March 2008 -- Editor’s note:Vince Flynn has written many compelling yarns, but his own story may be the most inspiring. It’s the tale of a kid from a big Midwestern family who battled dyslexia to become—through sheer grit and determination—one of the world’s best-selling novelists.
The fifth of seven children, Flynn was born in 1966 in St. Paul, Minnesota. He graduated from St. Thomas Academy in 1984, then took a degree in economics from the University of St. Thomas in 1988. After a couple of years as an account and sales marketing specialist with Kraft General Foods, he became an aviation candidate with the United States Marine Corps. Just a week before Officers Candidate School, he was medically discharged from the aviation program due to injuries sustained in his youth.
Disappointed, Flynn took a job with a commercial real estate company in the Twin Cities. But he’d long nurtured the writing bug, and during spare hours he outlined an idea for a book. After two years, he took the biggest gamble of his life. He quit his job, moved to Colorado, and began working full time on what would eventually become his first novel.
Bartending at night, Flynn wrote during the day. He persisted through five long years and more than sixty rejection letters before taking another big career gamble: He decided to self-publish and self-promote his novel. It worked. The book soared to number one in the Twin Cities, and a week later, Flynn had a new agent and a major publishing deal. Re-released in paperback by Pocket Books, Term Limits—his white-knuckle political thriller—hit the New York Times Bestseller List.
All eight subsequent thrillers have become runaway international bestsellers, too. They include Transfer of Power, The Third Option, Separation of Power, Executive Power, Memorial Day, Consent to Kill, and Act of Treason. His latest, Protect and Defend, was Flynn’s first title to debut at number one on the New York Times fiction bestseller list.
Flynn's gripping political thrillers are centered in the post-9/11 world of terrorism and the threat of Islamic fundamentalism.
His astonishing research and startling insights into that world—drawn from sources embedded deep within political, military, and intelligence circles—have made his books bedside reading for presidents, foreign leaders, and the global intelligence community. His tales also caught the attention of the producers of the hit Fox TV series “24.” He was a story consultant for season five of the show and also inked a deal with the producers to create a new TV series. Meanwhile, Flynn still lives in the Twin Cities with his wife and three children.
On November 28, TNI editor Robert Bidinotto traveled to New York City to meet with Vince Flynn at Seppi’s restaurant in the elegant Le Parker Meridien Hotel on West 57th Street. Over lunch, they had a wide-ranging discussion about Flynn’s life, and his fascinating—often surprising—views on philosophy, politics, Hollywood, the War on Terrorism, and fiction writing.
TNI wishes to thank the staff of Seppi’s and Le Parker Meridien ( http://www.parkermeridien.com ) for the generous use of their facilities and for impeccable service during our visit.
“We needed our guy over there, assassinating these guys before they hit us . . . this kind of raw, loner, individualistic guy who was going go out there and lay it all on the line.” —Vince Flynn
TNI: You were born in the Minneapolis area?
Vince Flynn: St. Paul. Fifth of seven children. Five boys, two girls.
TNI: Everybody in a large family seems to have an assigned role, and I wonder what yours was.
Flynn: My assigned role was the eldest of what we referred to as “the three little ones.” I was in charge of the three little ones. But I still had the privilege of having the tar beat out of me by my older brothers.
TNI: Hey, what are older brothers for?
Flynn: And older sisters, actually—until I hit about twelve years old or so, and I could beat them up.
TNI: What did your parents do?
Flynn: My mom was a wildlife artist, actually fairly successful. My dad taught at St. Thomas Academy in St. Paul, where he went to high school. He was an English teacher there and coached basketball, football, and baseball. He left and went to Borg Warner Educational Systems in the mid-’70s, and then went to work for Control Data for about fifteen years.
TNI: Were you a math or verbal guy as far as school goes?
Flynn: I grew up dyslexic and struggled big time in school. I started taking the special classes in second and third grade. “SLBP”—slow learning behavior problem. My parents knew I had this problem, but they also had seven kids. It’s not like they had two hours every night to sit there and tutor me, and they weren’t about to hire a tutor—we didn’t have that kind of money.
So, you just learned to cope with it. I was okay, a B-minus, C-plus student—one of those guys who knew how to figure out the game and was always respectful to my teachers and tried hard. As long as you did that, it didn’t matter how poorly you did on tests; they were going to pass you. What happens with dyslexic kids is, because you’re so bad at writing and reading, you develop verbal skills. You participate in class discussions and the teacher says, “This kid gets it; he just doesn’t test well.”
You learn to deal with it. For me the big problem was b’s and d’s. I couldn’t tell what they were. And any word with a lot of consonants in the middle. So you learn to skip the word. It’s like running the hurdles. You just jump over that word, go to the next one, and still probably understand the context of the sentence.
But anything that you’re not good at, you run from.
TNI: So you weren’t a reader then as a kid?
Flynn: Oh God, no. The first book that I read for enjoyment was Trinity by Leon Uris, my sophomore year in college. My parents had been on me for years to read Trinity. But before that, it was CliffsNotes. Shakespeare, all of the classic stuff—it was painful. It was just next to impossible for me to read.
TNI: Your books focus a lot on military action. Is there anything in your background that gave you your interest in the military?
