Interview: July 9, 2010
John Gilstrap’s sixth novel, HOSTAGE ZERO, is the follow-up to last year’s NO MERCY, and finds freelance covert op Jonathan Grave investigating the kidnapping of two boys from a facility for the children of imprisoned criminals. In this interview with Bookreporter.com’s Joe Hartlaub, Gilstrap explains what prompted him to make this unconventional school the focus of his latest thriller and explores his protagonist’s motivations for solving the crime. He also talks about the advantages of writing series books over stand-alones, shares a humorous anecdote from a past book signing, and mentions a few memorable recent reads.
Bookreporter.com: HOSTAGE ZERO is your second Jonathan Grave novel. It begins with an attack and a kidnapping that hits Grave up close and personally. Two boys are abducted from Resurrection House, a residential school for the children of incarcerated parents, which is his pet project. One of the boys is left for dead while the other is spirited away to an unknown location. The book is both a thriller and a mystery; Grave obviously wants to recover both children, yet there is a difference between the way the boys were treated following their abduction, and the answer to the reason behind that difference ultimately leads to the recovery of both boys. And the more that Grave and his team discover, the more dangerous it becomes for them personally. If you would, take us through your initial plotting for HOSTAGE ZERO (without giving away the ending, of course!) from its conception through your initial outline.
John Gilstrap: As wealthy as he is, Jonathan Grave has a huge hole in his life. He’s ashamed of his heritage as the son of a mobster, and, as we learned in NO MERCY, he’s ashamed of the mess he made of his marriage through his devotion to duty as a Special Forces operative. He craves family and lives to serve others. His community of Fisherman’s Cove, on Virginia’s Northern Neck, is a surrogate family of sorts. Resurrection House is his crowning achievement, built on the site of his childhood home, and funded from Jonathan’s very deep pockets.
I knew as soon as I introduced Resurrection House as a plot element in NO MERCY that the sequel would involve a kidnapping from this place that Jonathan holds so dear. I didn’t know at first why the kidnapping would happen, but I knew that it would allow me to explore a new side of Jonathan as a character.
With that much of the story nailed down, I turned to motivation. Why would someone kidnap a child? Ransom is too easy, and given that the residents of Resurrection House are all poor, that wouldn’t even make sense. That left me relatively few choices: They could be taken for leverage against someone else, or they could be taken to keep them quiet. As the story continued to develop in my head, I realized that it could be for both. For the kidnappers, it’s important that one child live and one die. Finally, because I’ve lived most of my life in and around Washington, DC, I wanted to throw in a plot point that dealt with the absolute corruption that famously comes with absolute power. By the time I combined all the elements, and filtered them through my imagination and my characters’ personalities, I ended up with HOSTAGE ZERO. I know this sounds like pure hype, but I really do think it’s my best work ever.
BRC: The idea behind Resurrection House, which is featured so prominently in the book, is an intriguing one. Does such a facility actually exist? Have you considered starting a similar one yourself?
JG: I love the idea of Resurrection House, a refuge for criminals’ most innocent victims --- their own children. Currently, when parents are jailed, children are shipped off into the foster care system, whose record of success is spotty at best. Resurrection House provides high-level schooling, counseling and care, overseen by Father Dom and Mama Alexander, two people who have boundless capacity to provide love and comfort.
To my knowledge, no such facility exists, though I think it should. As for starting one myself, well, there are about nine zeroes separating my net worth from Jonathan Grave’s.
BRC: Over the course of the past 20 years, private security firms such as Security Solutions, Grave’s company, have become something of a growth industry, servicing not only corporations but also governments. In your opinion, what factors have contributed to the demand for such companies?
JG: They’ve actually been around for a long time, but until the Gulf War, they stayed pretty much under the radar. Much of what they do in theaters of war is merely personnel protection. Think about all the contractors and low-level diplomats who are in harm’s way in Kabul and Baghdad. Those civilians are not trained to shoot their way out of a firefight, or out of a kidnapping attempt, so they depend on security companies to shoulder that burden for them. It’s a better alternative, I think, than using government employees or military personnel, whose expertise is better applied to tactical and strategic missions.
