The Thrill of Writing in the Trenches
Author Brad Thor ’92 goes the extra 7,000 miles researching his multi-leveled, action-packed novels.By Pamela J. Johnson
January 29, 2010
Walk into any bookstore, make a beeline to The New York Times best-seller section and you will find a political thriller by Brad Thor.
The 40-year-old author produces one book a year. To date, he has written eight novels — all New York Times best-sellers, some No. 1.
So if you are among the millions addicted to Thor’s books, you’re familiar with Scot Harvath, a younger, cooler James Bond and protagonist in the series. Think a tougher, more pro-American Jason Bourne without the amnesia. What Bourne was to the Cold War, Harvath is to the War on Terror.
And as Dirk Pitt was for Clive Cussler and Philip Marlowe was for Raymond Chandler, Harvath is Thor’s alter ego. It’s sometimes hard to tell where Thor ends and Harvath begins, or vice versa. For starters, both are USC alumni.
“I’m extremely proud to be a Trojan and these are my books,” asserts the USC College alumnus, who earned his bachelor’s in creative writing in 1992.
“Why in the heck should I promote any university other than USC? It’s my homage to my alma mater.”
Thor is discussing his work over lunch at his favorite restaurant, Ralph Lauren — or RL — in Chicago, his hometown. His navy blazer matches the cloth walls that are covered with old English oil paintings and black-and-white photos of larger-than-life characters like Mick Jagger and Gary Cooper. The mahogany ceilings and floors, bookcases, fireplace and white rosebuds on each table exude a private club ambience.
He slips into a comfy, corner buckskin leather booth and flashes a bright smile. Like his books, Thor is adrenaline-filled, but it’s not nervous, bouncing-off-the-walls energy. It is the kind of verve seen in one who as Joseph Campbell would say, is following his bliss. Clean-shaven and clad in blue jeans, he looks like an action hero, maybe a more boyish, blonder Pierce Brosnan.
One half expects Thor to order a dry martini in a deep champagne goblet, shaken, not stirred, with a thin slice of lemon peel. Ever the pragmatist, the author orders an iced tea.
He has chosen a booth also preferred by locals Oprah Winfrey and Christie Hefner, but probably for different reasons.
“I’m one of those guys who will not sit with his back to the door,” Thor says, watching the entrance, where fashionable diners begin streaming in. He has good reason to be on the qui vive.
Fighting the Good Fight
Similar to Harvath, an ex-Navy SEAL and counterterrorism agent, Thor’s life has been in peril. After The Last Patriot (Atria) was published in 2008, Thor received so many death threats that he, his wife, Trish, and their two small children were forced to move.
In the novel, Harvath, working for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, hunts for Muhammad’s final revelation. As Thor’s story goes, the founder of Islam had a final revelation, but before it could be revealed to the world, he was assassinated by his disciples to keep it from the Qur’an. If the missing revelation can be found, the face of Islam will be forever changed.
Considered the DaVinci Code of Islam, The Last Patriot was banned in Saudi Arabia. The threats were so serious law enforcement advised Thor to wear a bulletproof vest to book signings. Then he relinquished the house he and his family cherished.
“I take very strong positions, but I believe as an American I have the First Amendment right to free speech,” says Thor, who sports a small American flag pin on his lapel. “I have the right to write whatever I want and that right is equal to another right just as powerful. And that’s the right not to read it.”
Never flinching in the face of controversy, Thor is friends with Glenn Beck and has appeared on the radio and television host’s Fox News show several times. During one appearance, Beck begs Thor not to publish The Last Patriot, predicting that if he did the author would be dead within a year.
“Last night I read the first three chapters with my mouth open and thought to myself, my friend Brad may lose his life for a fiction book,” Beck says in the program with his characteristic showmanship. “Have you and your wife had that talk?”
“We have, we have,” replies Thor, referred to by some as the new Salman Rushdie. “And I’ve had the talk with some very well connected friends who are in law enforcement, who specialize in security for the president, Congress and so on.”
Thankfully, Beck’s prediction was wrong. In addition to becoming a No. 1 New York Times best-seller, the book was nominated Best Thriller of the Year by the International Thriller Writers association.
Notes on the Front Line
Back at RL, Thor digs into his chicken hash with black truffles and poached eggs, which he had slathered in ketchup.
