It was a rainy day here in Michigan last week when I connected with #1 New York Times bestselling author Brad Thor, one of my all-time favorite writers, to talk about his latest thriller, Near Dark.
First and foremost, let me just say that if you ever get the opportunity to sit down and talk with Brad Thor, do it. While meeting your literary heroes can be dangerous, as not everyone is who you’d hoped and imagined them to be, Thor is the exception.
Genuine, funny, and smart, talking to Thor is a bit like speaking to President Jed Bartlet, Aaron Sorkin’s fictional character portrayed by Martin Sheen in the television show The West Wing. Much like how Bartlet talks very sincerely with his trademark rhythmic cadence while being able to recall facts, stories, and quote people in real-time, Thor does the same—rattling off answers all the while being generous with his time, pausing just long enough to laugh before moving on.
For me, the chance to ask Thor some questions on the record was huge because I’ve been a fan of his for many years. Scot Harvath, his series’ protagonist, is among the best the genre has ever known—and a personal favorite of mine. I also happen to know that Harvath is a favorite among Book Spy readers too, as my inbox is always flooded each January with emails from readers who are dying to know when Thor’s next book comes out so that they can plan their vacations around Harvath’s return.
This year, Thor is set to release his 20th book, Near Dark, the 19th book starring Harvath, a former Navy SEAL turned Secret Service agent turned counter-terrorism operative (he also penned a spinoff novel in 2010 called The Athena Project, which followed four female Delta Force operatives), and for my money, this is his best thriller to date—something I feel like I’ve been saying every year now for some time. In reality, there’s a reason for that, and it has to do with the author’s desire to get better each and every time out.
“The readers are the most important people to me,” said Thor, kicking off our conversation, “and I feel such a responsibility to them. Each book has to get better. It has to be my best every single time. I’m probably putting too much pressure on myself, but that’s how much I respect the readers and value them.”
Lots of writers say that, but Thor means it. Beyond that, he lives it. He is getting better with each new book, something we’ve really never seen from a writer this deep into their career.
In one of my past reviews, I called Brad Thor “the king of the one-night reads,” because his books are often so impossible to put down. Delving deeper into his desire to deliver a great book for his readers each year, I asked him if he tries to structure his novels in a way to keep readers going.
“One of my favorite things is when people come up to me and tell me they didn’t get any sleep last night because they were following Harvath around. That’s music to an author’s ears. You want to do that, but it doesn’t happen by accident.
“It’s a ride, it’s a rollercoaster, and I have to give people a chance to catch their breaths, but not for long—because before you know it, we’re uphill again and you know something is going to happen. So that kind of cliffhanger at the end of each chapter is … it’s a back and forth. I’m leading you on this adventure, so my job is to keep pumping the excitement in there. If I get you to the end of a chapter, that’s fine, but I also want to get you excited about the next chapter. So that’s why I do those chapters the way that I do, because yeah, I’d love for you to sit there and read the whole thing. Backlash is a prime example of that. I had more people last year, while on book tour, come up and tell me that they read Backlash faster than they’d ever read a book before.”
Fascinated, I kept asking him how he goes about crafting a new book, something he’s perfected over his nearly 20 years as a novelist. That said, every author is different, and no two writers go about writing their books the same way. So what works for Thor might not work for, say, Daniel Silva, and vice versa.
“Dan Brown is a friend of mine,” Thor told me as he offered more insight into his writing process. “We have the same agent, and my agent—I’m very organic and a lot of stress comes with being organic. I want to have the same experience writing the book that you and the other readers will have reading it. I want my palms to sweat and my heart to pound, I want to be looking over my shoulder wondering what’s going to happen next.
“So, I don’t outline. My process is that I get up in the morning, send my kids off to school—well, now I send them off to their computers to go to school online—I’ll work out and then I’ll be in my office. I treat it pretty much like a nine-to-five job, the hours get longer as I get closer to my deadline, but it’s just very organic. It’s by the seat of my pants, it’s me just typing away. It seems like it takes longer to write the book; I still write a book a year, but the volume of words that are coming out of me per day is less than what it was 10 years ago.
