In what’s becoming an annual tradition of sorts, I caught up with New York Times bestselling author Mark Greaney just ahead of the release of his next Gray Man book, Mission Critical, discussing a number of topics over the course of our hour-long phone conversation that took place last week.
As always, Greaney, who has long been known within the publishing world as one of the nicest guys in the industry, was gracious with both his time and his responses, touching on everything from what readers can expect in Mission Critical to his writing process and what readers can expect moving forward.
Before lobbing questions about his new book, I asked Greaney whether or not he ever feels pressure to top himself each year. For four years now, I’ve said that both Mark and his character, Courtland Gentry, are critical to the thriller genre, as he represents the next wave of top-tier franchises. While authors such as Vince Flynn/Kyle Mills (Mitch Rapp), Brad Thor (Scot Harvath), and Daniel Silva (Gabriel Allon) remain the gold standard, each of their respective series is now at least eighteen books long. While they’ve enjoyed longevity and great success, other franchises have come and gone during that time, with many flaming out after just four or five books.
Mission Critical is Greaney’s eighth Gentry novel, and nobody has been better than he has over the last three years. Moving forward, the sky is the limit for the Gray Man, but those expectations must bring with them added pressure, no?
“Not in scope,” Greaney told me. “I mean, I feel pressure to write better and do something that I haven’t done before.
“I like to make each book different because as a reader—I’ve been reading these types of books for thirty years or so—I can tell when an author doesn’t have new ideas or is going back over cold ground. I used to be very critical of that, and now I’m a lot more sympathetic of that because, hey, there’s only so many things you can do. But I do always try to do each story different, whether it’s a different focus or different points of view, I just don’t want to cover the same ground. So in that respect, I want each book to top the last one, but each story doesn’t have to be bigger than the one before it.
“There’s never going to be a story where Court has to save planet Earth from Martians or something like that,” said Greaney, laughing. “That would be long past the jump-the-shark moment.”
I found it interesting that, as a reader, Greaney admitted that he can tell when other authors have run out of good story ideas. Certainly, as a critic, I’ve dialed into that myself, pointing out several times when it appears a novelist’s river of creativity has run dry. So, then, does he ever worry that he will run out of solid story ideas? I asked him just that.
“I do worry,” Greaney admitted. “It gets harder year after year because you tell the stories that you know, then you go out and find new info and tell those stories. You’re always digging deeper and deeper for new info. The goods thing about it is that I have a lot more connections now than I did back at the beginning of my career. I’m able to talk to people who wouldn’t have talked to me a few years ago, and I’m able to do things at different times. For example, I’m able to talk to people at an Air Force base that I couldn’t have talked to a couple of years ago, so I’m able to learn a lot of new stuff.”
As our conversation turned toward the latest book, which follows Courtland Gentry’s efforts to unmask a mole within the CIA and plug the leak before any more damage can be done to agency assets, Greaney told me that at least one storyline was inspired by a returning character whom he introduced a couple books back in Gunmetal Gray.
“When I introduced the character of Zoya Zakharvoa, the Russian intelligence officer, I had a line in there about her history and how her father, the head of the Russian Military Intelligence, had been killed twelve years ago. I think when I wrote it, that I was thinking it sounded like a plot idea for later—like how he died or something. So I basically wanted to work in a mystery about his disappearance and presumed death sometime before, and I thought that would be an interesting thing to weave into another story that I had about a terrorist attack against all five of the English-speaking intelligence agencies. Those were almost two different plots that I thought would be really cool if I could somehow fold them together, and it became the genesis of the idea.”
“I don’t really write outlines,” said Greaney when asked about his writing process after he has that initial story idea. “I sort of write little stories about what the book is about before I do any research or anything. And for this one, I wrote a little story about Zoya being flipped by the CIA and Court finding himself is the wrong place and the right time and ending up on this operation before their words connect at a different time—as friends and foes, depending on the situation.”
Delving deeper into his creative and writing process, I then asked him if he ever plans out future books in his head, or on paper, in the midst of trying to finish one that he’s currently working on, to which he answered, “I totally focus on the one I’m actively writing.
“Basically, when I’m writing a book, that’s when I start thinking about the next thing I have to write. So, not necessarily the next Gray Man book, if the next thing I have to write is another series, then my head is in that.
