I’m very happy to have ITW Debut Author Walt Gragg join me for this week’s author interview. Walt has a remarkable background, priming him to write a complex military and political thriller, right out of the box.
Walt Gragg lives in the Austin, Texas area with his wife, children, and grandchildren. He has been one of the truly fortunate individuals who have had the opportunity to live in many places around the world including Europe, Asia, and in every time zone within the United States. Born in Los Angeles, he has spent his life experiencing some of the world’s largest cities and smallest towns.
What prompted you to write a novel about World War Three?(and how scared should I be given how much you know about these things?)
In the middle of the first Cold War, I served at United States European Command Headquarters in Germany. While there I was able to observe a great deal of the American plan for the defense of Europe and experience through multiple war games how we viewed such a war would unfold. I knew our weaknesses, concerns, fears, and what we anticipated the Russians would do. From those elements, the story just appeared. At that moment, however, I had neither the time, nor the ability to write it. So I filed it away in some small corner of my mind and went on with my life. I carried the idea for The Red Line around for nearly twenty years.
What seemed to trigger the need to finally present it was the casual attitude toward war that has been developing in this country for the past 25 years. War is being celebrated and glorified by far too many. We are at a point where many Americans actually view war in a positive light. Our citizenry has grown detached and almost enthusiastic in their view of the horrors of such occurrences. That, most certainly, hadn’t always been the case. Just a couple of decades earlier, during the Vietnam War, everyone knew someone in the military. We all had a neighbor, classmate, or relative involved in the fighting. And that heightened our understanding of the cruel truths of these hideous events. As the years pass that has changed.
In the present day, few of us know anyone in the military. Such a circumstance has greatly increased the average person’s tolerance for these nightmarish developments. War has quickly become little more than a video game or macabre form of home entertainment. My hope, more than anything, is that The Red Line is able to change at least a few of those perspectives. If we insist upon blindly reveling in the senseless slaughter of others, the result will be something none of us will want to see. If we continue to view war as a first response, rather than a last resort, we will all suffer in the end. (What a great sentiment, Walt, I hope your book succeeds at changing a few perspectives.)
To answer the second part of your question, I don’t know if terrified is the correct word at this moment in history, but we should all be concerned. Americans need to understand from where Putin and his people are coming. World War II ended over 70 years ago, but for Russia the festering wounds from that ghastly conflict remain fresh. Over 20 million Russians died at the hands of a ruthless invader from the West bent on conquest. During the First Cold War the Russians had the security of the buffer provided by the countries of Eastern Europe to protect them from the West’s immense power. They, however, lost such security at the peaceful end of that decades-long test of wills. NATO now hovers on their doorstep.
There is little doubt they would like to change that by reconstituting something like the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. There are certainly signs of a Second Cold War emerging. Putin desperately wants to return his country to its rightful place on the world stage. To do so, he is strengthening both his conventional weapons and nuclear arsenal. This year alone, Russia is building 700 new tanks and armored vehicles and 170 additional military aircraft. Russia’s seizure of the Crimea was just the first act in an ongoing play. It will continue. We survived 45 years of a First Cold War, but there is no guarantee we will survive a second one.
Although the threat of thermonuclear war had been relatively dormant since the early 1990’s the capacity for such an event has always been present. Everyone needs to understand we have developed weapons so powerful and frightening that should the unthinkable happen all of mankind could be destroyed in a few swift minutes. More than ever, if we wish our children and grand-children to have long, happy lives, we need to find the wisdom to prevent such a world-ending holocaust from occurring. (Great insight into aspects of recent history many of us don’t know)
You first started thinking about the story for The Red Line during your time in the military, what was the journey of this story to finally coming out in print?
Unlike so many of my follow authors who were compelled to write from an early age and typically pursue that career in college through an MFA degree, I only began writing because I felt I had a story to tell. My journey, like so many writers, was long and painful. I actually began developing The Red Line in 1994. Because I hadn’t grown up planning and preparing to be a writer, I struggled for a few years to actually figure this stuff out. It took about a year to put the story on paper but the quality of the writing wasn’t yet there. So we kept working on it.
