On a breezy end-of-summer afternoon here in Michigan, I connected with author Kyle Mills (after a brief technical difficulty), who has been spending time in Spain with his wife.
Speaking by phone, Mills took well over an hour to discuss the current state of the Rappverse, a universe he took over in 2013 after the passing of literary icon Vince Flynn, turning in three novels to date, all of which have debuted on the top-three of the New York Times bestsellers list. His fourth, Red War, comes out Tuesday and is already one of the best reviewed Mitch Rapp novels ahead of its release.
In our last conversation, Mills spoke at length about how his first Rapp novel, The Survivor (2014), was what he calls a “forgery,” meaning that he did everything he could to emulate Flynn’s writing and storytelling style. With each book, he’s put more of himself into the writing, sounding less like Vince, but staying true to the characters Flynn created. To kick things off, I asked him if he’s more comfortable now, as opposed to back when he wrote The Survivor.
“Oh yeah, definitely,” said Mills. “I had to become comfortable writing this series. The question was . . . could I write this series comfortably and still please Vince’s fans, or was my comfort level just too far and different from what Vince would have done? I think I’ve gotten comfortable enough writing these books in a way that’s true enough to Vince’s vision that I’m happy, the fans are happy, and I’m able to explore things happening in the world that he never could have imagined.”
When people hear the name Vince Flynn, most think of how he broke onto the thriller scene by tackling radical Islamic terrorism at a time when the rest of the genre was still focusing on the Cold War and looking for the next big threat. Interestingly, though, as Mills noted during our talk, Flynn never even had the chance to hear about ISIS, who has since overtaken al Quaeda as the most feared terror group in recent memory. It’s an interesting anecdote because in just a short period of time, the headlines and news cycles have changed drastically since Flynn, who was so known for beating headlines during his career, passed away.
Staying true to Vince’s characters is one thing, but I asked Mills about the pressure he feels to try and see the world the way Flynn did, or if he writes things the way he sees it himself.
“I think the way I see it. It’s hard to say how Vince would have seen the world today. It’s changed so much since he died that it’s impossible to speculate.”
As far as trying to remain timely and relevant, that’s something Mills works at quite a bit. “In my mind, these are political thrillers. The urgency has to be there,” Mills told me, “and they have to be addressing what people are thinking at that moment.”
One thing people are surely thinking a lot about right now is the potential threat that Russia poses to the rest of the world, especially the United States, which is a topic that Mills covers at length in Red War.
“I’ve always been really fascinated with Russia ever since I grew up on all the Cold War thrillers, and now that they’ve pushed back onto the world stage, obviously, I did that with Order to Kill (2016) to give Mitch Rapp a new challenge and, you know, as Putin keeps kind of rising up on the world stage a little bit, I kept thinking about what could start a war between these two countries. It’s hard because I follow the villains pretty closely in these books and, if you do that, they have to have a pretty clear motivation or it doesn’t feel believable. So, I had to find a way to motivate Russia to attack NATO, and this felt like a very plausible reason because you can follow Krupin and everybody would understand why he would attack a much bigger dog.”
The “plausible reason” Mills mentions here is Maxim Krupin, the Russian president, finding out he has terminal brain cancer in the opening chapter of Mills’ new book. Convinced that his political adversaries, both inside and outside of Russia, will come after him when he’s too weak to defend himself, Krupin takes preemptive measures to wipe out anyone who might mount an attack while he’s still well enough to eliminate them. That list includes his former henchman, Grisha Azarov, who plays a prominent role in both Order to Kill and Enemy of the State (2017).
“I liked him, but I didn’t have a real plan as for how or when I would bring him back,” said Mills when I asked if he planned to keep Grisha involved following the conclusion of the last book.
“I sort of left it that he was owed a favor, and I always assumed he’d call that in at some point, but I didn’t know when. It could have been multiple books down the line but, because the Russia thing came up, it’s just hard to write about all of that without including Grisha. So, I ended up using him again sooner rather than later.”
“I like the character, continued Mills. “He compliments Mitch really well in that has approximately the same skill set, but completely different personalities. I think that’s really interesting that two people can accomplish the same thing but from completely different emotional standpoints. In this new book, they have a discussion about it actually, about how they’re motivated by really different things. Having said that, Grisha looks pretty happy with retirement, so we’ll see if he ever returns. I’m not sure.”
In Red War, Mitch Rapp pays back that favor he owed Azarov by showing up just as Krupin’s men storm Grisha’s Costa Rica compound. After barely making it out of the assault alive, both men go after Krupin who, as readers might have noticed in past books, bears a striking resemblance to real-life Russian President Vladimir Putin. It turns out, that’s no accident.
