While completely snowed in Friday afternoon, thanks to ‘Snowmageddon 2018’, I was able to reach New York Times bestselling author Mark Greaney by telephone from my home office here in southwest Michigan.
Known for being one of the nicest guys in publishing, Mark, who was battling an illness when we talked for about an hour, was gracious with his time just a few days before he’s slated to leave his Memphis home and hit the road for his upcoming Agent in Place book tour.
In a long interview that covered a wide range of topics, Greaney opened up about everything from writing his first book, to what it was like working with the legendary Tom Clancy, and even what it meant to him when he hit the New York Times list for the first time under his own name.
To kick things off, I asked him about working with Tom Clancy. Greaney, of course, co-wrote three books with Clancy, then went on to pen four Jack Ryan books on his own. His last book in that franchise was 2016’s Tom Clancy True Faith and Allegiance.
“My experience was great,” said Greaney without hesitation. “I was warned at the very beginning not to expect much, or that it might be tough working with him. As it turned out, I went up to Baltimore and met him, and we had a great time talking. I think I was supposed to have been there for a forty-five-minute meeting, and I ended up staying for four or five hours and then had to go catch a plane to get back home.
“We got along really well, but it was super intimidating at first. Very early in my career, when I was first offered the job — not even offered me the job, they just asked me if I was interested — I was just terrified of it. I was honestly trying to figure out how I could get out of it because I thought it was just too much,” he recalled, before adding, “but I also knew that it was the best possible thing that could happen to me — I just needed to man up and deal with it.”
“That Tom Clancy name, when you’re writing a book, unlocks a lot of doors for you.” – Mark Greaney
It turns out, Greaney was a fan of Clancy’s work long before signing on to help continue the Jack Ryan franchise.
“I started reading Clancy novels in the mid-80s and had read them all, which, obviously, served me well when they needed another guy to write with him. Overall, it was just nothing but a great experience for me, and it helped my career in other ways too. I just worked really hard, and having that Tom Clancy name when you’re writing a book unlocks a lot of doors for you. That helped me a great deal.”
We talked about the difficulty of getting the details right, and how hard that can be when writing someone else’s characters, and writing in such an iconic series. Greaney laughed, remembering some of the emails he got from readers early on that made it clear fans know these characters very well.
“When I did the first Clancy book I co-wrote, Locked On, I wrote about Domingo Chavez jumping out of a plane and parachuting out in a big climactic moment. I got all these emails from people who reminded me that in 1989, during Clear and Present Danger, it said that he never went to jump school. This was, you know, 2011 when I wrote Locked On, so a good twenty-two years later. I just figured, who knows, maybe he picked it up in his off time or something. So the fans know the details, and if you get them wrong they’ll let you know.”
As for whom he leaned on, especially after Clancy passed away in 2013, to make sure details about the Jack Ryan universe were correct, Greaney said, “There wasn’t one point of contact” (which by the way, is the title of Mike Maden’s first Jack Ryan Junior novel) for that. Instead, Mark credited his editor, Tom Colgan, vice president and editorial director for Berkley Publishing Group, who had been Clancy’s editor for a long time. He also mentioned Grant Blackwood, who has co-authored several books with Clancy as well, as someone he could go to with questions.
“I used to talk to Tom [Colgan] or Grant Blackwood, and now I’ll talk to Marc Cameron or Mike Maden if they need anything or have any questions.”
Marc Cameron and Mike Maden are, of course, the replacements for Greaney and Blackwood, who both exited the Clancy universe just ahead of 2017. Last year, Maden’s Tom Clancy Point of Contact and Cameron’s Tom Clancy Power and Empire, were both well-received by fans and critics. I asked Mark Greaney about his decision to leave the franchise, and he said it was something he nearly did one year earlier.
“I told my editor after my sixth book that it might be time for me to hang it up,” confessed Greaney. “The truth is that I was afraid I was going to run out of things to do.
“At that point, I had done six books in five years. I had plenty of macro story ideas. Big, overall ideas. But the micro ideas, you know like, here’s a guy following someone down a street. There’s only so many ways you can tell that and keep it fresh, and I did not want to overstay my welcome in the Clancy universe. So, after six books, my editor sort of talked me into doing a seventh, and I’m really glad I did. I’m glad I wrote True Faith and Allegiance, but when that one was over, I knew it was time.”
As for the moment when he knew for sure that he was really going to walk away from the Clancy stuff to focus on his own series and projects, Greaney said he informed his editor over lunch.
