The Craft of Writing — April 2022
THE CRAFT OF WRITING — APRIL 2022
WITH JOHN GILSTRAP
Today the CRAFT OF WRITING blog continues its 2022 deep dive into mystery, suspense, and thriller novels by welcoming thriller author John Gilstrap. John is the author of over twenty-five novels, including one of my favorites, Nathan’s Run.
In addition to his popular Jonathan Grave series, John is developing the Victoria Emerson series of thrillers. A few of his books are shown below.
If you’re interested in thrillers – either reading or writing them – this is your opportunity to interact with one of the masters.
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When John Gilstrap’s first novel, Nathan’s Run, hit the market in 1996, it set the literary world on fire. Publication rights sold in 23 countries, the movie rights were scooped up at auction by Warner Brothers, and John changed professions. A safety engineer by training and education, he specialized in explosives and hazardous materials, and also served 15 years in the fire and rescue service, rising to the rank of lieutenant.
More than twenty books and seven movie projects later, it’s been a good run, and it’s still running
Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Berkeley County, West Virginia.
Please visit John’s website, www.johngilstrap.com for more information.
Interview with thriller writer John Gilstrap on the Craft of Writing blog Click To Tweet
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Welcome John Gilstrap, and thank you for joining us!
Thanks for having me.
Please give us some background – have you always wanted to be a writer?
Perhaps this is a distinction without a difference, but for as long as I can remember, I’ve always enjoyed writing and telling stories—but I can’t say that I always wanted to be a writer, at least not as a profession. In high school, I was the editor of the school newspaper, and I was enamored with the notion of being an investigative reporter. The reality of that work, however, runs counter to my nature. I don’t like to stick my nose into other people’s business.
I ended up pursuing other avenues as a profession—safety engineering with a specialty in explosives and hazardous materials—and I continued to write stories in the way that knitters knit sweaters and blankets. It was a way to relax. I didn’t think of those efforts as leading to any sales until I wrote Nathan’s Run in 1994 and I realized that it was a special story.
Why did you decide to write thrillers?
I’m not sure that I ever consciously decided to write thrillers, per se. I wanted to write exciting stories. It wasn’t until after I’d sold Nathan’s Run that I was told by my publisher that it was a thriller. Twenty-six years after the publication of that first novel, I still try to write exciting stories, and now I know what the genre is.
I loved reading Nathan’s Run. Can you tell us how you came up with the story?
Thank you. I wanted to write a story in which the protagonist had to make a binary choice between doing his job and doing the right thing. That’s about all I had. I thought the protagonist should be a cop because I was deeply into my fire service years at the time, and I knew (and continue to know) many cops.
At the same time, I was named to chair a committee in Prince William County, Virginia, where I lived and worked at the time, whose responsibility it was to review the budgets of human service agencies with an eye toward trimming costs.
The first facility I visited was the juvenile detention center, where I saw a boy who was about 12 years old sitting by himself in a corner. He looked sad and terrified. I have no idea what he’d been accused of, but to me, he looked like a kid who could have been my own.
Another piece of the story fell into place. Suppose a kid escaped from a juvenile detention center and a cop had to chase him down? That felt about right. A lot of details needed to be filled in—all of the whys and therefores—but I knew there was enough story to chew on.
The final story took shape in my head as I was driving across Montana in a rental car whose radio was broken. In those eight hours, I had the beginning, middle and end all locked down in my head.
You’ve had great success with your Jonathan Grave series, and you have a new series, the Victoria Emerson thrillers. Can you tell us about each one of those and when the next books will be released?
Jonathan Grave is a former Special Forces operator who now runs a very special private investigation agency. The overt part of Security Solutions helps some of the biggest corporations in the world solve problems through very unconventional means. It’s the covert part of the company that is featured most in the books. Jonathan and his team perform freelance hostage rescue operations. It’s not uncommon for Uncle Sam to ask him to perform tasks that governments can’t legally ask people to do. The next Grave book, Lethal Game, will hit the stands on the last Tuesday in June.
My Victoria Emerson series imagines the aftermath of Hell Day, a nuclear war that kills hundreds of millions of people yet leaves hundreds of millions more to cope with the challenges of rebuilding something that looks like a society. A former member of the House of Representatives, Victoria and her family are preppers and are uniquely suited to survival under harsh conditions. When they wander into the little town of Ortho, West Virginia, their intent is merely to spend the night and move on, but conditions don’t allow that. The people of the town are in a panic in the aftermath of the Hell Day attacks, and when they turn to Victoria for leadership, she can’t say no.
What’s your writing process? Do you start with plot or characters or some combination?
I can’t separate plot and character in my head. When I write, I write the story, which by definition to me is interesting people doing interesting things in interesting places. Thus, plot, character and setting are not separate things in my mind.
What are your plans for future novels?
