“I want to take you back two years to when I started writing the next-to-last Bourne book,” said New York Times bestselling author Eric Van Lustbader, kicking off an exclusive interview that took place over the phone Monday morning.
Heading into the interview, I had no idea that Lustbader would be telling me that he reached the decision to step away from the Jason Bourne series, a franchise he’s anchored for well over a decade. Before making his announcement, the author thoughtfully walked me through his decision process.
“I started writing the Bourne books in 2002 and it has been a great experience for me. It allowed me to use my expertise in sociology and politics–I was a sociology major at Columbia–and I’m fascinated by people and groups of people. That’s what I wanted to do with the Bourne books, in addition to loving the character. But when I sat down to write that book, I realized that I wasn’t approaching it with the same sort of enthusiasm and fun that I had been.”
That book that Lustbader is referencing happens to be what would have been the fifteenth book in Robert Ludlum’s iconic series. A book that we actually announced last year in partnership with the publisher, only to learn that its release was pushed back, and then scrapped altogether.
“You know, when I signed up for this in 2002,” continued Lustbader, “I figured I might do three or four books and that was it. It never occurred to me that sixteen years later I’d look back and I’d have done eleven Bourne novels. It’s one of those things that just happened.
“Originally, the whole idea from the Ludlum estate was for me to write a book in conjuncture with each Bourne film that came out. So in the beginning, it was like every two or three years. But the books became so popular and successful that the publishing company called and asked if they could get a book each year. When my agent told me, I freaked out,” Lustbader recalled, laughing, “because I had my own books too and that meant I’d have to write two books a year. I said, ‘Well, let me try it,’ and here I am sixteen years later and for the last decade or so I’ve written two books a year.”
Indeed, Jason Bourne became known by an entirely new generation of fans when he was brought to life by actor Matt Damon in the film adaption of Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity in the summer of 2002.
“I realized when I sat down to work on the unfinished novel,” said Lustbader, “that I had pretty much said everything that I wanted to say with Bourne, and that I wanted to do something different. Something more. Before Bourne, I had never really had a job that lasted more than two and a half years. I would just get bored. I have a very restless mind. I’m on the dyslexic scale, which means my brain runs very fast, and I tend to get bored very easily. Honestly, I’m amazed that I was able to stay with Bourne for so long. But I decided it was time for me to leave and go on to bigger and better things.”
As for the unreleased book we reported on roughly 18 months ago, the title of which we won’t use in case Lustbader decides to use part of it for another project, some fans might have noted the author’s own updates from time to time, which he posted on Twitter.
“You’ve seen from my tweets that I’ve been sitting with a manuscript for two years. What I found, though, when I started to go back and work on polishing the draft, was that I just didn’t want to do it. Every time I would sit down to do it, I would start writing something else and that made me realize, finally, that I just didn’t want to do it anymore.
“So, it’s official, I’ve talked to the executive of the Ludlum estate–who is a friend of mine, and who originally asked me to take up Bourne for him–and I’m eternally grateful to him. It’s been a great ride, but it’s time for me to do something else.”
While the announcement caught me by surprise, Lustbader sounded at peace and confident in his decision. Plus, it was apparent that he was excited about future writing projects, which I asked him about.
“I have two other projects in the pipeline that are already finished and will be published imminently, I might say,” Lustbader told me, before adding, “but I can’t talk about them yet. I wish I could, but I can’t quite yet. I will say I’m really excited about them, and that compared to Bourne they are much more character driven. They also both have female protagonists, that I can tell you.”
One other project, separate from the two he teased here, is The Sum of All Shadows, the fourth book in his popular Testament series, which, Lustbader told me, “ends a family arc in the Shaw family.”
“So this is what’s been going on for me,” said Lustbader, before reflecting a bit on his time writing in this franchise. “If you look back at the Bourne books, they’re really topical. I wrote about Russia going into Ukraine, I wrote about Russia going into Syria before that happened. I tried to interject as much characterization into the Bourne books as I could, but, you know, there’s a certain format that needs to be adhered to when it comes to Bourne. They allowed me to do pretty much anything I wanted except, you know, change the Bourne mythos.
“They allowed me to kill off his wife and send his kids away because I told them you just can’t have a serial character who is bound to a wife and two kids. They would be targets in literally every book,” he said, his voice again filled with laughter. “A lot of people don’t know this, but when Bob Ludlum wrote The Bourne Identity, he never planned on writing another Bourne book. He never thought of him as a series character. He didn’t write the second book, The Bourne Supremacy, until years later, and by that time Bob was a little older and he made Bourne old. When I was offered the job, I remember saying you can’t do this . . . you can’t have Bourne old, have him married, or have him with two kids. Furthermore, you have a whole bunch of people coming to Bourne from the movies, so they’re used to seeing that character and I had to thread the needle by making him recognizable to Bob Ludlum’s readers and to the film aficionados.”
I personally found the last tidbit fascinating, having never considered that Lustbader–who already had the monumental task of stepping into the shoes of a literary legend–had to account for not only Ludlum’s readers but also the fans of the movie. By all accounts, he did a fine job, and many readers will no doubt be sad to see him go. While it’s unclear what will happen with Bourne moving forward, there’s always a chance that another writer could be hired to continue the series. Lustbader, however, has officially turned the page and is now looking towards the future.
“The main thing is that I am extremely happy. I’ve freed myself to do what I want to do, which from this moment on is exactly what’s going to happen.”
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.