SAVAGE SON: A Conversation with Jack Carr

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For two years I’ve been telling everyone who will listen that Jack Carr is the next big star of the thriller genre . . . 

And I stand by that now more than ever. 

Talking by phone last week, Jack Carr and I spoke for about an hour, touching on a number of topics—including which authors have been influential in his own writing, to how he connected with his current editor and publisher, Emily Bestler of Emily Bestler Books, an imprint of Atria Books at publishing powerhouse Simon & Schuster—before settling into a conversation about his latest book, Savage Son, which is so good I literally can’t wait for people to get it and read it just so that I have someone to talk about it with. 

It really is that good. But then, none of that should be surprising, not after the success of Carr’s first two books, The Terminal List and True Believer, both of which star James Reece, a former Navy SEAL whose life is suddenly upended after a series of tragic events that will change him forever.

Carr, like his hero, is a former SEAL. A longtime fan of the thriller genre, he opened our chat by making it clear that Savage Son is the book he’s always wanted to write. 

“This is the one I’ve been wanting to write since the sixth grade,” confessed Carr, “ever since reading The Most Dangerous Game for the first time. Even back then, I knew that I would one day write a tribute to that classic short story.

Indeed, Savage Son does read like a tribute to The Most Dangerous Game, the famous short story that was first published by Richard Connell in 1924, which features a nail-biting plot about a big-game hunter who winds up on an abandoned island where he learns that he’s being hunted by General Zaroff, a dangerous man who’s grown bored of merely killing animals and instead has taken to hunting people for sport. 

“That one was written in 1924 by Richard Connell and really explores that dynamic of hunter versus hunted.  It was one of six or seven ideas that I had written down before I started writing The Terminal List, which was another one of those six or seven ideas, as was True Believer.

“Honestly,” Carr continued, “I wanted to write Savage Son first, but I knew that the characters weren’t developed yet to a point where I could fully explore that dark side of man through that dynamic of hunter versus hunted. So, I had to get things to that point first. The Terminal List was the first one because it’s the story of revenge without constraint, and I was always drawn to tales of revenge and wanted something that was visceral and primal and hard-hitting right out of the gate. But at the end of that first novel, James Reece still had to continue his journey.  He wasn’t quite ready for Savage Son yet.

“He had to first learn how to live again, find his next mission, and find his purpose—I had to get him through that journey and to a place where, for the third novel, I can explore that dark side of man. So, it’s been in the works for thirty-plus years.”

The truth is that the majority of writers would have opened with the story they most wanted to tell. Especially if they’d been wanting to tell it for three decades. Very few would have had the foresight to understand that in order for the payoff to be what they’d always envisioned, that they would first need to set up their series, develop their hero, let readers bond with that character, and then they could deliver the story that had long been inside their head.

Knowing how badly he’s wanted to write this book for most of his life but first exercised the restraint to set the series in motion ahead of time, I asked Carr what it was like to finally settle in to write Savage Son.

“I was so excited to outline at first, because I already had that one-page executive summary from years ago, way back when I started writing The Terminal List. I started outlining it on a trip back from New York meeting with the publisher.  I was in a nice seat, there were no distractions with the phone or email or anything else, so I just got to work outlining, and yeah, it was a pure joy to write because, well, one, there was that foundation from The Most Dangerous Game, and then I got to also incorporate influences from David Morrell’s First Blood and Last of the Breed by Louis L’Amour. Then, as I was writing, I discovered Geoffrey Household, and man, I can’t believe I didn’t discover him earlier because he’s such a big influence on David Morrell, who’s one of my literary heroes and obviously an icon in the industry.

“So those four authors, I owe them a debt of gratitude because anyone who is a student of the genre will recognize their influence on Savage Son for sure.”

For those who’ve seen interviews with Jack before or even caught our series of Instagram Live videos, Carr has often spoken about his admiration for Morrell. And when he talks, he comes across as genuinely humble, excited, and maybe more than anything, he still sounds like a fan of the genre. I asked him why he enjoys Morrell’s work so much and what his earliest memories of reading his books are.

