Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Rappin’ with Flynn

Last summer I traveled to New York City with Shots editor Mike Stotter to attend the second-annual ThrillerFest conference. One of the many highlights of that event was our meeting (and drinking with) best-selling Minnesota novelist Vince Flynn. In case you’ve not left your cave in Afghanistan for a while, Flynn writes the Mitch Rapp political thrillers. Being a card-carrying liberal and a voracious reader of thriller fiction, I consider Flynn’s books a guilty pleasure. They’re exciting, action packed, and well-researched, as their author has traveled extensively in the Middle East and boasts sources in the international intelligence community. The stories are also thought-provoking, even if some critics see them as spreading fear of international attacks and championing knee-jerk military responses. At least Flynn (shown above, with fellow author Nick Stone on the left) is willing to question the efficacy of such government operations as “extraordinary rendition” and to tackle in his fiction issues surrounding how U.S. and British foreign policies interact with the campaign against international terrorism.

Flynn’s first novel, Term Limits, was published in 1998 and although it didn’t feature his man Rapp, the seeds of the Rapp series were sown in that story. Mitch Rapp finally debuted as a character in Transfer of Power (1999). Ever since the publication of Flynn’s third novel, The Third Option, his Rapp adventures have appeared annually on bestseller charts on both sides of the Atlantic. His ninth series installment, Protect and Defend (released in the States in October, but only now reaching the UK), has been making the usual splash.

This new book is as topical as it is violent, with special operations agent Rapp investigating the power play between Iran and Israel as the so-called war on terror goes nuclear. Mossad--Israeli intelligence--has a man on the inside at Iran’s covert nuclear facility. The agent sets off a device that not only destroys the facility, but makes the surrounding area a radioactive no-go zone. The Iranians are enraged, and they threaten retaliation against the United States, believing it was the Americans who launched the attack. Rapp has already been working on a plan to destabilize the Iranian hawks, but just as the world shifts closer to the brink of international warfare, CIA Director Irene Kennedy meets with a moderate Iranian powerbroker in Mosul, Iraq--only to be kidnapped afterward by a Hezbollah rogue terrorist. The only man who can get to the bottom of this worsening mess is--you guessed it--Mitch Rapp. The pace of Protect and Defend makes this a very short read, but if you’re looking for earnest diatribes against torture or the political correctness of extended diplomacy before weapons begin firing, this isn’t the book for you. There’s solid, ends-justify-the-means action in these pages, Flynn’s message being that to defend our freedoms we must have men like Rapp as our protectors, even if their actions disturb our sensibilities. Protect and Defend is a loud and furious addition to the Mitch Rapp series. If you enjoyed the last BBC series of Spooks (retitled MI5 in the States), then this book will be right up your Straits of Hormuz.

Stotter and I had a great time in New York with the well-read, erudite, and passionate Flynn, and we agreed to meet up with him again when he was next in Europe. So, while he was over here recently to promote his eighth Mitch Rapp thriller, I sat down with the 41-year-old Flynn to talk about his life, his work, and the complicated ways of his protagonist.

Ali Karim: Vince, we hear that as a child you suffered from dyslexia. Considering that learning disability, what made you embrace the written word?

Vince Flynn: Not being able to read and write above the level of an eighth-grader was very embarrassing. I was a decent athlete, and that kept me out of trouble. During my junior year in college I decided to confront the problem and forced myself to begin reading for the first time. I started with Trinity, by Leon Uris, and then dug into [Robert] Ludlum, [Ken] Follett, [Jack] Higgins, [Tom] Clancy, and many others. Even though I was a slow reader, I realized early on that my dyslexic mind could predict what was going to happen with each story. Almost overnight I became passionate about the thing I feared most as a child.

AK: You took a big risk leaving successful careers [including one with Kraft Foods] to enter the precarious world of commercial fiction-writing. Tell us, what drove you to take such a huge risk?

VF: After working on a few ideas in my spare time, I decided that if Tom Clancy can do it, why can’t I? I know that sounds a little flippant, but my parents raised all seven of their kids with a very egalitarian outlook on life. I thought I had this hidden talent to write a real page-turner, and I didn’t want to look back 20 years later and kick myself for never writing that damn novel that I’d been kicking around in my 20s. I don’t like living life with regrets.

