Thursday, February 3, 2011

Author interview: John Gilstrap

You know, the one thing I'm discovering as I go about finding authors to interview is just how nice so many of them are. I mean, these are guys and gals stacked with talent and extremely successful, yet more than happy to spend a few minutes talking about the craft of writing, and their own work, with me.

John Gilstrap is one of those authors. I emailed asking if he'd do an interview and he responded within a couple of hours. My mum doesn't respond that quickly, for heaven's sake. He was also kind enough to correct a couple of factual errors in my questions without saying, "Hey, fool, this is the third Grave novel!" Nice, prompt, and classy. When I'm a famous author, I shall aspire to be the same.

Anyway, if you read in the thriller genre you almost certainly know his name, and if you haven't read his books I strongly suggest you do so. He's won awards, been a NYT bestselling author, and he has a new book out this summer.

Here he is:

  • Did you always want to be a writer growing up, or did you come to it as an adult?

Writing is the only thing I've ever been really good at. Well, communication, in general, I suppose. Even as a small child, I would entertain myself by writing stories, or by telling stories to my friends. Curiously enough, I never gave a lot of thought growing up to being a professional novelist. Instead, I always thought I'd work for a newspaper. Then reality intruded after college when I couldn't get a job at a real paper. That's when I went back to graduate school to get a master's degree in safety engineering, and my life wandered far away from my writing roots. I was 38 when my first book was published.

  • Did you have a lot of support when you began writing, or did you suffer the same raised eyebrow most of us do? In other words, what kept you motivated at the start of your career?

I didn't suffer so much from a lack of support as I did from a sense of embarrassment. I was an engineer and a business professional, for God's sake. To tell my colleagues that I was writing book in my spare time would have felt capricious, and would have set the stage for constant cynical questioning. Can't you just hear it? "So, Shakespeare, how goes the writing dream?" When I finally sold my first novel for well over $1 million, the biggest shock among those colleagues was the fact that they had no clue that I'd been writing a book.

  • What is your writing schedule?

I write whenever I can, mostly during evenings and weekends. Full-time writing didn't suit me. I'm too much of an extrovert to toil in the silence of my writing studio. About seven years ago, I went back to a day job--a fairly demanding one at that--so I need to carve out writing time whenever I can find it. My dirty little secret is that I'm more prolific as a part-time writer than I ever was when I wrote full time.

  • Do you actively look for story ideas (combing newspapers etc), or do they just come to you?

They pretty much just come to me, but mostly when I'm looking for them. When I need an idea or when I need to solve a problem, the last thing I want to do is address it directly. The harder I think straight at the problem, the more I become aware of the fact that the solution evades me. Solutions come to me when I'm diverted by other things. It's weird, but it's the way I'm wired.

  • Have you ever thought about writing in a different genre?

I am writing in a different genre; at least on a diferent spin of the old genre. My early books dealt with normal people in mortal jeopardy who had to figure a way out for themselves. Now I'm writing about normal people in mortal jeopardy who are rescued by my recurring protagonist, Jonathan Grave. The Grave books were in fact inspired by the one nonfiction book I wrote, Six Minutes to Freedom, which exposed me to the world of black ops and Special Forces. In fact, that book is the only one that ever got direct input on the record from Delta Force. SixMin is a terrific book, I think, but I learned the hard way that very few fiction fans will follow an author to nonfiction.

  • Your third Jonathan Grave novel is coming out in July - how did you come up with him as a character?

While working with the guys from the Unit--Delta Force--I was fascinated by these guys' unwavering dedication to mission. When Americans are kidnapped on foreign soil, the US government starts working right away to secure their release. In a perfect world, our diplomats leverage local law enforcement personnel to do what needs to be done; but the world is often not perfect. When negotiations break down, the task of hostage rescue falls to the US military. Once the go-order is given, these Special Forces operators' whole mission is to bring the good guys home, whatever it takes. There are no warrants served, and no one cares all that much about the rights of the kidnappers. If the bad guys put down their weapons and cooperate, they get to see tomorrow. If they don't, they don't. Jonathan Grave brings that clarity of mission to civilian rescue here in the United States. As he likes to put it, he almost always operates outside of the law, but never on the wrong side of it.

  • Tell us about the new novel.

In Threat Warning (July, 2011), a group of domestic terrorists wreaks havoc across the US through a series of small but brutal attacks against mid-America. Think commuters and high school football games. In order to up the terror ante, they kidnap a mother and her son as they drive home from the boy's high school track meet, and it falls to Jonathan and his team to bring them home.