It turns out, Morrell’s books had much more of an impact on Jack Carr the person, as opposed to Jack Carr the author.

“Well, before you could research anyone online, when I started reading him back in the 1980s, all you had was the work itself. I couldn’t put his name in Google and find out, look he’s from Canada. Or, oh look, he has a Ph.D. Or, oh look, this is when he wrote First Blood, and this is what was going on in the world at that time. There wasn’t any of that when I began reading him, which was probably the summer between fifth and sixth grade—somewhere in there.

Jumping in, I asked him if he knew which Morrell book he read first.

He didn’t even hesitate.

“The first book I read from him was the novelization of Rambo: First Blood Part II, I absolutely remember. I still have it.  I remember it distinctly and what an amazing reading experience it was. That was maybe my first introduction to the role that Zen plays, and I was like, wow he’s talking about Zen and Buddhism in here, how does that play in? So yeah, that was the first one, and then I read The Brotherhood of the Rose.

“Actually, before that, I had seen the movie Rambo: First blood Part II. So, I had seen the movie first and then I read the novelization, and then I watched the movie First Blood, then I read The Brotherhood of the Rose, and then I read First Blood. So I was kind of out of order on a lot of that,” Carr said with a laugh, “but you know, in sixth grade you’re just kind of going out there and reading and enjoying it and nothing’s really guiding you on which books you’re supposed to read in what order.

“So, that was my introduction to David Morrell, and of course The Brotherhood for the Rose, that’s the one where I can honestly look back and say after reading it, I was like, ‘Okay, this cemented my path forward into the SEAL teams’ for one. And two, I said to myself, ‘I am one day going to write novels like this because I am enjoying this so much and am so passionate about it, and this is one hundred percent where I’m going.’

“That’s probably why I’m so indebted to David Morrell,” Carr told me, “because The Brotherhood of the Rose, and then everything else he’s ever done, really has helped take me to where I am today.”

If you’ve never looked up the odds of one being traditionally published, well, they aren’t good. They’re right up there with getting struck by lightning and winning the lottery. Same with becoming a Navy SEAL, a fraternity that only a very small percentage of the population will ever be able to say they are a part of.

“I never really paid attention to how hard it is to get published, or how hard it is to become a Navy SEAL,” Carr told me when I pointed out that he’s beat the odds on both accounts, “other than the fact that it is very hard and that’s part of the draw.

“The same with publishing. That’s all of the thought that I gave to that, I never wasted any other bandwidth on it.  For the SEAL teams, I thought, ‘Okay, this is very difficult, and eighty percent of the people who try are not going to make it. So, how do I be in that twenty percent of people who do? Oh, I know, I workout and I get myself as mentally and physically prepared for this as I possibly can.’ I studied warfare, I studied insurgencies, I studied counter insurgencies, I studied terrorism. Then, from a physical standpoint, I did all of the things that would best help me make it through that program and then be a good operator.

“As for being an author, I think it was all the reading I did that laid the foundation for the writing. Knowing what I liked and what I didn’t like and applying Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey from The Hero with a Thousand Faces to writing. That just all sort of came together at the right time in the right place to make my transition out of the military and into publishing what it has been.”

Being a former SEAL, I asked Carr if his background helps him write within the action-thriller genre. Because for each Jack Carr and Brad Taylor (who’s a former Delta operator turned major New York Times bestselling author) there’s a Vince Flynn and Brad Thor, both of whom are two of the most successful thriller writers the genre has ever known, while also widely recognized for getting their action details correct, though neither has a military background.

“Everybody brings a different life experience to whatever profession they are pursuing,” said Carr. “It just so happens that I read a ton growing up, that I read in this genre, that I studied warfare growing up and throughout my professional time in the military, and then I spent twenty years in the military, and that we happened to go to war during that time frame, and that I happened to be a sniper during that time frame . . . all of that naturally comes together to inform my writing.

