A few weeks ago, ahead of the release of his 15th novel, The Jerusalem Assassin, I caught up with New York Times bestselling author Joel C. Rosenberg who, at the time, was gearing up for a lengthy book tour that would ultimately be canceled due to the growing COVID-19 pandemic.
In a wide-ranging interview, Rosenberg (who is both humble and sneaky funny) and I spoke by telephone for more than an hour, and I asked him about everything from what he did before his career as a novelist took off back in 2002 to how he came up with the story idea for his latest Marcus Ryker thriller, and everything in between.
For those who haven’t followed his career, Rosenberg—whose unmatched ability to predict world events and write them into his novels ahead of time earned him the nickname “a modern-day Nostradamus”—published his debut thriller, The Last Jihad, in late 2002, a time that is widely considered the “golden age” of thrillers. That book became the first in a five-book series starring a Wall Street strategist named Jon Bennett, who later on becomes a central figure in helping to develop a significant Mid East peace treaty, which sends shockwaves throughout the rest of the world.
Two years after the final Bennett novel, Rosenberg penned the first in a trilogy of books—The Twelfth Imam (2010), The Tehran Initiative (2011), and Damascus Countdown (2013)—starring a young CIA officer named David Shirazi, followed by another trilogy, this time set around J.B Collins, a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, who serves as the protagonist in The Third Target (2015), The First Hostage (2016), and Without Warning (2017).
Rosenberg’s 2018 thriller, The Kremlin Conspiracy, kicked off yet another series, this time featuring a former secret service agent named Marcus Ryker, who returned in last year’s The Persian Gamble, before anchoring his new book, The Jerusalem Assassin.
In total, there are around five million copies of Rosenberg’s books (a list that includes a standalone novel and a handful of nonfiction works) in print today, according to his publisher, Tyndale.
“I was a failed political consultant,” Rosenberg told me, kicking off our conversation when asked what he was doing before turning to writing. “For ten years, I had lived in Washington with my wife and kids working for a range of US and Israeli leaders—and every single one I worked for lost or decided not to run or retired from politics.
“So,” Rosenberg said with a laugh, “I had a one hundred perfect track record of helping people go nowhere. I helped Steve Forbs lose two presidential campaigns and about seventy million dollars of his inheritance money for his five daughters. Twenty years ago, I was on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ‘comeback campaign’ . . .
“It took him nine more years to come back,” the author deadpanned.
“So, Ryan, I was apparently not helpful to anyone and I decided to get out of politics. I went through political detox. I’m out. I’m clean, though in an election year like this I need to put on a patch, and I decided to try my hand at something I wanted to do since I was eight years old and that is to write novels.”
In talking about what kind of books he wanted to write, Rosenberg noted that, “Not many people who write political thrillers have ever actually spent time in politics, but I had, so that’s why I decided I was going to try my hand at writing a political thriller—and who knew it was going to hit so big?”
Indeed, The Last Jihad was a big debut, one of the biggest in recent memory, in fact, and it paved the way for him to continue writing books nearly twenty years later. More on that in a minute, though, as I first wanted to talk to Rosenberg about which authors had an impact or some sort of influence on him as a writer.
As it turns out, we’re both big fans of Vince Flynn, though Rosenberg indicated it was his enjoyment of Clancy who had the most influence on him.
“Well, I love Tom Clancy’s work, and I’ve read almost everything he wrote. I’m sure there were other thriller writers too, but he was, like, it. When I was in high school and college, I read his work. John Grisham too. The funny thing is, I don’t really read that much fiction. I generally don’t find fiction as entertaining to me,” Rosenberg said with another laugh, “as I am glad that it is to others.”
“I love Vince Flynn’s work, and Vince did endorse my first novel—he didn’t know me, didn’t have to read, like, a first manuscript or anything—but for him to endorse my first novel, The Last Jihad, was big. It was a really big deal. He and I did then go on to correspond, and then we met each other when he was launching one of his books in Washington. I was just super grateful to him and love his series.
Rosenberg also noted that he read Daniel Silva’s most recent Gabriel Allon thriller, The New Girl, which he talked about later on in our conversation, and called it, “Awesome.”
