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Exclusive Interview with Brad Thor

Written by Ysmay on .

Brad Thor

Meet Brad Thor.

More than just a novelist, this Chicagoland author is a #1 New York Times bestselling author. Among his novels sitting on the best selling list are thrillers Full Black, Foreign Influence, The Athena Project, and The First Commandment.

Brad's new book, Black List, featuring his protagonist Scot Harvath is due to hit stands on Tuesday, July 24th, and we have no doubt it, too, will be a best seller. Black List is captivating, fast-paced, and touches on a lot of relevant issues. 

Brad talked to our CEO Ysmay about his writing, politics, and life in Chicago.

Ysmay: How did you get into writing? 
Brad: I've always wanted to do it, ever since I was a little boy. It is the one thing I really wanted to do with my life. It has been a lifelong dream. 
Congratulations! Not many people accomplish their dreams.
Not many people have the courage to go after it. That's what it was for me. I put it off. I was afraid of failure. What happens if I don't succeed? And on my honeymoon my wife asked me, "What would you regret on your deathbed never having done?" and I said, "Writing a book and getting it published." She said, "When we get home, you need to start spending two hours a day, no phone, no email, and just make that dream a reality." Here I am twelve books later, and the rest is history. 
When were you first published?
I was first published in January of 2002. It's been just a little over ten years. I do a book a year, and one year I wrote two books.
About how long does it take for you to work on a book? Do you do a first draft and then leave it alone for a few months and then go back to it, or is this an ongoing process the whole year? 
I wish it worked that way. The time table I'm on I have to do a book a year. I research, then I write, and then I do some more research during the writing process. Then we go into editing and polishing. Then publication happens and I go on the road to tour, which I'm about to do now, and then I'll come back from tour and start the next book. This year I'm going coast to coast, even up to Alaska. I'm really looking forward to it. This is the first time I've done a book signing in Alaska. 
Costco sells a lot of my books so every year when I go on tour they ask if I will sign at at least one Costco somewhere in the United States. I always make sure to sign at my Chicago Costco. The Costco I sign at every year is the one that I actually shop at, which is fun, and it's fun because I know the store so well.
Someone will come up because I'm normally near the front signing books, and then after I sign their books they're like, "Ok, now I have to go get orange juice," I'm like "Oh, that's the back southwest corner of the store, five rows over from the charcoal." 
What was the first book you wrote?
The Lions of Lucerne, and it was named after the town in Switzerland. 
Does it keep with your current theme?
I have a recurring character [Scot Harvath], but you don't have to read the books in order. You can read them in whatever order you want. 
Every single one is supposed to be standalone, even though it is the same character. The last thing I want you to do is walk into a Barnes and Noble and say, "Oh, I heard this book is excellent... oh, wait a second... I need to read the other books first and they don't have them." Then you go pick up something by Patterson. I don't want that. I don't want to cannibalize my own sales. You can read them in any order you want. It doesn't make a difference. 
Do you feel Chicago is supportive of writers? 
I have to tell you, I don't. I have never gone to a cocktail party and met another writer. I bump into doctors, lawyers, accountants, so I don't see Chicago as a literary bastion. Hemingway lived in Chicago on North Dearborn Street in 1921 before he left for Paris, and that's it.
Well, I'm exaggerating, but I don't see Chicago as a magnet for writers. For me the nexus is New York City. I go back and forth because Simon and Schuster publishes me and that is where they are based. Sitting down with a great non-fiction writer like Sebastian Junger or seeing Jennifer Weiner all seems to revolve around NYC.
Of course now there is the Internet. Now it doesn't matter where you live. You have a lot of camaraderie among writers across the web. 
Do you feel Chicago has affected your career as a writer? 
Chicago is featured in a lot of my novels. There are a lot of story lines in my writing that feature Chicago, so that has been fun for me to expose people who have never been to Chicago before, or who enjoy Chicago and want to revisit it again in my books. Chicago plays a large role, as does just north of the Wisconsin border. 
I don't think it's affected my career as a writer. For publishing everything happens in New York. I studied creative writing at the University of Southern California, so when I'm in Chicago, it doesn't really play into my writing.
Why do you write thrillers? 
I believe that the worse piece of writing advice that young writers get is "write what you know." If that was good advice, we never would have gotten Tom Clancy. He was selling insurance when he wrote The Hunt for Red October. We never would have gotten J.K. Rowling because she couldn't jet off to Hogwarts to learn how to play quidditch.
I tell people to write what they love to read because that's where your passion is. Believe it or not, you've developed a mini Ph.D. in that genre from having read lots of books in a particular genre that you love; you know which stories resonate with you and which ones don't. You know what chapter links work, and so on. You can't try to pick an area to write in and hope to be successful. You have to go where your love, energy, and passion is. That's reflected in what you read. 
So to bring it back to your question, I have always loved thrillers. As long as I could read, I was reading mysteries and thrillers. I always loved that genre. I continue to love it today even though I am now an author making a living writing in that genre. There's nothing I love more than a stormy night in my most comfortable chair with a great book. 
Who are some favorite authors that inspired your writing? 
John LeCarre, Frederick Forsyth, Ian Fleming, Ludlum, all those great thriller writers who were writing during the Cold War. That's what I grew up reading, and I love those books. Before then I was reading the Hardy Boys; they were fantastic books. I have always gravitated towards mysteries and then I graduated from mysteries to thrillers as I got into more adult content when I got older. I absolutely love them. 
My favorite book of all time is The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. It is one of the best books ever written. I read it on my honeymoon and absolutely loved it. One of the best books I've read is a book called One Second After and it's written by a man named William Forstchen. It is one of the most gripping thrillers I read in the last decade. It's a fantastic book. I recommend it to everybody. I LOVE it. 