“Now, there are obviously fantastic books out there from people who never served, and that’s wonderful—but they brought other life experiences of some sort to the profession. Maybe they’re great interviewers, maybe they’re very perceptive. Who knows what it is, but there’s always some sort of life perspective to your writing, and mine just happens to be what it is.

“So for me, it helped because I don’t have to interview someone to ask them, ‘Hey, how did it feel going into war and kicking in doors?’ Or ‘Hey, how does someone set up a sniper hide site?’ I don’t have to then take that and interpret it through whatever filters I have based on my own preconceptions and experience before applying it to a fictional narrative. I just took my own experiences, and more importantly took those emotions, and those feelings, and applied them to a fictional narrative directly so that there’s no filter there other than the experiences themselves. There’s not another barrier there, and I think that is really why these books have resonated, because I do deeply explore the feelings and thoughts behind things that I did in real life.”

Eagle-eyed readers might have noticed Brad Thor’s name mentioned in Carr’s first two books, which is no accident. In fact, Carr even dedicated his new book to Thor, the #1 New York Times bestseller of the popular Scot Harvath series, which I asked him about. Turns out, Brad played a major role in Jack getting published, and to this day, the two share an editor and publisher.

Savage Son is dedicated to Brad, and I’ve always thanked him in the acknowledgments sections as well.  I’ll never be able to fully express how sincerely grateful I am,” Carr said, before explaining why he always goes out of his way to thank Thor.

“A friend sat next to him at a fundraiser years back at some point, one of those SEAL foundation type of fundraisers. I was about four months into writing The Terminal List at the time, and my friend reaches out and says, ‘Hey, I heard you’re writing a book,’ and I said ‘Yep, I’m in the middle of it right now.’ I was still in the military at the time, and he said, ‘Hey, do you know who Brad Thor is?’ And I was like, ‘Uh, yeah. Yes, I know who he is,’” Carr said with a laugh, remembering the exchange. At the time, he was (and still is) a big fan of Thor’s work.

“Anyway, my friends goes, ‘Well hey, do you want to talk to him?’ And I said, ‘Wait, he will talk to me?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, I sat next to him at this fundraiser a few years ago and I helped him out with a couple of Navy SEAL questions for one of his books, so let me set that up for you.’

“I was like, wow . . . no kidding.

“Again, I was still in the military, so I go to this parking lot for privacy and the heat of a Southern California day is just beating down on my car. I turned off the engine, trying to minimize noise and, of course, I got there early just in case. So I got all set up and had my legal pad and pen ready, I’m all set to go, and we had a great conversation. Brad is just amazing. It was like a job interview though.  I think he wanted to know if I was writing for the right reasons. I told him exactly what I’ve just told you and everybody else about growing up and loving the genre, and my mom being a librarian, and just growing up with this love of reading books, and knowing that I would one day write when I left the military. Of course, I could name all the authors that I ever read in the genre, even people who are less well known today who were big influences on me. 

“After that, I think he understood I wasn’t asking him, ‘Hey, can you make money at this?’ which I think he might get a lot,” Carr said with another laugh. “I wasn’t really asking for anything, and I think he realized that I was writing for all of the right reasons. He told me that my friend had told him a few things that I had done in the SEAL Teams, and he said, as a thank you for that, ‘If you write a book, and if you finish this thing, I can let my publisher know it’s coming. Now, I can’t guarantee they’ll look at it. I can’t guarantee they’re going to read one word of it. And I definitely can’t guarantee that they’re going to like anything if they do read it. Don’t call me, don’t ask me questions, don’t ask me for advice, don’t send me chapters . . .  but when you’re completely done, tell me, and I’ll let them know that it’s coming.'”

The story doesn’t end there, though.

“Then he asked me when I was going to be finished,” Carr continued, “and I said, ‘One year from today,’ and he said to call him back then.

