“I wanted this book to be the most realistic readers have ever opened,” author J.A. Walsh told me, speaking about his new thriller, Purpose of Evasion.
Thing is, Walsh’s book isn’t quite like anything else in the genre. Maybe there’s a bit of Alex Berenson in there, topped off with a dash of Chris Holm, but you’d be hardpressed to find another mainstream comparison that fits, and it’s because Walsh mixes authentic characters with an original plot.
For starters, Walsh’s hero, Sami Lakhani, is a gay Muslim-American who is both proud of his work and career as an analyst but also conflicted. Things take a dramatic turn when he’s assigned a high-profile case, tasked with investigating a possible terrorist attack that ultimately leads to him uncovering a number of shady connections within the government. But before he can pursue them, someone shuts down his investigation—forcing Sam to choose between following orders and doing what he believes is right, no matter where it leads him . . .
Walsh, a former intel officer himself, knows the world that his characters operate in well, and that authenticity bleeds through each and every page. I was hooked early, and once Walsh has your attention, he never lets up. Though his book came out back in May, I recently did a Q&A with Walsh, who agreed to go on the record for our Five Questions segment. See the interview below, then click here to get your copy of Purpose of Evasion, now available in paperback and ebook.
TRBS: First of all, I have to say that I really enjoyed your book, and I think it’ll be a great fit with Book Spy followers. How did you come up with the story idea for this one?
Walsh: “Write what you know, right? I was an intel officer from 2001 – 2007. There’s not a lot of autobiography in Sami Lakhani, as readers will quickly discover, but we share that background. Post-9/11, a lot of the intel and law enforcement community attention has been on the transnational threats by groups like Al-Qaeda, ISIS and others. And yet all of the casualties we have seen in the US since 9/11 have been attacks by “lone wolves,” who are sometimes inspired indirectly by those groups but don’t have real connections to an operating cell.
“Purpose of Evasion takes on the challenge of a blended threat, the kind that has more commonly been seen in Europe and the Middle East but rarely in the US (so far), where an active, organized, well-funded terror group provides not just inspiration but some logistical support for US lone wolves to attack.
“So I knew this book was a spy thriller, but there are so many great spy writers and heroes already, so I decided to approach Purpose of Evasion from an entirely new angle. First, my hero is a Muslim-American intel officer. Second, while a lot of the great thrillers of the post 9/11 era have their protagonists bouncing all over the world to eradicate threats to the US, I wanted to write a book that takes on unique problems of the homeland threat. Finally, I wanted this book to be the most realistic readers have ever opened when it comes to day-to-day life for intel officers.
“All that is great, but at the end of the day it is all about the story, and I think in taking on this evolving homeland threat and exposing readers to some under-reported risks, I have a thriller that is entertaining and relevant. And great news for Book Spy followers who are Kindle Unlimited subscribers — they can read it FREE!”
TRBS: What kind of research did you have to do before actually sitting down to write this one?
Walsh: “A lot of the book is me pouring out the banter that has happened between intel officers since 9/11. We sit around and we discuss scenarios, we understand where there are weaknesses in national security and why some of those weaknesses are very difficult to shore up. So in that sense, there was less research and more a process of playing out a potential scenario, almost like a training exercise.
“In Purpose of Evasion, there are two small cells that are posing the threat: one inspirational, the other operational. A lot of my research went into creating characters who could represent these threats. Of course its fiction, but those characters are based on real-world threats and so I wanted to be sure that the characters had very clear backstories. Some of the back story doesn’t necessarily make it into the book, but some of it does. Early readers of the book are telling me they have really enjoyed the context of some world events – things as seemingly disparate as the Arab Spring and the fracking boom – that they did not realize could be connected to radicalization and the potential homeland threat.”
TRBS: When did you know you wanted to be a writer, and what made you decide to finally try your hand at penning a novel?
Walsh: “I started writing screenplays in college. I recently dug some of that stuff out and it’s OK. I actually wrote a spec script for a Simpsons episode about an election where Mayor Quimby is challenged by Kent Brockman and Homer gets involved in the campaign. I re-read it recently and it actually holds up really well.
“As for novels, everyone asks about the process of writing my ‘first book,’ and I tell them this is just the first one to see the light of day. I have a few other manuscripts that were my training wheels. Purpose of Evasion was the first book where I felt I did a good enough job of writing something that interested me and would be commercially appealing, so I took it to the publishing community and they agreed. There are so many books out there, I think aspiring writers – and even established writers – need to ask themselves when they sit down to start a new project: ‘Why does the world need this specific book?’ And once they satisfy themselves with an answer to that question, they need to ask the next question: ‘OK, but will readers agree with me? Why do readers need to read THIS book?'”
TRBS: Who are some of your favorite authors, and what is the last really great book that you read?
Walsh: “I love the spy genre and I read it widely even when I was an intel officer. The classics to me are Graham Greene and John le Carre. Greene is still unmatched at setting espionage fiction amidst daily life. Le Carre is the Godfather of the genre, and did more to establish its tropes than anyone I have read. Today, for spy fiction, I love Daniel Silva. I think he goes on that list of GOATs soon, if not already. Gabriel Allon is simultaneously an icon of the genre and unlike any other character in it. That is so tough to do. The books also do an amazing job of remaining relevant and current and feeling grounded in real-world issues.
“Jason Matthews has been one of the more impressive writers to emerge in the last five years. I think David Ignatius’s spy books are underrated. People were passing The Increment around in government when it came out. Charles Cumming is in that underrated category too. I also have read everything Margaret Truman wrote. I mean, daughter of the President doing thrillers set in and around the professional world of DC? I love them! I read a lot of mysteries. Henning Mankell, James Lee Burke, Ian Rankin.
“As far as a single title to recommend, I recently re-read Daniel Silva’s The Marching Season. I find a lot of Allon fans don’t even know about Silva’s Michael Osborne books, but you have to read them. If you like Daniel Silva, just devoured The New Girl and think you have read all of his other stuff, pick that one up!”
TRBS: Lastly, what’s next for you, and when can readers expect another book?
Walsh: “The second book in the Sami Lakhani series is in draft now. It takes on the question of the influence that the five big tech companies have come to possess in our economy and society, and what correspondent risks that creates for our country if an adversary compromised one of those platforms. Best guess for that one is 2021 release.
“I have a second novel on submission with publishers now and I hope that will sign soon for a 2020 release. It is a crime thriller set on a beautiful Irish island with ugly secrets — think Jane Harper’s The Dry but in dark, soggy Irish winter.
“I have a lot of other ideas that I would love the chance to work on. I have the outline for a YA thriller which reverses the premise of Liam Neeson’s Taken franchise, in my book, the Dad gets abducted and the teen daughter has to be the hero. I also have two longstanding nonfiction projects I am pursuing, particularly a biography of Victor Starffin, a refugee of the Russian Revolution who became the most famous pitcher in baseball-crazy Japan, until he was placed in a prison camp during World War II.
“So life as a writer: you have one book on sub, another you are writing, and a third that is out on shelves. That’s the most important one of course, and I hope Book Spy followers love Purpose of Evasion.”
Praised as “One of the hardest working, most thoughtful, and fairest reviewers out there” by #1 New York Times bestselling author Lisa Scottoline, 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.