“On the other hand, I also think I’m a different writer than I was 10 years ago. Not that I didn’t care then, I cared deeply from the very first book on. I’ve always been a perfectionist. It’s just the way the words come together, what’s being revealed, and all that kind of stuff—it’s like walking into your garage through the back door instead of the garage door. It’s the same garage, I still have the same car in there, I’m just entering the garage in a different way. That’s a terrible example,” he said with a laugh, “but it’s all I’ve got.”
Going back to the structure of his books, which have changed a bit over the years to reflect shorter, faster, more cinematic chapters, I asked Thor how he goes about engaging readers, and we ended up talking a great deal about just that. In the end, that style—the one that makes Thor’s stuff impossible to set down, just comes naturally to him.
“I’m not consciously going, ‘Okay, what’s going to be the cliffhanger here?’” Thor explained to me. “It’s just part of my style. It’s what I do. It’s what feels comfortable. It’s this dance, there’s a music here that I’m kind of trying to compose along the way with the reader. It’s my way of saying to the reader, ‘Trust me. Strap in tight, you’re going to have a blast. Let me take care of everything. All you have to do is crack the book open, I’m taking care of the rest.’ It’s just the way I do them.
“Ryan, if you were to go out and buy a Brad Thor book, you might go out and work a little extra and make the $25 back, but what you can’t get back is your time. So it’s incumbent upon me to give you the best thrill ride I was capable of. You’re giving me one of the most precious commodities you have because it’s limited; you can’t make more time. You can make more money, but you can’t make more time. So it’s really important to me, that’s just the way I was raised—I feel like I have a big responsibility to entertain you and to give you more than what you’ve given to me. Especially right now. I mean, we’ve got COVID and people are at work and all this kind of stuff, and I just want my books to be like comfort food.”
Bottom line, Thor said, “I want people to know that when you pick up a Scot Harvath thriller, you’re going to get my absolute best, I’m going to take you on a great ride, I’m going to show you stuff you haven’t seen before, and together we’re going to have an incredible adventure.”
Along with churning out one-night reads, Thor is known for being one of the best headline-beaters in the business. He’s so accurate, in fact, that I’ve taken to calling his stuff “prophetic fiction,” as more than a few of his plotlines have played out in real life over the years.
“Part of it is just that I’m a voracious consumer of news,” Thor told me, before dropping a great quote from one of the most famous authors on the planet. “I’m always looking for patterns. Stephen King once said, ‘a writer is someone who’s trained their mind to misbehave,’ and that’s very true with me.”
Thor’s mind has been trained to misbehave so well that he was actually recruited by the government to wargame out-of-the-box attack scenarios. So, what’s his secret?
“So, after 9/11, when I got recruited into the analytical Red Cell program in D.C., that’s part of what they were having me do for them. It was like, okay, think about your books—what’s the next thing, what’s the next attack, what’s the target, all that kind of stuff. It’s just a product of how I do think and connecting dots – and there are other people connecting the dots too, I’m not the only one—but if you’re paying as close of attention as I am … that’s the trouble. Politics, domestic and international, global politics are my baseball. I’m not going to sit here and talk to you about the Twins and the Cubs or that sort of thing, but I’ll talk all day long about whether or not it’s a good idea to pull troops out of Germany and put them into Poland. Or about what Putin’s really doing and that sort of thing, all that kind of stuff. That is what fuels the novel. It’s just a passion of mine. So, yeah, do I get some stuff in the books that end up being correct? Yes.
“The funniest thing was when we (the United States) did the prisoner swap for Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban members, and that was on page one of one of my books. Some of it’s getting lucky, you know, I’m not going to say I have a crystal ball and can see it all. And then, sometimes, it’s knowing what not to put in the book that’s even more important than what you do put in.”
