Interview: February 29, 2008
February 29, 2008
Andrew Britton has been making a name for himself in the international thriller genre with the publications of THE AMERICAN, THE ASSASSIN and the newly released THE INVISIBLE, which continues the exploits of CIA agent and counterterrorism operative Ryan Kealey.
In this interview with Bookreporter.com's Joe Hartlaub, Britton discusses the real-life events and circumstances that sparked the idea for this latest novel and shares what current situation will be explored in his upcoming work. He also recalls his roundabout path to becoming an author, describes the most challenging aspect of the writing process and reveals what changes he would make in the White House if given the opportunity.
Bookreporter.com: THE INVISIBLE, your latest novel, involves the Secretary of State being kidnapped and held hostage, resulting in ex-CIA agent Ryan Kealey being reluctantly pressed back into service. I have always considered it a tribute to our security forces that incidents at that level have been unsuccessful, particularly when government officials are traveling in dangerous areas. Was there anything specific that inspired you to base THE INVISIBLE on that premise?
Andrew Britton: Not particularly. The abduction that takes place in THE INVISIBLE is based on an existing threat rather than a real-world incident. Fortunately, we as a nation have yet to experience anything on this level, though the danger of a high-level political abduction is very real. Other countries have learned this lesson the hard way. One incident in particular comes to mind. In December of 2000, Columbia’s Minister of Development, Fernando Araújo Perdomo, was kidnapped by Marxist guerillas outside his home on the Caribbean coast. He was held against his will for more than six years before he finally managed to escape. The idea of something like that happening to a U.S. politician is hard for most Americans to fathom, but entirely within the realm of possibility.
BRC: One of the major events in THE INVISIBLE involves an intelligence mission in Madrid that goes badly, resulting in a potential diplomatic disaster. Your description of this occurrence was one of the most realistic passages in a book full of them. Was the episode based upon a real world event ––– not necessarily in Spain ––– that isn’t public knowledge?
AB: That particular scene came entirely from my imagination. Having said that, I frequently use real-world events as templates for scenes in my books. I also try to reference real politicians and other well-known figures. In THE AMERICAN, for example, Kealey was pitted against Saif al-Adel, an Egyptian terrorist and one of the key commanders in al-Qaeda. In THE ASSASSIN, he found himself up against Izzat al-Douri, the former Iraqi vice-president. I kept this theme going in THE INVISIBLE with Amari Saifi, an Algerian terrorist currently imprisoned in North Africa. Of course, to use him, I had to figure out a way to get him out of prison, which was an interesting problem to tackle. I find that fiction ––– especially in this genre ––– works best when the reader can see a clear link between the book and what’s happening in the world around him. I know I’ve done it right if my readers can’t tell which characters are real and which are fictional.
BRC: Your work is well known for the amount of research that you put into each novel, including traveling to the countries where your books are set. THE INVISIBLE takes place in Spain, Pakistan and Iceland. Were you able to visit all of these countries? Do you have a good idea of what in your novel will happen in a country before you visit it, or does the visit itself inform and influence your writing process?
AB: In point of fact, I’ve never actually been to most of the countries I write about. Most people assume that I have, though, and I can’t help but think that’s a good thing. If nothing else, it means that I’ve researched these places well enough to convince others I’ve actually been there, and I strive to incorporate that kind of accuracy and realism in every facet of my work. Since I typically don’t visit the places I write about, travel obviously has no part in influencing the scenes. Instead, I usually think of a place I’d like to write about, and then I find a way to incorporate it. With THE INVISIBLE, my overriding goal was to get away from the Middle East. I wrote about Iran in my first book and Iraq in the second, so I really wanted to do something different this time ––– not just with the various settings, but with the story itself. I was pleased with the way it turned out, and I think my readers will be, too.
BRC: Your novels are well known for their spectacular endings, and THE INVISIBLE is no exception. And while this book is complete in and of itself, it ends with plenty of opportunity for conjecture. What do you have planned for your next work? Will it take place in Ryan Kealey’s world, focusing on Kealey, or perhaps on another character? Do you have any plans to take the series in a different direction or, perhaps, to publish something with a different set of characters?
AB: I don’t want to go into detail for fear of giving too much away, but the conjecture you’re referring to will be fully explored in the fourth book, which opens with a brutal, shocking event in West Darfur. As a reader, I’ve always liked recurring characters, and though I could see myself writing a different type of book at some point in the future, I would like to keep my current protagonist around for a while. Kealey’s supporting cast is just as relevant to the story as he is, but I don’t have any immediate plans to give another character his or her own series. Frankly, most of them don’t survive long enough to make it a possibility anyway.
