These guys are breaking all the rules.
And man, is it working.
Brian Andrews and Jeffrey Wilson–better known these days as the writing team of Andrews & Wilson–have quickly turned their Tier One series into one of the hottest action thriller franchises in the game. A cross between Brad Taylor and Mark Greaney, Andrews & Wilson have managed to mix political and spy elements into their books, and they’re trying some things no one else is doing.
For starters, their partnership is fascinating. I’ve long been a fan of writers working together because, if done correctly, the finished product should be something that neither writer could have delivered on their own. Preston & Child are hugely popular, but they don’t write these kinds of books. Secondly, Andrews & Wilson’s Tier One series is structured unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. Lots of authors, from Daniel Silva to Vince Flynn, have written over-arcing storylines that span multiple books within their respective series. However, what Andrews & Wilson are doing is totally different.
Essentially, the Tier One franchise is comprised of running trilogies, each one covering a different topic and enemy. That doesn’t mean, though, that each book lacks its own storyline and conclusion, because they most certainly stand on their own in some sense. The best comparison I can think of is to the television show 24 (back when Jack Bauer was the star, not the awful reboot) and how each season dealt with one major problem–but each episode had its own conflict and plenty of drama.
Bottom line: Andrews & Wilson are breaking rules and trying new things, and the payoff has been really impressive.
As a critic, one of my favorite days of the year is when an advance copy of Andrews & Wilson’s next John Demsey book shows up on my doorstep–especially this year because American Operator is my favorite thriller from them yet. The first book in a new three-story arc, their latest offering introduces a new bad guy and all kinds of issues for Dempsey and Ember, the top-secret program he works for.
Just ahead of publication, both authors agreed to go on the record for our Five Questions segment, and I asked them about everything from their writing process to what’s next for Dempsey moving forward with this next trilogy within the series. Not only did they both provide really great, generous answers, but they also teased a few exclusive tidbits that Book Spy followers will hear about before anyone else.
TRBS: I absolutely loved American Operator. It’s my favorite Dempsey book yet, and one of the best action thrillers I’ve read so far this year. Before we get into that, though, how did you guys meet and agree to become co-authors, and how exactly were Dempsey and this series born?
Andrews: “Here’s the thing, veterans, and maybe Navy guys especially, seem to find each other and congregate wherever we go. Shared experience and shared values often leads to fast friendships with other vets and that was sorta the case with me and Jeff. We met back in 2012 at Thrillerfest in New York, at least I think that was the year Jeff started stalking me…all the stalking eventually blurs together. The co-authoring thing was a development that happened almost as a lark a couple years later. I’d just finished my second book, and Jeff his third and I lobbed a grenade at him over cocktails. I believe it went something like, ‘Hey what do you think about collaborating on a SEALs and Subs thriller? It could be really cool.’ And he said, ‘Nah, I don’t think so.’ The rest, as they say, is history.”
Wilson: “Well, that’s only part of the story. Yes, we met at Thrillerfest as debut authors and, like Brian said, instantly became friends. But, a little confession here—I’m really not that comfortable in that kind of social setting, to be honest. That was the first Thrillerfest for Wendy and me, and I remember sitting in our room, poring through the program and trying to memorize the names of other military folks that I felt I could have a conversation with. We were at the cocktail party on Friday night and saw Brian sitting by himself sobbing (as you would expect from a submariner) and I recognized the name and went over and said hi. We wound up chatting the whole event and he was all about his family, just like we are, had a daughter the same age as our daughter, Emma (and they’ve become friends now too), and we just had kind of the same worldview. I never would have imagined at that moment that we would eventually be co-writing together. Not because of Brian, but because it was impossible to imagine what writing with someone else could possibly look like.
“When I said no to the idea of writing together—I think it was like, three times—that was the reason. Once we started though, it was a synergy that was amazing. Now it’s hard to write alone, and in fact, even in our solo works, we still collaborate. I like to say that we are two reasonable hacks who sum to one respectable writer when we work together.”
TRBS: What’s your writing process like as co-authors?
Wilson: “Our process is probably pretty unique—in fact, having been on a number of panels now with other co-authors, I can say for sure that’s true. I lead with that because I think it’s important to know that no two author teams do things the same and, if you’re thinking of trying a team writing project, you just gotta find a system that works for you and not try to model after anyone else. That being said, our method is akin to a pair of ten-year-olds in the backyard playing soldier—making up the story and the rules as we go along—and that is the pure joy of it. (Brian will probably tell you it’s not that unstructured, but it’s close.)
“We brainstorm the individual book, getting a rough idea of the arc of the story and what we want for our individual character arcs. At this point in the series, we’re pretty intentional about taking into consideration not just what has happened in the story and character development before, but where this book will likely take those things over the next several books. Then we divide the story into three acts, make a very rough outline of act one, and we dive in.”
Andrews: “And then we throw darts at a wall covered with nouns, verbs, and adjectives (no adverbs, thank you, Mr. King, for that tip) and the book just writes itself word by word. But seriously, all kidding aside, one of the more important elements of our process is the mechanics of managing the prose so the novels read with a singular voice. One of the great compliments for us, as a writing duo, is when a fan or reviewer comments about the consistent voice and the absence of stark or contrasting style from chapter to chapter. That is intentional and the cornerstone of the Andrews & Wilson process. In the Tier One series, we write using third person, multiple POV format. During the drafting phase, we divide a new novel by POV, with Jeff taking one or two characters and me taking the others. (We rarely, if ever exceed four POV characters).