“I really laid out Krupin’s background in Order to Kill, and I basically just took that off Vladimir Putin’s biography,” admitted Mills.
Indeed, the two share a similar history, right down to the now infamous shirtless horseback riding photos of Putin, which Krupin replicates in Red War in an effort to appear healthy while trying to hide his cancer diagnosis.
“I changed the name, obviously, but Krupin’s backstory with the KGB and how he rose to power is right from Putin. He has such an interesting background, that you don’t have to make one up. What makes these books fun is that they feel really real. I don’t like to use real people, unless they’re dead, in these books because they’re unpredictable. But the closer you get to Putin and the situation with the United States, the better. I think that makes it thrilling.”
Krupin, as readers will soon find out, proves to be a worthy villain, right on par with past bad guys from earlier in the series. Taking a second to reflect on some of the previous antagonists, Mills and I discussed Vince Flynn’s ability to create such hateable bad guys, something he saw as one of Flynn’s greatest strengths.
“You bring up an interesting point,” laughed Mills. “Because Vince created such an iconic character in Mitch Rapp, you forget that one of his greatest gifts was creating these bad guys that you really wanted to see suffer. They felt very real, whether they were terrorists or these awful politicians, that propelled a lot of the books. Vince was a double-threat with that for sure.”
The conversation quickly turned back to Grisha, one of the most fascinating new characters to enter Rapp’s world in over a decade. After two books, he’s quickly become a fan-favorite due to his lethal set of skills. I asked Kyle Mills if he believes Rapp needs to always be portrayed as the most lethal character, and how important that is to him. His answer, I think, will make the diehard fans of this series happy moving forward.
“The short answer,” said Mills, without hesitation, “is yes. Mitch is the alpha in these books. That’s the way they have to be. Grisha, in some ways, was an experiment, and one that I was nervous about. I was actually nervous enough about it to call Vince’s editor and his agent and make sure everybody understood that I was going to create a character that was, to a large extent, Mitch Rapp’s equal. It had never been done before. These books are very much about Mitch’s dominance. They all thought it was a good idea, very interesting, and wanted to see how Mitch would react to something like that.
“So, certainly, he’s the alpha, and even in that battle (during Order to Kill) he won, but it was a hard one.”
In my review of Order to Kill two years ago, I likened Grisha to the Ivan Drago of assassins, complete with a team of mad scientists shooting him full of anabolic steroids and meticulously planning out his physical fitness regimen. Now, though, Azarov is in a different place, and readers might be surprised to find him slightly out of shape, at least to his own standards.
“Going into this book, I had already set up their hierarchy and established that Mitch was a superior fighter, but not by much. Now I felt like Grisha wanted to be gone from that world. He entered it, not because of anger or seeking revenge (like Rapp did), but because he was good at it. He didn’t have a real passion for it, so the idea that he would continue to train at that tempo and take drugs and stuff like that while living in Costa Rica and surfing, I mean, why would he?
“He’d still stay in shape, but not on that level. I think of him as a retired professional athlete. A guy who might have retired from the Tour de France could still go out and pedal his bike around and be the fastest thing you’ve ever seen, and still not be anywhere close to the level they were at one time.”
Hearing Mills talk about Grisha retiring, I couldn’t help but wonder about Rapp’s future and asked him how long he thought Mitch could continue doing what he does at this hight of a level. The good news is, fans shouldn’t expect Rapp to go hanging up his Glock anytime soon.
He’s got a long time still,” Mills assured me. “Vince aged Mitch realistically. In my mind, Mitch is in his early forties. He was that age when I took over, and he still is in this book. I’m going to leave him that way until I think there’s a reason not to. There’s a lot of stories left for Mitch and I’d hate to see him go by way of Stan Hurley and be out there when he’s eighty, trotting around and trying to leap through windows.”
While readers will no doubt like hearing that about Rapp’s future, another thing sure to please fans is the return of Mitch’s longtime right-hand man, Scott Coleman. For those who didn’t read Order to Kill, the former SEAL takes a beating in that book, which left him sitting on the bench in last year’s Enemy of the State. Now though, Mills gets him back in the game, and I asked him why he thought it was important to do so.
“I see Coleman as fundamental to the series. To me, you have two really fundamental characters. You’ve got Mitch and Irene Kennedy, and then Scott’s just a little bit lower on the totem pole but still critical and a fundamental character to the series.”
If you’re wondering why Mills left Coleman out of the last book even though he views him as “a fundamental character to the series,” he touched on that too.
