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Interview: June 28, 2016

John Gilstrap has cornered the market on hostage rescue thrillers, told through dynamic characters who operate as a single unit. His previous novel, AGAINST ALL ENEMIES, has been nominated for a Thriller Award by the International Thriller Writers organization*, and his latest, FRIENDLY FIRE, is the most intense installment of his Jonathan Grave series to date. In this interview, Gilstrap chats with’s Dean Murphy about terrorism in America, his nonfiction book adapted for film, daily life in the Gilstrap household, and upcoming new genres.

*On July 9, 2016, at a banquet held in New York City, AGAINST ALL ENEMIES won the Thriller Award for Best Paperback Original Novel. FRIENDLY FIRE varies from the hostage rescue theme, focusing on the potential of an entire nation held hostage by fear. Is this intended as a wakeup call?

John Gilstrap: The ultimate point of terrorism is to hold a nation in fear. It’s all they have, given the impossibility of meaningful military victory. Success for them is defined as getting people to worry about living their daily lives. I remember the days of the DC sniper in 2002, when a single shooter with one rifle and an accomplice essentially shut down the Washington metropolitan area. Looking back, it’s kind of embarrassing, but people were huddling in their cars while they pumped gas. Think about it. What were the odds? In a community of three million people, the chance of any one person being the sniper’s next target was miniscule. It’s the lack of logic combined with irrational fear --- with a dose of irrational complacency --- that makes us soft targets for bad guys.

BRC: This novel deals with mass shootings as a venue to spread terror. Given that this happens too frequently, what do you hope to convey through the book?

JG: It’s important to remember that I write fiction, not commentary. The pain of the Orlando massacre is still vivid, and the anger still raw. If people take away a larger message from my book than an entertaining story, I guess it would be constant vigilance. When in public, always have a plan. Where are the exits? If those are too far away, where is the best cover? And if those plans prove inadequate, what is your plan to fight back?

BRC: Jonathan Grave rarely interacts with those he rescues. How did Ethan’s kidnappers morph into homegrown terrorists backed by jihadists?

JG: In FRIENDLY FIRE, jihadists hire freelance assassins to do their dirty work. These assassins live among us, having plied their trade for the highest bidder. The jihadist group of the book needn’t recruit zealots from mosques, they need only to write a check.

BRC: Grave’s relationship with FBI Director Irene Rivers is strained. Will tensions escalate?

JG: Irene and Jonathan’s relationship is a complicated one, both symbiotic and parasitic. They use each other, but because their methods widely diverge, they rarely work together directly --- even though their goals are often identical. Jonathan has the advantage of remaining forever in the shadows, but Irene has to deal with the White House, Congress and the press. She needs to steer a much narrower lane, and it’s not uncommon for Jonathan to leave her with a mess to clean up. They have great respect for each other --- fondness, even --- but because Jonathan is fundamentally expendable from Irene’s point of view, they’re always at arm’s length.

BRC:The scope of outsider involvement in Grave’s covert operations has narrowed. Will that continue?

JG: The cast of characters varies with the story I want to tell. It’s sometimes hard to drive a plot from A to Z with only Jonathan’s inner core of Boxers and Venice --- and sometimes Dom. When I need more players, I figure out a way to plausibly add them to the team (and sometimes take a beating from fans). Other times, as in the case of FRIENDLY FIRE, Jonathan doesn’t need much help.

BRC: This is your 15th novel and the eighth in the Grave series. In March you released NICK OF TIME, originally as an eBook series. What’s the premise, and how do readers react to the new genre?

JG: It’s hard to conceive of a plot that is more divergent from the Grave series than NICK OF TIME. Equal parts thriller and coming-of-age story, the novel tells the story of Nicki Janssen, a terminally ill teenager. Rather than spend her last months hospitalized awaiting bilateral heart-lung transplants that may never come, she accepts Brad Ward’s offer to run away on a final adventure.

Nicki hasn’t seen Brad in years, but when she was a preteen, he was the high-schooler next door and the Adonis of her dreams. Now that they reunite, he’s every bit the charming and kind young man she recalls. She runs off with him on what he promises to be a spectacular journey.

Nicki’s father, Carter --- a New York prosecutor --- is the first to uncover that Brad is much more than what he’s presented to Nicki. He’s a murderer and on the run from a prison break.

BRC: FINAL TARGET, the ninth Grave installment, will release in 2017. What’s the synopsis? What message do you want to convey? Any other titles coming out in the next year?

JG: FINAL TARGET finds Jonathan back in Mexico, embroiled in his continuing personal war with drug cartels. Jonathan and Boxers rescue Harry Dawkins, a DEA agent as he is being tortured by cartel thugs. As they proceed to the exfiltration landing zone, they find that they’ve been abandoned not just by their helicopter and pilot, but by their satellite support. As the story progresses, we learn of a treacherous plot that reaches far into the corridors of power in Washington. And I’m proud to announce the return of Gail Bonneville to Jonathan’s team. She doesn’t want to be there, but she has no choice.

And there will be a third title with my name on it this year. I wrote a novella (long short story?) for an anthology called X-FILES: SECRET AGENDAS, which hits the stands on September 27th. It’s my first foray into the supernatural, and I had a blast writing it. My story is called “Seek and You Will Find.”

BRC: What’s the progress on adapting your books to film?

JG: I’m thrilled to report that the film version of my nonfiction book, SIX MINUTES TO FREEDOM, took a giant step forward. Marc Butan of Mad River Pictures is now on board with producer Samuel V. Franco, and the wheels are churning fiercely. Fingers crossed.

BRC: Your novels have been finalists for Thriller Awards by International Thriller Writers. Congratulations! When will you be notified about your latest honor?

JG: Thank you. Last year’s Grave book, AGAINST ALL ENEMIES, was nominated for Best Paperback Original Novel. I’ll know if I won on July 9, 2016, when the announcement is made at the ThrillerFest banquet. Fingers crossed.

BRC: What’s a typical day like in the Gilstrap household?

JG: I’m usually up by 9:00. I read the papers (Washington Post and Wall Street Journal), then it’s off to Starbucks for my cup of crack. If people I know are there, I may stay and talk, but I try to be at my desk by 11:00. I take care of emails and social media for an hour or so, then get to the writing part of the day.