“So, I marked it down on the calendar, and one year from that day, I called him back. He picked up, and I told him it was done. He asked, ‘Is it as good as you can possibly make it?’ and I told him that it was done, but that I could probably tweak it a little bit more here and there. He told me to call back again when it was as good as I could possibly make it. So I took another four months editing and tweaking it, making it as good as I could possibly make it, and a couple months after I got out of the military I called him back and said, ‘It’s is as good as I can possibly make it. Let’s do it.’”

From there, things took a wild turn when Emily Bestler, the legendary editor who’s worked with Vince Flynn, Thor, Ted Bell, and many others, did read the manuscript.

“Brad sent it to New York, and it turns out they did open it, and Emily Bestler did read it, and she loved it. She actually called Brad, and I think Brad expected her to basically be like, ‘What do you want me to tell this guy?’ I think that’s what usually happens. But she called him and said, ‘Brad, I love it. What do you want me to do?’ And he said, ‘I want you to publish Jack.’ So yeah, it was so cool. He called me back after talking to Emily.  I pulled over on the side of the road when I saw the call come in, and he told me that I’d just been struck by lightning. I’ll never forget it.

“So, Savage Son, the book I’ve wanted to write my entire life, is dedicated to Brad, he is of course in all the acknowledgment sections of all three books, and one of his novels is woven into all three of my books as well.”

Pivoting slightly, Jack and I then spoke about the recently-announced news that megastar Chris Pratt had picked up the option rights to tun The Terminal List into a TV show, with Antoine Fuqua set to direct. I asked him how that came to be, and surprisingly, that too all started with another connection that dates back to his days as Navy SEAL. 

“As I was writing The Terminal List, I think it was 2015, what had Chris Pratt done by 2015?” Carr asked, setting up the point he was about to make. “He had been on Parks and Recreation, and in Zero Dark Thirty, where he had a part as a Navy SEAL. So he wasn’t the obvious choice for someone as you’re writing a novel like this to play your main character in 2015. What I kept thinking about, though, was how Tom Hanks, all throughout the 80s, played in comedy after comedy. Then he does Philadelphia in the early 90s, and now he’s one of the greatest actors of his generation. That role really opened the door for him because he stretched himself, and because it was so different than anything else he had ever done, and he knocked it out of the park.

“So as I’m writing the first book, I thought, ‘Who would this generation’s actor be who’s at that stage in their career now? Who might need to do something that’s a little darker or a little grittier?’ And I really wanted a likable person because this character, James Reece, as I was writing him, I wanted him to be likable. I wanted him to be someone that you’d want to have a beer with, but then when things go south, he can flip that switch and take care of business because he has the experience and the training to get it done. So, as crazy as it is now, Chris Pratt was the only name who came to mind.”

Now, just to clarify . . . when most of the world saw the lovable idiot named Andy Dwyer on Parks and Rec, Carr somehow imagined a badass assassin. While we all watched him sing “Bye, bye, Little Sebastian,” Carr pictured him as James Reece, hunting down the people who murdered his team and his family.

Sure, it would be easy for any writer to imagine Pratt playing their hero now, but for Carr, that vision was pre-Star Lord, just before The Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World, the two movies that catapulted Pratt into superstardom.

“So literally as I was writing The Terminal List,” Carr told me, “I was writing it thinking that Chris Pratt would be ideal to play the role of James Reese, and crazy enough, I also thought of directors. And the only person I would want to direct is Antoine Fuqua, which is so crazy now that both of them are working on this together.”

So, how did he land on Chris Pratt’s radar?

“The way this came about—because obviously, I was a complete unknown—is that a friend of mine from the SEAL Teams called me before The Terminal List came out. I think it was about four months before the book came out, and he says, ‘Hey, you remember me? How’s it going?’ And I said, ‘Yeah. Hey, man! How’s it going?’ Then he said, ‘Hey, I’ve always wanted to thank you for what you did for me when I left the SEAL teams when we sat down and talked about transitioning out of the military and into the private sector.’ He was a solid operator and awesome guy and, honestly, he didn’t need any of my help, he was going to get out and crush whatever he did, but he remembered that, and he said, ‘I always wanted to thank you.’