Indeed, First Commandment, which came out in 2007, literally opened with a prisoner exchange where the U.S. swapped five men who were jailed for various acts of terrorism, and actually showed them being ushered onto a plane so they could be traded. Not four men. Not six men. Five men—the exact same number of prisoners who would be swapped for Bergdahl nearly seven years later.
Maybe it does come down to luck sometimes, but Thor has been “lucky” more than just about anyone else.
While on the subject of headlines, the conversation naturally turned to COVID-19, and I asked Thor if he would be writing the virus into his next book.
“I don’t know that I’ll ever do it, to be honest with you,” Thor said. “I think people want an escape, and I’m in the escape business. I’ve had other people ask me if I’ll put COVID in the next book, and I just don’t think so. I did a virus in Code of Conduct and I did a bioweapon in Blow Back. I think if you read one of my books, you want to get away from everything. I don’t want to have to deal with Harvath in a mask or worrying about if the café tables in Paris are 6 feet apart from each other. I don’t want to live in that world, and I don’t want to write in that world, so therefore I won’t.”
Honestly, can you blame him? I think right about now, we’re all sick and tired of COVID and could use a little bit of an escape. Having already read Near Dark twice, I can promise you that’s exactly what you’ll get with Thor’s new book. And right now, we need it more than ever.
Slowing things down a bit, I asked Thor to go back to the beginning. Sure, he’s 19 books into his series now but did he ever imagine, back in 2002 when his first book, The Lions of Lucerne, came out that he’d still be penning Harvath thrillers two decades later?
“You know what,” Thor admitted, “I never intended to make Harvath a series character. I was a big fan of Crichton, and I loved the idea of being able to shake it up and have a new set of characters doing different things in every book. My editor, however, was like, ‘no, everybody loved this character. You’ve got to do it as a franchise.’ So that was my editor pushing on that, and it was a great idea. I’m glad I listened to her.”
Thor’s editor is Emily Bestler—Editor-in-Chief of Emily Bestler Books, an imprint of Atria Books at publishing powerhouse Simon & Schuster—who works with other superstars such as Vince Flynn, Kyle Mills, and now Jack Carr. Thor talks fondly about her but laughs when telling me the story about how his desire to raise the bar each year has backed him into a corner on more than one occasion, including the last two years.
“At the end of Spymaster, the way I had originally written it, Emily was like, ‘No, we need something more explosive at the end here.’ So that’s why I went back in and reworked the ending and had Laura yell ‘Run!’ to close it out.”
For those who need a refresher, Spymaster ends with Harvath coming home, embracing his new wife, ready to relax and recover from the mission he’d just finished. However, instead of a quick vacation, things take a drastic turn for the worse when Scot realizes he’s been set up, and the book literally ends with Laura, his bride, yelling for everyone to run just as gunfire fills the night air.
“There were a lot of people who were pissed at the cliffhanger,” Thor said, laughing, “and I had a lot of fun just teasing people about that. I mean, I tried to give you a great book and set you up for the next one. So, it’s weird, Ryan, because I painted myself into a corner by adding that last little bit to the end of Spymaster. I thought, ‘okay, now what am I going to do,’ and it was a really big challenge as I was getting ready to write Backlash. I was thinking about where the next book should pick up, what would happen – there were a million things that could have happened.
“What’s interesting, though, is that I painted myself into another corner after Backlash. What happened is, Barnes and Noble had asked for an additional chapter so that they could have a special edition. I was talking to my publicist, David Brown, and I said, ‘Oh, man, what am I to do?’ He says, ‘I know, it’s a Brad Thor book. If it needed any more chapters, they would already be in there!’