Flynn: I went to St. Thomas Academy, which is a military school. It’s an all-male, Catholic school. I actually considered going to Annapolis to play football, but I knew my grades just weren’t good enough.
TNI: Did you go to St. Thomas out of a real interest in things military?
Flynn: No, there was no option involved. St. Thomas Academy was founded to educate poor Irish, Italian, and German Catholic kids that were growing up in St. Paul, Minnesota. My dad came from a very lower-middle-class, Irish-Catholic family. They never owned a house; they lived in an apartment, which was common back then. So my grandma and grandpa scrimped and saved and sent my dad and his brother there, and then they had scholarships to go to college. My dad graduated from high school in ’55 and he was the first one of any generation on his father’s or mother’s side to go to college.
Then my dad taught there at St. Thomas for thirteen years. It’s a very tight-knit community. When I was there, there were a lot of third-generation kids going through the school. There’s a lot of family tradition, and the Flynn family name is pretty prevalent there.
So it was never a question. My older brothers went there, I went there, my younger brothers went there. My stepson will start there next year. Most of the grandkids will go there. I devote a lot of my time to Catholic and private education because I believe in it so much. I speak at and raise money for grade schools in the Twin Cities.
TNI: It sounds like your family moved up from lower-middle class, though.
Flynn: Yes, into the upper-middle class. I think this story is very common. It’s the American story. I don’t care if it’s Jewish immigrants or Italian or German, the great bond they had in this country is that they got education. Education was the way that you left your kids a better life.
Anyway, I went to college in the same part of Minnesota, the University of St. Thomas. Later, I lived in Denver for six months when I was writing my first book, Term Limits. And I spent a fair amount of time in D.C.—I was there for five months at one point.
TNI: After getting out of college into the corporate world for a couple of years, didn’t you serve in the military?
Flynn: I left Kraft General Foods for a Marine aviation program, but I’ve got to clear one thing up. I never served in the Marine Corps. At the time, they gave out I think two Marine aviation slots for Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. They had over one hundred applicants, and they gave out two. I had gone through all of the testing, passed all of the exams, had to run three miles in eighteen minutes and do one hundred sit-ups and all that, and take a battery of tests. Based on that, I was selected out of a pool of over one hundred candidates. So I signed my aviation package, and I was now on the hook: I was going into the Marine Corps.
They sent me down to Glenview Naval Air Station to do my flight physical in Chicago. But I did not know that you’re supposed to lie when they ask you questions.
TNI: Such as?
Flynn: Such as, “Have you ever had any head injuries, concussions?” Growing up with four brothers, we were a very physical family, and I played football in high school and college, Division III. I had a number of concussions—two real bad ones, one from a car accident when I was five and another one when I was eleven. Both of those resulted in convulsive seizures and vomiting and a lot of other problems. One football game my junior year, I don’t even remember the third quarter. And I had been in more than my fair share of fights, where I had gotten off the ground and started walking in one direction, even though I thought I was going in the other.
I had a not-healthy number of concussions. So I washed out of the flight program.
TNI: How was it that you, a dyslexic kid, suddenly decided to start writing? Where did that bug come from?
Flynn: Well, I read Trinity,and it opened up my eyes to a world that I had run from my whole life.
TNI: How old were you then?
Flynn: Nineteen. Sophomore year in college. So I start reading for the first time for enjoyment. And what happened was: I read all these books, and I always figure out what’s going to happen next. I’ve got an extremely intuitive mind that is never surprised by how books turn out. I literally know what’s going to happen from almost the first chapter on—which gets me thinking. I think almost every person at some point asks themselves, “Do I have it in me to write a book?”
I graduated from college in ’88. In ’89, the Berlin Wall comes down. At that point, I’m already thinking about writing a novel someday. So I thought, “The poor son of a bitch who is writing the Cold War novel when that wall came down, he’s screwed.” I think that most of your good authors spend a lot of time daydreaming and thinking. You look down the road—where’s it all going? You try to get out in front of reality and at least give people a rough sense of what it’s going to be like.
I had a friend who had been murdered after college in Washington D.C., and that provided the impetus for Term Limits. It eventually came down to a kind of epiphany: “Hey, if Clancy can do it, why can’t I? They need books; somebody has got to be the next Tom Clancy.”
TNI: You imagined this team of former Special Forces guys with a personal grudge against certain corrupt, powerful politicians—a team led by a former Navy SEAL, Scott Coleman. And they decide to take justice into their own hands. That story line taps powerful emotions. Everybody is infuriated by powerful persons who have stuck it to everyone and who get away with it.
TNI: And you think, “Boy, I would love to waste that guy!” Naturally, you immediately push it out of your mind. You can’t do that. But you tapped that powerful revenge fantasy in this novel.
Flynn: The book scares me. It scares me more now than it ever has before, because I see the national debt rising, getting worse and worse; I see the country possibly headed for some extremely dangerous economic times; I see the disapproval rating of politicians getting worse and worse. The novel scares me. And I get letters from people, I get comments from people.
TNI: They all live in Idaho and they drive Ryder trucks.
"I had an agent during the process of amassing sixty-plus rejection letters."