BRC: The narrative of HOSTAGE ZERO is roughly divided between two locales: Vienna, Virginia, and the nation of Colombia. You know Virginia well for obvious reasons, but what about Colombia? Did you travel there to do the necessary due diligence on the background flora and fauna for the book, or did you rely on the descriptions of others?
JG: A little bit of both --- sort of. When I was researching my nonfiction book, SIX MINUTES TO FREEDOM, I spent time in Panama, which shares a border with Colombia. I did my flora and fauna work there and extrapolated. I also read a number of travelogues from people who had visited the mountainous regions where Jonathan and his crew spend their time in HOSTAGE ZERO. For the rest, I did what novelists do best: I just used my imagination.
BRC: One of the things that I love to do is visit the places that provide the settings for works of fiction. A short but important scene in HOSTAGE ZERO takes place in a restaurant/tavern called the Maple Inn on Maple Avenue in Vienna, Virginia. There is in fact a Maple Avenue in Vienna, but I can’t seem to find a Maple Inn. Should I stop looking? Or is there actually a place after which the Maple Inn is modeled?
JG: The Maple Inn is most definitely modeled after a real place, but I changed the name to give the owners all the deniability they need. It is in fact located six miles down the road from CIA Headquarters, and it may or may not be a place where Agency operatives meet to discuss important issues offline. It is certainly a favorite place for operatives to meet with one particular author to discuss spooky stuff. Ask anyone where you can find the best, cheapest breakfast in town, and chances are they’ll send you to the right place.
BRC: You actually began your working life as a journalist and currently work as both a writer and a trade association safety expert. If you could work in only one of those occupations, which one would you choose and why? What would be the advantages and disadvantages of doing one or the other on a full-time basis?
JG: Well, it definitely wouldn’t be journalism. I fear that writing on a deadline all day would sap too much creative energy, and leave me with nothing left for fiction.
As for the other two, being a thriller writer or a safety guy, I really can’t choose. While I think I’m pretty good at both, the stakes are entirely different. I write to entertain people, but my day job is about saving lives. I’m happiest when I can do both.
BRC: On a related note, let’s pretend that you are appointed the hazardous waste czar for a day. With unlimited power and authority, what would you do with regard to the disposal of hazardous waste from, let’s say, hospitals?
JG: As czar for a day, I would mandate that citizens groups and politicians deal less in panic and more in hard science. The public needs to realize that just because a product or a process involves toxic materials, it does not mean that the resulting product or process is itself toxic. There are very few chemicals in the world that are so toxic that they can’t be worked with safely in some quantity.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m in favor of regulation --- even more stringent regulation that we have today in many cases --- but in my czardom the pop-science Chicken Littles who turn up at every public meeting to tout the ever-popular cry of “Not in my backyard!” wouldn’t get nearly the face time on the news as the egg-headed scientists who actually know what they’re talking about.
BRC: Who is Jonathan Grave? Is he John Gilstrap, with an unlimited amount of money and the ability to get away with bending the law? Or is he the modified and updated version of an iconic fictional figure, such as Doc Savage?
JG: Jonathan Grave is a man with a crystal clear sense of right and wrong, and an obsessive drive to help people who are in trouble. He happens to be wealthy, but his wealth has little to do with who he is. In fact, the money motivates him more in the other direction: It symbolizes what he will never allow himself to become.
He comes at his life from an interesting place. As a Special Forces operator, he spent the better part of two decades violating laws at the direction of the US government, performing missions that can never be publicized. As a civilian, he respects the rule of law in principle, but when individual statutes get in the way of him accomplishing his mission of saving a life, he easily pushes the law aside. It’s irrelevant to him. He tells people that he’s on the side of the angels; that while he may violate the law, he never really strays to the wrong side of it.
Is he my dream version of what I’d like to be? Maybe. Like Jonathan, I value principle above all. My handshake on a verbal commitment means more to me than my signature on a contract. As for bending the law, I’m not as prepared to live with the consequences as he is, so I pretty much go through life as though there were a state trooper and an IRS agent just two steps away.
BRC: What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of writing series books as opposed to stand-alone works?