“I was actually at a writers’ conference and I went to lunch with Tom Colgan. He asked me about the next book, and I was sort of like, ‘Hey, remember when I told you last year I was going to do one more and be done? I meant it,” Greaney said, again laughing as he recalled the moment. “It was the right time for me to step away and Marc Cameron did great, so I think everybody ended up winning in the end.”
Indeed, Cameron had a terrific first Jack Ryan novel. In fact, in their review of Power and Empire, Publisher’s Weekly wrote that of all the writers who have contributed to Clancy’s series since his death, “Cameron’s formidable performance puts him at the head of the pack.”
For those wondering which of Tom Clancy’s books is his favorite, Greaney admitted it’s a tough question to answer.
“I’ve given different answers over the years. To me, Hunt for the Red October is a perfect novel, but for some reason, Clear and Present Danger is probably the most exciting, in my opinion, to read. I loved Red Storm Rising, a book he wrote with Larry Bond that isn’t a Jack Ryan novel. I really liked that one too. Honestly, I could give you five answers. Cardinal of the Kremlin gave me the chills to read. But probably, probably,” he said pausing to think about it, “Clear and Present Danger is my favorite.”
As for his favorite Clancy book that he worked on, Mark knew his answer right away. “Full Force and Effect,” he replied, “which was the one about North Korea. I do a lot of research for all of them, but I didn’t know a lot about North Korea, so that was interesting. I did some research in Washington D.C. and New York, because a lot of it takes place in New York City, and had a good time doing that.”
“It’s hard to divorce yourself from the books that did really well and were successful when they came out, but weren’t always that fun to write. I mean, they still turned out really good or whatever, but like the last Clancy book I did, True Faith and Allegiance, it’s the highest rated of all the ones I wrote, and I didn’t have a ton of fun writing it because of other things going on. I had surgeries taking place, rushed to get it done, and all these things were going on. It was one of the only books where I wasn’t able to travel to do research for it like virtually all the other books I’ve done. I wrote the thing on my couch with my leg elevated. So in a way, to me, because of all that, I hate that book even though it turned out good.”
Greaney laughed again, remembering the grind to knock out True Faith and Allegiance while dealing with his medical issues following surgery. He made it clear that he pours everything he has into each of his books, which is evident when you hear him talk about them.
“Full Force and Effect was a fun one because the research was fascinating to do, and I got the book in on time, so my blood pressure stayed nice and low. So, yeah, that was probably my favorite.”
As our conversation pivoted towards Courtland ‘The Gray Man’ Gentry, I asked Mark about writing his first book (which he did at a popular coffee chain each morning), and how he came up with the name for his series protagonist.
“I started my first book in July of 2007,” he said, “and finished it in the middle of December 2007. So less than six months. I had a full-time job, and I wrote it between five-thirty and seven-thirty in the morning at Starbucks every day. Then some days I’d go back to Starbucks in the afternoon and stay until it closed. I was very motivated because I had this agent who really liked me and gave me this plot idea. I just had this mission, knowing there was this big-time agent in New York that was going to read this thing when I finished it, motivating me to get it done.”
At the time, Greaney was in the medical device industry in Memphis, Tennessee. “I was involved in customer relations with our accounts in Latin America when I wrote my first book. When I quit my day job, I always thought if you got to that point it meant you had so much money coming in that you could just be a writer. But it wasn’t that at all, it was the total opposite.”
“I signed this contract to write two more books, and I realized there just weren’t enough hours in the day to do everything. I had to quit my job, so I did, but I was terrified. I mean, quitting your job is such a leap of faith. Fortunately, it all worked out, but it wasn’t like I took a victory lap on my last day of work or high-fived people on the way out the door. It was more like, ‘What am I doing? I won’t be back here in six months, I’ll be working at a grocery store or something if this doesn’t work out.'”
Obviously, it did all work out, and Greaney speaks very highly of his agent. In fact, he told me an interesting story about how he ended up creating the Gray Man and introducing readers to Court Gentry, a process that came to be through writing a different book that was never published.
“I wrote a book before The Gray Man, called Goon Squad. I actually submitted that to an agent, who read it and told me that I should re-write the whole book. He said there was a character I could use, this Court Gentry guy. . . because in Goon Squad, there was this plot about all these hitmen from old jobs who are chasing the Gray Man down while he’s trying to do this operation that the book was about.
