For me, it never really feels like fall until I’m holding the next Tier One thriller from the great writing duo of Brian Andrews and Jeff Wilson.
For those who aren’t already reading their series—start. No, seriously, these guys are putting out some of the hardest-hitting action sequences in the game today. Plus, they’re really good writers (and good guys) on top of it, who know how to engage readers and keep ’em hooked until the last page.
More than anything, I’m fascinated by the structure of the Tier One series, which functions as one whole saga broken down into separate trilogies—with every three books connected under a running plotline or threat for Dempsey and his Ember team to handle. That’s quite unlike what anyone else is doing, and the results have paid off in a big way, with Andrews and Wilson reaching must-read status in a short amount of time.
This time around, readers will follow Dempsey just a few weeks after where things left off in American Operator as he searches for a dangerous shadow organization known as Zeta. Functioning much like Ember—the off-the-books program that Dempsey, a former Navy SEAL, works for—Zeta has the ability to go toe-to-toe with their American counterpart, presenting Dempsey with his greatest challenge to date . . .
Just ahead of their latest release, both Andrews and Wilson agreed to go back on the record for our Five Questions segment, and I asked them about everything from how they share writing responsibilities as co-authors to what readers can expect from Dempsey and this series moving forward.
Read the full interview below, then make sure to order your copy of Red Specter, now available in ebook, audiobook, and paperback.
TRBS: First and foremost, what a book! You guys seem to get better each time out. How did you come up with the plot idea for Red Specter?
Wilson: Because of the nature of the way we construct the series, this book was envisioned during the brainstorming for Book #4, American Operator and represents the second of the three books in the “Russia Trilogy” for Dempsey and the team at Ember. We had a great deal of interest not only in the re-emerging Russian threat that became most apparent after Crimea, but also in the very different way in which Russian conducts their operations. Much like their Cold War-era tactics, Putin’s Russia continues to work in that zero sum game mindset. With the rise of Islamic terrorism at the doorsteps of the regions they are most interested in, false flag operations like what we devised in American Operator and Red Specter were an almost inevitable scenario. But for us as writers, I think the most fascinating thing about this plot arc is the pitting of our American operators against a more closely matched Russian adversary in terms of money, technology, equipment, and training—something that decades of fighting in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan doesn’t really prepare our guys for.
Andrews: Jeff nailed it with his zero sum game comment. In America, we tend to think in terms of performance-oriented metaphors: Teamwork, cooperation, leading by example. From the time we’re young kids playing team sports, we’ve been socialized with ideas like ‘a rising tide lifts all ships’ and strive for outcomes that achieve a ‘win-win’ scenario. This is not how the typical Russian mind works, and is certainly not how Putin thinks. In Red Specter, we try to communicate this ethos through our Russian characters, President Petrov and spymaster Arkady Zuhkov. They operate with the mindset: for Russia to gain, others must lose; for Russia to rise, America must fall. When pushed, the Russians are willing to suffer great losses if that is what it takes to win. Look no further than the Battle of Stalingrad in WWII for proof. In RED SPECTER, Arkady will burn down his own house, if that is what it takes to scorch John Dempsey and Task Force Ember. When the novel opens, we find Dempsey and his team not prepared for the tactics and commitment of the enemy they are facing. They are overconfident and underprepared and they pay a price for that…this tension and high stakes is what I think makes Red Specter really resonate.
TRBS: What sort of research did you have to do before actually writing, and how do you split that up between the two of you?
Andrews: We are pretty plugged into current events as it is because that’s the world we came from and we both follow the headlines and stay connected to our communities. Also, being veterans, we have a certain level of knowledge and subject matter expertise that not all writers might possess—which means we don’t need to spend time researching weapons, or tactics, or tradecraft. This baseline knowledge means that getting the next book started is a brainstorming session, rather than a research session. We come up with a “what if” scenario based on extrapolation from current geopolitics. Then, we outline the first part of the book and start writing. Research on every TIER ONE novel organically happens as we go. We research the locations, history, and technical elements specific to plot & story elements as they take shape. For example in Red Specter, we took a deep dive into natural gas politics, logistics, and import/export in Europe. We didn’t know anything about Gazprom, the NordStream 1 & 2 pipelines, or what a significant role Russian natural gas played in European politics until researching this book. For example, NATO member states Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were 100% dependent on Russia for natural gas until Lithonia decided to break from Moscow, achieving energy independence from Russia by establishing a long term LNG import lease using the FSRU Independence (aptly named) ship. Because of its importance in real life Baltic/NATO/Russia geopolitics, the FRSU Independence plays a pivotal (albeit fictional) role in this novel.