“I told him no thanks was necessary, that I was happy to do it. I asked him how things were going, and he goes, ‘They’re great. But, I heard you wrote a book?’ I told him that I did, and that it was coming out in a few months, and that I had these galley copies and that I could send him one. He said, ‘Yeah, I’d love to check it out, but I’d really love to give one to my friend.’ I said, ‘Yeah, no problem, who’s that?’ and he goes, ‘Chris Pratt.’

“Once again, I was like, no kidding . . .

“He gave it to Chris, and Chris read it and then he immediately got in touch with me and wanted to option it. So, yeah, it was crazy.

Before you go thinking that Jack Carr is the luckiest person alive, though, with more friends connected to celebrities than he knows what do with, let me just add that he’s been on the bad luck side of a few things too. Last year, for example, his book True Believer was held up by the Department of Defense Office of Pre-Publication and Security Review, causing the publication date to be pushed back several months into the summer. While that might seem insignificant to some, in the publishing world—where releases and book tours are methodically planned out months and months ahead of time—it’s a nightmare scenario.

Then, this year, Carr becomes the first prominent thriller writer to release a new book in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis. Though he was the first to point out that, in the grand scheme of things, he feels extremely fortunate, it’s still a tough blow to a relatively new author who is still trying to build a base of readers.

To combat the canceled book tour, Carr has lined up a number of virtual events, which you can find more information about on his website. He’s also sent limited edition signed Savage Son bookplates to independent bookstores across the country (see his website for a list) to help drive business their way in these tough times.  Likewise, his online store, full of awesome Jack Carr and James Reece-inspired items, is currently donating all profits to COVID-19 causes.  

As for where the TV show is at, Carr told me that specifics were classified, but he was able to tease a few things.

“I helped out on the pilot script, which is fantastic,” he told me. “I love everything about it. They’ve switched it from a political thriller to more of a psychological thriller, and it’s the perfect way to tell the story, visually. I couldn’t be more excited about it. It’s just incredible. Other than that, I am sworn to secrecy a little while longer.”

Before our time was up, I asked Carr what readers can expect with the fourth book, and let’s just say that it’s shaping up to be his most timely novel to date.

“I got this from Steven Pressfield, how important it is to have a theme to your novels. He talked about it on Joe Rogan’s podcast, but it could have also been in one of his books on creativity. He’s an incredible guy. He said he would always write the theme of his novels on a yellow sticky note and keep it close by wherever he was writing so he had that theme in mind and it was right there. So, right from the beginning, that’s exactly what I did.

“I had Revenge written on a yellow sticky note for the first book, I had Redemption for the next one, I had Dark Side of Man written for Savage Son . . . and this fourth one that I’m working on right now really explores the legality and the ethics and the morality behind targeted assassinations, which is something that’s more closely associated with the Israeli government, but also with us and other countries around the world as well. So, in the next book, I’m exploring that theme through the chaos of a bioweapon attack.

“I was very deep into research on infectious diseases and the weaponization of infectious diseases when COVID-19 hit. So, I was very hypersensitive to everything that was going on.  I had been studying what the Japanese did prior to World War II and then during World War II, which they targeted primarily against the Chinese, and I’d been studying the Soviet Union bioweapon programs from the end of World War II up until their collapse, and then what happened to those, and then our bioweapons program from the end of World War II up until today.

“So, yeah, I’ve been exploring all of those things, researching, and interviewing doctors . . . and that’ll be the fourth, due out sometime next year.”

So, next year James Reece will be fighting a biothreat of some kind while struggling with the legality and morality of targeted assassinations, but up first is Savage Son, which, in my opinion, is Carr’s finest work to date.

As I said in the opening, I’ve been saying Jack Carr is the genre’s next big star for years, a belief further cemented in my mind after knocking out Savage Son, which I read in a single sitting. So, what makes it so good? Well . . . to find that out, you’ll just have to buy your copy and see for yourself.

And trust me, you do not want to miss this book. Order your copy here, or anywhere else 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.

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