ED- The Publisher of The Eerie Digest magazine, a writer in his own right, had recently joined the Northern Virginia’s chapter of The Virginia Writer’s Club. He and his photographer attended the annual meeting that was held in the historic Mt. Vernon Inn in Virginia. The get-together was made that more lively by the guest speaker, John Gilstrap. John, your appearance as the guest speaker for the event was anything else but boring. Please tell our readers what compelled you to be the great writer that you are?
JG- The great writer that I am, eh? Truth be told, I don’t often think of myself in those terms. To the degree that it may be true, it has a lot to do with hard work and an obsessive attention to detail. In fiction, I think it all comes down to plot, character, pacing and voice, and all three are equally weighted. I work very hard to create interesting characters who do interesting things, but for me that’s the easy part. What takes the most time for me is the little stuff—mostly killing stuff in the later drafts that I thought was very important in the early drafts.
ED- We recently received permission by the English department of UCLA to have their students write short stories for The Eerie Digest magazine, and have queried other colleges to do the same. Please tell them about the road that you took in your writing career.
JG- Writing is the only thing I’ve ever been really good at. Well, communication, in general, I suppose. Even as a small child, I would entertain myself by writing stories, or by telling stories to my friends. Curiously enough, I never gave a lot of thought growing up to being a professional novelist. Instead, I always thought I’d work for a newspaper. Then reality intruded after college when I couldn’t get a job at a real paper. That’s when I went back to graduate school to get a master’s degree in safety engineering, and my life wandered far away from my writing roots. I was 38 when my first book was published. When I’m feeling especially self-indulgent I think about all those years when I didn’t write, and wonder what I might have produced. Then I realize that I probably didn’t have much to say until I had those intervening years under by belt.
JG- Armed with a BA in History from the College of William and Mary, my first job was working for a trade magazine for the construction industry. I hated every moment of it. It so happened that at the same time, I was becoming progressively more involved with the volunteer fire service, and through that I learned that there was such a thing as a safety engineer, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do. That led to a long career in explosive manufacturing, hazardous waste and consulting. In fact, after trying my hand at full-time writing for a while, I realized that I thrive in the fast-pace of the corporate world, and I went back to a full-time day job seven years ago. My dirty little secret is that I’m more prolific as a part time writer than I was as a full-time writer. Go figure.
ED-Your earlier writing took off with your novel, ‘Nathan’s Run’ Tell us of your success with it and what it was about.
JG- The seed for Nathan’s Run was the idea of putting a character in a position where he had to choose between doing his duty and doing the right thing—a binary choice; it had to be a stark choice. As luck would have it, I was serving my community as the chair of a government commission that oversaw human services in the county where I lived, and I had occasion to visit the local juvenile detention center. As a borderline claustrophobe, the idea of confinement in a prison is the stuff of nightmares for me—and I’m an adult. I couldn’t imagine what it must be like for a child. Actually, as it turned out, I could imagine it. I thought about how easily younger children in juvie could be preyed upon by the older children, and what a terrible thing that would be. The fact that kids don’t really have a voice without an adult pulling for them makes it even more frightening. So, with Nathan’s Run, I created a scenario where 12-year-old Nathan Bailey escapes the juvenile detention center after killing a guard in self defense. He becomes the poster child for all that’s wrong with the youth of America, and people want him captured and tried as an adult. It’s not until he calls into a nationally syndicated conservative radio talk show and tells his side of the story that opinion begins to turn in his favor. Here’s the thing, though: even as the police are tracking him down, so is an assassin who needs him killed.
JG- At All Costs expands on the theme that I like so much: Innocent people on the run for something they didn’t do. In this case, Jake and Carolyn Donovan have been wanted for years for killing a dozen people in the greatest act of environmental terrorism ever. They’re innocent, but after being on the run for so long, who’s going to believe them? While on the run, they’ve been raising a son they never intended to have. That son, Travis, is 13, and he thinks that they live in trailer parks and move all the time because his parents are losers. When random events expose Jake and Carolyn for they really are, their entire world comes apart. The only way to survive is for them t9o somehow prove their innocence after all these years.
JG- Well, nothing attracts attention like success. Both Nathan’s Run and At All Costs attracted huge movie deals, and that led to opportunities to sell a few screenplays in Hollywood. None of the movies were ever made—at least not with my name on them. My next two books were Even Steven and Scott Free.
