayed.

“Anyone interested in the future of America’s defense and weaponry will find this novel gripping.”

And here are Phil’s answers to the questions that really matter

1 Falling Star is way better than The Hunt for Red October but one day I’d really like to be as good as Arthur C. Clarke.

2. You will just love my book if you enjoyed Tom Clancy and Arthur C. Clarke novels but if you’re a fan of Jane Austen steer well clear.

3. Answers come from the barrel of a gun.

4. How do you see the role of food in the contemporary thriller and where does Falling Star fit into the spectrum? 

This is a most interesting question, as my one 1-Star review on Amazon (US) took me to task for having what the reviewer thought was too many descriptions of people eating [Ed: there can NEVER be too many descriptions of people eating. It’s an immutable law of literary criticism, and I’m sure it’s in On Writing].  Falling Star is a thriller, not a restaurant review, so I guessed my critic was put off by my use of food and eating as a great way to set the time, place, and mood of my scenes.  

For example, Falling Star is a story that spans several decades, so I used the type of cup used for coffee to set the time period of two scenes.  The one in 1970, my characters drank their coffee from thin rigid plastic cups in a plastic cup holder (remember them?).  By 1993, those cups had given way to the ubiquitous Styrofoam cups and my characters are seen having tea in such a cup, and then methodically tearing the cup into bits as the conversation lingered on.  While not the main canvass of a scene, food can be used as an “accent”.

In another scene, one of my principal characters is being transported by helicopter on an urgent mission (made even more so by the fact that his convoy had just been inexplicably attacked), and takes cold sandwiches served in rigid plastic containers from a red and white cooler.  As he starts this makeshift meal, he reflects to himself that he could have been enjoying a gourmet meal in the partners’ dining room of his investment house, from which he had just been abruptly summoned.  What this scene does is underscore that the character’s privileged life has just been catastrophically altered and he has entered a less welcoming environment.

5. How would it affect the direction Falling Star takes if the action were moved wholesale to the set of Glee in chapter 7? 

 Is Glee a television series?  As I do not watch television, except when some breaking news is on, I am at a loss to answer your question.  But thank the powers that be that we now have Google.  Well, so much for Google.  Huh? 

I suppose that the Glee club would have to learn about deep submergence technology, alien invasions, submarine warfare, modern weaponry, and high tech conflict.  As my principal female character is a sweet, old Norwegian grandmother of many towhead toddlers from her four beautiful blond daughters who runs a Scandinavian hobby shop in Crookston, Minnesota, in the frigid corners of the United States, I doubt that she will be getting an ultrasound any time soon.  In addition, the character in Glee, as I understand it, would likely ignore Mildred as some relic from decades gone by and Mildred would quietly walk amongst the young crowd as a sylph passes through the atmosphere.

What the teenagers in Glee would not know is that a super secret agency of the federal government considers Mildred to be one of their most prized assets and that others are trying to kill her.  They also would not know the dark secret that Mildred possesses, until cast members start mysteriously disappearing, permanently.

6. When you’re writing, would you rather look out at the sea, or in at your thoughts? 

 How nice of you to ask, as Falling Star is about the accidental discovery of mysterious, but silent objects buried under the ocean.  Something has happened and the objects wake up and start sending signals to outer space.  I would rather look out at the ocean and wonder what secrets lay beneath the waves, but alas and alack I live too far from the coast, so I must look into my mind for the images. 

7. When writing, do you start at the beginning and keep going, or start at the end and work back? 

Falling Star is the result of a series of horrifying nightmares I had in 1990.  In these dreams, I had visions of gangs of ordinary Americans wreaking apocalyptic horror on buildings and their fellow citizens.  I saw building ablaze, skyscrapers crashing down to the earth, and people dying the most gruesome deaths.  I was traveling to Europe on a regular basis at that time and carrying one of the world’s first lightweight computers.  I started typing on the long flights, in lonely British hotel rooms, and on weekends at home.  In one and one-half months I had a 560 page manuscript about the discovery of mysterious objects buried deep in the ocean and also about gangs of what appeared to be ordinary Americans attacking other people.  There was no beginning and there was no end; it was just my characters lining up to tell me their stories.  Like the village scribe, I transcribed those stories into this novel. 

These gangs were comprised of foreign agents who had been hiding in plain sight in America for decades.  They married ordinary Americans, raised children, held down jobs, bought houses, and stole the identities of dead babies.  For twenty years, literary agents and publishers scoffed at my novel, perhaps secretly laughing that my plot about foreign agents hiding in plain view in America was preposterous.  After all this is America, things like that just don’t happen here!  Until it did, of course, in June 2010, when Russian spies were found to be doing what my fictional spies did for twenty years.  The only difference was that my fictional spies did not grow hydrangeas.  In addition, one of my fictional spies was a gorgeous female, posing as a financial consultant.

I decided to self-publish my novel in August 2010 lest any more of my story got played out on prime-time news.  For those skeptics who understandably will say that the preceding paragraph is just hype, I suggest that they read my page on where I started posting excerpts from my novel in May 2009, including ones about the undercover spies at

8. A great villain or a great hero? 

 I do not believe that it is necessary to portray a villain or a hero in a detailed way.  The reader should determine for themselves whether characters are heroes or villains.  In my novel, the mysterious objects residing on the ocean floor may well be the villain, of the hero.  By intentionally not setting forth in chapter and verse what these objects are, I want the reader to use his or her imagination to consider the possibilities.  Often, the unseen can be much more powerful than the openly displayed.

9. Falling Star will change the way a reader looks at thrillers.  My novel has been often described as a chillingly realistic thriller that often leaves readers wondering, “if this story might not be fiction at all, but something very real and very disturbing“.  The story will likely change the way one looks at the “invisible” people in our lives, the messenger, the auto repair man, the sweet old lady sitting next to you on the airplane, the bicycle repairman, and even the furniture salesman.

Noted book critic Alan Caruba, charter member of the prestigious National Book Critics Circle in the United States says, “This novel stands out for the way you are introduced not just to the characters, but the physical reality in which they live, the sights and even the smells“.  His review of the book starts out with, “It is rare when a novelist makes his debut with as powerful a novel as Philip Chen’s Falling Star“, and ends with, “If you read just one novel in 2011, make it Falling Star.

10. How long is a piece of rope? 

The length of the rope is critical in insuring a clean break of the neck, but not so long as to cause decapitation.  In determining length, one must take into account the weight of the condemned and the condemned’s physical condition, particularly musculature.  If the rope is too long, the result could be an overly long drop; the momentum of the falling body causing a messy decapitation, with concomitant cost of cleaning up the gore.  There also have even been situations wherein the rope was so long that the condemned fell to the earth underneath the trap door with nary a bruise to his neck.  This is also not considered to be a favorable outcome.

If the rope is too short, the condemned will die a slow death by strangulation; all the while entertaining witnesses with a danse macabre.  Executioners have been known to jump on the twisting body to complete the breaking of the neck, thus sparing the condemned further agony; an act often accompanied by the hoots and insults of a crowd deprived of their morning’s entertainment.

It is considered a career threatening move if the executioner repeatedly fails to properly assess the condemned’s physical condition and weight in determining “how long is a piece of rope“.


~ by danholloway on May 3, 2011.

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