I am currently under contract for one more Victoria Emerson novel and two more Jonathan Grave novels. In addition, I would like to dabble in more short stories in the coming years, and I’m collaborating with two other writers to crank out an old-school Western. That one will be a long time coming, simply because it’s not at the top of any of our lists of things to do.
What advice would you give an aspiring author of thrillers?
Never lose sight of the fact that you’re writing a thriller. Hopefully, it’s a well thought out thriller populated with strong, compelling characters, yet remember that readers will be attracted to you work primarily for the thrill ride. In this genre, pacing is everything. That doesn’t mean an explosion on every page, necessarily, but those long descriptive scenes of happy people doing happy things happily probably need to be cut.
Where can we find out more about you and your work?
My website is always a good place to start. There, you’ll find links to the books, biographical information, my YouTube channel and Facebook page, and pictures of Kimber, the cutest puppy on the planet—and the newest addition to the Gilstrap family.
Thank you, John, for being with us today.
Thanks for having me.Interview with thriller writer John Gilstrap on the Craft of Writing blog Click To Tweet
Hi John and Kay,
Enjoyed the interview. Your process sounds holistic–characters, plot, setting all blended together. Talk about multitasking!
The story about the boy in juvie was powerful. You probably wonder what ever happened to him. I like to think maybe someday you’ll meet up again so you can tell him what he started.
Thanks for a good start to the week.
Good morning, Debbie. Thank you for stopping by. It’s interesting how each author finds his/her way through the labyrinth of writing a novel. John’s experience in coming up with “Nathan’s Run” is fascinating. I’m going to keep the radio turned off in my car from now on! 😊
Thanks for participating in this – I enjoyed reading. You mentioned in regard to Nathan’s Run getting the story’s beginning, middle, and end all locked down in your head on the drive to Montana. You also said story is the major focus without separating plot and character.
Is there a pattern to how you work? Do you capture disparate pieces (Nathan’s Run: concept of doing a job vs. doing the right thing, the boy in juvie) and let them marinate or do you deliberately seek to outline once you have a specific spark? If you outline, do you do detailed or general outlines?
Good morning, Rachel! It’s good to see you here.
Great questions. I’ll be interested in John’s answers.
I love reading about how authors think and so agree with the plot and characters not being separate. And I agree with Debbie about hoping you see that boy sometimes…and that his life turned out okay.
Such an interesting story about encountering a young boy in a juvenile center that launched a novel. That in itself sounds like fodder for a good story.
Good Monday morning, Kay! Thanks for sharing John with us. I love learning the underneath part of authors and their backstory. 🙂
“the underneath part of authors and their backstory.” What a great way to put it, Deb! So glad you’re here.
Good afternoon, Kay & John!
Well, I have my copy of Nathan’s Run and can’t wait to start with John’s first novel. I love reading a new (to me) author’s first book. John, I suspect you ought to write under the name Einstein because of this statement, “…plot, character and setting are not separate things in my mind.” I immediately thought about time and space being a single thing, not two things. I don’t think I will ever forget this statement of yours.
I have a question, selfishly. Many writers, myself included, would love to see 500 reviews of a book on GoodReads, much less 5,000. With your broad readership, do you still check out the reviews from time to time to see what readers are saying?
Thanks so much for the insights into your work and process. Thank you, Kay, for hosting another great Craft of Writing interview.
Thanks for being here. Lisa! Your comment “I immediately thought about time and space being a single thing, not two things” was so appropriate.
Have a great day!
Hi, John and your “sponsor” Kay,
I enjoyed the interview and the introductory description of your considerable writing success, especially with Nathan’s Run. That prompted a question following your and Rachel Hills’ line of thought. As you both indicated, and we all know, every story must have A) a beginning, B) a middle, and C) an ending. but It’s not always true that they come into the writer’s mind in chronological order, i.e., first A, then B, and then C.
Yours did John. You had ABC. Mine (if I may refer to my first novel, scheduled for release on June 7) was A, then C, and a year or two later B. So, it was ACB. Please don’t tele-throw any eggs, but there are four more ways to do it. The six orderings are ABC, ACB, BAC, BCA, CAB and, puff…puff, CBA. Who would believe it?
My question to all of you, including Kay, is what order did the three parts of the story of your first book come in?
Great question, Frank.
All of my books have had the same general evolution: I know the beginning and have a pretty good idea of the end, but the middle has to be discovered as I write. Therefore, I’m ACB.
Of course, I mean “come into your head.” I know what order they came in the book. Ha ha.
Just reading this interview. Enjoyed it! Love that John Gilstrap doesn’t separate his plot from characters — just builds the story. I also am amazed that he figured out an entire story while driving. That’s some focus! Thank you Kay for providing us with inspiration. Oh, and I am an C, A, B.
Hi Laurie, Thank you for dropping by and reading the interview. It’s fascinating that we each have our own approach to fashioning a story. Have a great week!