By 1997, I had developed my writing skills enough to begin presenting the work. I entered the manuscript in a writing contest and ended up taking second place. One of those at the conference was an editor from a major publishing house. After reading the first chapter he requested the entire thing. A few months later the phone rang with the editor on the other end of the line. His enthusiasm was over the top. The book was “incredible” and I was a “remarkable talent.” Eight days later he called again to tell me his publisher had rejected it. The story was just too controversial. I began attending more conferences and sending out endless queries. Yet nothing worked. No one gave it a second look.
I wrote another novel with no luck. After a few years of continual rejection I reluctantly put both manuscripts on a shelf where they gathered dust for about ten years. I promised my wife that once we retired we would try again, but honestly didn’t know if I could go through all of that again. In 2014, it was time to try once more. In the process of giving it one final attempt I stumbled across the ThrillerFest website and immediately knew this was a conference I had to attend.
Thoroughly prepared to pitch my book, we headed for New York. PitchFest went reasonably well, with a number of requests for the manuscript. Little did I know, however, it would be the next day that would change everything. To my surprise, the editor who had loved the book was on a panel. I went up afterwards and reintroduced myself. Of course, after 17 years he didn’t remember me or the book. But that was okay. I thanked him for the kind words years earlier and left. The next morning, quite by accident, we ended up having breakfast together. A couple of weeks later he indicated he was willing to look at the story again.
So I contacted the agent I’d liked the best at PitchFest. She got her readers right on it, and by the end of the day I had an agent. We gave the editor an exclusive and he didn’t disappoint. Just fifteen weeks after ThrillerFest, Penguin Random House acquired the book and we were on our way. (WOW – talk about overnight success just taking twenty years….)
How did being in the military and being a Texas State Prosecutor impact you as a writer? How did those two careers compare and contrast in terms of your worldview?
While in the military, I got the opportunity to live in both Asia and Europe for over three years. I’ve viewed the Third World firsthand. I’ve experienced other cultures. Like most soldiers, I’ve seen things most people cannot even imagine. They say our experiences are what make us as writers. And I’ve been fortunate to experience many things.
What attending law school and being an attorney did was to structure and refine my writing abilities. While writing legal briefs and appeals is certainly different than the type of writing I do now, it was quite useful in developing how to put together an effective story. Every trial attorney will tell you a huge element of any case is creating a narrative, a story, that simplifies and explains the actions occurring in real life.
A soldier, like myself, gets many opportunities to examine a wide world. Lawyers seldom have such a chance. For the most part, their world is limited to the case in front of them. Yet, both lives helped further my ability to write The Red Line.
Your work is being applauded for its complexity – both a political and military thriller, but also as a work with tremendous literary skill. How do you feel you achieved such a remarkable feat in a first novel? Any advice for new authors?
Honestly, I’m not sure. I simply worked as diligently as possible to write the best story I was capable of writing while refusing to settle for anything less. My goal in the story was to be able to present an entire war in a single novel. That alone necessitated complexity. I needed to provide a big picture political/military view of how such a conflict would likely unfolded. That created the need for the development of a political backdrop and the involvement of high level characters and roles – president, dictators, generals, and so on. But I wanted to do much more.
The best stories relating to war, Saving Private Ryan, for example, were about average soldiers involved in a desperate fight. My intent was to tell the majority of the tale through the eyes of ordinary men and women facing extraordinary circumstances. In putting such a story together it became apparent no one soldier would have the ability to see the entire war. Their vantage points naturally would be limited. So I ended up actually writing five different, intertwining stories occurring at the same time.
Making that work wasn’t easy but it did have one advantage for a beginning writer – whenever I bogged down in one story, I could simply move on and write portions of another. So there was never any writers block. I don’t view writing as a linear process. I see it as more like putting together a huge jigsaw puzzle with many pieces. It is not unusual for me to write chapter 17 before chapter 13, or the middle or end of a chapter before the beginning. I’m not certain I demonstrated great literary skill, but it’s nice that a number of reviewers have said so. My approach was to just keep writing and rewriting until the words jumped off the page. Hopefully, that will be enough.