As for the spectacular endings, I’ve always believed in the idea of a last-chapter hook. Everyone knows that the first chapter has to grab the reader, but I think the last chapter is just as important, and while the author is obliged to provide some kind of closure at the end of each book, there’s nothing wrong with stoking the reader’s interest in the next installment.
BRC: What do you like best about writing, and what gives you the biggest challenges?
AB: It’s difficult to pick one great thing about being a writer, but I would have to say that for me, the best part is creating a character and bringing him or her to life on the page. In my opinion, this is why people love recurring characters ––– the reader gets the chance to learn more about them with each new book. The biggest challenge is the doubt. Even after three books, I still find myself questioning what I’m doing, and I can’t help but feel that it slows me down. It’s hard not to be jealous of people like Charles Frazier, who had four years to write THIRTEEN MOONS. Like most commercial authors, I work on a book-a-year schedule, and sometimes the time constraints can seem a little bit daunting.
BRC: When you started THE AMERICAN, your debut novel, you were in college and working, pursuing a double major of psychology and economics. What, besides getting your book finished and published, did you have planned for yourself? What did you intend to do with those degrees?
AB: I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now. I should probably update the biography that appears on my book jackets, since I haven’t been enrolled at Chapel Hill for nearly three years. Initially, I wanted to pursue a degree in business administration, but the competition was so fierce I decided to go with economics instead. It probably wasn’t the best decision, since I’m terrible at math. I would still like to go back and get my degree, especially since I only have a year to go, but it’s difficult to find the time.
BRC: How has your writing schedule changed from what it was when you first began writing? Is there anything you wished you had done differently when you were starting out?
AB: Absolutely. My schedule hasn’t changed that much, so I won’t comment on that, but if I had the chance, I would love to go back and make some changes to my first novel. As a reader, nothing annoys me more than factual errors in books, and I made a couple of big ones in THE AMERICAN. They don’t detract from the story, and most readers won’t even catch them, but the fact that they’re right there on the page is an endless source of irritation for me. Obviously, the goal is to catch those errors before the book goes to press, but even the best copy-editor can sometimes miss the obvious. So to all the readers out there who did catch those mistakes, I apologize. Rest assured I’ll try not to let it happen again.
BRC: What led you to pursue a career in writing thrillers?
AB: It’s hard to say. It wasn’t really a conscious decision; more a knee-jerk reaction to a book I read back in October of 2003. The book ––– and I honestly can’t remember who wrote it or what it was called ––– left me feeling unsatisfied, and I found myself wondering if I could do better. So I started writing what would eventually become the prologue to THE AMERICAN. At the time, I had no idea where the story was going, but it seemed to unfold of its own accord. When I realized it was all coming together, I knew I had to take it as far as I could, but I never decided I was going to write for a living. That just kind of happened.
BRC: Your characters and plots are written on such a large scale that it is easy to forget that your first book was published only three years ago, a short enough time frame for you to remember what it was like to be an unpublished writer. What advice would you give to a prospective author?
AB: First, I would suggest patience. It’s important to finish your book before you submit it, but beyond that, it needs to be as perfect as you can make it, because you only get one chance to make a good impression. It took me 14 months to finish THE AMERICAN, and when I was done, I was tempted to send it to publishers right away. Instead, I sent it to a private editor in Washington, D.C., who provided me with a list of comments and suggestions. I spent another three months making those changes and putting together a query letter, which ––– aside from the book itself ––– is the most important tool in a prospective author’s arsenal. Basically, it’s a one-page letter describing yourself and the book, and since agents and publishers receive thousands of them a week, it has to be right the first time.
There’s too much to go into here, but I’d suggest a few resources for people trying to get published. First, check out Stephen Leather’s website. Stephen is a bestselling author in the U.K., and his site ––– which can be found at www.stephenleather.com ––– is an excellent source of information. While you’re there, take a look at what he has to offer. It’s a miracle this guy hasn’t broken out in the States, but it’s just a matter of time. Kyle Mills, author of RISING PHOENIX and DARKNESS FALLS, is another good source of info. He offers some very practical advice, which can be found at www.kylemills.com. And while you’re at it, visit www.tessgerritsen.com. Tess is the New York Times bestselling author of THE BONE GARDEN and THE MEPHISTO CLUB, and her long–running blog is one of the most heartfelt, accurate depictions of an author’s life you’ll ever see. For anyone trying to get published, this is a great way to learn about what you’re getting into.