He points out that his books include many positive Muslim characters. For his latest thriller, The Apostle (Atria, 2009), Thor spent time in Afghanistan, shadowing members of a covert black-ops team. In Afghanistan, he got to know the locals.
“Most Muslims are peaceful and moderate people who just want to feed their families and get along with their neighbors,” Thor says. “They don’t care if you’re a Christian or a Jew. The good Muslims are in my books as well.”
Readers take his thrillers so seriously because they ring true. As a member of Homeland Security’s Analytic Red Cell program, Thor has intimate knowledge of possible terrorist plots on U.S. soil. After Sept. 11, the government created a program bringing together members of the CIA and FBI, futurists, philosophers, thriller writers and others in an attempt to predict al Qaeda’s future methods of attack against the United States. Thor was asked to participate.
“What the government decided to do was to break away from this Beltway-think, to sit down with our military, law enforcement and intelligence officers and to brainstorm,” Thor says. “They wanted to bring in a fresh set of eyes.”
Although no particular terrorist scenario he developed for the government appears in his works, he uses the same creative process to build his book plots.
Thor’s plots are so realistic that not surprisingly, law enforcement, intelligence, and counterterrorism operatives are big fans of his work. In fact, it was members of a black-ops team in Afghanistan who invited their favorite author to watch them in action.
“Do you really want to see what Scot Harvath does?” they asked Thor. “You need to embed with us.”
Thor’s time in Afghanistan was a highly covert mission. Black ops involve extensive arrangements meant to hide the fact that missions ever occurred. The operations are extremely risky.
“We were trying to fly under the radar, so were not rolling in a big armored column of Humvees,” Thor recounts. “It was just us, riding in thin-skinned, unarmored vehicles like the locals drive.”
During the mission, Thor grew a bushy beard and dressed in traditional Afghan clothing.
“The point is to not draw a lot of attention to yourself,” he says. “But I still looked like a westerner, even with the beard.”
His sunglasses were confiscated by the black-ops team.
“Nothing identifies you as an American quicker than a pair of sunglasses,” Thor says.
He was also taught to walk a certain way.
“Hands behind the back,” he says. “Shuffle as if you are ice skating; only without the skates.”
A White-Knuckle Ride
The Apostle benefited from Thor’s rigorous research and many of these details ended up in the book. The setting takes place largely in Afghanistan, where Harvath must secretly infiltrate Kabul’s notorious Policharki prison and capture a man whom terrorists demand in exchange for the release of an American doctor.
The thriller is punctuated with vivid images of the Afghan people, customs and landscape. Several characters in the book are based on people he met in Afghanistan. “Suffice it to say,” offers Thor, “Many of the characters in the book are real. They know who they are, but they don’t want anyone else to know. They’re the epitome of the quiet professional.”
Accompanied by the black-ops team, Thor met with members of the Taliban in small villages — research also evident in the book. When Thor’s team was invited into the villages, they were protected under the ancient Pashtun code of honor known as Pashtunwali and their safety was guaranteed by their hosts. But there were other places they had to travel through where they were not invited, and were most definitely not welcome. Those village visits were dubbed “7-11 stops.”
“You couldn’t stop longer than seven to 11 minutes,” Thor says. “Because the minute we got there [villagers] were calling their Taliban brethren. You had to be self sufficient.”
Thor understood the risks. “We were out in Indian country as they call it — in Taliban areas,” he says. “There was going to be no cavalry coming to get us if something went wrong.”
He diverts from Harvath for a moment to add: “That’s how we’re going to win in Afghanistan. If we can make strong relationships in the small villages, that’s where we’re going to get the good intel and help the Afghans repel the Taliban.”
After the dishes are cleared, Thor turns down a waiter’s offer of dessert. Physically fit, Thor works out every day. He also practices shooting at a range.
“When I get invited to do things like I did in Afghanistan, I don’t want to be dead weight,” he says. “That trip was a dream come true. You have men who dream of pitching for the Yankees or quarterbacking for the Dallas Cowboys, mine has always been to shadow a black-ops team.”
When the waiter sets down coffee, Thor slips him some extra cash.
“You could have turned this table twice,” Thor tells the waiter, who hesitates accepting the generous tip. “I’m a businessman, you’re a businessman, take it.”