  • How much energy do you put into the language aspect of your novels, the “art” so to speak?

In writing, language is the only tool I have, so I like to think that I work that tool very hard. Voice is very important to me--far more important than proper grammar or formal sentence structure. In fact, my most liberating moment on my path to publication came when I made a conscious effort to stop writing a book and instead to tell a story. For me, I realized there was a significant difference. I realized that when I tell stories verbally of what happened to me in my various adventures, I use far more dynamic vocabulary than when I was writing. I interspersed humor and an underlying cynicism that made people want to listen. Once I started channeling that voice onto the paper, I found that the storytelling to the page became much, much easier.

  • Who are your favorite authors?

I like Vince Flynn, Jeffery Deaver, Tess Gerritsen, Nelson DeMille. Jeeze, too many to list.

  • If you could offer just one piece of advice to aspiring novelists, what would it be?

Truthfully, it would be to ignore 99% of the advice that's given to aspiring authors. Quit listening and write. Quit reading books about writing and write. Quit thinking about writing, quit attending seminars about writing, and quit studying the creative process of other writers. Read books that you wish you'd written and dissect them. Ask yourself how the author made you laugh or made you cry or made your heart pound. Then sit down and write and write the story that most resonates in your soul. Accept the fact that first books always suck. (My "first" novel was the fourth novel I'd written.) I find that far too many struggling novelists spend far too much time fantasizing about being a writer and not nearly enough actually writing and honing their craft.

  • Do you outline your novels?

I used to outline more thoroughly than I do now--probably because I'm writing a series that has recurring characters. That said, I always know what the last scene of the book witll be before I start writing the first scene.

  • Do you recommend any specific "how-to" writing books for mystery/thriller writers?

I've never read one, so I'm not the best judge of such things. Actually, that's not true. I read Stephen King's On Writing and enjoyed it a lot. I'm not sure I learned anything I didn't know about the craft, but I love King's writing style, and I found the biographical details to be very interesting. I'm of the school that writing is a craft, and like any craft, it has to be practiced. When I teach writing seminars, my very first slide says, "No one can teach you to write," and that pretty much sums it up for me. You can't learn a good golf swing by reading about it, either. You have to do it. Over and over and over again. If you don't get better over time, accept that this might not be your bag.

  • What is the value of writing conferences -- do you attend, or have a favorite?

This is an interesting question, because the value of conferences is 100% dependent upon the attendees' expectations. Pitch sessions to agents can be a valuable experience, but only for those who come prepared with a well-rehearsed pitch, and who are prepared to process the feedback they receive. Outside of the very specific environment of the pitch session, attendees who think they can sell their book by pitching it at the bar are wasting their time and potentially alienating valuable contacts for the future. Conferences are great places to make contacts and hang out with current and future friends. My favorites are ThrillerFest, Bouchercon and Magna Cum Murder.

  • You participate in a blog, The Kill Zone: is that for marketing purposes, to connect with other writers, or just 'cos?

It started out as a marketing thing, but it's evolved into a very nice little community. I feel as if I truly know the regular posters, and that's pretty cool.

  • What do you think of the e-book debate - is the trend away from paper books it good for authors, readers, publishers, anyone, everyone?

I think the trend is most definitely away from paper, but that paper will be around for a long time. I believe that eBooks will send mass market paperbacks and hardcovers the way of the dinosaur in the next five years.


  1. This was a great interview. I love the Jonathan Grave books. Thanks!

  2. I can't believe I'm going to be the first to comment :) Thank you for sharing your background John. I find it interesting how you went back to getting a day job, after being free of one lol. Currently, I live every day thinking how I would gladly exchange it for writing full-time. Maybe it will be different once I have the choice?

    I've only read one of your Jonathan Grave novels, Mercy, yet I enjoyed it. I better go check out the other one so I'm ready for July and Threat Warning.

    I also wanted to comment on your advice to not read books on the craft. I find that interesting as well. Now I do see some benefits, yet I understand your logic. If a writer let themselves get caught up in a step-by-step method of "this is how you should write", creativity would be destroyed. And writing - practice - is the best way to grow.


Comments posted to this blog are NOT the opinion of the Travis County D.A.'s office, under any circumstances. They are only the personal, non-representative opinion of D.A. Confidential if posted under his name.
I welcome all comments, as long as they are expressed with politeness and respect. I will delete all comments that I deem to be personal attacks, or that are posted merely to antagonize or insult.