Flynn: Some of them are military people who say, “Too bad this can’t be real.”
TNI: And they say it way too seriously.
TNI: So, you wrote the book and got an agent.
Flynn: I had an agent during the process of amassing sixty-plus rejection letters.
TNI: Many people would find that impossible to believe, because Term Limits was compelling storytelling. What were some of the reasons you were given for the rejections?
Flynn: “No market.” “I can’t see who would buy this.” This, from people who have never listened to Rush Limbaugh, for instance; but they will tell you they hate Rush.
TNI: I read that you tacked all of those rejections onto your bulletin board.
Flynn: As a source of motivation. I looked through the file the other day. Quite a few people who rejected me still work at 1230 Avenue of the Americas—Simon and Schuster. I saw a couple of them last night. I always smile when I see them.
TNI: “Living well is the best revenge.” What surprises me is that it took so long to get the book accepted and published.
Flynn: It doesn’t surprise me, and it shouldn’t surprise you if you know this town. There are a lot of people who let their personal politics get in the way of making a good business decision. It’s also Hollywood’s biggest problem right now. Now that I’ve gotten to know the business, it doesn’t surprise me at all that the manuscript was rejected that many times.
TNI: After this thing went through sixty rejections, you finally decided to self-publish it, and then you shopped it around Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Flynn: I hand-sold it. I hired a publicist. It was not complicated. I was lucky that right after college I worked for Kraft General Foods. I knew how to go into an account: grocery store, bookstore—not a big difference. People in this business hate it when I say that, but marketing a box of Grape-Nuts is not that different from marketing a book. In fact, more and more, this industry is learning to take a cue from retail marketing: how to “brand” an author and give the readers what they want.
"You try not to take it personally. You dust yourself off, you keep going."
I looked at that issue back then and said to myself: “New York missed both [John] Grisham and Clancy. Grisham had to go through a small press down in Mississippi. Clancy had to go through the Naval Institute Press in Annapolis, Maryland. The two biggest authors of the ’90s, bar none, other than maybe Crichton—and New York missed them.”
What you learn, growing up in a big family, is: You try not to take it personally. You dust yourself off, you keep going, and you say, “Hey, I still have got a shot at this.”
TNI: So, your self-published, self-sold Term Limits took off in the Twin Cities and became a local bestseller—and that finally got you a New York publisher for it. Was the new edition cleaned up a little bit?
Flynn: Yes, cleaned up a little bit. But still a very raw novel. I could not write that novel today. I think it’s very typical of a first book for an author. There are some imperfections in that book that I cringe over. I don’t go back and read my books.
TNI: You don’t?
Flynn: No, it’s painful to go back and read it. I will go back occasionally to check a fact, and I will read a sentence and go, “Oooh, I can’t believe I wrote that sentence; that’s horrible.”
TNI: Nonetheless, it was a great fantasy, and I think that’s why it worked.
TNI: For your next book, Transfer of Power,you created a new hero: Mitch Rapp, a secret assassin for the CIA in the War on Terror. You’ve described him as “the tip of the spear” defending America. You’ve now built a series of eight books around him.
Flynn:Midway through Term Limits, I started thinking about Transfer of Power, and how am I going to do this, and where is it going to go. I had the idea of “the tip of the spear”: We needed our guy over there, assassinating these guys before they hit us.
People don’t like to talk about this in public; they don’t want to talk about torture, they don’t want to talk about assassination. But in private, you ask anybody in this country, “Would it have been acceptable to you if your government had assassinated Osama bin Laden prior to 9/11? And here’s your choice:
“Would you have wanted to know about it, and would you have accepted it?
“Or would you have not wanted to know about it, but still kind of quietly accepted it?
“Or would you not want your government to do something like that?”
"Scott Coleman is “dirty.” He’s a really wounded hero. He’s a guy who got screwed over by his own government, by a loudmouthed senator. So he started whacking politicians"
I needed this kind of raw, loner, individualistic guy who was going go out there and lay it all on the line. So he’s got the American Indian background; he’s got the dark features; he becomes a linguist; he understands Arabic and Farsi and speaks it fluently; he understands the customs; he can walk among the people.
TNI: Why the evolution from Scott Coleman to Mitch Rapp? Your first book, with Coleman, was a bestseller in paperback.
Many authors would have grabbed Scott Coleman and said, “I’m going to turn him into a series character.”
Flynn: A couple of problems. Scott Coleman is blond-haired, blue-eyed. He could never be “the tip of the spear.”
TNI: Because he can’t fit into the Middle East?
Flynn: He can’t fit in. You can’t have a blond-haired, blue-eyed Mitch Rapp; it’s not going to make sense.
The other thing is, Scott Coleman is “dirty.” He’s a really wounded hero. He’s a guy who got screwed over by his own government, by a loudmouthed senator. So he started whacking politicians. And as corrupt as they are, it’s hard to carry that kind of baggage forward, and have this guy not be part of the government.
TNI: Yes—how do you rehabilitate him?
Flynn: It’s much easier to use Coleman now as kind of an independent contractor, and pull him and his guys in when you need them. But I didn’t see it as possible to have all of the books centered around him.
TNI: Mitch Rapp—where did he come from?