“Over time, I’ve dipped into other genres and have grown to enjoy a number of other people’s work too. But the funny thing is that, mostly, I’m reading history and biographies, and stuff about radical Islam, and so forth.”
Curious about a fiction writer’s fascination with nonfiction, I asked him whether he reads these days for pleasure or research, to which he told me, “Both.”
“People say that you should write what you know,” explained Rosenberg, “but I don’t actually believe that. I don’t know how to kill a person, or how to jump out of a plane at thirty thousand feet, or how to be a spy. I believe that the better way to put it is to write where you live in your head, meaning I write about things that totally scare me, and totally fascinate me, and on topics that really grip me personally—so it doesn’t seem like research to me. It’s all stuff I’m thinking about anyway. And look, I’m Jewish on my father’s side, my family escaped from Russia in the nineteen hundreds, so I come with a Russian and Jewish pessimism about the world. The glass is not only empty, it’s also cracked and leaking,” he joked.
“That seems to be my natural world view, but the good news is, there’s a job for pessimists, and that’s to be a thriller writer. I think about worst-case scenarios, and I would either be depressed or go crazy, but instead, I have a channel for that—to come up with a worst-case scenario, and then extrapolate it forward and say, imagine it happened, now how would it play out? How might people handle it, fix it, deal with it?
“That is sort of my approach, and the threat of radical Islam, of Russia, North Korea, and Iran, the apocalyptic nature of the Iranian regime—these things absolutely fascinate me, and have been a big part of my professional life.”
Obviously, the approach is working. As noted above, Rosenberg has proven over the course of his career to be the best headline-beater in the business. Not only does he seem to always identify the next threat for his characters to face, but his storylines have a habit of coming true—a reality that is both fascinating and downright astonishing. In my review of The Jerusalem Assassin, I ended by saying, “It’s almost as if media outlets around the globe don’t know which headline to use until Rosenberg writes it for them.”
So, what does Joe himself think about beating headlines and seeing his books play out in real-time?
“Well, first of all, it’s a crazy way to make a living,” said Rosenberg.
“When you think about it, the first thing that’s crazy is to flip open a laptop and stare at a blank screen and think, ‘how do I fill this with a hundred thousand words that are completely made up, but that can somehow persuade people to spend twenty-eight bucks and spend three or four days of their life reading it?’ People don’t have the discretionary time or money to go waste on things that are made up. People love entertainment, but reading isn’t something most people love as much as they want to watch, say, Netflix.
“So, it’s a really interesting job, and I always joke that the little cursor on the screen, when I go to start a new book, is blinking—almost sort of daring me to come up with something interesting.
“That’s must be why they worked the word ‘curse’ right into cursor, because it’s essentially saying, ‘You can’t do this,'” Rosenberg said with another laugh.
“And then when you add the element of trying to imagine where the world could be—not necessarily where you think it will be—and you certainly don’t want it to be, but where could the world be a year or a year and a half from now, and still be a book that could be read ten or even fifteen years from now . . . that is incredibly hard to do, and very few people’s jobs are based on trying to understand where the world is going, and it’s just a strange job.
“I love it, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a very difficult job. I used to joke that this is much better than working, which I do believe, and there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing. In my case, though, I do have another challenge, in that a number of political figures and world leaders are reading my books—or at least they’re telling me they’re reading my books—and that provides a whole other challenge because now I have to ask myself how do I hold the attention of the Vice President or Secretary Pompeo’s attention? How do I hold the attention of King Abdullah of Jordan or President George W. Bush? These people have important day jobs and they have forgotten more than I know about these threats.
“Why would they sit down and pick up one of my novels and not only read it, but finish it and want to read another one? It just adds another major challenge.”
As for his process, Rosenberg told me it all begins with identifying what he’s afraid might happen in the real world, and then building a story around that.
“Well, I start by asking myself what I fear could happen in the world, and now that I have friendships with current and former directors of the Central Intelligence Agency, and other US foreign intelligence agencies, world leaders, and so on—I go and visit them. I ask them what keeps them up at night. I have a friend who is a former CIA director, and every year I go and have lunch with him and his wife and send them an advance copy of my latest novel. They actually critique it, go over it, and then we talk about the next one. It’s a really good opportunity to pick the brain of somebody who was in charge of protecting us for a long time.
