(Matthew Betley is the author of the critically-acclaimed Logan West action thriller series. Overwatch, Oath of Honor, and Field of Valor, which came out in May, are all available for purchase wherever books are sold.)
Last month, during a scorching hot June day here in Southwest Michigan, I was able to reach thriller author Matthew Betley who, at the time of our call, was traveling by car to Atlanta, Georgia for a book-signing event for his latest Logan West novel, Field of Valor. During our thirty-minute phone conversation, Betley was an open book, speaking candidly about everything from his journey to get published to how much of his characters’ personalities are taken from him.
“I was reading a book that had been recommended in Entertainment Weekly that was supposed to be this great international spy thriller. It was so boring that it actually made me physically angry,” recalled Betley, while telling me about the moment he knew he wanted to become an author.
“Only one person was shot in the entire book, and the gunfight was so tactically inept that, in my opinion, the protagonist should have been killed because it was just so bad. I turned to my wife and said, ‘I could do a better job than this.’ She looked at me with surprise, then told me if that’s what I wanted to do, fine, but that I wasn’t going to quit my day job.”
“That’s all it took to plant that seed in my brain. A year later, I sat down and wrote the first words to Overwatch. It was just that simple.”
At the time, Betley, who is an outspoken recovering alcoholic, was still in his first year of sobriety. “I had been sober for about six months when I knew I wanted to write. I’ve now been sober for over nine years,” he told me. “This is something I talk about a lot. In every radio interview, every TV interview, every print interview, honestly, it’s the most important thing that I could ever discuss as an author because if even only a few people go, ‘Wow, if this guy can get sober, maybe I can as well,’ that’s more important. Helping other people is the most important thing,” said Betley, sounding completely genuine.
Still, the action thriller writer knows that while that message is important to him, he also has to deliver for his fans. “And obviously, my job as an author is to entertain people, especially on a commercial level that I strive for with each book.”
Wanting to be a writer is one thing, but actually dedicating the time to sit down and write a book is another thing entirely. I asked Betley about his writing process, which, as it turns out, hasn’t changed a bit from the first day he set out to pen a novel.
“My writing process hasn’t changed in eight years, not a lick. I know what I want to write before I sit down, especially since some of my action sequences can be sixty pages long. I can write two or three pages and stop, then pick it up the next day. I sit down at my computer, put in my Bose earbuds, put on a musical score to an action-packed or epic movie by one of the great composers such as Hans Zimmer, Brian Tyler, Lorne Balfe, John Williams, Steve Jablonsky, Michael Giacchino,” said Betley, rambling off more names than I could possibly scribble down. “I could go on and on with these guys.”
“I literally see the action in my head. I see it, I feel the emotion, I hear the dialogue, and I don’t actually feel like an author, I feel like a scribe. I’m just writing down what’s going on in my head and the next thing you know, I have several pages of new material. I can stop and pick it up again the next day.”
As for if he has a target word count he tries to hit each day, a common goal most writers set for themselves, Betley told me he doesn’t work that way. “I have a very busy life right now, so I write when I can, and I write as much as I can at that time.” For what it’s worth, he doesn’t outline either. “When I first decided I wanted to be an author, I bought this leatherbound journal to write down information as it came to me, which I think has only four pages of notes in it through four books now. I just sit and write. When I need to do research, I do research and then incorporate it into my writing right then at that time.”
How much research goes into writing a novel? Well, it “depends,” on a number of factors for Betley, who told me part of the key is to be a “literary magician.”
“It depends on the book and on the sequence. Obviously, when you’re writing about scenes that take place all around the world, I can’t go visit Sudan or reach out to the Sudanese government and ask if they have any black site prisons I might be able to visit,” he says with a laugh. “So, I had to make that sequence up, but you can still research Sudanese culture and things like that. It’s always better, obviously, to research in person, if you can, but I always like to say that the job of an author is to be a literary magician. You’re making people believe something that may, or may not, be true.
“You have to get the details right and then do your best to make them believe that you’ve actually been there, even if you haven’t.”
If Betley’s journey from reading a book on vacation and deciding he wanted to be a writer to now having signed his second book deal with Emily Bestler Books sounds easy, rest assured, it wasn’t.
“It took me eighteen months and eight days to complete the first draft of Overwatch,” he admits. “When I was done, I had written what I thought was a really good book but, obviously, you don’t know until that first reader actually reads it and provides critical feedback. The first person I let read it actually said to me ‘Matt, I will be thrilled to say that I knew you way back when.’ So from there, I was encouraged and then spent the next six months editing and polishing it.”
For those keeping count at home, that’s a full two years, and Betley would still have a long road ahead of him before ever seeing his debut novel on bookstore shelves.
