The WD Interview:
Brad Thor

When Brad Thor’s novel The Last Patriot debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list, people around the thriller writer told him life was going to change now that he’d landed in publishing’s top spot. But he’s not resting on his hard-won fame. “I’ve worked so hard to get to this point,” he says. “All I can think about is working inch by inch to get here.”

Thor has made a career of writing about the adventures of his unapologetically patriotic hero Scot Harvath, who Thor admits is his alter ego. He writes political thrillers that ride the crest of current American values and fears, and he pulls no punches when it comes to writing about the threats of our times, including radical Islam. In fact, Thor received death threats surrounding the publication of The Last Patriot. Still, he says he has no regrets about publishing the novel.   

“I live in America,” Thor says. “I have the right to write whatever I want. And it’s equaled by another right just as powerful: the right not to read it. Freedom of speech includes the freedom to offend people.”

The outspoken author recently talked candidly to Writer’s Digest about censorship, the attributes of a great action scene, and the reason writers should never, ever trust the adage “write what you know.”  

YOU MAJORED IN CREATIVE WRITING IN COLLEGE. DID YOU KNOW WHEN YOU STARTED WRITING YOUR FIRST NOVEL AFTER GRADUATING THAT YOU WANTED TO WRITE THRILLERS?

I sat down to write a novel and that’s what naturally came to me. It starts out with a guy who comes home and finds his girlfriend tied to a chair, and it’s set in Paris. Some part of me knew. I think it’s because I love to read thrillers. I like books that have razor-sharp plotting that snaps and moves along. It’s not about the main character being different at the end. I don’t want my main character to be different in the end. I still want him committed to his ideas, to be steadfast, true and loyal.

That’s the strength of my books: This is a good guy. We don’t have a lot of people right now in popular culture who stick to their guns, figuratively and literally.

HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH YOUR SCOT HARVATH CHARACTER?

Scot Harvath is my alter ego, like Dirk Pitt was for Clive Cussler and Jack Ryan was for Tom Clancy. We have an incredible warrior class in this country—people in law enforcement, intelligence—and I thank God every night we have them standing fast to protect us from the tremendous amount of evil that exists in the world. When I go out with them I’m always happy to buy the beers and keep my mouth shut, and I listen to the way they speak. I listen to the things they say, and a lot of that makes it into my books. I take character traits and things they say to me verbatim.

HOW DID YOU GET YOUR FIRST NOVEL, THE LIONS OF LUCERNE, PUBLISHED?

My wife and I were on our honeymoon and we ended up sharing a train compartment with a sales rep from Simon & Schuster, Cindy Jackson. I didn’t know she was a sales rep. We had an overnight train together and we talked all night about books. She asked me what I was doing when I got back home and I said that I was going to write my first novel. And when we got into the train station in Amsterdam, we traded business cards and lo and behold, she’s a sales rep for Simon & Schuster. She said she’d love to read my novel.

HOW’S IT FEEL TO HIT NO. 1 WITH THE LAST PATRIOT?

It feels terrific. There are writers who go their whole lives and never hit that No. 1 spot. It was so great to be at the ThrillerFest conference among my peers; it was incredibly humbling. Being on the Times list is fantastic, period. I landed at No. 7 last time. I’ve never been nominated for an Academy Award, but that’s how I describe it—getting No. 1 on the NYT list was like winning the Oscar. For the rest of your career you’ll always be a NYT bestselling author.

WHAT DO YOU ATTRIBUTE THE DRAMATIC INITIAL SUCCESS OF THE LAST PATRIOT TO?

This is my seventh book. I’ve been building word of mouth about my books, and PR plays into it. I think there was a lot of anticipation for this book because of the subject matter, the death threats and so on.

YOUR PLOT QUESTIONS THE ORIGINS OF ISLAM AND YOU’VE BEEN RECEIVING DEATH THREATS. WHAT KIND OF SAFETY MEASURES HAVE YOU HAD TO RESORT TO?

Well, we had to sell our house. That was the big thing that happened very early on, and that was very unpleasant. I loved my house. My kids did, too, but we had to move. We brought in security people to assess our situation and that was the big thing that came up right away. They said we were extremely vulnerable in our old place. I’ve been cautioned that there’s a lot I can’t say.