“I’m fortunate enough to get to do that with a lot of people now,” he notes, “but in the beginning, it was just me, myself, and I—and the three of us had to figure it out. Now, though, I get to test some of those ideas and theories against others, and that’s really helpful.
One of the things he hit on early, before anyone else had even heard of them, was writing ISIS into his books—a move that, as the terror group made a name for themselves, forced Rosenberg’s publisher to move up the release of his book The Third Target. In the publishing world, it’s nearly unheard of for a publisher to move up a release date that late in the game.
For Rosenberg, though, it was actually the second time he’s seen one of his titles pushed into production ahead of its expected launch date.
“The Last Jihad was actually the first one to be moved up because I had written the kamikaze attack, that’s how it opened, but then the book weaves, as you remember, to the Unites States removing Saddam Hussein from power. So when we got the book deal, they were originally going to come out with the book in April of 2003, and I was just like, look, I’m grateful to get a book deal, but this is a story about a possible war with Iraq, and I’m telling you—not only are we going to war with Iraq, but the war could be over by April of 2003.
“So, who am I, right?” Rosenberg said, laughing while reflecting on the start of his career. “I’ve never published a novel of my own, but I’m telling them I would recommend—and I remember going to my agent, Scott Miller, and saying to him, ‘go back to the publisher, I’m pleading with you, and tell them to move this thing up.’ And he was like, ‘to what? Nobody knows who you are, the sales force at the publisher doesn’t even know who you are, they haven’t even put the thing together yet!’
“I said, and this is in August, ‘Scott, listen, in September the president—then George W. Bush—is going to the UN, and I’m going to guarantee you right now that Iraq is going to be the major topic of his speech, and if I’m right, it means we’re going to war early next year. His father gave that speech, and then we went to war in January 1991. It’s their book now,’” Rosenberg said of his first publisher, Forge, “‘but just tell them that.’ And sure enough, they were like ‘how does he know what the speech is going to be on?’ and then it was super clear—and they moved the book up from an April 2003 launch to the absolute soonest day that they could actually physically produce it, which was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.
“Let’s be honest, that’s not exactly the ideal time to publish a book, but in this case, it works. Sean Hannity had me on radio and television the first day, and boom, we went through nine printings before Christmas! It hit number one on Amazon, spent eleven weeks on the New York Times bestsellers list, and I ended up doing 160 radio and television interviews. We were still five months away from going to war, as it turned out, but that was the debate then—should we or shouldn’t we.”
“You’re right about The Third Target though,” Rosenberg said, talking about his book that introduced J.B. Collins and featured a plot about an evil group of terrorists who called themselves ISIS.
For perspective, this was before then-President Obama famously declared ISIS the ‘JV team,’ so back then, they weren’t the household name that they eventually became. In fact, most other thriller writers will still focusing on Al-Qaeda or other threats.
“With ISIS, the short answer for how that came about was that I kept asking people in the intelligence world and the military world what they were worried about,” explained Rosenberg. “I kept saying, ‘I’m not talking about next year, but five years, even ten years out.’ And I began hearing people say, ‘listen, Iraq, it’s sort of reformulating and we’re worried it’s going to reconstitute into something worse. So I began to do research on it, specifically on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and I thought ‘well, yeah, this guy is evil.’ He was basically still unknown, but I started thinking and wondering about who he might go after first, and I thought, by definition, ISIS, they want Iraq and Syria . . . what if they found chemical weapons in Syria? Then, where would they go?
“Well, King Abdullah in Jordan,” said Rosenberg, continuing his line of logic, “they would be a major target. So, I tried to talk to everyone I knew, I pulled every favor I could—and here’s something I’ve never really talked about, but I even cold-called the Jordanian embassy. I called them up and explained that I’m a novelist, and that I was going to write a novel involving Jordan, and that I’d like to come meet the ambassador.