Advice for new authors – first, understand that there are two parts to this job…Writing your novel and finding someone willing to publish it. For most writers the first part is by far the easiest. Once you’ve created a great product, you need to put just as much effort into finding it a home as you did into writing it. Lots of writers, even exceptionally talented ones, fail at the second part of the job. Next, write about things you know. Write about things you are passionate about. There’s nothing wrong with putting your heart and soul into your writing. In fact, there’s a great deal right in doing so.
Don’t fall into the trap of attempting to write what’s “hot.” Even in the best of circumstances the process is a slow one as you work your way through writing, finding an agent and editor, and completing all the edits and production work to get it ready for the bookstores. With rare exception, this takes years. By the time all of that occurs your “hot” novel is long past. Focus more on creating compelling characters and a great story rather than getting enticed by the latest craze. Try to be the first “you” in your writing, rather than the tenth someone else. In creating your story, make sure you entertain. The reader needs to enjoy the story before all else and you have no right to expect them to read it if it doesn’t do so. Depending on the type of story, it’s often okay to just entertain.
Unfortunately, far too many books in the present market do just that and nothing more even where a true opportunity exists. We all enjoy a nice “summer read” from time-to-time, but if that’s all the book world is providing, reading soon gets old. I like to learn from my reading and believe most readers do also. There is nothing wrong with actually having something important to say that will cause readers to pause and reflect. Go ahead and say it.
I’m giving you two options here – because you may not feel the first is something you want to respond to, so either A or B is fine. A. (Luckily for us, Walt was willing to answer both!)
Given current events, do you feel as if your fictional future war is becoming more or less likely to occur in the real world?
Far more likely to occur. While I certainly don’t want to spend a great deal of time commenting on where our policies stand today, our present administration seems relentless in their quest to engage in war with someone. From all appearances we have a President with a fanatical craving for popularity who believes one of the best ways to achieve that is by starting a conflict with the potential to take many brave lives.
Until the American people find a way to ensure he understands that with a few exceptions any President willing to blindly take us into war is almost always demonstrating an abject failure of leadership, we are in a great deal of trouble.
We often hear how hard authors, especially debuts, have to work on self-promotion. What are your plans to support the launch of your novel? Any surprises as you begin the business side of being an author?
We’ve worked extremely hard for months to try to get the book in front of people. Ultimately, nothing else matters if people don’t read your story. Along with our Penguin Random House publicists, we also went out and hired private publicists to further promote the work. Both are doing a great job. We have had a number of major reviews, the vast majority of which were incredible. Publishers Weekly gave The Red Line a highly coveted “boxed” “starred” review which they award to approximately one out of a hundred books they look at. They liked the book so much they did a followup interview with me in March, a rare event for any debut author.
We have optioned the movie/television rights to producers in Hollywood who are turning the story into an 11-episode television event. We just completed what we believe is the greatest launch party in the history of Austin. Over 500 personal invitations were sent. Three excellent guest authors participated. Free food and drinks, and music from one of the best Beatles cover band around. We are presently involved in a fairly aggressive book signing tour along with stock signings wherever bookstores are interested.
I am doing around 20 radio interviews, at least two of which are national. As a debut, you’re an unknown and need to accomplish three things to be successful. First getting potential readers to hear about the book. Second, getting them to consider the book. And, third getting them to buy it. How successful we’ll be at completing those three steps is yet to be determined. (Okay – I’m exhausted just thinking about all this… What a great launch for your first novel.)
What hasn’t been a surprise in learning the business side of being an author? Every day is a new day. Like every profession, publishing has its own language, rules, and protocols. Things that are now simple for fellow writers, agents, editors, and publicists are all brand new to you. Your responsibility as the debut is just like a new worker in any job. Listen and learn. I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way, but am doing my best to not make the same one twice. Hopefully, that will be enough. (Great advice)
What are you working on now?
When I can find the time to work around a busy release schedule I’m working on my third novel, The Long November, which is about what could happen if the Pakistani government and military collapsed and a fanatical terrorist group seized that country’s huge nuclear arsenal. My second novel, The Chosen One, is presently under consideration by my publisher.
At ThrillerFest, as I prepare the 300-400 aspiring writers to participate in PitchFest, I always tell them something that outstanding writer and ITW board member, Sandra Brannan, told me. Getting published is a marathon not a sprint. It’s those writers who understand that and stay in the race who have a chance of making it in this business.