“As the novel is written, we are constantly trading chapters so the other author sees how the story is evolving, each of us building off the previous chapter or chapters slotted in by the other. As the novel advances, we gradually switch POV characters allowing the other author to get into the unpenned character’s head. By the time the draft is done, both of us have had some time in all the characters’ heads, then the rewrite process begins. Our editing phase is the heavy lift of the project, during which all sentences are fair game for deletion, relocation, or rephrasing. Jeff and I both make a minimum of two passes, which means by the time we’re done with DE, the book has been essentially rewritten and smoothed so that only a unified voice is present.
“This process requires that you trust your co-author and lock your ego away in a drawer. Even if we wanted to, it’s impossible to ‘take credit’ for specific ideas or sections of prose—every Tier One novel is an Andrews & Wilson collaboration and would be virtually impossible to deconstruct.”
TRBS: Now, let’s talk about the book which, again, is really great. I cannot wait for readers to get their hands on this one. How did you come up with the story idea, and how much research had to be done before actually sitting down to write it?
Andrews: “It’s impossible in today’s world to watch the news and not get a sense for the global geopolitical chess match being played between the US, Russia, China, Europe, and the countries of the Middle East. Today the problem is not lack of information, rather it’s one of disinformation and information overload. Once upon a time, global bad actors did their dirty work in the shadows. Now, with a civilian populace armed with cameras and instant access to social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, the bad guys have adapted their strategy to do harm in plain view and then deny and obfuscate with propaganda.
“The impetus for American Operator was us watching the systematic, multi-pronged Russian influence campaign to counter and destabilize American relationships and operations in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. When Turkey, the NATO member with the largest standing military second only to the US, began discussions with Russia to purchase the S300 surface-to-air missile system it portends much deeper fissures in the delicate balance of power in the Middle East and Europe. Book four in the Tier One series explores ‘what if’ scenarios about how Russia plans to upset the world order and knock the United States out of the driver’s seat.”
Wilson: “That’s about it. As Brian said, the real research comes in exploring the geopolitics, getting the technology facts in place, and talking to friends and colleagues with experience in the space we’re writing. The story and character arcs emerge on their own and the research is more backdrop, I think. And understand, a lot of that goes on as we move through the book rather than a big investment in research at the front end.”
TRBS: Obviously, this series is different for a number of reasons, one of them being that each book has its own story, but there’s one overall arc that spans three novels. What can readers expect this time around, with American Operator and the next two books?
Wilson: “Well, it’s no secret that in Crusader One we closed the arc on what we call the “Persian Trilogy” and Ember’s battle to out Iran’s VEVAK for its nefarious deeds and exact vengeance for the death of Dempsey’s Tier One SEAL Team. We also planted a seed about the new threat in Crusader that will become quickly apparent to fans of the series in this new book. Dempsey and Ember have really taken it up, because now they’re facing a foe that is their intellectual and tactical equal and operating in a space that Dempsey, after two decades combating Islamic terrorists, is not prepared to engage. That means Dempsey and his Ember teammates are going to have a steep learning curve if they’re going to persevere against this new foe. You’ll see evolution in the Ember Team characters on all levels over the next three books, which is pretty exciting.”
Andrews: “We opened the Tier One series with big personal stakes and big tragedy. The arc of that first trilogy focused on identifying the responsible party behind the Tier One massacre, mitigating that threat, and meting justice. For our hero John Dempsey, the first trilogy was about his personal loss, sacrifice and slow evolution from a SEAL to a spy. To use a Star Wars analogy, the arc of this second trilogy is comparable to the Empire Strikes Back. Just when Dempsey finds himself riding high and at the top of his game, he and his team will face adversity, the likes of which they have not faced before. Expect more action, more tradecraft, more emotional angst, and more tragedy in this next trilogy than in the first! Hang on, cuz it’s going to be a rough ride.”
TRBS: Lastly, what’s next for you guys now that American Operator is set to hit bookstores?
Andrews: “TRBS fans are hearing this news here first. We just finished writing a new thriller set outside the Tier One universe. The novel will be the first Andrews & Wilson thriller featuring a female protagonist. The novel follows former Army CID investigator turned homicide detective Valerie Marks as she tackles her first domestic case in which the murderer is unlike any serial killer the world has faced before. We don’t have a pub date yet, and can’t release the title, but in this new book, we explore some cutting-edge science and thematic elements similar in feel and execution to our Alex Ryan line of thrillers (e.g., Beijing Red and Hong Kong Black). We’re tremendously excited about this new book and as soon things get nailed down on the production side, we’ll circle back with updates!”
Wilson: “With respect to the Tier One series, we’re already deep into writing book five, titled Red Specter, which is slated for release 5 November 2019. Once again, TRBS fans are hearing that news first here. Also, in addition to the new book Brian mentioned, we’re planning to trickle out exciting shared-world standalone novels, featuring various supporting characters in the Tier One world, beginning 2019. The first of these shared-world novels is a gritty, high octane adventure starring newly minted Tier One LCDR “Chunk” Redman, everyone’s favorite recurring SEAL character from War Shadows and Crusader One.”
For more info and to make sure you’re staying up to date on all things Andrews & Wilson, check out Brian’s Amazon Page and Jeff’s Amazon page, then make sure you’re following them on Twitter and are signed up for their official newsletter.
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.