“From there, I knew I needed an agent because everyone knows that to get a deal with any reputable publishing house, you need an agent. To do that is like winning the lottery in and of itself. So I used Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Agents from 2012 to send out ninety-two queries. What’s interesting about that is that each one has its own format. Some agents want five pages, some want ten pages, some want it printed. Heck, there was even one agency in New York that wanted fifty pages printed.”
“So, I spent six months sending those out and then got rejection after rejection. Finally, number eighty-three said, ‘We can’t believe you’re still available, we want this.’ And from there, it was another fifteen months before we had our first multi-book deal with Simon & Schuster.
“If you don’t have the disposition for it, forget about it. It’ll crush you. The publishing industry is set up in a way to weed out people who don’t have what it takes.”
To recap, that’s eighteen months to write his first book, six months of editing, and then another six months sending out letters to agents. It was fifteen months after landing his first agent that Betley signed a two-book deal with publishing powerhouse Simon & Schuster in 2014. From beginning to end, that’s almost four years, which is enough time to discourage most people from pursuing their dream.
When I asked Matthew Betley if he ever thought he might not get published, without any hesitation, he told me no. “It was discouraging,” he recalled, before offering advice to hopeful writers.
“I tell other aspiring authors all the time that they should be prepared and have a plan A, B, C, and D. You better have thick skin, you better be able to take rejection, and you better be able to push through adversity. Otherwise, don’t even bother writing. If you don’t have the disposition for it, forget about it. It’ll crush you. The publishing industry is set up in a way to weed out people who don’t have what it takes, mentally, to be quite honest. That’s just the way it is. Every step of the way, there’s another major hurdle and obstacle to come.”
Some readers may recognize the name Emily Bestler Books as the publishing home to #1 New York Times bestselling authors such as Vince Flynn and Brad Thor. Laughing, Betley admitted to me that, at the time, he didn’t really know exactly who they were.
“When I first got the offer, and this is a true statement, I didn’t know who those guys were. You know, I have a very busy life, I have a family and a full-time job, I just didn’t have time to read. So, I really didn’t know how big Emily Bestler Books was at the time.”
If you’re laughing along and shaking your head, the story gets better. For those who don’t know, Emily Bestler, who is widely considered one of the best editors working today, was formerly the executive editorial director of Atria Books before she was promoted to editor-in-chief and senior VP of Emily Bestler Books, a new Atria Books imprint that launched in 2011. Put simply, she’s a big deal in the publishing world.
“To be quite honest, when we first got the offer, I actually asked my agent if Emily Bestler Books was a reputable publisher. My agent told me, ‘Yes, Matt, haven’t you heard of Vince Flynn or Brad Thor?’ and I told her no. Then she told me to go look them up, and I did.” On second thought, after doing some research on his now fellow Simon & Schuster writers, Betley did have a vague recollection of Flynn, who of course wrote the Mitch Rapp series, penning fourteen bestselling novels before he passed away on June 19, 2013.
“It turns out that I did know who Vince was because he passed away in 2013, and I actually still remember getting the Fox News alert on my phone when I was at work. But that was a full year before my book deal. I remembered it vividly because one of my early beta readers had told me Overwatch had reminded him of a Vince Flynn novel, and I had looked him up. So I did know who Vince Flynn was.”
While he says he still loves to read, his schedule no longer allows him to pick up too many books. “I’m honestly still trying to finish Ezekiel Boone’s (another Emily Bestler Books author) spider series. I’m on the last book now, Zero Day. I also really enjoy Meg Gardiner’s serial killer series. I don’t read a lot in my own genre. I actually prefer to read stuff that isn’t like what I write so that I don’t get distracted.”
As the conversation turned towards his books, we talked about his now infamous opening scene of Overwatch, which shows former Marine Officer Logan West waking up with a wicked, binge-drinking-induced hangover to find a man standing in his home looking down at him.
“That was always the planned opening,” said Betley. “I always wanted to start a series off with a bang. I wanted people to meet my protagonist and demonstrate that he’s a flawed person just like all of us, as he’s emerging from a relapsed blackout. I also wrote what I know, and as a former Marine Corps officer and recovering alcoholic, that’s what I knew.”
If you’re a fan of Betley’s books, you might have noticed the similarities between the author and his main character. Both are former Marines (Betley spent ten years as a Marine officer and was trained as a scout sniper platoon commander, an infantry officer, and a ground intelligence officer) and recovering alcoholics. But the similarities don’t stop there. In fact, they don’t even stop with Logan West. Fan-favorite character John Quick, a smart-mouthed badass who kicks in teeth and provides color commentary along the way, also shares plenty of things in common with his creator.
“For those who know me, I split my personality down the middle to create those two characters. That’s actually how I approached it.”
When pressed to explain further, Betley told me that “Logan is the very serious, angry side of me that most people will never ever see. That kind of focus and mindset that you get before you go on a mission, or something like that,” he explained before admitting that he sees more of his daily self in Quick.