“So I was kind of thinking of the Marvel universe and how they have the scenes after the credits, and I was like, let me think of something really wild – so I came up with this scene of this guy named Andre being in Vietnam, and the crazy Vietnamese guy with the naked ladies and tons of money. Emily Bestler read it and said it was the best chapter she had ever read. I was like great, Barnes and Nobles will be happy. Anyone who buys that edition, they’ll be happy. And I knew I would eventually make it available to my fans on my website or something, so those who didn’t buy that edition could still read it.
“But,” Thor explained, again chuckling, “as I was getting ready to write Near Dark, I went, oh shucks (except I didn’t say shucks) because I realized I was in a really tough spot.”
That tough spot Thor is referring to here is a little plot thread he dropped into that bonus chapter where he showed someone placing a $100 million bounty on Harvath’s head. It was a great bonus chapter for fans, no doubt, but one could see how that would pose a problem for the author, who now needed to address the situation in his new book.
“You know, I couldn’t just pull the old soap opera trick and have Harvath wake up and go ‘God, what a bad dream. There was a $100 million bounty on my head.’ And the other problem was that, if a guy like Harvath chucks his phone in the ocean, you’re never going to find him. You could make it a billion-dollar bounty on his head, but if you don’t have a way to track him— and he knows you’re out there—you’re not going to get him.
“So it made me sort of have to rethink that whole bounty sort of thing, and I was dealing with the fact that John Wick 3 was coming out. By the way, I’m a huge John Wick fan, and I was holding back not going to see the last movie because I didn’t want any of it to kind of seep in without me knowing it. But I got nervous enough because here are all these assassins chasing John Wick and it sounds like the premise for my book, that I thought, dammit, I have to go see it. So I saw it, loved it, and it was nothing like what I did for Near Dark, which was good and I took a huge sigh of relief.
“But I still really had this problem of, okay, say there is a $100 million bounty placed on Harvath, it’s been given to a pool of assassins, and whoever kills him first gets to keep the money … but how are these guys going to find him, unless there’s a mole on the inside, right? Unless someone is stealing information about where Harvath is or something. So it was really hard. I do this to myself every year. I always seem to paint myself into a corner and I try to raise the bar and get better. It’s stressful, it’s challenging, but it makes my career interesting, and that is what I love about it. I also think that if it’s really tough for me, that means the product is going to be even better, and that means that the people I work for—the readers—are going to be extremely satisfied.
“That’s important to me,” Thor told me, “because I won’t phone it in. I won’t. I’ll go do something else before I’ll ever phone it in and rest on my laurels. It’s just not fair to do to people.”
One of the other great things about Near Dark is that longtime fans of the series will finally get to see some familiar faces pop back up, characters who’ve not appeared since much earlier books. One, in particular, who comes in to help fill the void caused by the death of Reed Carlton, Harvath’s mentor (who passed away in the last book), is especially exciting.
I asked Thor if he planned to bring those characters back, or if the plot simply dictated it, and it turns out, the answer is somewhere in the middle.
“Well, the one person you were talking about,” a character we didn’t name for spoiler reasons, “where Nicholas is sort of playing peekaboo with it, that person actually exists. That is somebody that I have known for years. The character is based on him, and he has been riding me like a jockey, constantly asking me when he’s coming back. I mean, he has been relentless. And so, as I was thinking about this, it just hit me one day that, yeah, now’s the time bring him back—and this is the perfect way to do it. I hope readers will love that.
“I even grabbed a character from, what, eight books back in Foreign Influence that I think readers are going to go, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe that you found a way to bring that character back.’ That for me is a way of saying thanks to my readers for the years of incredible support, for reading the novels, and that sort of thing. I think that’s fun for readers when you reach into your bag of tricks and pull out characters they haven’t seen in a while. I hope it’s exciting.”
Trust me, it is. I was floored to see old friends back in Harvath’s world, and I’m sure other readers will feel the same way.
Wrapping things up, I asked Brad about the unique spelling of Harvath’s first name. If you’re ingesting the series via audiobook, you might not have noticed, but Scot spells his name with one T, not two. The reason actually has to do with one of Thor’s real-life family members, and if you know the books well, you’ll recognize the story behind it.