JG: The clearest advantage to a series is the fact that by all accounts, that is what the reading public is hungry to consume. Personally, I enjoy the availability of a longer story arc in which Jonathan and his team can evolve over many books. If the series becomes really popular one day, I would even like to expand the franchise to include young adult novels set in Resurrection House.
BRC: One of the many great things about spending time with you is that you always have hilarious stories to tell, particularly about book signings. Is there a story about a signing that you would like to share with our readers?
JG: My all-time favorite book-signing story goes back to the late ’90s, when I was on tour for AT ALL COSTS. It was my second book, and I was signing in the doorway of WaldenBooks, surrounded by a mountain of my novels. During a particularly slow period, I noticed a young man, maybe 25, standing off to the side, just watching. He seemed more shy than creepy, so I asked him if I could help him.
It turned out he had just finished writing a book of his own, and he wanted to know how to get it published. I was as helpful as I knew how to be, and we chatted for a good 20 minutes. When he was done, his whole body language changed. He shoved his hands in his pockets, copped an attitude and said, “Well, I don’t read sh*t like you write,” and he walked off.
Yet again, no good deed goes unpunished.
BRC: What do you think is the smartest thing you did in terms of your writing career? And what do you wish you could do over again?
JG: The smartest thing I did was finally get off my butt and start writing seriously. I had talked about it and played with the idea, but it wasn’t until well into my 30s that I finally took my shot. As for the do-over, given perfect hindsight, I would travel back in time and accept Disney’s offer to produce NATHAN’S RUN over Warner Brothers’. The money was the same, but in retrospect, it was a story that would have been more at home in the Mouse House.
BRC: Within many avid readers, there is a potential author wanting to break out. What is the best advice that you could give to someone who hopes to be published one day?
JG: My advice is to write. Seriously. Put your butt in the chair and compose. Reading about writing is not writing. Neither is blogging about it or even writing about it. This authoring gig is as much about craft as it is about art, and unless you practice regularly, you’ll never have fully-honed skills.
BRC: One of the biggest problems that authors have --- particularly those with other responsibilities --- is keeping to a schedule. What is your writing schedule? How do you stick to it? And what do you require: total silence and isolation, or are you okay with domestic hubbub and people wandering in and out of the room?
JG: Because of my day job --- my wife calls it my “big-boy job” --- I’ve become pretty adept at turning spare moments into productive writing time. I dedicate most weekends to writing, and more than a few evenings. If I have the luxury of actually setting my surroundings, I prefer a comfortable chair in a quiet room, listening to movie soundtracks on my iPod. But if I can’t have that, a busy airport terminal will work fine, too.
BRC: What have been the best and worst things about writing as a full- and/or part-time vocation?
JG: For me, the worsts are all tied to writing full time. Without the structure forced by time constraints, I become woefully inefficient. I also become lonely. It doesn’t work for me to have my only social outlet be with my imaginary friends. I need interaction with real people. I thrive on the proverbial water cooler chats in the morning, and I love gathering for drinks after work. By being able to work seriously at both sides of my life, I am far closer to self-actualization than I ever was when I addressed only one.
BRC: What have you read in the past six months that you would recommend to our readers?
JG: I really liked John Hart’s THE LAST CHILD and Tom Rob Smith’s CHILD 44. THE ODDS by Kathleen George is really good, too. One of the best thrillers I’ve ever read is actually nonfiction: MANHUNT: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, by James L. Swanson. The biggest surprise for me, simply because it so far outside the sleeve of what I usually read, was DOG ON IT by Spencer Quinn.
BRC: You have a third Grave novel scheduled for publication in 2011. Is there anything you can tell us about it? And are you currently working on anything else?
JG: I do have a third Grave book in the works (I have to deliver it on September 15th), but I make it a point never to talk about works in progress. In addition to that next book, I’m also working with the producers of the movie versions of my books SIX MINUTES TO FREEDOM and SCOTT FREE as they try to harness the laws of God and nature to beat the odds and bring one of them to the silver screen. I’m actually signed as the screenwriter for Six Minutes, but I haven’t yet been told to start writing.
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