Flynn: Well, from some people I had met. A lot of these Special Forces guys I’ve met who then go on to work for the CIA—they are a unique bird. If you are an aware person, you can pick up some pretty easy tip-offs of who they are. You look at their hands; they’ve got scars on their knuckles. Are their knuckles battered, what does their nose look like, how are their ears? How observant are they?
Go into a crowded bar and drag a chair across the tile floor real quickly and loudly. And you’re going to see if there are any cops in the room, because men of action who’ve had to deal with things, their heads snap up while other people keep talking. They think a fight might be about to start. The cops or the Special Forces guys, they are just hyper-aware of their surroundings.
TNI: Did you pick that name, Mitch Rapp, for any special reason?
Flynn: A buddy from college, Eric Rapp. Liked his last name, wanted it to be monosyllabic, easy to remember. “Mitch Rapp” went well together.
TNI: Your novels are controversial, Politically Incorrect. Were the roots of your political views in that military-school environment during your childhood? Or was there something else—some influence that propelled you to the ideas that you hold right now? Did you find some burning bush along the path somewhere?
Flynn: I have never been asked this quite this way. I have got to think about this.
TNI: Were your parents more or less conservative in their outlook and values?
Flynn: My parents never once told us what party they belonged to, and I think that is so cool. We were never lectured to about politics. Again—big family; a lot of open discussions at the dinner table; my parents very adamant that everybody has a right to their opinion. But you’d better be able to back it up, or you’re going to be called a moron by one of your siblings, or possibly even your own father. We used to ask them who did they vote for. “None of your business,” my dad used to say.
TNI: Secret ballot.
Flynn: Right, yes. “Me and my Creator are the only people who need to know what I did in that voting booth.”
TNI: Minnesota has the reputation of being way-out-there liberal.
Flynn: But what you’ve got to understand about Minnesota, and St. Paul specifically, is Ronald Reagan was the first Republican that Irish Catholics ever voted for. What happened is in the late ’60s and ’70s, the Democratic Party moved to the left.
TNI: Very much so.
Flynn: And they left all of those Reagan Democrats sitting there going, “Wait a minute. Now yeah, we’re pro-little-guy; we don’t like the English crown; we cheer for the underdog. But we’re not buying into this ‘pro-choice’ deal.” When you really saw the split was in the ’80s, when the Democrats started to say: “Not only are we a pro-choice party; we’re a pro–‘let’s take federal tax dollars and pay for people to have abortions.’” That, I think, crossed a divide where a lot of Democratic Irish, Italian, and German Catholics said, “No—you are not taking my tax dollars to pay for someone’s abortion.”
TNI: Government started putting its thumb on the scale in so many of these social issues. I think that really drove a wedge between the Democratic Party and, well, the kind of people my parents were. They were New Deal Democrats, but they were more conservative. They were like [Senator Joseph] Lieberman.
Flynn: I’m a huge fan of Joe Lieberman. So the Democratic Party went to the left. Very socially liberal.
I am an individualist. I am someone who says, “You know what? I know quite a few gay people that I’ve met through one of my sisters, who is a hairdresser—and I think they are born that way.” I am like a lot of Republicans that I know. I will tell them, “You know what? You don’t want to admit it, but you are a libertarian.”
TNI: You use the term “libertarian.” How would you characterize yourself politically? I don’t necessarily mean in terms of a party affiliation.
Flynn: I’ve grown a little leery about discussing this, but I don’t think I can hide my political beliefs. While I live in one of the most liberal states in the country, I am a Republican—which means my views actually line up with most Southern Democrats.
I am classic Irish Catholic in the sense that I am fiscally conservative and socially liberal. I don’t like abortion, but I’m pragmatic about it. Do I think that we’re actually going to go overturn Roe v. Wade? Possibly, but then becomes a state issue, and it will play out however it plays out. I mean, who really likes abortion?
TNI: I don’t think anybody. I’ve heard you say that Rudy [Giuliani] is your candidate.
Flynn: Yes. But we are in the midst of a campaign cycle run by precinct politics. So you’ve got the fervent believers on the left running the [Democratic] party, and you’ve got the fervent believers on the right running the [Republican] party. And that’s who all of these candidates are playing to. So we’re going to have to hit a reset button in March [after the primaries]. Parties will reshuffle the deck and say, “All right, here is our person—let’s get behind him.”
"I’m a firm believer that the republic is stronger than any one person."
I’m a firm believer that the republic is stronger than any one person. These people who think that President Clinton destroyed the country, that President Bush destroyed the country—or if Senator Clinton gets elected then we’re moving to Canada—it’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. I’ve told my Republican friends to stop saying that. You are insulting this country and what it stands for if you think that one person can go in there for four, maybe eight years, and so screw up this country that you need to go to Canada.
TNI: In fact, you have a number of Democrat presidents in your novels.
Flynn: I have a good Democratic president. My villains are always terrorists, and the secondary villains are either politicians or bureaucrats who get in the way—and they’ve been both Republicans and Democrats. I try to keep Mitch Rapp neutral.
And this gets to my individualist leanings. I don’t like the idea of the government getting too involved in my life. I don’t like the fact that we have taken so much of what originally was run by charities, and it is now handled by the government. We have created a dependent, impoverished class in this country.