“I always say the book that you haven’t started yet is the best book ever because you’re not actively working on it,” said Greaney through laughter. “It’s like fantasy land. You’re like ‘oh, my gosh, that is going to blow people away,’ and you haven’t written a single word. Meanwhile, you’re stuck writing and editing a current book, and you can’t see it as a finished, great story until you get to the third or fourth round of editing. Then you kind of think, ‘okay, I’ve cleaned this up and it looks good now,’ but you have that thing where you’re just thinking about the next project that you’re going to work on.
“I’m doing that now, actually,” confessed Greaney, offering another chuckle, “with One Minute Out, the next Gray Man book that comes out next year. I have a ton of ideas for it, but I don’t even have time to write them all down, so I’m kind of ruminating on those for the time being.”
Brad Thor, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Scot Harvath series (mentioned above) is, aside from being a terrific writer, a walking, talking quote machine, armed with great sayings and words of wisdom in the same way that President Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen) could always ramble off great quotes that perfectly fit the mood or situation in The West Wing. One quote, in particular, that Thor often shares in interviews is actually from fellow best-selling author and TV personality Brad Meltzer, who once said, “a thriller writer’s job is to beat the headlines.”
Greaney and I discussed that quote specifically, and I asked him if he ever feels pressure to deliver, on top of a great plot, a timely story.
“Absolutely. Yes, I do, and I’ve been scared about that before,” he said. “When I did the last book, Agent in Place, it was about the Syrian civil war and, when I was writing it, that war looked like it was going to be wrapped up in a few months because the Russians had moved in and where helping the Syrians. But it came out in a time when there was an absolute surge in the violence there, and a lot of stuff going on. So, sadly, it was a situation that continued.
“Mission Critical is a story that definitely takes a lot of things that are going on with the world—North Korea, Russia, U.S. intelligence circles, leaks, all that sort of stuff. But it’s not, you know, ‘ripped from the headlines.’ It’s more like this is the real world going on around us, and what can I create from that that makes it an interesting story?”
One of the challenges with beating headlines for any author, which casual readers might not be aware of, is the long gap of time between the conception of a story and when it actually hits store shelves. I asked Greaney about that, which prompted a great response and tidbit I’d never heard him discuss in an interview before.
“I’ll give you a story,” said Greaney, answering the question like a true novelist. “I was a ghostwriter on a book, and I can’t say what book it was, early in my career and one of the bad guys at the end was Osama bin Laden. Well, Osama bin Laden was killed while the book was in editing, so I figured it was no problem, we’ll just switch to the guy from Arizona who was from Al Queda—and then he was killed right before pub day. We just kept icing all the terrorists I was trying to use in the book, so, he’s actually still in there to this day.
“From the time of conception to the publication of the book is normally about a year,” he continued. “I do two books a year, so I devote six months out of the year to each one, but at the same time, I’ll be working one book and start planning out the other one in my head in my free time. The next Gray Man book (One Minute Out), for example, I started thinking about last fall, and it won’t be out until 2020. So, that’s about a year and a half of thinking about it, writing it, editing it, and then seeing it published.”
Currently, Greaney is slated to publish two books this year—Mission Critical and Red Metal, a standalone novel that’s already being called his Red Storm Rising. Looking ahead to 2020, I asked him if he would, in fact, have two more books coming out then as well.
“As of right now, I’m not contracted to do anything,” said the author, before floating out an idea about revisiting some older projects he once worked on, and admitting he could use a little downtime in the near future.
“I have some ideas and some stuff I’ve written in the past that never got published, and I would love to look at some of that again because I really like the stories, but who knows how the writing is—it’s been so long since I’ve looked at it. Once I finish the next Gray Man book, I’ll probably take a little bit of a break. I’ve been going sort of nonstop for a long time and, just sort of an exercise, I’ll probably take a couple of these old manuscripts that never got published and see if I think there’s something there.”
Red Metal, which comes out on July 30th, is one of those projects that Greaney kicked around for years before finally knocking it out with his co-author, Lt. Col. Hunter “Rip” Rawlings IV, whom Greaney says he met at the Pentagon while doing research for a Clancy book years back. In fact, Mark told me that he and Rip grew close, even traveling to Germany and Poland together to conduct on-site research for the book, which is said to be around 215,000 words long.