Wilson: That’s a pretty good summary of how our research works. In terms of division of labor, we write simultaneously as we work on a rough draft, so the division of research labor comes naturally. Because we don’t begin with a detailed outline when we work, it is incumbent on each of us individually to do the research needed for the chapters we’re responsible for at the time. Brian being somewhat more OCD, however, I have always suspected he spends considerable time fact-checking my work, but I can’t really prove that.
TRBS: As a writing team, do you guys have similar strengths or do you each have a specific role that highlights what you do best?
Wilson: I think we bring different things to the table at times. Brian is an amazing details guy and brilliant researcher. He is able to see those spinning balls of yarn in modern geopolitics in a way that is quite nonlinear and almost impossible for most people to dissect, and that makes my job so much easier. It is a real joy to work with someone who can think outside the box but still get down to the dirty work of crafting engaging prose. I love the way he builds both the relationship and tension between complex characters. Hell, I might actually just be the good looks in this team, the more I think about it.
Andrews: Wow, humble much? Just keep looking pretty, bro, while I do all the work…All kidding aside, Jeff brings a level of grit, authenticity, and momentum to a story that I’ve yet to encounter from another writer, and something I certainly can’t duplicate. He’s a rich story-teller who excels at writing action sequences that live on the page. When you combine his bold brush strokes with my eye for nuance and interconnection, you get the Andrews & Wilson experience. We like to joke that between the two of us, you get one fully functional brain and a halfway decent novelist.
TRBS: Obviously, the big news recently came down that you guys have another series in the works. What can you tell readers about that?
Andrews: Over the past three years, one consistently recurring thread in our fan mail and reader reviews concerns a minor SEAL officer character named Keith Redman. Redman, who goes by the handle “Chunk,” has made appearances in WAR SHADOWS, Crusader One, and Red Specter, supporting Dempsey and Task Force Ember when they need a little extra firepower and support. In the TIER ONE universe, it’s been two years since the tragedy of Operation Crusader which wiped out the Navy’s Tier One unit. Now, finally, the powers that be have decided it’s time to bring it back, and who better to lead the reconstituted Tier One than Chunk! The new series, Sons of War, will follow Chunk and his team of SEALs and intelligence analysts as they get back to business. What’s going to be great about this series is that it will truly be a shared world series, happening in parallel with Tier One in the same geopolitical universe. Oh, and rest assured, DNI Kelso Jarvis, sniper Elizabeth Grimes, and yes, John Dempsey will be making cameos!
Wilson: We are beyond excited for Sons of War to get into the hands of our readers and this first book has been an absolute thrill ride to write. We are so grateful to Rick Bleiweiss and his team at Blackstone for the opportunity to bring Chunk and the men and women of the new Tier One to life. But we want our readers to also know that Dempsey will always be out there, pushing Ember to the next level to keep America safe, so don’t worry—we have lots more in store for the Tier One series and have lots more Dempsey stories to tell!
TRBS: Lastly, what’s next for Dempsey moving forward, and when can readers expect the next Tier One book?
Wilson: Well, no spoilers here, but you can rest assured that Dempsey will not rest until the Zeta’s are brought to a reckoning. Expect even higher stakes and action in the conclusion of the Tier One Russian trilogy. Book six will find its way to readers in 2020!
Andrews: In book six, readers can expect to see Dempsey unleashed. As Jeff said, there’s a reckoning coming after Red Specter, and Dempsey is at the top of his game right now. Like you so aptly said in your review of American Operator, “John Dempsey is the kind of hero America needs, at a time when America needs him most.” No one has captured the ethos of John Dempsey (even us as the authors!) better than you did, Ryan, when you wrote that. John Dempsey will always be John Dempsey—committed, unafraid, and unbreakable.
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 developmental 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.