"I don’t like the idea of the government getting too involved in my life."
If you’ve read any of the Benjamin Franklin biographies, he was such a visionary. He struggled with this idea of where we were going to go as a country. He never wanted to institutionalize the charitable aspect of trying to help the poor, because he was afraid that we would make it too easy for these people. Sometimes you need some “tough love.”
So I’m always leery of the federal government, or state and local, stepping in and doing too much. I don’t know where this comes from in my youth. Part of me thinks that you are born that way, to a degree. And because my dad was a high school football, basketball, and baseball coach, we were always in a sport. It didn’t matter—it was baseball all summer long, football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and track in the spring, for all of us. I think that especially a sport like track, where it’s not a team sport—
TNI: It’s a very individual sport.
Flynn: It’s a very individual sport, and you have nobody to blame but yourself if you don’t win the race. All of those sports lend themselves to the idea that you need to bust your ass and make yourself better if you want to succeed in this world.
"I have this innate sense of fairness—like to the point where I probably need therapy for it, because I get really frustrated if things aren’t fair. It drives me nuts."
Flynn: Self-responsibility. My parents—when you have seven kids, you have to run it a little bit like a military operation, and my dad did, by the way. We had the matrix charts when he was at Control Data: Here’s the kids; here’s the day of the week; here’s your chores on this day. My dad was a results-oriented kind of guy.
I don’t know where I got this, probably more from my father than my mother, but I have this innate sense of fairness—like to the point where I probably need therapy for it, because I get really frustrated if things aren’t fair. It drives me nuts.
TNI: [Thriller novelist] Lee Child told me the same thing when I interviewed him [TNI, July-August 2007].
Flynn: Oh, really?
TNI: Yes, because he cannot walk away from an unfair situation or an injustice. And so he got in a lot of fights as a kid.
Flynn: The same thing for me.
TNI: Right. You would like that guy.
Flynn: I read Lee. He is one of my favorite authors, and I love the Jack Reacher character. Down in Minneapolis, I knocked a guy out last year, on the pavement, for this exact reason. My brother, who is a cop, said to me, “Have you lost your mind? You were right; you defended yourself; but my God, that doesn’t matter! This guy, if he wasn’t hammered out of his mind, and he actually found out who you were—”
TNI: There goes the house, there goes the cars.
Flynn: Well actually, I have a big umbrella policy, but still—
TNI: There goes the big umbrella.
Flynn: I believe in this set of values that my parents raised us with: to be honest, be truthful. It’s the old, “Mean what you say, and do what you mean.” Like me, Mitch doesn’t like people getting away with stuff. He doesn’t like politicians who lie and cheat to get to the top.
TNI: I get the impression that Mitch Rapp is probably a projection of yourself—because hero characters generally are, for an author, an idealized projection. Lee Child said that Jack Reacher is what he would be if he could get away with it.
Flynn: Which is why I think the two characters have been so successful.
TNI:Your political viewpoint seems to defy the conventional pigeonholes. You say “fiscally conservative, socially liberal.” Now, I more or less eschew the term “libertarian” because it has become associated with foreign-policy nuttiness.
Flynn: I’m talking about a Jeffersonian libertarian. You can’t fault libertarianism for being co-opted by certain people who are unhappy with either party.
TNI: Is that a term that you use in self-description?
Flynn: I am a registered Republican. But as I’ve said to my friends, if we were to show up at the convention and espouse our personal views, we would be thrown out of the tent.
TNI: Obviously, this outlook had to be supplemented by reading. Any seminal influences on you that helped either focus or solidify your politics or your general philosophy of life?
TNI: Oh, you read those?
Flynn: Oh, yes. [Atlas] is a fascinating book for me, because everything that I just told you, that book kind of awakens in you—even more so. Makes you very in tune with how unfair the world can be, especially Washington.
“The way this town operates is: They start seeing somebody making money, and if they are not getting a piece of it, they are going to come after you—just like in Atlas Shrugged ."
I know a lot of people who work at Blackwater [the private security contractor]. I told Eric Prince, the owner, more than three years ago, “Eric, you need to start giving money to Democrats.” Eric is a devout Catholic, ultra-conservative, and he said, “Absolutely not—I don’t agree with their stance on national security.” I said, “Eric, as a businessman, if you are going to operate in this town, you need to spread the wealth around.” And I actually talked about Atlas Shrugged a little.
TNI: Oh, wow.
Flynn: I said, “The way this town operates is: They start seeing somebody making money, and if they are not getting a piece of it, they are going to come after you—just like in Atlas Shrugged .” There are people out there—and Washington is full of them—that are not producing anything. But they want a piece of the action. And they will drag down the people who are producers. Her two novels, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead —well, it’s individualism through and through, and respect for producers—respect for people who take responsibility for their own lives.
TNI: That’s very interesting, because many readers of our magazine are fans of Ayn Rand ’s writing, too.
Flynn: Yes. But here’s where I parted ways with it. I was ninety percent of the way there in both of those books; loved them. But I had this very empty kind of feeling in my heart that she had taken it too far—too cold.