“I have one brother and his name is Scot,” said the author. “My mom said that she did not want S-C-O-T-T T-H-O-R together because it was too many Ts. I named Scot Harvath after my brother, but I had so many readers write to me and ask why he’s Scot with one T – my entertainment attorney is named Scott with two Ts and he once said to me, ‘That Harvath must not be too good of a spy if he can’t even find the other T he’s missing’—that I eventually wrote into one of the stories that Harvath’s middle name is Thomas, and his mother didn’t like the idea of S-C-O-T-T T-H-O-M-A-S together. So I use that story of my mom’s for Harvath. That’s why he’s Scot with one T, because of my brother.”
If you visit Thor’s website, you’ll notice that you can buy a number of items bearing the phrase “Stay in the Fight.” From coffee mugs to posters, it’s all available to readers looking to acquire some Brad Thor merchandise, and let me tell you … the coffee mugs are incredible. I have several, and they’re awesome.
“I was with a bunch of guys from the unit,” said Thor, explaining the genesis of his catchphrase, “Delta Force guys, and one of them—he was actually retired, this was a unit function where it was a mix of previous and current people—wanted a signed book. So I signed it, and I asked him what he wanted me to write, he said, ‘Stay in the fight.’ I remember telling him that was awesome, and he goes, ‘You should use that.’ I said I will use it, far be it from me to not take the advice from a pretty distinguished guy from Delta! So that’s where that came from.”
Also on Thor’s website is a list and all the details of his virtual book tour, which kicks off this week. Sadly, like every other author right now, Thor’s in-person book tour was canceled due to COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean you can’t obtain signed copies of Near Dark.
“If you want a signed book,” said Thor, “you can order them from the Poisoned Pen bookstore. In fact, they just sold out and had to add more books. So I’m signing books for them, and then all of my virtual events, if you want to support those venues, they will have the exclusive bookplates that I signed, which they’ll put inside the book. You can find links for everything at BradThor.com.”
Closing things out, Thor and I discussed the forthcoming anniversary of his first book, which may or may not get a slight refresh to mark the occasion, and what’s next for him and Harvath following Near Dark.
“We’re coming up on, it’s going to be the 20th anniversary of The Lions of Lucerne the year after next, so I’m already talking about what would that book look like if I were to write it today. You know what I mean? I’m also talking to my team about what we want to do special to celebrate that The Lions of Lucerne is 20 years old? You know, do I want to do a refresh or whatever? It’s funny because I could sit on a manuscript and just polish it and polish it forever, constantly tweaking it – and that doesn’t necessarily mean it would be any better. It’s just that every time I look at a sentence I think, ‘oh, I could write that in a different way.’ It’s almost like a sickness,” he said jokingly.
Personally, I think a refresh of Lions would be awesome, and I have a feeling Thor’s fans will feel the same way. First up, though, the author is concentrating on fleshing out his next book, and if there’s any silver lining to COVID-19 whatsoever, it might just be that the added time has caused Thor to think about churning out two books in the near future.
“I’m taking time off now to fully bake—I don’t outline, as I said—but to fully bake the next book. Of course, I have the media stuff and the virtual tour too. I’ve also got a side project that’s not a Harvath-universe kind of a thing that I would love to do, and I’ve been saying that for a couple of years.
“So, I’d love to do another Athena Project book, I’ve got this other side project thing, and now with COVID and basically being locked down, I’ve got an opportunity because I’ve got more time than I ever would have had before. I’m a productive person and I’d like to look back on what I did with this time and to have it mean something. So, I’m toying with a couple additional projects, along with the next Harvath book, but nothing has really been started so far. There have been no words written on paper … yet.”
We might not know what comes next, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that Near Dark is the must-read thriller hitting stores this summer, and one of the year’s most action-packed novels. Get your copy now—available in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook—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.