AK: Can you tell us the evolution of Mitch Rapp as a character, and what research you undertook to make him such an authentic and compelling protagonist?

VF: Rapp is an amalgamation of people I’ve met over the years. Mostly spooks and Special Forces guys. So far, he hasn’t evolved a great deal. That’s the thing with most of these silent warriors: they are not fickle people. They tend to stand by their beliefs and are disgusted by those who practice situational ethics.

AK: I hear that your work has been popular with recent occupants of the Oval Office and the folks at Langley.

VF: I take it as a huge validation that these people not only read my books, but want to talk to me about world issues.

AK: Why your fascination with Middle Eastern politics, and why are you not frightened to confront the issues that face the world today?

VF: This battle between Islamic radical fundamentalism and the rest of the world is the most important fight of our time. The fanatics want to spread their form of intolerant Islam to the rest of the world and drag us all back to a time where church and state were one and the same. Where religious men run the courts and censor everything that is said and written. The thought of going back to a world like that is truly frightening.

AK: There is much talk about 9/11 and Al-Qaeda in your work. Did you feel apprehensive using those themes when the world seems soaked in political correctness?

VF: No, because I think political correctness is a well-intended movement that has run amok. Intellectually honest people are color blind and recognize groups like Al-Qaeda for the bigoted, sexist thugs that they are.

AK: And your readership, considering your best-seller status, must come from all quarters.

VF: Every time I go on tour, I’m amazed by the array of people who show up at my events: liberal, conservative, old, young, male, female--it’s all across the board.

AK: I loved your last Rapp novel, Consent to Kill [which the International Thriller Writers shortlisted for its Best Novel Award in 2006]. It seemed to be your most personal and, in some ways, most moving and mature work yet. And at its core there’s a conspiracy. Can you tell us a little about that pivotal novel?

VF: Without giving away too much of the plot, it was a book that had to be written. At his core, Rapp is an assassin. Since the beginning of his creation I’ve struggled with a simple question: How does a man that has seen and done what Rapp has done, expect to have a normal domestic life? How does a taker of life expect to create life, and not have his job come home to haunt him?

AK: In Act of Treason [2006] you detailed a high-level political conspiracy involving the hand of terrorism. What is it about conspiracy theories that interest many of us?

VF: Thanks to history, it is easy to be cynical when it comes to those who wish to rise to the throne.

AK: The events of September 11, 2001, are looked at as either the result of failures within the international security community or, more worryingly, as part of a broad conspiracy. What’s your take on those dreadful events?

VF: If you believe there was a conspiracy, which I do not, you have to buy into the idea that Osama bin Laden is either a Jewish or American agent. That is where pretty much every conspiracy theory falls apart. The intelligence and law-enforcement communities failed, but I put the blame on the politicians who over a period of three decades gutted agencies like the CIA all in the name of political correctness. It was all very naïve and self serving.

AK: I very much enjoyed the 2005 film Syriana, which is full of geopolitical plottings. Have you seen the film, and what’s your take on the need for oil and the darker side of human nature?

VF: Syriana was a fascinating film. I agree that oil companies do not act on the principle of humanitarianism, so I think it was very fair for the director, writer, and producers to show the oil industry in that light. I thought it was very unfair, though, that they made a lack of economic opportunity the motivation for the terrorists. There are poor people all over the world and you don’t see them attacking civilians with suicide bombs. At some point, Hollywood needs to take a hard look at Islam’s cult of suicide.

AK: Some describe your work as right-wing and jingoistic, but I feel that oversimplifies your efforts, as I find a level of humanity under the smell of cordite. What’s your take on critics who dismiss your work as purely gung-ho right-wing action tales?

VF: My books make certain people uncomfortable. I wear that as a badge of honor.

AK: I’ve read that you will not grant anyone film rights to your work featuring Mitch Rapp. Is that true?

VF: I will sell them if the right person is behind the project.

AK: Finally, let me ask, what books have passed over your reading table recently that you enjoyed?

VF: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows. I loved it. J.K. Rowling is amazing.


Jack Getze said...

Great interview. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I always get Brad Thor and Vince Flynn mixed up

Anonymous said...

Nicely done, Ali. I've been meaning to give Flynn a try. For the longest time I've supposed, with little evidence, that his books aren't very good. But maybe I'll pick one up.

(And a great pic of Vince and Nick.)