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Your first book, RED CELL, was inspired in part by your own rotation as an analyst in the CIA’s Red Cell. Was that as cool as it sounds? Please tell the readers you got into a rooftop chase at least once…or at least what you can tell us without putting us in danger.
Alas, no. Such things are actually quite rare. Espionage in general—even covert action—tends to be fairly boring for the most part. Most days, nothing dramatic happens. Field officers collect small bits of information that analysts parse through to carefully build a picture which the President and other decision makers can use. Images of rooftop chases, wild car chases through cities with drivers shooting at each other and the like certainly aren’t the norm, even for those serving in war zones.
But when something exciting does happen, exciting isn’t the word that the actual participants typically use to describe it. In fact, they usually don’t like to talk about it at all and not just for security reasons. I have never met anyone who came under hostile fire and thought it was a fun experience … certainly nothing to brag about.
That said, the Red Cell was a wonderful assignment. Having the freedom to look at any subject the Agency studies and develop creative ways to think about problems made it three of the best years of my career. I wouldn’t have returned to my regular office if they hadn’t dragged me back. But the Red Cell isn’t a place for everyone. An officer really needs to have a bit of a rebellious streak to enjoy it, a thick skin, and a willingness to defy the wisdom of the crowd. I think every big organization should have such a unit.
I read that your running of analytical war games for the CIA led to Hollywood encouraging your writing, can you tell the readers about this? Had you ever written (non-work-related) fiction before?
No, Red Cell was my first work of fiction beyond a few short stories here and there; but how Red Cell got published with Hollywood’s help is a great story all its own.
A few months before that war game in ’07, I had finished Red Cell but hadn’t found a literary agent yet and I was looking for another writing project. A diehard comics-collector friend of mine and I were talking over lunch and he lamented that Hollywood producer Joel Silver had just fired a guy named Joss Whedon from the Wonder Woman movie Silver had been trying to develop for almost ten years. Whedon had already developed a reputation for writing strong female characters thanks to his work on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly television series, and my friend declared that if Whedon couldn’t write a good Wonder Woman script, then she must be an unwritable character. I disagreed and laid out my vision for how she could work on the big screen. My friend challenged me to write my own script, which I did, thinking it was a good project to keep myself in the writing mode. I finished it after a month, showed it to him, then put it on the shelf.
A few months later, I was running that war game, in which several Hollywood executives were consultants on our Media Team. My friend told them about my script and they asked to see it. I figured I could use a professional critique to improve my writing skills and handed it over…and things went crazy. They liked the script so much that they sent a copy to Silver Pictures and I got a phone call from one of Silver’s VPs, who said it was fantastic. Unfortunately, Warner Brothers and DC Comics were Wonder Woman movie rights back so Silver’sVP couldn’t buy the script, but he asked me to pitch him on other ideas. Red Cell was the only other arrow in my quiver. Long story short, I ended up with a Hollywood agent who helped me get Red Cell optioned for a movie. He thought it would have a better chance to get made into a movie if the novel was actually in print and he got me a literary agent who connected me with Touchstone. I guess the lesson for aspiring novelists is to not limit themselves to a single art form. Explore different avenues for writing and success in one can fuel success in another.
I’d still love to do something with that Wonder Woman script—it’s a really good story. If WB/DC never wants to buy it, I might rewrite it into a vehicle for different character.
It’s refreshing to see a man write such a great female protagonist, Kyra. You’ve said you were inspired by the many strong women in your life, particularly your mother. Can you share a little about her and how we see her in Kyra?
My mother was an Air Force captain with a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and a master’s in Food Science and Nutrition who married a Marine Corps first sergeant. She and dad were both in the reserves when college friends set them up on a blind date. On that first outing, my mother mentioned that she was in the Air Force and to prove it was true, took Dad back to her apartment, changed into her dress blues, and marched back into the living room. He almost saluted as she was the senior officer in the room. Dad passed away in 2012, but during their 45 years of marriage, she was always his equal and rank had nothing to do with it.
A few years later after they got married, a convict on a work release program broke into our house while my mother was home alone with my then-toddler younger brother and infant sister. He attacked her, was set to force himself on her, and she talked him down. She literally commanded him to stop and leave, which (surprisingly) he did. Mom kept her head, didn’t panic, and protected herself and her kids. Mom later identified the guy and testified against him in open court. He died in prison. Mom went on to become a Virginia state PTA vice-president, who’s still very active in community and church affairs in her late 70s.
Yeah, my mother is a tough lady… smart, focused, calm, a planner who’s undeterrable when she’s marching towards some goal.
Those are the traits I’ve tried to inject in Kyra, and into my other female characters generally—women who don’t panic under pressure, who absolutely consider themselves the equal of any man, and who are just flat-out competent at what they does. They’re ready to work with the men around them but equally ready to proceed without anyone else’s help when necessary. Most of the women I’ve met at the Agency are like that. Kyra’s not much of a stretch from reality in that regard.
Tell us a little bit about where we find Kyra and Jonathan in COLD SHOT.
When we first meet Kyra in Red Cell, she’s despondent and shaken (but not stirred, if you’ll forgive the reference). She’s lost faith in the Agency and our political leaders more than herself. By the time Cold Shot starts, she’s back on her game, ready to make up for lost time and when the fur starts flying, she just turns into an absolute machine, determined to accomplish the mission because she knows the stakes are more important than what happens to her.
In Red Cell, Jonathan is isolated by choice, but when he gets partnered with Kyra—quite against his will—he realizes that she’s got the mind for his kind of work. In fact, she could be better than him because she’s got an analytical mind, street skills, and she’s not hampered by anti-social tendencies. He has to figure out how to work with her; and in Cold Shot, they’ve got that professional partnership worked out enough that it’s started to bleed over into a personal friendship and she helps him through an emotional trauma of his own.
In Book #3, they’re going to be firing on all cylinders—Kyra will be the tactician, working in concert with Jonathan the strategist. He’ll be the one setting out the end goal and waypoints of the mission they’re assigned and she’ll be the one figuring out how to execute each step.
What’s coming next for you?
Book #3 and a non-fiction book on wargaming (an ongoing project).
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QUICKIES WITH MARK:
Book he wishes he could read again for the first time: THE KILLER ANGELS by Michael Shaara.
What he's reading now: TO THE GATES OF RICHMOND by Stephen Sears; Shelby Foote's CIVIL WAR VOLUME 1-3—Fort Sumter to Perryville, Fredricksburg to Meridian, and Red River to Appomattox; I don't read a lot of fiction these days..
Outline or no outline: Outline.
Greatest Fear: That my son's leukemia returns.
What period in history he'd most like to visit: I'm torn between the US Revolutionary War era (1770s-80s) and the US Civil War (1861-65). I grew up ~20 miles from Appomattox Courthouse, practically in the path of Lee's final retreat, and ~40 miles from Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, so I've been surrounded by early American history all of my life.
If he could have a drink with any author: Shelby Foote...but he passed away in '05, so that will remain an unfulfilled wish.
Favorite independent bookstore: Unfortunately, there's not a real bookstore within 30 miles of my house now. All of the major chains and independent bookstores in northern Virginia west of Tyson's Corner closed over the last few years. So I end up buying most of my books off eBay and Amazon. But I did visit The Strand bookstore in New York City...that was mind-blowing. Every book lover should see it once in their lifetime.
Favorite online resource: Federation of American Scientists website—a great resource for anyone needing info on foreign military equipment, organizations, etc.
If he could have one superpower: Flight.
If he could invite four people to a dinner party: My father, John Adams, Robert E. Lee, and Brigham Young.