“I actually got a meeting, and I say to the ambassador, ‘the novel I’m writing is about a terror group that is trying to assassinate the king, blow up his palace, and take over your country. And oh, by the way, I’d like to go meet the king . . . could you arrange that for me?’
“I literally kid you not, the blood drained from the woman’s face,” said Rosenberg, as we shared another laugh.
“She looked at me like, ‘who is this lunatic?’ I told her that I support the king, I am not opposed to the king at all, and that I don’t want this to happen. But I want to show what would happen if this type of scenario played out, and honestly, I’m writing the book anyway, so you don’t have to help me and the king doesn’t have to meet with me, but I just want to ask you this question—how many New York Times bestsellers wind up on the list with a book that has anything to do with your country? A lot of people are going to read this, a lot of people are going to be interested, and I would like the king’s perspective. So, there’s my offer,” he says with another laugh, remembering the exchange.
“To her credit, she transmitted the message back to the palace, and while they did not let me meet the king then, she set up a trip and I went to Jordan for four days, and I met with their head of intelligence, the foreign minister, and the prime minister. So, I really couldn’t complain that, oh darn, I didn’t get to meet the king. At that point, the book was almost done, but I still went because that was the soonest they could schedule it, and in some ways, it was better that I didn’t meet the king because I may have pulled some punches knowing him.
“It’s harder to write a book with a character based on someone you’ve actually met,” explained Rosenberg, “about people trying to kill him. And obviously, I didn’t want any of this to happen, but it’s possible that I might have written him differently had I met him.
“As it turned out, he read and loved the books, and has continued a friendship with me and we continue to dialogue.”
“Let me relate that to the news,” said Rosenberg, further making his point. “I haven’t really told people yet because I haven’t started the book tour yet, but I’ll tell you first—about the new one, The Jerusalem Assassin . . .
“So, think about it, I mentioned reading Daniel Silva’s The New Girl, which I loved, and for me, I was already done with my book, but I found it fascinating that someone had actually scrapped a manuscript and wrote about a Saudi crown prince, in such a short period of time, because it was so newsworthy. That was risky. Think about it also . . . so I had written this novel about an American president rolling out this big Middle East peace plan, and then a series of U.S. officials getting killed, and we do not want that to happen, and then the Saudis sending a backchannel message to the president saying, listen, we don’t love your plan, but if you will invite the crown prince to Jerusalem for a major, high-profile peace summit, and you sort of insist on it, with the Israeli prime minister and you hosting it, Mr. President, we will come.
“Of course, that has never happened, and most people are going to think that’s fiction, and it is fiction at the moment, but I’m one of the few political thriller writers who’ve actually met with this crown prince—not just once but twice—and with all the other major leaders in the region for hours and hours of conversations, some off the record and some on, about what they think about Iran threats, about the Muslim brotherhood, about terrorism, about Israel, about peace—and I’m not saying this is a projection of those conversations, but it’s certainly influenced by being in the motorcades, being in the palaces, and being with those leaders. It’s still fiction, but it’s a tremendous opportunity, and for me a humbling opportunity, to have these novels feel that much more real because I have gotten to be with those people and be inside those rooms. They might not have let me in as a nonfiction writer, I’m not sure.”
Speaking about making things feel “real,” Rosenberg actually wrote King Abdullah of Jordan into The Third Target. Not a character ripp-off, either, but his actual name and likeness.
“Well, yeah, because I’m insane,” the author joked when I pointed out that he named Abdullah in his books and made the king an actual character who, by the way, plays a significant role.
“So, yes, in The Third Target, the king is an actual named character. Normally, I don’t put real people in my books, but I did in that series. ISIS is trying to kill the king, blow up his palace, and take over his country. And then the king read it, and he read the whole series—and instead of banning me forever, he invited my wife and I to come five days to get to know him.”
Five days with the king of Jordan. Not bad for a self-proclaimed “failed political consultant” with a “one hundred perfect track record of helping people go nowhere,” huh? As for other novelists who’ve had similar meetings with King Abdullah, Rosenberg told me there’s only one other person that he knows of.
“The only other author, who I’m aware of, that did that is Vince Flynn—and the king told me about his friendship with Vince.”