“This guy, who wasn’t even my agent yet, said, ‘If you wrote a whole other book and made that subplot about all these guys chasing him as the center of it, where he has to run from this gauntlet of assassins, that would be a kickass book.'”
The agent mentioned repeatedly here is none other than Scott Miller, executive vice president of Trident Media Group, one of the most respected and sought-after agents in all of publishing. Miller still represents Greaney to this day, and much like his editor, Mark speaks very highly of him.
Of course, as we talked, Greaney laughed while recalling that at the time, Miller didn’t offer any details about why or how, or who these guys coming after the Gray Man should be. Mark still had to figure all of that out, which he did, and later released his first Court Gentry thriller, The Gray Man, in 2009.
“I remember when I was writing Goon Squad,” said Greaney after I asked him why he chose the name Courtland Gentry, “trying to figure out what my hero’s name was going to be. Courtland is kind of a cool name, I think. And Gentry, honestly, I have no idea why I picked that. It’s just something I decided on. I’m not particularly in love with it, either. If I had to do it over again, I might have given him a different name.
“You don’t want the names to be too over-the-top, or too tough-guy sounding, in my opinion. And Court Gentry is just sort of middle-of-the-road, which I think is fine, I guess. But it is unusual.”
Unusual, yes. But Courtland, as Greaney’s fans know, goes by several names. There’s “Sierra Six,” the “Gray Man,” and then, my personal favorite, his callsign. . . “Violator.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find a cooler callsign in this genre than Violator, and I’ve even had other bestselling authors joke with me about how Greaney came up with the best callsign there is — leaving everyone else to compete for second place. I mean, be honest. Imagine you’re a bad guy about to be interrogated…the very last person you want coming through that door to start asking you questions is the dude who carries the nickname Violator. For these types of books, it’s just perfect. So, naturally, I asked Mark how he came up with it, and he told me that he randomly saw the name on an album cover one day.
“Again, it’s just something that I thought was cool,” admitted Mark. “It’s actually the name of a Depeche Mode album. I’m not a big Depeche Mode fan or whatever, but I remember seeing that album and thinking, around the same time that I was trying to come up with a callsign for Court, that I had to give it to him.”
Longtime fans of the Gray Man series might have picked up on the fact that Greaney has mentioned several different cities as being near Court’s hometown in Florida. He spoke about that, admitting he backed himself into a corner by accident.
“In one of the first books, I said he was from near Tallahassee, Florida, and then, in a later book, I said he was from near Jacksonville. So for Back Blast, because Court had to actually go to the town where he’s from, I had to do a search for a town between Tallahassee and Jacksonville, and then I wrote that in.”
“I actually get emails from people in that town, asking me how I picked it, and it’s just one of those things that sort of happened. There isn’t, unfortunately, a great story behind it.”
I was excited when Back Blast came up because that happens to be one of my all-time favorite books. For those unfamiliar with the series, Gentry, a former CIA operative, spends the first four books basically running from the CIA. Neither he nor the readers knew why he was burned until Back Blast came out in 2016. I started off by asking if Greaney knew, from the beginning, that Court would one day end up back with the CIA.
“With my first book, it wasn’t part of some master plan. I was just trying to get published.” – Mark Greaney
“Yes,” he told me before explaining his philosophy about stretching storylines. “I mean, with my first book, it wasn’t part of some master plan. I was just trying to get published,” Greaney admitted, “so I didn’t have this big series in mind. But once they bought books two and three, I started thinking about where the series would go.
“I wanted it at first to be where the reader didn’t know why the CIA was after him. I just thought that if I was lucky enough to keep the series going, and I could do a book four and a book five, that I needed to close that loop. You don’t want to just keep teasing the readers, so I knew I needed to come up with the hard book, the one that explains what everyone has been searching for. Then I could embark on a new storyline, close that loop, and start another one as long as people want to read them.
“As a writer, and in the real world, I thought it would be so great if the CIA could use someone, knowing that everyone in the world knows there is no way that guy is working with the CIA because they’re the ones trying to kill him. It became this device, almost, that I didn’t even intend to play out that way. Court is back with the CIA as a contract agent, not as an officer with the CIA. That way, I can do books where he’s doing his own thing, and books where he’s a company man, so to speak. I’m happy with how that’s working for now, but the storyline will probably change again, somehow, at some point.”