I’M SURE THAT ON SOME LEVEL YOU KNEW THIS MIGHT HAPPEN BECAUSE OF THE SUBJECT MATTER. DO YOU HAVE ANY REGRETS ABOUT PUBLISHING THE LAST PATRIOT?

This is fiction. I’m not writing to inflame; I’m writing to entertain. I fictionalized the plot. I said Muhammad had a final revelation that he shared with his disciples and they killed him to keep it out of the Quran. What has bothered and angered radical Muslims is that I’m a non-Muslim writing anything at all about Islam. But this is fiction, and I don’t think Islam is above criticism or fictionalization any more so than Judaism, Christianity, Mormonism or Hinduism is.

The other side is that we’re getting soft and lazy in this country, and if we’re going to back off every time somebody gets offended, we’re going to give up a lot of our rights that men and women bled and died for. I live in America. I have the right to write whatever I want. And it’s equaled by another right just as powerful: the right not to read it. Freedom of speech includes the freedom to offend people. What you hear coming out of the radical Muslim community is that freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom to offend. Well, yeah, it does.

DO YOU HAVE PLANS TO WRITE ABOUT ISLAM IN YOUR NEXT BOOK?

Darn straight I do. During World War II we had thrillers about the Nazis. During the Cold War we had all those great thrillers about the Soviet Union. Let’s face it: We’re not at war with the Irish right now. I’m writing political thrillers. There are some great authors out there who make up all kinds of stuff. That’s not what I write. I write about the real world.

DO YOU KNOW THE END WHEN YOU BEGIN?

I know what the resolution needs to be. In the outline I present the problem that Scot Harvath needs to tackle—here’s what’s at stake, here’s the problem, here’s what’s interesting, here are some of the characters that feed into this, here are the supporting plot lines. The end is going to be the resolution of the plot line. In The Lions of Lucerne, I knew the end was going to be the rescuing of the president. But when I set out I didn’t know how he was going to be rescued or where he was going to be rescued. I try to keep it as broad as possible because that keeps it interesting for me. After seven books, my editor trusts me. But what’s funny is that a lot of times, the final book doesn’t necessarily reflect the outline perfectly. As I’m writing the book, the story gets better. The more I get into it, the more I realize there’s more to this story than I thought. That’s the fun for me and I don’t like to spoil it.

ARE YOU A BELIEVER IN OUTLINING?

No I’m not. Robert Frost once said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No joy in the writer, no joy in the reader [sic].”

I have to outline because that’s how you get your next book approved by your editor. I do the shortest outline possible; normally, a few pages. I come up with an outline, my agent has me flesh out parts and it ends up being three to five pages. But I don’t like outlining in too much detail because it takes the magic away for me. If I know every single thing—and I tried to do that once—it just shoots it to hell for me. It wasn’t exciting and I ended up abandoning that book because I just lost the passion for it. There was no joy in the writer. There was no excitement in me.

HOW DO YOU APPROACH WRITING AN ACTION SCENE?

I always believe less is more. Unlike Clancy, who gives you 10 pages on how a missile guidance system works, you get to the heart of it, which is the soldier laying the target and the missile finding its way in. I don’t care how the missile gets in—all I care is that when the soldier lays the target, the missile goes boom. Less really is more. It’s a tendency of beginning writers to want to prove what they’re talking about by going too far with description. I think you’ve got to keep it short, crisp and clean.

DO YOU EVER FEEL LIKE WRITING A BOOK A YEAR IS TOO STRENUOUS? HAVE YOU EVER WANTED TO TAKE A YEAR OFF?

No. I love it. If I weren’t writing a book a year I’d probably be getting into trouble. I’d be taking more trips to Afghanistan and Iraq. My wife is pretty glad that I’ve got a book a year to keep me tied to my desk.

It’s funny, writers who don’t want to do a book a year tend to be not as hungry any more. I’m still hungry. I have a lot more that I want to achieve. When people ask me what my favorite book is, I always say it’s the one that I’m writing right now. I don’t pick from the books that are behind me—it’s the book in front of me that I’m most excited about.

This is a dream come true. I’ve made my vocation my vacation. I love what I do, so I don’t want to take a year off from it. I can’t wait to get out of bed in the morning and get to my desk.