For comparison’s sake, the average length for a thriller is around 80,000 to 100,000 words—making Red Metal twice as long.
“Writing Red Metal was different for a lot of reasons,” Greaney told me. “First, I had a co-author, which, I’ve worked with co-authors before, but Rip was as engaged as any co-author could be. We said from the beginning that this is fifty percent him, fifty percent me, or a hundred percent both of us—however you want to say it. There is no leader or follower in our relationship.
“It’s also a very big book. There is, I think, ninety-something chapters in there and they’re beefy chapters, not short chapters, and there are a lot of moving parts in this story. To tell it in a narrative fashion, somewhere along the way, I realized this is just a different type of book than a Gray Man book. You’re not going to have this thread where you’re looking over the shoulder of this one guy throughout, you’re going to be looking over the shoulder of four or five different men and women, all on different parts of the globe with different missions—and it’s my job as the author to make sure it all fits together and that it’s easy to read. It was tough because it’s a big book, but it’s a big war that’s being discussed. I think it worked out well.”
Surprised by the word count, because I know authors who’ve been forced to cut and trim their stories to get under that 100,000-word threshold, I joked with Greaney that he could have just made it two separate volumes.
“Yeah, exactly, I could split it right down the middle and make it two books,” he laughed, before explaining that the habit of writing longer stories likely came from his work in the Jack Ryan universe.
“It’s just, working with Clancy for years, you get to where people will let me tell a deeper story, a wider story, and a more nuanced story. You know, I can get away with that so I take advantage of it. I don’t want my books to get bigger and bigger just for the sake of getting bigger, I just want to be able to tell a story with a lot of twists and turns.”
That discussion prompted another story, this time about advice from Scott Miller (Trident Media Group), Greaney’s longtime agent, and the evolution of his writing style and growing word count.
“I remember my agent, well, he was my perspective agent at the time, said when I was writing The Gray Man, ‘make it 100,000 words.’ As for a bigger story, I was completely warned away from that early on, but once I started working with Tom Clancy . . . it’s a balance. My books aren’t big technothrillers like Clancy wrote in the eighties and nineties—I really think those days have passed. It has to be a lot more fast-paced, a lot less intricate details now. I’ll mention a weapon, or a weapon system and how it works or whatever, but Clancy would talk about the solid rocket fuel on the missile, and how this kicks that off, causing this to happen.”
Cutting Greaney off, I joked that, to his point, by the time I’d finished The Hunt for Red October, I felt like I could practically drive a submarine because of the pages and pages of details Clancy would work into his stuff.
“Exactly, yeah,” he said with another laugh. “It was sort of an owner’s manual, but he was fantastic, and he blew everyone away. It was this Michael Crichton-level of detail, but in the military word. It was magnificent at the time, but I think readers nowadays expect a faster-paced story with less of that. The attention span is there for a big, long book if you keep the pages turning—but if you start getting in the weeds with one thing or another, then people are going to put it to the side and pick up something else.”
When asked if he might ever scale the size of his books back a bit, he joked that “people might feel ripped off” if his next book was just 100,000 words, but did indicate that future books could come down from the nearly 160,000 words that he put into Mission Critical.
Circling back around to those comparisons between Red Metal and Red Storm Rising (1983), I asked Greaney if that was something he thought about as he wrote it.
“Yeah. I’ll be totally honest, I had such respect for Red Storm Rising, and I would tell my editor—as I went around signing books for the Jack Ryan universe after Tom Clancy died, that one out of like every six people would tell me that Red Storm Rising was their favorite thriller. Now, Red Metal is very different. Red Storm Rising is a complete war between the Soviet Union and NATO, whereas Red Metal is more of a limited engagement, but it’s scoping—it takes place on two continents, and it’s a really big military story, it’s just not a total World War III novel.”
While Greaney confirmed to me that Red Metal, which he calls a “very, very different book from the Gray Man stuff,” is currently designed to be a standalone novel, he did say that he would be open to writing a sequel to it in the future, and that it’s something he and his co-author have already had discussions on. He also left the door open for more standalone novels in the future, in addition to releasing a new Gray Man book each year, of course.
As for what he might choose to write about in future one-off books, Greaney wasn’t yet sure about possible storylines, but he did tell me, “Obviously, I’ll stay in the same genre. I’m not going to do a fantasy novel or a romance novel—I’ll leave a little bit of that in the Gray Man books, just a little, and that’s all you’re going to get out of me on that. There are other people who are executing that so much better than I ever could,” he said, laughing, “and I’m going to let them do all that stuff.”