Thor explains that he was once in the restaurant business. He worked as a bartender and waited tables. “I’ve done a million different things.”
Finding His Voice
Born Aug. 21, 1969, in Chicago, Thor is the elder of two sons. Thor named his protagonist after his brother Scot, also a USC alumnus. In Thor’s fiction, Harvath’s mother spelled Scot with one t because his middle name is Thomas. She didn’t want him to have to write three t’s in a row. In real life, Thor’s mother spelled Scot with one t for the same reason.
Thor’s paternal family came from Sweden. His father is a second-generation American who joined the Marines as a way to escape Chicago’s south side. His mother is a former TWA flight attendant. After his military career, Thor’s father became a real estate developer who often managed projects in Southern California, where many of his business associates were USC graduates.
“My dad became very pro USC because everybody he met from USC was intelligent, successful in business and articulate,” Thor says. “He said: ‘If you’re from USC, people take care of you; there’s a tight feeling of family.’ He said, ‘USC is the best university in the United States and that’s where I want you to go.’”
His father also wanted him to major in business, which he dutifully did. By his sophomore year, however, he knew business was not for him. He recalled being in class one day and shutting his textbook.
“A friend asked me, ‘Where are you going?’” Thor recalls. “I told him, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I would rather take a bullet in my head than be in middle management for the rest of my life.’”
He took a career aptitude test that showed he had a great interest in writing and publishing. He wanted to switch his major to creative writing but knew that would not go over well at home.
He began taking creative writing classes with excellent faculty members such as Distinguished Professor of English T.C. Boyle, who challenged him to “really push and go after it.”
Wary of his father’s reaction, Thor didn’t officially change his major until he was preparing to graduate.
“I love my dad to death and know how he thinks,” Thor says. “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Now, he’s extremely proud of me. I followed my passion.”
Thor went on to create and host a successful public television series, Traveling Lite. Then in the mid-’90s, he met Trish, a sports medicine physician for the Chicago Bulls and White Sox, at a wine tasting and things changed.
A Life With No Regrets
“I always thought this was Hollywood malarkey, but the moment I walked in and saw her, I said, ‘That’s the woman I’m going to marry.’ ”
The newlyweds were on a three-month, around-the-world honeymoon when, one night in Italy, Trish asked her groom, “If you were on your deathbed, what would you regret having not done?”
“Before I could grab the words out of the air and shove them back into my mouth, I revealed my deepest and darkest secret to her, which was writing a book and getting it published.”
Trish made him promise that when they returned home, he would make his dream a reality.
“I couldn’t look her in the eye and say, ‘I’m not going after it because I’m afraid of it’ — because that’s what it had been up to that point. I really believe that what we are most destined to do in life, we’re most afraid of.”
He hadn’t articulated it yet, but he already knew the title of his first book, The Lions of Lucerne (Atria, 2002). About a year earlier, while shooting an episode for his TV show in Switzerland, he was moved by the Lion Monument of Lucerne. Carved in rock above a lily pad-covered pond is a mortally wounded lion, head bowed, his shoulder pierced by a spear.
“The title was in my mind,” Thor says. “I just had to find a story that involved Switzerland.”
On the last leg of their trip, aboard a train from Munich to Amsterdam, the newlyweds shared a compartment with a brother and sister from Atlanta. Thor and the sister sparked a conversation about literature. He told her he was going to write a thriller and they talked until the train rolled into Amsterdam. When they exchanged business cards, he learned she was Cindy Jackson, a sales representative for Simon & Schuster.
“When you finish your manuscript,” she told him, “send it to me.”
In Amsterdam, Thor and Trish’s hotel room was not ready.
“There’s a little café around the corner,” the concierge told the couple. “Why don’t you grab a cup of coffee and a sandwich, then come back?”
At the café, Trish began reading a book. Thor looked around for something to read, found The International Herald Tribune and picked it up. Inside was a story about a Swiss intelligence officer who had embezzled money from the Swiss Army and was training a shadow militia high in the Alps with his own private arsenal. The story became the plot for The Lions of Lucerne.
“Fate was knocking,” he says, “and I was ready.”
For Thor, discovering his talents, choosing a major, and pursuing and catching his dream has been a lot like solving a mystery.
Visit Brad Thor’s multimedia Web site at www.BradThor.com