Now, I understand her mistrust of organizations; but I don’t want to live in a society where religion doesn’t play a role. I mean religion in the best way. Like the religion that produced Archbishop [John] Ireland, who founded St. Thomas Academy. You can take any organization in the world, you’re going to find some misdeeds, you are going to find some problems. The Catholic Church—they’ve blown it with pedophilia, big time. But that doesn’t mean that they haven’t done a lot of other great things. Especially, how the Church has touched my life with these great schools that they have built. I never paid full tuition in high school or college. It’s mind-boggling to think that in one generation, my mom and dad put seven kids through private Catholic high schools that cost a lot of money. Seven kids in ten years. And then six of us through college. And we never paid full tuition. A lot of that aid came from the Archdiocese in the Twin Cities. There is a lot that the Church does that doesn’t get told.
I’ll meet an agnostic or an atheist, and I’ll ask them, “Do you believe in the body, mind, and the soul?” And your agnostic will say, “Yes, I believe in the body, the mind, and the soul; but I hate organized religion. I think it’s a drug for the weak, just to get them to cope with how horrible the world is without an afterlife.”
And I say, “All right, so you belong to an athletic club?” They say, Yeah, they believe in staying in shape, they want to stay healthy. So I say, “You believe in an athletic club, where you pay a couple of hundred bucks a month to go and work out three to five times a week for a couple of hours; but you don’t believe in somebody joining a place of worship to go take care of their soul, and spend maybe a couple of hours once a week?” It doesn’t match up.
TNI: The War on Terrorism is the backdrop for all your Mitch Rapp novels. You’ve talked about the impact that the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988 had on you during your college days.
"If diversity is, in and of itself, so fantastic, why did we get rid of the KKK?"
Flynn: Yes. Twenty-six Syracuse University students died on that plane. And it was a civilian target. Now, the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon—I remember that vividly, as well. But that was a military target; you can understand why they were attacked. At Lockerbie, two-hundred-plus innocent people, civilians on an airplane—it’s mind-boggling. So yes, it affected me deeply.
I saw this threat from Islamist terrorism getting worse and worse, not better. I knew that they were coming to America, that it was only a matter of time. Sooner or later, these crazy Islamic radical fundamentalists who preach this cult of death—the suicide bomber, the martyr—they were going to hit us, and it was going to be painful. The 1993 World Trade Center bombing—the first attack—didn’t affect me because at that point, I already knew what was happening.
TNI: You started reading up on Islamic radical fundamentalism while you were still in college?
Flynn: After college, really.
TNI: You’ve described Islam as having been hijacked and bastardized by these fundamentalists, with their strict form of Islam and global aspirations of conquest. You’ve also said that you don’t want us to get in a situation where we are at war with the entire Islamic world.
TNI: You obviously believe that the majority of Muslims are not jihadists or fundamentalists.
Flynn: Correct. I will cut to the chase for you. I think Islam is a religion in dire need of a reformation. It is a religion in crisis. Women have very few rights; they are treated as chattel in most cases. You’ve got a young woman over in Saudi Arabia right now who is going to get sixty lashes because she was in public with some male other than a relative, and they appealed it. So what did the judge do? “We’re going to give you two hundred lashes for even daring to appeal this.”
"My greatest fear is that because of Political Correctness, we in the West will not criticize Islam."
My greatest fear is that because of Political Correctness, we in the West will not criticize Islam. We are so afraid because if you criticize a “minority” group, you are deemed to be an intolerant bigot. It’s mind-boggling that in today’s world, in this country, as far as we’ve come with feminism and a lot of equality issues, no one will stand up in the national media and criticize Islam the way it needs to be.
There needs to be a national debate of great urgency about where Islam is going and how we’re going to bring it into the next century. Because they are taking young men and turning them into “martyrs.” They are preaching this cult of death. But I am shocked that we live in a world where a Danish newspaper wants to publish a cartoon of Muhammad, and pretty much everybody in the West pisses down their pant leg and says, “Oh, my God—we don’t want to offend them!”
TNI: You should know that The New Individualist was the first magazine in the United States to reprint the cartoon of Muhammad on its cover, in protest.
Flynn: Oh, good! It drives me nuts. It’s a freedom-of-speech issue—period.
TNI: Absolutely, and you can’t knuckle under to these people on that.
TNI: You criticized how we tolerate the intolerance of Islamic fundamentalism: the liberal mentality of multiculturalism, of infinite tolerance of anything—the relativism.
"After 9/11, you would hear people say that this isn’t about religion; it’s about poverty, it’s about economic opportunity. I would say, 'Really? Then where are all the Mexican terrorists?'"
Flynn: [My view] is fairly common for individualists and for those who followed Ayn Rand and admired her writings. Individualists tend to be very logical and very philosophically grounded. So, you look at this issue of “diversity,” and it is a red herring. Diversity in and of itself has no inherent value. Diversity could mean you sit down with a Nazi, a member of the KKK, and Islamic radical fundamentalists. Now where has that gotten you? At the end of the day, if you still are not willing to judge this person and their actions and their beliefs, you’ve gotten nowhere.
