Allan Topol’s Not-So-Dark Ambition

His goal was to practice law, raise a family and write bestsellers. He does all three

Published in 2008 Washington DC Super Lawyers Magazine — March 2008

Growing up in the age of Sputnik, Allan Topol wanted to be a scientist. He majored in chemistry at Carnegie Mellon and was headed for a lifetime in a lab coat. Then he took quantum physics. That ended that.

Instead, he enrolled in law school at Yale, where his skills in debate and public speaking served him well. Upon graduating he took a job at Covington & Burling, where he remains today as an environmental lawyer.

In his spare time he’s managed to write six Clancy-esque novels, two of which have cracked Barnes & Noble’s Top 50 list. Others have been translated into Portuguese, Hebrew and Japanese.

In essence, Topol has traded the periodic table for the bestsellers chart.

He began his writing career in the mid-1960s, handing in op-ed pieces on Middle East politics to The New York Times, Saturday Review and The Washington Post. He switched to short stories, thinking they would be easier to publish. “I found that not to be true,” he says.

An editor at E.P. Dutton encouraged him to write a novel, which he did, but by the time he was done she was no longer at the house. A cold call to William Morrow connected him with a senior editor who liked the novel and encouraged a revision, which landed him a two-book deal: Fourth of July War came out in 1978, Woman of Valor in 1980.

Starting a family temporarily halted his writing. He devoted longer hours to his practice, the more reliable revenue stream, and spent the balance of his time raising his four children. “I took off years to raise children and finance their educations,” he says.

Once the last child moved out, Topol returned to writing thrillers. From 2001 to 2005 he published four novels, including bestsellers Spy Dance and Enemy of My Enemy, with plot points that blend international intrigue with geopolitical issues.

He rises at 5:30 to write for two hours before heading to the law office. He writes on weekends and vacation days. The best chunks of time come on transcontinental flights to Los Angeles, where he travels often for clients. “Nobody disturbs you over five hours, except to give you food,” he says. “There are no phone calls, no meetings.”

Topol gleans the substance of his novels from newspaper headlines and current events. “A story pops into my mind and it unfolds as I think about it over time,” he says.

His legal work on environmental issues also informs his writing. When he heard a speaker from the president’s task force mention that nuclear weapons were poorly guarded in the former Soviet Union, Topol used that in his latest book, Enemy of My Enemy.

Having turned 66 last summer, Topol is now in the final year of Covington & Burling’s three-year mandatory retirement transition. Working at the firm only 40 percent of his usual hours, he has more time to write.

Beats quantum physics.

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