Coming back to his own publishing history, I asked Joel about his different series and trilogies. Specifically, after his first series ran five books, I was curious if he set out to write trilogies after that—or if it was just a coincidence that that’s all he’s done since. I also asked him if he knows how a new series will end when he starts it.
“With the first series, I did know what the narrative arc of the story would be because I was structuring it on a series of Bible prophecies, and I was curious how might those things play out,” Rosenberg told me. “So, yes, I did have an arc in mind. I wasn’t sure I would get to write a book after the first one, the thought that it might become a best-seller was a long shot. I didn’t have any assurance that I would get to write a five-book series, and sort of do all of what I wanted, but I knew what I wanted to do and I think that helped the first book. I mean, it’s not all in there, but you have a vision of the world the way it exists and so that level of complexity of where you’re heading is there.
“I’m not saying The Last Jihad is the best book ever written, it certainly isn’t, but it captured people’s attention because it was one of the first thrillers to deal with the aftermath of 9/11, and rather quickly after 9/11—and like we’ve talked about, every other writer, it seemed, other than Vince Flynn, had to wake up on the next day and ask themselves ‘what does the world look like now moving forward?’ Mine was done, it just had to go to print.
“As for the others, yeah, I know where I’m going, but the longer I do this I find myself being less precise about where it has to go.”
As for the two separate trilogies he’s penned, Rosenberg told me that he was “pretty sure” from the start that David Shirazi and J.B. Collins would each get three books.
“Those two were going to be trilogies, but look, this is a risk for me—and I’m not always sure it’s the right risk. Meaning, Vince Flynn (Mitch Rapp), Daniel Silva (Gabriel Allon), and other writers all built franchise characters. They didn’t try to go all over the map with lots of different types of stories. I can’t say for sure, commercially, if that’s better or worse, but for them, it was better to keep building. I haven’t done that, but it’s something I’m thinking about with the current series. People might think it’s a trilogy because I’ve written them, but this one’s not a trilogy.
“Then again,” Rosenberg added, “I also don’t know how long Marcus Ryker will go, though I like him.”
A closer look at the path Rosenberg took when compared to similar writers who started out around the same time as him—such as Daniel Silva, Lee Child, Vince Flynn, and Brad Thor—shows a stark contrast to the model most writers use. Whereas the name Jack Ryan is synonymous with Tom Clancy the same way that Robert Ludlum is with Jason Bourne, Rosenberg didn’t go the branded route.
Consider this . . . Jack Reacher (Child), Gabriel Allon (Silva), Mitch Rapp (Flynn), Scot Harvath (Thor), and Rosenberg’s Jon Bennett were all created within six years of each other. Today, all of those characters are still going strong except for one.
“Look,” Rosenberg told me, “commercially, I’ll just be honest, they all made the right decision. I didn’t.” But he also went on to explain why creating a long-running franchise character wouldn’t have mixed with the stories he was writing.
“Creating the franchise character and taking them through all these things over the years has helped build them fanbases larger than mine. So, that’s just true. However, I love writing these stories, and I think the main difference, to me, is that my stories tend to have very cataclysmic events. So, compare an actual nuclear war or—not to give it all away, but it was twenty years ago, in The Last Jihad, the U.S. nukes Iraq. So the fictional world where books were set had several catastrophic disasters happen that are visible to everybody in that fictional world. Compare that with The Hunt for Red October . . . the genius of Clancy was that this was an event that happens, and it could have been catastrophic, but it wasn’t. So, you could really believe that this event happened under the seas and nobody ever heard about it.
“A lot of the thriller writers we’re talking about, what they’ve done, and really rather impressively, is create dramatic moments within the lives of their characters and their worlds, but ones that don’t alter the fate of those worlds so badly that it’s unrecoverable.”
It’s incredible insight, actually, from Rosenberg when looking at the genre as a whole. Political thrillers, as opposed to thrillers of psychological suspense, typically thrive as part of a franchise. There’s no doubt about it. And yet, Joel Rosenberg remains one of the premier writers in the genre today, all without that one household character name.
That could change, though, with Marcus Ryker.