If diversity is, in and of itself, so fantastic, why did we get rid of the KKK? “I’m a Northern white guy, but I don’t want to judge them; I didn’t grow up in the South and I don’t want to be too critical.” B.s. We went after the KKK because they were a group of scumbags who thought that it was okay to terrorize black people. So let’s call evil and immorality for what it is, and let’s confront it.
Flynn: I mean, you can look at Judaism, and you are going to find something to criticize. You can do the same with Christianity and Catholicism, Hindus, Buddhists. But our problems right now amongst those other faiths pale in comparison to what is going on in Islam.
After 9/11, you would hear people say that this isn’t about religion; it’s about poverty, it’s about economic opportunity. I would say, “Really? Then where are all the Mexican terrorists? If it is about poverty, why don’t we have Mexicans streaming across the border blowing up buildings?”
It’s not about poverty. Saudi Arabia, for instance, fed by petrodollars, 40 percent unemployment amongst men from the ages of eighteen to thirty-two—and they are all on the government dole, making a very good living. They have nowhere to go. So they go hang out in coffee shops and they go to mosque five times a day; and they hear an imam get up and tell them how horrible Jews are, and how horrible the West is, and how we need to fight the infidels. “You need to martyr yourselves.” They are indoctrinating, literally, millions of young men.
We in the West have failed to criticize and confront this, because we are so afraid that if we criticize a religion that we don’t understand—one that is proportionally made up of people with darker skin than white Anglo-Saxon Protestants—then we will be called “racist.”
This is about a religion where it’s a male-dominated culture. Women have no role in Islam. People get upset with me about this; but you show me a mainstream mosque in America, then I want you to show me the role that the women are playing in that mosque. In almost all mosques, women are in the back of the bus, or they are in another building. It is very segregated.
TNI: Still back in the fourteenth century.
Flynn: I’m fine about criticizing the Catholic Church for not letting women play a role on the altar; but women are allowed on the altar now. So how do you go after Catholicism the way Hollywood and the New York media did in the ’80s and ’90s—for two straight decades, three really—and then not say a word about Islam?
TNI: They give it a pass. This double standard brings me to ask you about Hollywood. Have any of your books yet been optioned for film?
TNI: Now this is your ninth book, all bestsellers—and none of them have been optioned by Hollywood. But we have had Redacted, which made about $25,000 and had maybe 3,000 people see it. I had more people go to my blog yesterday than went to all of the theaters to see Redacted. But Hollywood has made movie after movie after movie of this kind; and the only theme they have in common is that America—its symbols, its military, its government—is the bad guy. As long as you portray America as the bad guy, it will fly in Hollywood.
"Hollywood is an industry where people live and die by what other people think of them."
Flynn: Yes. That’s the type of movie that Hollywood wants to make. And it goes back to this same thing: We’ve lost our moorings to our moral underpinnings in this country. Hollywood is an industry where people live and die by what other people think of them. They want acceptance; they want the Oscar; they want ticket sales; they want people to think they are smart and that they care and are compassionate. So they go to all of these parties with all of these like-minded people, and they all talk about “diversity.” “Look, we have a white man, a black man, a Hispanic, a woman—we’re very diverse.”
Well, you know what? In my colorblind mind, you have no diversity there if you all agree with each other. Real diversity is having people who think differently and getting them together and trying to find solutions. But Hollywood is filled with a bunch of like-minded sycophants right now, who all think the same way.
TNI: It’s infuriating to me.
Flynn: [My series] has become too valuable of a commodity, so now, they are in this game of chicken. They don’t agree with the books; they don’t want to make a movie and have their friends give them crap. They are afraid that the Muslims might get upset if they make a movie that really goes after Islamic radical fundamentalism. But they are still looking at [producing] it, thinking, “My God—business-wise, this might be a really good decision. No one has bought the rights to this damn thing yet; and he’s got one of the biggest audiences of any fiction writer in the country. How much longer can we ignore him?”
TNI: Yes. It’s just like Jack Bauer [the anti-terrorist agent on Fox TV’s “24”]. “24” has gotten protests from—
Flynn: —the Council on American Islamic Relations. Yes, they don’t like “24,” and they don’t like me.
TNI: So they’ve tried to make the show more acceptable by featuring a lot of non-Islamic terroists. I’m waiting for Scottish terrorists to show up on “24.”
Flynn: It drives me nuts.
TNI: The most controversial thing associated with your novels is the fact that Mitch Rapp will torture terrorists or do anything that he needs to do to stop them. That was especially true in your latest novel, Protect and Defend, where the whole resolution hinged on it. But many people regard torture as intrinsically evil—just like pacifists regard war as intrinsically evil, no matter if it’s for self-defense or whatever.
Flynn: Torture—it’s just a nasty thing. It’s not good; it’s not nice.
TNI: So are flamethrowers.
Flynn: Yes. Here’s where I sit. It’s real simple. If al Qaeda signed the Geneva Convention, put on a uniform, stuck their flag in the ground, and said, “Let’s meet on the battlefield,” I would say: “Absolutely. Torture—you can’t do it. Period. End of discussion.” But we have an enemy that won’t put on a uniform, has not signed the Geneva Convention, hides behind men, women, and children, and then attacks men, women, and children—civilians.