A book a year is the cycle of a bestselling author. That’s the publisher’s business model and it makes a lot of sense. If you’re not researching, you’re writing; if you’re not writing, you’re editing; and if you’re not editing, you’re touring. And you’re always in one of those four phases.

YOU SAY YOU LISTEN CAREFULLY TO YOUR READERS’ OPINIONS. DO YOU ACTUALLY CONSIDER WHAT THEY’RE SAYING WHEN YOU WRITE YOUR BOOKS?

Yes, it’s interesting to listen to what issues concern them in the real world. Reality is the bedrock of a political thriller. But also, they like certain characters. I’ve heard them say, “poor Scot, it would be great if he’d settle down.” And that’s what I listen to. I don’t give a flying Fig Newton what the reviewers say. I care about my readers. In a business sense, when you create a product you have to be conscious of what your customers want. I think it’s important to listen to your readers and what resonates with them. It’s almost a way to do market research. What do people like about my books? What do they want to see more of? You ignore that if you’re an idiot. If you’re an author who cares about the craft and the experience your readers have, you pay pretty close attention to that.

DO YOU PLAN TO STICK WITH SCOT HARVATH FOR THE DURATION OF YOUR WRITING CAREER?

I love Harvath and I’ll stick with him. I just signed a three-book contract with Atria and Simon & Schuster. I’ll stick with Harvath for as long as I love writing about him and readers love reading about him. Many writers don’t realize this is a business—it’s not just the art of writing. You have to constantly be fine-tuning and trying to improve your novels. You have to pay attention to what’s going on in the marketplace and what readers are looking for.

DO YOU FIND THAT YOU HAVE A PREDOMINANTLY MALE AUDIENCE?

No, my audience is about 50-50. I have a lot of women readers and I keep that in mind when I’m writing. I’m surrounded by strong, intelligent, talented women. The female characters in my books reflect the women who are in my life; they’re not in my books as sex objects or window dressing. When I put women in my books, they’re essential to the plot. They make up for the weaknesses in my main character. They complement him and they’re equally responsible for driving the plot forward and bringing the conflict to resolution.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE NEW WRITERS?

“Write what you know” is the worst piece of advice that you’ll ever hear as a writer. If people only wrote what they knew, we never would’ve had a Ray Bradbury; we never would’ve had a J.K. Rowling. I tell people to write what they love to read because that’s where their passion is, that’s where they’re going to find their voice and where their talent is going to shine. Also, it’s impossible to be a great writer without being a great reader. I read everything. If someone is doing well anywhere near my genre, I want to read it and I want to know why.

You need to do your homework. If you’re going to write in this genre and you’re going to write about guns, you better know what you’re talking about. If you’ve never fired a gun, well, find somebody who has. Go to your local police station and make a friend. Go to a firing range; there are instructors there who will teach you everything you need to know. But there is no excuse for not doing your homework.

YOU’VE BEEN INVOLVED IN PUBLISHING FOR MORE THAN A DECADE NOW. WOULD YOU LIKE TO SHARE YOUR OPINION ABOUT WHERE PUBLISHING IS HEADING?  

I got a Sony Reader as a Christmas present from my agent and I absolutely love it. I think it’s fantastic and I prefer it to the Kindle just because of its size. I downloaded a ton of books and I like to use it when I travel. I went to Afghanistan and had all of these books I was reading; it was very light and I had a copy of the Bible, a copy of the Quran and a lot of books that are critical of radical Islam. But go through my bag and you’re not going to see them.
I changed the titles and hid them on the Sony Reader.

Reading is an experience that goes beyond letters being scanned by your eyes. I’m a young guy and I embrace technology, but I don’t think that e-books are going to supplant books on paper. There’s something about turning pages and the smell of a book. I get that feeling when my order from Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble comes in and I open up that box and have fresh, clean new books. There’s a feel.

I’ve read some great books on the Sony Reader, but the experience wasn’t the same. And I just don’t think that we as human beings are ever going to lose our connection to paper. You can’t duplicate the weight of a book in your lap; the tactile sensation, the way the pages smell as you turn them. I’m not saying it won’t continue to grow as an adjunct market to paper books, but I think books are special—they’re like nothing else, and I just don’t see books going away.

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