Aside from published authors, who are probably the most qualified people to dispense hard–won advice on the subject, check out the latest editions of THE WRITER’S HANDBOOK and THE WRITER’S MARKET. Both provide full listings of agents and publishers in the United States, as well as the type of material they’re looking for. These are extremely useful resources, as there’s no point in submitting a police procedural to an agent who only represents romance writers. This way, you’ll know who to submit to once you’re finally ready to do so.
Last but not least, I recommend sending whatever pages you have ––– whether it’s 10 or 10,000 ––– to Linda Cashdan of The Word Process, an editorial service based in Washington, D.C. If you have 10, she’ll tell you where to go next, and if you have 10,000, she’ll tell you what needs to go. Linda helped me cut the fat from my first novel, and she provided some outstanding insight on the second and third as well. I’ve never worked with her partner, Molly McKitterick, but I’m sure she’s equally skilled at her work, as both women are published authors themselves. They offer some very reasonable rates, and their advice is well worth the investment, especially if you’re serious about getting published. Their site can be found at www.thewordprocess.com.
Otherwise, just keep reading and writing.
BRC: What books ––– fiction and nonfiction ––– have you read in the past six months that you would recommend to our readers?
AB: In nonfiction, I’d recommend BLACKWATER: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, by Jeremy Scahill. It’s a very enlightening book, and there is no disputing the facts; just remember that it’s told from one man’s point of view. I’d also suggest DARFUR DIARIES: Stories of Survival, by Adam Shapiro and Jen Marlowe; THE DEVIL CAME ON HORSEBACK: Bearing Witness to the Genocide in Darfur, by Brian Steidle and Gretchen Steidle Wallace; and ALL THE SHAH'S MEN: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, by Stephen Kinzer.
Fiction-wise, I’d suggest Stephen Leather’s HOT BLOOD, a riveting, fast–paced story about a security contractor’s abduction in Iraq; THE FIRST COMMANDMENT by Brad Thor, the latest offering from one of the best writers in the genre; and POWER PLAY by Joseph Finder, an extremely talented and very successful author who, with his last four books, has carved his very own niche in the world of corporate thrillers.
BRC: You’ve just been elected President. Based on what you know right now ––– and only what you know now ––– what would be your first step in improving the intelligence capacity of the United States, legal or otherwise?
AB: Legal or otherwise… that’s an interesting way to phrase it. Aside from the moral and political issues surrounding the use of torture and extraordinary rendition, I think the biggest problem facing the U.S. intelligence community right now is the strictures imposed by congressional oversight. Now, obviously some degree of oversight is necessary, and it can even be beneficial, particularly when it’s focused on larger issues of policy. But the problem lies in the size and scope of the bureaucracy. Senior officials with the CIA, the DIA and the NSA are required to spend much of their time briefing or testifying before select committees in Congress, which prevents them from effectively managing their own agencies. To complicate matters, these endless briefings are requested by a number of committees in both the House and the Senate ––– not just the select committees for intelligence, which one would expect, but appropriations, foreign relations, foreign affairs (in the House) and both armed services committees. This is a problem for obvious reasons; how effective can the DCI, for example, actually be if he’s called to the Hill six times a week to testify in front of a budget committee? Admittedly, there’s no easy solution to this problem, but I think it’s something that needs to be addressed. Cutting back on some of the unnecessary oversight would enable our intelligence agencies to focus on what they do best.
In regard to the more controversial practices of the intelligence community, it’s hard to know the value of extraordinary rendition. I’m not opposed to the practice on moral grounds ––– I just wonder how effective it really is, given the time it takes to export and break a captured terrorist. It certainly wouldn’t be much help in the event of an imminent threat. That said, the practice of exporting prisoners to ghost sites or foreign countries for the purpose of interrogation has been in use since the early ’90s, long before anyone knew enough about it to complain, which seems to speak to its value. The same goes for waterboarding, sensory deprivation and so on. Given the content of my books ––– as well as the lengths to which Ryan Kealey will go to extract information from a known terrorist ––– I can hardly condemn the use of these measures in the real world. Nor do I want to. If it works to protect American lives, I’m all for it.