Where did the inspiration for Black List come from? 
Well, that's a great question. The concept behind Black List in one sentence is someone is padding the President's kill list, but the underlying theme in the book is that there is no more privacy in America. You cannot hide from the government. Technology has gotten to the point where every single thing you do is being recorded, tracked, and analyzed.
August 17th, 1975 Frank Church was on Meet The Press and warned the American people the surveillance apparatus in the United States had gotten to a point where if the National Security Agency, which has always directed its security outside the United States, ever tuned its giant listening ears in on America, we would be cooked. We would have crossed the surveillance rubicon. There would be no going back.
If our country ever tilted toward despotism or tyranny, we would never be able to launch a second American Revolution because we would not be able to have any private conversation. Such was the government's power and technological capability to know everything, and that was in 1975! That was almost 40 years ago before we all had smartphones, GPS, and email. 
I read a great article about two weeks ago by a journalist named Charles Cooke. The FAA has been asked by the White House to clear a certain amount of airspace so drones can start flying above the United States. The FAA said based on the data its been receiving they expect we will have upwards of 30,000 drones above the lower 48 within the next ten years. That's stunning. 
Most people say, "I'm not doing anything wrong, so I do not care if the government listens to my phone calls, or reads my emails." 
That is not at all what it is about. 
Exactly. And that is where Charles Cooke had the greatest line. He said (and I'm paraphrasing), as a farmer doesn't presume that the good year’s harvest augurs a lifetime of good harvests, we would be unwise to place the tools of abuse in the hands of the state simply because it is currently benign.
All this surveillance technology, the collecting of everything, and the fact the NSA has turned its giant listening ears in on us, happened post 9/11. That was the crossing-the-rubicon moment. And listen. I am the biggest law-and-order straight-as-an-arrow guy you're ever going to meet. I want bad guys captured, but I've gotten to the point now where I don't want to give up any more of my liberties to help people catch bad guys.
And you shouldn't have to.
Bingo! Ben Franklin said those who would give up a little bit of liberty for a little added securty deserve neither and will lose both.
You're right. We shouldn't have to. I was all "rah-rah Patriot Act" post 9/11, and now I'm like, "No. No more. You don't get to trample any more of my liberty under the claim it's going to make us safer."
I've had it with the groping of the TSA at the airport and all that. Enough is enough, and I am drawing a line in the sand. I take my family on car vacations now because I hate the airport. 
I completely agree. I will not fly unless I absolutely have no other way to get somewhere. If I can drive there, I do. 
Same with us. I only fly as a last resort, and I used to be the biggest frequent flyer with all the miles and the upgrade status, but now I am the lonely guy in coach because I just don't want to fly anymore. When I do, it's not because I chose to. It's because there is no alternative. 
It's interesting that you feel this way and still live in Chicago. Chicago has one of the largest security surveillance networks in the nation with over 10,000 cameras.
That is a big problem. Again, this tearing me away from Chicago is happening. I'm not happy with it. What's so ridiculous about all the cameras is that they don't prevent crime. They allow you to solve the crime after it happened. It gives a false sense of security, and in my opinion, is a huge waste of money. Again, Chicago is a great city, but the greatness is being poisoned by the politicians. 
Back on track... often three-dimensional characters write themselves. Does this happen with any of your characters or do you have to really work to make them seem like integrated people? 
Number one, my protagonist Scot Harvath is my alter ego the same way, I am sure, that Jack Ryan was Tom Clancy's alter ego, and James Bond was Ian Fleming's alter ego. My main character is my alter ego. He gets to do the things that I can't do. In that sense, it is really me that I am writing in there. One of the neatest things about being an author is that I can take three months to come up with a witty retort. The French have this thing called the Wit of the Staircase where leaving the cocktail party, the perfect response to something that was said three floors up finally comes to you as you were leaving the building. I can make any of my characters seem incredibly brilliant and like they have responses for things on the spot, even if it takes months to craft that single sentence.
The biggest thing for me that I learned for the other characters is that to make them three-dimensional you need to give them a back story that people can relate to. Why are they the way they are? You have to focus on one pivotal moment in their lives that people can understand. Even when it comes to the bad guys.
One of the neatest things I learned when I was in college studying creative writing was when they used the movie Kramer vs. Kramer as an example. You have two parents who are splitting up, and how do you make both of them sympathetic? If you can add a certain degree of sympathy to your characters, especially your bad guys, it makes them more compelling and they stay with readers a lot longer after they close the book.
That's always my challenge, picking the right back story with something compelling in the character's history. That's how I make them human. 
Does your next novel pick up where this one left off?
No, my next novel is going to different. It will be a whole different story. I'm already working on what I think will be the next big thing that people will be talking about next summer. It's all Top Secret, but I think I am onto the next big thing that we will all be discussing this time next year. 
We won't be talking about privacy issues?
We will, but this is another big issue. I like this idea of "faction", where people are reading my books with the laptops open and they can't tell where the facts end and the fiction begins. I love it.
I love hearing from people saying, "I Bing everything you write about because I can't believe this is true, but it is, and I'm learning so much!" The challenge is to find the next cool thing that people don't know about yet, but that I anticipate they will be talking about next year.
The privacy issues will keep going. Of our generation this is going to be one of the biggest things we talk about as we keep going, but I'm onto something for the next book that I think is fascinating that people will be absolutely blown away by.  
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