“I’ve always had this real pet peeve about secret agents taking this horrible beating and then, a half hour later, they’re fine. So, after what happened in Order to Kill, I knew he’d basically have to sit out a book because there was no way he was bouncing back from that quickly. But I did know, in the next book after that, he would return.”
Before asking about his next book, which should come out sometime in the fall of 2019, I asked Mills about his writing process, and whether or not he plans out future books in his head while working on the latest one.
“If I’m working on an outline, I work until I can’t work anymore. It could be an hour, it could be eight hours. That’s purely creative, so it takes a lot of brain power, like, as much as I’ve got. Sometimes you get in there and get all these great ideas out, and it’ll take an hour and then you’re just exhausted and there are no ideas left. I feel really lazy sometimes because I think ‘well, I’ve only worked an hour, but nothing productive is going to happen the rest of the day.'”
“After the outline, though, when I’m actually writing the book, I tend to have a strict schedule that’s based on my deadline, and that’s almost always one chapter a day. As for planning out future books, no. I actually think the opposite is true. I don’t really like to do that at all because it makes me nervous. It splits my focus. I tend to have no idea what I’m going to write next when I finish the book I’m working on.”
Not only does Mills not plan out or think about the next book while working on his current one, but even when he does turn his attention to the next project, he doesn’t approach it by trying to figure out how to top the book he just finished.
“No, I definitely don’t think in those terms,” he said. “I think I’d go nuts. It’s such a subjective business, you know, what’s a better book than the last one? I think if you try to think in those terms, it would be like trying to go faster. It wouldn’t work for me. I come up with a concept, and then I try to write the best book that I can. That’s what I’ve always done. That’s always been my formula.”
That formula has obviously served him well, as Mills has quickly established himself as one of the most well-rounded and best writers working in the thriller genre today. A diehard fan of Vince Flynn, even I have to admit that Mills has taken this franchise to another level entirely. In fact, I actually prefer his portrayal of Mitch over Vince’s, which feels almost blasphemous to say, even though it’s true.
Earlier this year, after handing in Red War to his editor, Emily Bestler, Mills began working on the 18th Mitch Rapp book. Though he couldn’t share too many details just yet, the little he did say drops a big hint about the next threat Rapp will face.
“Well, it’s funny,” began M3ills, “because of the political landscape right now, I really wanted to do something non-political. I was even thinking about doing something about Mitch flying over Columbia when his plane crashes and his phone breaks, and he has to fight his way out of a drug area in Columbia. Something not political at all. Instead, that’s not what happened. . .
“I actually went the opposite way because that’s what’s happening in the world right now, especially in the United States. There’s a biological threat in the next one, plus a very divisive presidential campaign, and that plays a big role. The guy running for president is a really awful guy who is bad for Irene Kennedy (as the CIA director) and bad for America. That’s all playing out in the background while the guy is manipulated by another country, and ISIS uses his campaign to try and drive Americans apart. To me, that’s what is happening right now so I couldn’t get around it.
“There’s no question that what’s going on politically in the United States, and even culturally, is on everybody’s mind. It’s almost like the elephant in the room. You either, as a writer, have to make a conscious choice to ignore it, or to address it. I tried to ignore it, but it didn’t work. Finally, I realized I had to embrace the elephant or it’s going to be a really scattered book.”
A biological threat is something readers have never seen Mitch Rapp take on, and it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out. As for the political stuff, Mills assured me that he’s going about things carefully so that all fans of this series, regardless of your political beliefs, will enjoy the next installment.
“With the next book, I’m hoping that there’s still a universal good and bad, though I’m not even sure everyone agrees with that anymore, and this new character is just so bad for America. I don’t touch on any divisive issues, though.”
It’s a good thing Mills doesn’t stress over topping himself while working on his next book because, honestly, Red War might be the biggest mission of Rapp’s career. Never before have we seen the American assassin go after a more high-profile target than the president of Russia.
“I don’t know that I ever thought about it that way,” said Mills, laughing, “but you’re right, they don’t really get much bigger than this.The way I thought about it, and the struggle of writing this book . . . I liked the concept of following Krupin and how this would give a clear reason for Russia to go to war with the United States as opposed to just saying ‘Russia is going to war with America, take my word for it,’ and starting the story there. So, I think, then the struggle was that the situation was going out of control on a level that one man cannot control.”
“That’s the thing about a Mitch Rapp thriller, it has to be about Mitch and how he’s going to deal with the problem. Well, now you’ve got a war, I mean there’s submarines and naval battles, things that are going on that are well beyond Mitch’s sphere of influence. How does it all draw back to him? How does he accomplish what needs to be done realistically, and survive?”
To find out those answers, you’ll have to dive into Red War, in stores everywhere tomorrow, Tuesday, September 25th.
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.