Q: You served in the U.S. Army. How did you incorporate that experience into your writing?
A: In my experience, authors basically believe one of two things: that a writer should either write what he knows or try to expand his horizons, thereby improving the range and quality of his work. My own views lie somewhere in between; while the military is prominently featured in my novels – indeed, two of the main characters in The American are former Special Forces soldiers – there’s a lot of information in my books that doesn’t come naturally to me. I research these topics using a combination of the Internet, relevant non-fiction books, and visits (whenever feasible) to the locations portrayed in the novel. Nothing annoys me more than reading a book that obviously hasn’t been researched at all, especially when the book in question – such as an international, procedural, or technology-based thriller – requires, by its very nature, a thorough understanding of the content. I think David Baldacci once said that he becomes a temporary expert while researching his novels, then forgets everything as soon as he's done. I pretty much feel the same way.
Q: Do I need to read your books in order?
A: Not necessarily, but as with any series, it helps to start from the beginning. If you do choose to read the novels in order, here is the progression: The American, The Assassin and The Invisible.
Q: Who, if anyone, influenced your work?
A: I grew up reading Jack Higgins; my mother's bookshelf was loaded with battered first-editions, and I read them so many times they were practically falling apart by the time I got her to hand them over. They now reside on my bookshelf, and I still pick one out occasionally when I'm not writing myself. So I suppose he's influenced me; whether that's something that's evident in my work is another question. I'm also a huge fan of John Sandford, David Baldacci, Daniel Silva, Michael Connelly, and John le Carré. My favorite author is Thomas Harris, even though I doubt he’ll write another book in my lifetime (or his, for that matter).
Q: How do you come up with your characters? Do you create full biographies for each person, or do you develop their personalities based on their role in the book?
A: It's a fine line to walk; as a reader, I like to see fleshed-out characters. If you don't care about the people, how can you care about the story? At the same time, there's no need to spend four pages developing a character who meets his demise on page five. Even the least relevant character can be substantially enhanced with a few quick paragraphs, and I like to do that whenever possible. Of course, there's no need to even introduce a character if he doesn't contribute to the plot – or at least the action – in a meaningful way.
The trick with a sequel is keeping the recurring characters interesting - giving them new feelings and motivations, which can led to unexpected behavior. Anything that keeps the reader on his or her toes is a good thing.
Q: And what about your main characters? Do you have a favorite?
A: I like all my characters, even the bad guys. Maybe especially the bad guys. Even now, nearly three years after The American first came out in hardcover, I’m surprised by how many people are drawn to Jason March, the antagonist in that book. I can certainly see the appeal; he's a study in contradictions, but a pure sociopath at heart. I also like Yasmin Raseen, the female antagonist in The Assassin. She came out exactly as I envisioned her; beautiful and courageous, but without a conscience or moral center of any kind. The best part about Raseen, I think, is that the reader doesn’t really learn the truth about her until the end of the book – there are three big twists in the last chapter alone. And then there’s Marissa Pétain, who makes her first appearance in The Invisible. She is definitely damaged goods, but I think her past – while destructive to her on a personal level – provides the perfect motivation for her role with the Central Intelligence Agency. I can’t wait to see how she and Kealey interact in the future.
Q: Two years after its release, The American is an extremely timely novel. Do you take credit for that, or is it just dumb luck?
A: You know, I'd like to be able to claim that I have a preternatural understanding of world politics, but it just isn't true. For the most part, it is dumb luck, combined with a little bit of educated guesswork.
As The American begins, a hard-line regime has taken control of the Iranian government, and has secretly arranged to resurrect its long-defunct weapons program, beginning with the reopening of the nuclear plant at Natanz. Both of these events have since taken place in real life, but there's no way I could have seen that coming. Chances are, even Stephen Hadley would have missed that, and he has slightly more experience in the geopolitical arena than I do. Frankly, I just wanted to write about something different. When I started the novel in 2003, it seemed as though everyone was writing about Iraq, so I tried to turn my attention to what I perceived as the next threat on the horizon. The specifics just kind of fell into place.
It may seem contrary to what I just said, but my second novel opens in Iraq, and the war-torn nation plays a prominent role as the story unfolds. I think things have changed since the war began, though, and there's a lot of room to explore what's happening over there. For instance, who's really running the insurgency, if anyone? Would it be possible for the Baathists, particularly those with highly placed positions in Saddam's regime, to return to power? And if so, how? These are the questions I was asking myself when I began to outline the plot for The Assassin, and I don’t think it could have turned out better. For me, the biggest challenge lies in trying to avoid retelling an old story; I think the idea of a nuclear weapon loose on U.S. soil has grown tired, as have a number of other plot devices, most of which include grandiose, unnecessarily elaborate schemes. Twists and turns are all well and good - the reader expects them - but if it's unrealistic, what's the point? Robert Mueller, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, recently told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the main terrorist threat to the United States was not the use of a WMD: "[…] we are most likely to be attacked with a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (car bomb) because that's the weapon of choice around the world" (CNN).
I firmly agree with this assessment, which was sadly reinforced by the events last year in London. Weapons and funding ebb and flow in accordance with the political tides in rogue nations. The most valuable resource available to terrorist organizations, including al-Qaeda, has always been – and will remain – the men and women willing to die for their cause, however twisted and immoral it may be.
Q: What's your favorite part about writing? The worst part?
A: For me, the best part about writing is developing characters; creating life out of thin air. Even if it's just on paper, it's an amazing thing, indescribable, almost. I also enjoy incorporating fiction and real life. I'm always searching for ways to blend fiction and fact, and when it works well, it turns out seamlessly, adding a sense of realism to all aspects of the story. In short, the fiction very nearly becomes fact.
The worst part? It varies, I imagine, but for me it's the doubt. As a writer, you're always questioning what you've done. Is it good enough? Is what I'm doing right now worth pursuing? I imagine I'd feel more assertive if I'd penned half a dozen novels, but I haven't. I've also read that many authors consider the second to be the most difficult, and I certainly found that to be the case. Of course, I’m on the fourth now, and this one is pretty hard too. Nevertheless, I finally feel wrapped up the story; it's taken awhile for that to happen, but it makes all the difference. The second half usually flows more readily, and I've discovered that things are beginning to move faster, the scenes coming easier. It helps to have an outline. I didn't have one for The American, but it seemed to come together regardless. With the second novel, I realized – belatedly, perhaps – what a useful tool it can be.