I find it remarkable that Greaney was able to stay patient and wait, putting off telling the story that’s revealed in Back Blast until the timing was right. It certainly paid off, but I wondered if he ever felt rushed to reveal Court’s backstory.
“Yeah, there was no rush because I liked the idea that there was this hit out on him, and he’s trying to figure out what he did wrong. I wanted to milk that as long as I could,” said Greaney, once again laughing, “and then pay it off to the readers who have spent time reading the books.”
It all worked perfectly, and a book later, with Gunmetal Gray (2017), Mark Greaney landed on the New York Times list for the first time under his own name — not counting his work with Tom Clancy.
“It hit number eleven in hardcover and number ten on e-book,” Greaney told me, before launching into a funny and touching story involving his elderly aunt.
“The Memphis newspaper only puts the top ten [New York Times bestsellers] hardcovers in the paper each week, and my aunt, who is ninety-three-years-old, called me after I told her I made the Times list to say that it didn’t show up in the newspaper. So all I want is Agent in Place to come in at number ten so my ninety-three-year-old aunt believes I really made it.”
“I’m still at that point in my life when I know I’m just lucky to be here.” – Mark Greaney
As for what it felt like to finally make the Times list, Mark said, “It was a huge sense of relief. There are so many people at the publisher who work so hard on these books. I have this team of people at Berkley that I am just so lucky to have. They work their tails off, and I’m just really thrilled when they want me to write another book. I’m still at that point in my life when I know I’m just lucky to be here.”
When asked if Gunmetal Gray was his favorite Gray Man book so far because it’s a bestseller, Mark said it once again comes down to his experience researching and writing them. . . not the fact that that book debuted on the Times list.
“Again, it has to do with my research trips, life, and all that other stuff. Dead Eye was probably my favorite research trip for sure because I had so much fun and learned so much. But, of all the books, Back Blast is probably my favorite.”
When I finally confessed to him that Back Blast, after we’d been talking about it, was one of my favorite books, Greaney told me readers seem to favor that book above his others.
“I hear from readers all the time who think that’s my best book,” he said, “and I think that’s because it’s the one that has the most personal story for the hero. It’s sort of all about him finding these answers, his identity, and all that stuff. It’s all so personal, and it’s a lesson for aspiring writers. The more important you can make the stakes to the hero, not just life and death, but more important than life and death, the more your book will resonate with people.”
While Back Blast may be his favorite book so far, Greaney was quick to add his latest book, Agent in Place, to the top of his list as well.
“But while Back Blast is probably my favorite, I’m also really proud of Agent in Place. It turned out just how I wanted it to, and that’s what you want at the end of a book — to feel like the finished book in your hands is the book you set out to write from the start, because there are a lot of points between the beginning and the end.”
I have to agree with Mark on this one. After Back Blast, I personally think Agent in Place is Greaney’s best book yet, and am confident readers will agree when it comes out on February 20th.
Part of a thriller author’s job is to stay ahead of the headlines, which can be hard to do when you’re writing a book more than a year before it’ll actually be published. It’s something a lot of writers struggle with. Plus, the genre is so full of talented writers and popular series right now that it can be challenging to come up with something truly different than what everyone else is doing.
In 2016, for example, several famous authors wrote ISIS, Russia, or both, into their books. Even this year, a lot of authors are focusing on Russia again, sending their characters to deal with the threat Putin poses to the West. Greaney, meanwhile, sent Courtland to Syria for his most dangerous and action-packed mission yet.
As the interview was wrapping up, I asked Mark for a movie update, and his fans will be thrilled to know that things are looking good.
“Sony had a three-year option on the film, which was going to run out in July last year. I was going to get the option back, and they asked if they could extend it for six months. I just sort of wanted to see what other options were out there with other studios, and they ended up exercising the actual purchase of the story. Meaning, they bought the full rights.”
“So Sony owns the rights to the story now, not the optioning, and they have a — I don’t think I’m allowed to say who — but a very well-known director who is circling the project. I’ve had conference calls with him and talked to his director of development a couple of times. I’m currently waiting to hear what they’ll do next. There is definitely a lot of energy within the studio to make the film because they bought it out from under me.”
“I’m hoping they go through with it, and the director they got is somebody who can make any movie he wants to make by snapping his fingers and saying he wants to make it. So, I think it’s sitting pretty.”
For those who didn’t know, Greaney has flirted with Hollywood several times in the past. He opened up about all that, revealing that he read several different version of various scripts, which were all attached to a Gray Man movie at one point or another.