“John Quick is my day-to-day sarcastic self, in how I interact with pretty much everybody. You can see my sarcasm on Twitter or in my interviews because, even though I’ve had a very serious life, I don’t take myself too seriously. Life is just too short for that. On a daily basis, I’m John Quick.”
For fans wondering which character has more of him sewn into them, it might just depend on the situation at hand. “Those who know me would probably say John Quick,” says the author, “but if you piss me off or do something to my family, I’m going to flip that switch to Logan West real fast.”
“I’d consider writing anything as long as the story and characters are excellent. That’s what it’s all about for me.”
At this point in our conversation, I offered my opinion about some traits the writer shares with his characters. Having known Betley for several years now (I’ve actually covered him since before his first book came out), I can absolutely see both Logan and John in him. The more he talks, switching between subjects with ease while also dropping pop culture references (much like he does in his writing) and using humor, the more obvious it is. Suddenly, I wondered, since these characters are so close to him, if he could ever write something that didn’t include West and Quick.
“I’d consider it,” he said. “I’d consider writing anything as long as the story and characters are excellent. That’s what it’s all about for me. There was a review of Field of Valor that posted recently in the Military Times, and the reviewer actually said that they hoped my female character would get her own standalone, which is something I’ve been planning for over two years.”
Wondering if that meant he might start pumping out two books a year like some authors have started doing, I asked Betley if multiple books per year might be in the cards moving forward. “Not right now,” he said after thinking for a moment, “and I don’t think for Simon & Schuster and Emily Bestler Books, that that’s their business model. One book per year is really a good pace for me.”
Circling back around to the standalone book he’d like to write, as well as the fourth Logan West book that he’s working on right now, I asked Betley how far out he plans his books. I have five and six planned out in general,” he confesses, before adding, “I haven’t thought beyond that.”
Just in case you’re wondering, those books are planned out in his head. Again, the author reminded me that he doesn’t take notes, which is really pretty incredible.
If you follow Matthew Betley on Twitter, you might have noticed that he often offers commentary on movies. A self-professed film buff, he told me that his favorite comedy so far this year is Game Night with Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams, which he called “absolutely hysterical.”
“I mean, it’s a freaking hilarious movie, like, laugh-out-loud-until-I’m-in-pain funny.”
His favorite action movie? “That’s harder,” he said with a sigh. “I loved Avengers: Infinity War, but it wasn’t a perfect movie, and I did see the ending coming. I’m actually watching more Netflix stuff than movies right now. I prefer to watch high-quality television shows, and Netflix is amazing. I just finished Altered Carbon and it was brilliant. Luke Cage season two just came out, so that’s next on my agenda. I also started watching Yellowstone with Kevin Costner on Paramount Network, and that’s really good as well.”
“I just don’t have a lot of time right now. My life is pretty much work, working out, family, writing, and maybe one show a day. That occupies about seventeen to eighteen hours a day. I get up at five in the morning and go to bed sometime after ten.”
When it comes to his all-time favorite movie, though, the choice is easy. “Hands down, no question, it’s Braveheart. That movie was one of the many reasons I joined the Marine Corps. It just spoke to who and what I was as a person and still am. It just resonated with me so completely, that I knew I wanted to do something like that.”
Speaking of movies, Betley made headlines a few months back when news broke that Thunder Road had acquired the rights to his books. “We reached our deal in February, and they are currently adapting, doing what’s called a story treatment, on Overwatch,” he explained, offering a quick update. “Hopefully after that, within the next eighteen months, filming will begin.”
“Another really interesting note is that my producer, Braden Aftergood–who produced the movies Hell or High Water, Wind River, Lone Survivor, and Battleship–it was just announced in Hollywood Reporter that he is now partners with Sylvester Stallone in Balboa Productions. As a result, who knows if that has any implications for us. That’s just an interesting little twist on who my producer is.”
While the movie timeline is a little up in the air, Betley promised that Logan West would return next year, probably around Memorial Day.
“I have about 115 pages of book four done,” he said, though it’s still untitled. “I’ll turn it in sometime this fall. Once I’m done with all the book signings and interviews, all the publicity stuff for Field of Valor, I’ll put my nose to the grindstone and crank it out over the next few months. It should come out May or June next year.”
Since our conversation took place, Betley recently wrapped up his book tour, which means that by the time this interview is published, he’ll likely already be chugging away, blaring some epic movie score from Hans Zimmer or Brian Tyler through his Bose earbuds while pounding away on his keyboard, quickly writing the scenes as they unfold in his mind.
Praised as “one of today’s finest book reviewers” by New York Times bestselling author Gayle Lynds, Ryan Steck (“The Godfather of the thriller genre” — Ben Coes) 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.