Secret Agent Man

May 21, 2009

ONE OF THE QUESTIONS most often asked of authors is, “Where do you get your ideas?” My friend and fellow thriller author James Rollins likes to tell people he has a magic cardboard box he drops newspaper clippings into throughout the year and when he needs a new idea for a book he picks up the box, shakes it and incants, “Oh magic box, provide me with a stunning, best-selling story idea now!” and draws out his next winner. Another friend and fellow thriller author, Steve Berry, uses a magic, recyclable shopping bag (which he is quick to point out is completely different than a magic cardboard box and much more environmentally friendly).

Me? Well, my process can be summed up pretty well by a quote from Henry David Thoreau: “How vain it is to sit down to write if you have not stood up to live.”

I have done some pretty exciting—and sometimes exceptionally dangerous—things in my life, and in one form or another they have all found their way into my thrillers. Paragliding above Geneva, Switzerland (after writing my will on a cocktail napkin and tucking it into a pocket I hoped I wouldn’t bleed on too badly if I crashed) became a means for my protagonist, Scot Harvath, to infiltrate Italy undetected in my novel Blowback. Crewing on a fishing trawler in the Baltic, I discovered an interesting way Harvath could sneak into Russia in State of the Union. Most recently, my experience with a black-ops team in Afghanistan provided a wealth of material for my new thriller, The Apostle, which hits shelves on June 30.

While some men dream of pitching for the Cubs, batting for the Sox or playing for the Bulls or the Bears, I had long wanted to join a black- ops team and shadow some of our nation’s most elite, most secretive warriors, to see how they take the fight to our enemies—and then, of course, turn that experience into an edge-of-your-seat thriller.

A couple of months before leaving for Afghanistan, I began growing my beard. The men I would be traveling with had sworn me to secrecy; only my wife knew about the trip. I had no choice but to tell friends that growing the beard was an artistic ritual, akin to James Caan’s character in Misery, who celebrates finishing a novel with a lone cigarette and a bottle of Dom Pérignon. (For the record, whenever I finish writing one of my novels I forgo the cigarette and move right to the Champagne: Bollinger RD.)

The only two requirements I was given in preparation for my journey were to make sure I was in top physical condition and to have all of my affairs in order (a bit more than writing my will on the back of a napkin). With a wife, two children and a few more assets than I Brad Thor in Afghanistan had years ago when I paraglided above Switzerland, it was the least I could do for my family—especially my wife, who had agreed to let me go. It turned out to be the trip of a lifetime.

Did we encounter the Taliban? Yes. Was it dangerous? Incredibly. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. Did I get some amazing material for my new novel? Absolutely.

Writing, like life, is all about passion. I want the passion that I have for writing to come through in my novels. I also want them to be as real as pos- sible. Mark Twain once said that the difference between fiction and reality is that people expect fiction to make sense. I also think fiction, especially in thrillers, should ring as true as pos- sible. Your heart should pump, your palms should sweat, and you should be completely caught up in the story if an author has done his job right.

So, are taking these kinds of risks worth it for the sake of a good story? I think so, but in the end what I think doesn’t matter: All that mat- ters is how satisfied you are as a reader.


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