ED-You took a ‘breathing spell’ from writing after these works but were soon back at the typewriter with the title ‘Six Minutes To Freedom’. Tell us about this non-fiction masterpiece and the theme behind it.
JG- Well, I didn’t so much take a breather as I did get lost in four years of research. SixMin tells the story of the only civilian of record ever rescued by Delta Force. Kurt Muse was an American ex-pat living in Panama during Manuel Noriega’s reign of terror. After Noriega murdered one of Kurt’s friends, Kurt and a group of Rotarians started an underground radio network designed to topple the regime. In the process, they became public enemy number one. When Kurt was ultimately arrested and imprisoned, his whole family, and those of his coconspirators had to flee for their lives. Kurt, meanwhile, lived in the most awful conditions imaginable, suffering terrible abuse. When the order was given to invade Panama in 1989, the very first shots fired were in support of Kurt’s rescue.
ED- It was after this that the character that you created, Jonathan Grave, came into being. Please describe him and the world that he belongs to.
JG- Six Minutes to Freedom gave me extraordinary access to the world of Special Operations. The average American has no idea what that community does for them every single day, around the globe. While working with the guys from the Unit–Delta Force–I was fascinated by these guys’ unwavering dedication to mission. When Americans are kidnapped on foreign soil, the US government starts working right away to secure their release. In a perfect world, our diplomats leverage local law enforcement personnel to do what needs to be done; but the world is often not perfect. When negotiations break down, the task of hostage rescue falls to the US military. Once the go-order is given, these Special Forces operators’ whole mission is to bring the good guys home, whatever it takes. There are no warrants served, and no one cares all that much about the rights of the kidnappers. If the bad guys put down their weapons and cooperate, they get to see tomorrow. If they don’t, they don’t. Jonathan Grave brings that clarity of mission to civilian rescue here in the United States. As he likes to put it, he almost always operates outside of the law, but never on the wrong side of it.
JG- No Mercy and Hostage Zero are the first two books in what I hope will be along running series starring the aforementioned Jonathan Grave. No Mercy begins with what should have been a routine rescue of a kidnapped college student from the basement of an isolated house in rural Indiana. Things go terribly wrong, and by the time things get sorted out, Jonathan has a very personal stake in avenging an attack on someone very close to him. By the time all is revealed, Jonathan and his team uncover a terrifying conspiracy that reaches all the way to Washington. (It was nominated in 2010 by International Thriller Writers as Best Paperback Original.) In Hostage Zero, two children are inexplicably kidnapped from Resurrection House, a residential school for the children of incarcerated parents for which Jonathan is the primary benefactor. As Jonathan’s hunt takes him to the cocaine fields of Colombia, he realizes, bit by bit, that this is no routine kidnapping. It’s all about keeping terrifying secrets.
JG- Well, the audio books aren’t really mine, per se. I was a participant in two “serial thrillers” that were conceived as fundraiser for International Thriller Writers. The way it worked was, Jeffery Deaver wrote the first chapter of each story, and then various successful thriller writers would add on. From my perspective as a writer, the coolest thing was the fact that no one had any idea where the project was supposed to go. We just received the manuscript as it had evolved from previous contributors and then we added our input and passed it along. All things considered, I think it turned out pretty well. Separately, the stories are called The Copper Bracelet and The Chopin Manuscript. They’ve since been combined into a print version that’s called Watchlist. Fresh Kills is another collaboration, but of a far more traditional nature. I participate in a blog that’s called Killzone, in which a cast of suspense writers contribute and entry per week. I have Fridays. In 2010, we thought it would be cool to put together an anthology of short stories and self-publish it as an eBook. If nothing else, I think we were all curious to see how the whole process worked. We call it Fresh Kills. So far, it’s clear that there’s not much of a living to be made do it that way, but it was fun, and I think we’re planning to do a Fresh Kills 2.
JG- Well, I’d like to say they’re available everywhere, but as the book distribution implodes, that’s just not true anymore. My first two books are out of print, but will both be re-released later this year. I think you’ll find Hostage Zero in most real book stores, and maybe No Mercy, as well. The older ones will have to be ordered, I imagine. At least that’s the case in brick-and-mortar stores. You should be able to get all but the first two through online bookstores.
JG- The easiest way is through my website, www.johngilstrap.com. Email works, too: firstname.lastname@example.org.
ED- John, it has been a pleasure and an honor to personally meet you and to be able to present this interview for our readers. We wish you much luck in all that you do and ask that you keep in touch with The Eerie Digest magazine and keep us abreast with all your future work.