“I think this series, the Marcus Ryker books, is closer to that model we discussed. Looking back on my other series, Jon Bennett is a Wall Street strategist who gets pulled into the White House. He’s a very reluctant hero, and he has no skill sets to go kill people or stop terrorists—that’s not his thing, so in a way, it’s amazing that I got five books out of him.
“J.B. Collins is a New York Times reporter,” continued Rosenberg, breaking down his own characters, “and most people who read this genre don’t want their hero to be a chain-smoking, divorced, alcoholic reporter. For me, he had a similar skillset because he had access to all these people and interesting things because of his job, but it’s still different, and how far can you take that character? In other words, all these other franchise characters have classic thriller skillsets.
“When you look at Jason Bourne, he’s an assassin. Gabriel Allon is a spy. Yeah, he restores art, but he’s a spy. Those are the challenges I was facing with these other characters I wrote. I love telling these stories, but it’s not plausible that a New York Times foreign correspondent is going to have fifteen or twenty rounds of adventures that you want to read about.”
When I pointed out that Ryker is the closest thing to a Jason Bourne or Mitch Rapp that Rosenberg has ever created, the author agreed. To follow-up, I asked him if it’s fun to finally have that lethal, battle-tested hero who’s capable of anchoring major action sequences, and his answer didn’t disappoint.
“Yes, it’s definitely fun. I think Marcus Ryker is my favorite character,” Rosenberg confessed,” but I also think it’s taken me all this time to get ready to write a character like this. To be honest, I think I have people speaking into my life, people I can go to for things that I didn’t have fifteen or twenty years ago, who can help me figure out how to make this guy work. I’ve been learning a lot.
“One thing I wanted to avoid was creating someone who was too much like James Bond, where he’s just too smooth. I wanted Marcus to be this guy who has spent his entire life protecting people—but he couldn’t protect those closest to him, mainly his wife and son. He doesn’t see himself as a spy. He’s former military and a former secret service agent, and now he’s being pulled back in.
“That was all I really knew about him when I started, and for me, it was very different than my past characters and a real writing challenge, but I’m enjoying Marcus Ryker in a different way than all the others.”
For what it’s worth, I’ve been a huge fan of Rosenberg for many years now, and Marcus Ryker is definitely my favorite of all his characters, and I don’t say that lightly. Moreover, for a guy who’s made a living writing thrillers that sometimes play out so close to real life that you almost have to wonder if he really can see the future, his most recent series might just be his most timely work to date.
Wrapping up our chat, I asked Rosenberg how he came up with the story idea for The Jerusalem Assasin, which follows Ryker as he desperately searches for whoever is behind a series of high-profile assassinations that threatens to derail the president’s peace summit that’s set to take place on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
“Most leaders in the Arab world,” Rosenberg told me, “are actively thinking ‘should we now make peace with Israel? One, because it would be good for our citizens in trade, tourism, and technology—but also, don’t we think Israel is the ally we need to protect ourselves from Iran?’ That is a real conversation that is really going on, and most Americans don’t know that it’s going on. It’s so game-changing, that yes, Middle East analysts are watching it—but most people don’t know.
“Again, what Daniel Silva did so brilliantly was deal with the moral complexities of the questions, should the Americans and Israelis have any interaction with a Saudi Crown Prince, and what are the costs of that? He was able to portray a behind-the-scenes, very quiet relationship that was growing and intensifying between the Americans, the Israelis, and the Saudis. It really was brilliant.
“What I was doing simultaneously while writing this one is taking the whole relationship aboveground. It’s no longer an in-the-shadows conversation at the request of the Crown Prince. Now the danger is, what if this thing comes aboveground and it’s going to be an actual, huge, high-profile peace summit that the American president is sort of insisting on, but there are major risks to everybody in taking the relationship public. That concept was interesting to me.
“Let me be clear,” concluded Rosenberg, “I want America, Israel, and Saudi Arabia to form an alliance . . . but I don’t want anything else in this book to come true.”
So, what might things really one day look like if the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel ever did decide to form a public alliance, and how right the rest of the world respond? Well, to find that out, you’ll have to pick up a copy of The Jerusalem Assasin, now available wherever books are sold.
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.