“I really loved earlier screenplays for the story. There was one written by Adam Cozad (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, The Legend of Tarzan), and then there was one written by Joe and Anthony Russo (the duo behind popular Marvel movies such as Captain America: Civil War and the forthcoming Avengers: Infinity War), who at one point were going to direct it.”
Then there was a female lead attached for a while before that fell through too, and Greaney told me he loves the actress — even if the script didn’t follow his book.
“For a while, the studio wanted to use Charlize Theron as Court Gentry, and to change it from male to female, said Greaney. ” So they wrote a whole other script, taking that into consideration. I read it and thought it was really good, but it had nothing to do with my book. I remember thinking, ‘I’d pay to go see this,’ but it wasn’t the same plot at all or even set in the same locations.”
“It’s kind of weird with Hollywood. The first option I sold for The Gray Man was in 2009, two months before the first book came out. Now here we are and it’s 2018 and they still haven’t filmed it, but different studios have wanted it, I’ve talked to different directors, they’ve flown me out to California, and all these things happen. I’m just hoping that it finally gets traction and goes forward.”
As for who his dream casting choice to play Gentry is, Greaney answered right away — and his top pick might surprise you.
“There was no actor in my mind when I first started writing Court Gentry. But if I could pick any actor right now to do it, it would probably be Chris Pratt (who plays Starlord in The Guardians of the Galaxy). There are a bunch of actors who would be great. Jake Gyllenhaal is really good. It just has to be somebody who has the right confidence. Chris Pratt would be my first choice. I like Bradley Cooper a lot too, and I think he would be good as well.”
We ended things by talking about Agent in Place, which, by the way, was originally titled ‘Weaponized.’ I asked Mark why the title changed, and he said there were two main reasons.
“The plot originally had something to do with Court trying to stop this importation of sarin gas into Syria. But that was already going on, and I just felt like by the time this book comes out, the Syrian government gassing their people was going to have been going on for years. Once I changed that, ‘Weaponized’ no longer meant anything to the story.
“Plus,” he added, “the marketing people at the publishing house weighed in and said they liked the fact that Gunmetal Gray, or titles with multiple words on the cover, gives you more print size on each word. They asked me if I could come up with a longer title, which happened right at the point where I was thinking to myself that ‘Weaponized’ sounds like a cool name, but has nothing to do with the book.”
“I always like the names to have something to do with the story, so I started just looking through this big list of names I have for potential books. I have maybe two or three dozen ideas of titles just laying around, and one of them was Agent in Place. Originally, I think Tom Colgan thought of it, and it totally fits this story because ‘agent in place’ refers to an operative who has penetrated into some sort of intelligence target, and that is what the Gray Man does in this one.”
As Greaney touched on in this interview, Gentry is free to take assignments from the CIA or do his own thing. In Agent in Place, he’s on his own after accepting a job from a group of well-connected Syrian expats.
“Agent In Place is a story about a former CIA paramilitary officer working on a freelance contract for an organization fighting against the evil Syrian regime,” said Greaney when I asked him to explain what the book is about. “His work takes him from Western Europe directly into the heart of the Syrian Civil War, one of the most dangerous places on earth.
“I researched it on location in Paris and did a great deal of research about the different players in the war in Syria. It’s a spy novel and an action novel, but at its core, it’s a story about valor and vengeance, and the perseverance of the human spirit despite the horrors of war.”
Greaney also explained that this book is different from previous books because “Court’s motivations are different this time out. He has new allies and new enemies, and you’ll meet some new characters you can expect to see in later installments.”
Special thanks to Mark for taking the time and agreeing to this interview. If you’re a fan of Robert Ludlum, Vince Flynn, or Daniel Silva, and haven’t checked out his stuff, you’re missing out in a big way. Court Gentry is one of the best characters in print today, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon. There’s still plenty of time to hop on the Gray Man train, and Greaney’s latest book is a perfect place to start.
Agent in Place, the latest hard-hitting Gray Man novel from New York Times bestselling author Mark Greaney, hits bookstores everywhere on February 20th, 2018. You can pre-order your copy here, or anywhere else books are sold.
Praised as “one of today’s finest book reviewers” by New York Times bestselling author Gayle Lynds, Ryan Steck has “quickly established himself as the authority on mysteries and thrillers” (Author A.J. Tata). He currently lives in Southwest Michigan with his wife and their six children.