Journalist Olivia Claven is just trying to get it together. Between her recent string of job losses, a pile of debt and the death of her fiancé, she’s been reduced to living with her parents and running a local news website. Then one day she gets a news tip that could change everything.

Something has crashed behind the local high school, and while the most official conjectures are that it’s a small plane, the fact that the Feds have swooped in and sealed off access and communications — well, that could only mean an even bigger story is afoot. One that could relaunch Olivia’s career. 

The news scoop becomes more than she bargained for when she sneaks a peek at the crash site and sees a strange and bewildering sight — a bell-shaped craft in the middle of the school’s football field. Then she blacks out.

Azalea Bluff (Headline Books) by Dennis Hetzel is the story of what happens to a small beach town in North Carolina in the wake of Olivia’s disappearance. It’s about a father searching desperately for his daughter; a town sheriff sworn to serve and protect its citizens who’s blackmailed and bullied into silence by the Feds; and a strong-willed journalist determined not only to survive, but to learn the truth. (Read our full review here.)

We recently had an opportunity to discuss Hetzel’s novel at length with the author.

Q: You explain in your acknowledgments that this novel is in part based on a radio play by the late Ed Galloway called “Incident in Mint Hill.” How did this project come about?

A: I met Ed at a holiday show in Charlotte, NC a few years ago. I could tell right away that he was a “radio guy” from his deep voice. He told me about his hobby as a UFO buff and how he had created an old-school radio drama that he was selling on two CDs. Then he added that he had always wanted to find an author who could turn “Incident in Mint Hill” into a full-fledged novel. 

To be honest, I agreed to listen mainly to be polite, especially since Ed had purchased my books. But I saw a lot of potential in what I heard, and I really liked Ed, so I embraced the challenge. It helped that I love great sci-fi and remain fascinated by UFOs. I definitely needed to do additional historical research to bolster the story, though. Ed never flinched when I changed quite a few things as I fleshed out his short script, though the bones of his story are intact. For example, I moved the setting from the Charlotte suburbs to a Carolina beach town. My main character, Olivia, is a struggling millennial instead of a nearly-retired journalist. The local sheriff became a much more important figure and, I hope, a memorable one. I also wanted to develop the character of Olivia’s father, Jim, in a much deeper way as he hunted for answers about her disappearance. 

The sad epilogue is that Ed passed away from a heart attack just as I completed the first draft. His widow, Carolyn, has been inspiring in her desire to complete the project. So, I hope people see it as a great tribute to Ed, who was known throughout the country, especially the Southeast, for his radio shows and voiceover work. 

Q: The background premise of the novel has to do with a UFO conspiracy theory; according to some claims, the Nazis had developed a strange secret weapon during World War II called “Die Glocke.” Could you expound a little on this?

A: The plot focuses on two essential puzzles. First, what happens to Olivia Claven when she disappears investigating the crash of a mysterious object? Second, what’s the story behind the object? 

Without giving away too much, I’d say a possible explanation for the object is that it could tie into the secret research of the Nazis. The existence of secret (and horrifying) research by the Nazis is well documented. They worked on “wonder weapons” with potential qualities surprisingly similar to some of the UFO incident reports we’re reading about today and capabilities even stranger than that. 

Many of the backstories in the book are factually accurate, including the hunt for Nazi scientists at the war’s end, the brutal conditions in prison camps such as the one at Ebensee, Austria, and mysterious UFO incidents such as one in Kecksburg, PA. (Type “Kecksburg” into your Google search bar some time.) We also have documented, enigmatic statements by people like Wernher von Braun about “help” the Nazis received. 

Q: How did writing this book evolve your thinking about the subject matter? What surprised you most?

A: I was pretty skeptical about some of the alleged facts in Ed Galloway’s original story. Well, between talking to Ed before he passed and my own research, my eyes opened. And I know I don’t know nearly as much as some people who have spent years exploring these topics.

As I think World War II historians would agree, the Nazis might have won if Hitler hadn’t made blunders such as the invasion of the Soviet Union. Arguably, they were way ahead in research and technology such as jet engines and rocketry but ran out of time. It also fascinated me to learn how little is known, at least publicly, about what happened to some of the scientists and engineers the Allies captured or tried to find.

Alternate history sci-fi writers have played with these ideas for years. I hope Azalea Bluff works simply as a great story with memorable characters, but it’s also grounded in enough documented reality that I hope it fascinates readers to dig deeper and ask questions — including of our own government. 

Q: The novel follows the viewpoints of several characters. Each discovers different pieces to the puzzle. How did you decide which characters to give a point-of-view role to, and which information to reveal or withhold from the reader?

Authors get asked all the time how they plot their books. Some outline everything. Some start with the germ of an idea and just start writing. For me, it’s like improv jazz. I have a general idea and direction but expect the plot, like a jazz jam, to take on a life of its own as an evolving, organic thing. 

A: Many characters change in importance as you get fresh ideas for things that they could do or say, or things that might happen to them. The goal is to advance the story. The people I call “primary secondary” characters are often the most important to my plots. In Azalea Bluff, those would be Sheriff Keith Hendricks and Paul Martens, an Army officer who only appears in a short sequence, but he’s mission-critical to the story.

For what it’s worth, plotting is much harder for me than writing. The “reveals” obviously are critical to a thriller. I’ve learned not to get too frustrated when I get stuck on plot points. Eventually, an epiphany comes to solve a particular issue. Meanwhile, I always want key characters with believable motivations. You can’t get away with crazy stuff that would never be said or couldn’t happen in a book the way you can in a Hollywood movie. “Nearly impossible” is okay; “impossible” is not.

Q: What were some of the challenges you faced while writing this novel?

A: I never anticipated writing a novel in which I would incorporate someone else’s vision into my own ideas, but what a meaningful experience it turned out to be, especially in these odd circumstances.

One interesting challenge was how to make Olivia believable and authentic since I’m definitely not a female millennial. Even the most talented writers can stumble when they try to get into the heads of those of a different gender. I leveraged an outstanding network of female authors, friends and family members, particularly as draft readers, to make sure Olivia’s voice feels authentic. It was fun to write a story from the point of view of a younger female. It stretched me, not only as an author but as a person.

Q: What’s the next project for you? What direction do you see yourself moving in, genre-wise?

A: I’m on author hiatus at the moment, toying with that exact question. A number of people have told me there’s a nonfiction book to be written about the search for my birth parents that was successful only a few years ago after decades seeking answers. Little did I know I was half-Jewish! And what a surprise to learn my birth mother’s family thought I was black! Then my search rippled into all sorts of discoveries for others. There’s also a lot of tragedy surrounding my birth mother and other single moms of that era in terms of how they were treated and shamed, as though giving up a baby for adoption was like donating clothes to Goodwill. 

My characters from my first two novels, Season of Lies and Killing the Curse, might have more stories to tell. I’m quite attached to Luke Murphy, my fictional president who is part of a vanishing breed — a moderate, thoughtful Republican, though not one without his own flaws and demons. 

And Azalea Bluff opens up several intriguing possibilities, including more stories about Olivia. 

So, stay tuned.

Azalea Bluff is available for purchase on Amazon.


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Read Dennis Hetzel’s interview in The Big Thrill

Dennis Hetzel is an author, media consultant and freelance journalist. His award-winning thrillers, Season of Lies and Killing the Curse, explored the prices paid to succeed at the highest levels of politics and sports. In earlier lives, he was an editor, publisher, journalism professor, trade association executive and lobbyist recognized nationally for his work on First Amendment issues. A Chicago native, he lives in Holden Beach, North Carolina.