As the conversation wound down, I asked Greaney who some of his favorite writers are, and what the last really great book that he read was.
“I’m actually still reading it, but there’s a new novel from Don Bentley coming out next year that I’m reading, and I really like his voice and story,” Mark said, referencing one of the most anticipated debut novels of 2020, which I too had the pleasure of already reading and absolutely loved.
“Nick Petrie’s new book is really good, and I love Gregg Hurwitz’s stuff. Brad Taylor is a really good friend of mine, and he just gave me his new book (Daughter of War) the other day, which I can’t wait to dive into. His stuff is always really fun to read. And then I like some of the classics, like early Nelson DeMille books, Frederick Forsyth, John le Carre, there’s a British author named Gerald Seymour who I think is magnificent. I did also really like Jason Matthew’s Red Sparrow trilogy and thought it was very well written. Jack Carr’s debut that came out last year, The Terminal List, I thought that was great and assume the next one will be just as good too.”
Turning our attention back to Mission Critical, I asked Mark about his approach to the series, and how recent books have flip-flopped between showing Gentry on CIA missions, followed by storylines where he’s off doing his own thing. In this one, Court, codenamed Violator, is working with the CIA, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be on his own in 2020.
“I don’t know that I planned it from the beginning, but it’s become sort of a conscious thing,” said Greaney about bouncing back and forth between the two types of missions. “I like the setup, honestly. He’s a deniable asset to the CIA, and one way that he’s a deniable asset to them is that he’s doing his own thing and his relationship with them isn’t so good that he’s going in there and punching a time clock and doing CIA work every day.
“The tough part of that, though, is that when he’s on his own, I don’t bring in the series regulars like Zach Hightower, Zoya, Hanley, and Brewer, or I use them very sparingly because I want you to feel like you’re with him and he’s totally on his own and has no support. I do like writing that kind of story, but I also like getting back into the stories with the relationships, the tension, the bureaucracies, and the inside the CIA stuff. So I kind of like both of them, but it might start to look forced if I do one this way and the next one that way.”
Hoping for one last juicy tidbit, I asked Greaney if there was an update on the potential Gray Man movie after Sony bought the rights to the series from him two years ago. While he couldn’t say much about that, he did confirm that a major director is “circling the project,” and that they have a new script, and he sounded hopeful that there would be some movement on it soon.
To my surprise, one of the more fascinating developments of the interview came right at the end, when I asked Greaney about next year’s Gray Man novel, and he told me that he’s thinking about writing the ninth book in the first-person narrative, instead of third-person, which he’s always done.
“I’ve been considering, for years, doing a first-person Gray Man novel where the scenes in Court’s point of view are in first-person, and the scenes from the antagonist’s perspective are third-person.” The setup sounded similar to Brad Taylor’s style, which I noted to Greaney, who agreed his concept would be similar to that. “A lot like Brad Taylor, I think it really works the way he does it. Some other people have done it too, I think Lee Child did a couple that way as well. I just think it would be good because I really want readers to hear Court’s thought process and all that kind of stuff, and I have an idea to do it in a certain style where he’s almost talking to the readers like, ‘I know what you’re thinking, but there’s no way I’d do that,’ type of thing.
“I’m going to try a couple chapters and give it to my editor, and he’ll tell me if I’m off my rocker or if it’s something I should pursue. That’s my plan, so we’ll see. I always say I’m going to do one in first-person, and then I always chicken out.”
Intrigued by the idea of putting readers right into the Gray Man’s head, I asked him point-blank if it was conceivable that the next book would be told from his perspective, to which he replied, “You know, unless I chicken out again, it’s conceivable. One of these years I’ll be brave enough to do it,” laughed Greaney, “and hopefully, that’s this year.”
Court “The Gray Man” Gentry returns to action in Mission Critical, the latest must-read, action-packed novel from bestselling author Mark Greaney, in stores everywhere tomorrow, February 19th.
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). Steck also works full-time as a freelance editor and pens a monthly thriller column for CrimeReads. For more information, be sure to follow him on Twitter and Facebook. He currently lives in Southwest Michigan with his wife and their six children.