I think it’s a joke that we are even having this debate, as a nation. I think that torture should take place only for high-value targets where we know they are withholding information that could help us bust up cells, financing, organization, and possible operations.
The problem is that because we are a civilized society, and because we’ve lost our mooring—we’ve lost our attachment to our Judeo-Christian beliefs—we’ve gone off on this little safari with PC. We think that we have to say things so that people will think, “He’s smart, he’s compassionate, he cares, he’s got a good heart.” The reality is that if you were to ask the American people, “When Mitch Rapp starts to torture some bad guy who knows where the nuke is, are you sitting there in the privacy of your home crying and saying, ‘Please stop torturing this guy’? Or are you saying, ‘Get him, Mitch! Get the information out of him!’”
TNI: Right. And I think that is one of the appeals of the character. He doesn’t let anything stand in the way of justice.
TNI: I did a piece on my favorite thriller writers [“The Best Thriller Writers—Ever,” April 2007] and said that you give me the feeling that I’m peeking in the keyholes at the CIA and the White House. Obviously, you’ve developed all kinds of high-level sources now; but even very early on, in Term Limits, you included a lot of “trade craft.” How did you learn that stuff?
Flynn: I think I am blessed with the ability to get people to trust me. Part of it is when I give my word, people know that I mean it. And I never realized until much later how competitive I was. What saw me through a lot of the down times was me just not quitting, because quitting wasn’t an option. The dogged determination to find these people, talk to them, network, go out and have beers with them, and shoot the bull.
TNI: You did that before Term Limits then?
Flynn: Yes, while I was doing research for Term Limits. My brother Timmy, who is a St. Paul cop, caught a bank robber one time. Through him I met some guys at the FBI, and through them I met some other people. I’m bartending in St. Paul and a buddy of mine was the big Miller distributor in town. He says, “I’ve got a buddy who I went to college with who is in the United States Secret Service. You should talk to him, he is in town for Christmas.” So we went out and had drinks and hit it off.
Writers are storytellers, and you endear yourself to people if you are a good storyteller. Growing up in my house, you would sit around the dinner table with no TV on, and you just listened to mom and dad and my grandma and grandpa tell stories.
TNI: It’s an Irish thing, too.
Flynn: I don’t think it is by accident that a lot of Irish Catholic authors have had a lot of success.
TNI: I assume that at a certain point you vet some of the sensitive stuff past these sources and say, “Have I screwed up?”
Flynn: And I’ve had them come back and say, “You are too close—you’ve got to take some of this out.”
TNI: You said you try not to read reviews. Why?
Flynn: If you ask someone to review a book, they are going to find its faults. Reviewers, a lot of them, tend to be frustrated writers who don’t understand the proper way to review a book—especially the New York elite reviewers. The good reviewers do the same thing that the Cannes driver does. They don’t test a Ford pickup truck against a Porsche 911. They put the sports cars in one category, the sedans in the other, the SUVs in another. And the good reviewers will judge a thriller as a thriller.
"A thriller is supposed to be a sports car."
A thriller is supposed to be a sports car: It’s not going to be judged for its luxurious ride and flowery character descriptions. It is action—keep the pages turning. The few reviews that I have read [about] me will say, “Really lax in character development, blah, blah, blah.” Well, guess what? I start doing Snow Falling on Cedars–type character development, my book gets three times as big as it is, and I will put your ass to sleep in five minutes. I get better feedback from my fans.
TNI: Lee Child was of the opinion that all stories are character-driven.
Flynn: Lee and I part ways on this a little bit. Lee designs his novels around the character or what they are going to do. I do some of that; but also, for me there has to be this geopolitical hook. I write in kind of a different area. Lee will write very localized, good guy/bad guy stuff, a local city. I am trying to write more of the national political stuff. So I’ve got to think like I’m going to shoot a movie. That’s how I start a book. I start thinking: Where are some of these big scenes going to take place? Is it going to involve Special Forces, FBI—who is going to be involved? Who is going to be shooting and killing? So we come at it slightly differently.
TNI: His are cinematic too, but the nature of the conflicts is different.
Flynn: Part of the gift, at least for me, is the ability to look at a puzzle that is missing half of its pieces and fill in the picture. I think a lot of writers have that gift. Like Lee—we think a lot alike, in the sense that we are very linear. And Lee is very good about understanding place and time, and how he has to move his characters from one place to another—hard geographic locations—and then describing those locations and creating a sense of urgency.
I also think that writers who are filled with self-doubt and loathing can’t write a book a year. It’s not going to happen.
Flynn: No way. You have to have a certain level of confidence. And you can’t complicate it. I say this all of the time: It’s not that complicated. People look at me and go, “Yeah. Right.” I just say, No, it isn’t.
Rule number one: Understand who your audience is. Who are you trying to reach?
It’s a huge marketplace. Am I trying to write a book that sci-fi fans want to read? No. If they happen to read it and like it, great; but that is not my audience. So always remember who your audience is. And then from there, relax. Focus on pacing; get the details right, the research; and write a great page-turner.
Here’s a baseball analogy. These players, when they are hot, are not thinking about their swing. They step up to the plate; they might think, “Tuck that right elbow in right before the ball is delivered.” There might be some little key to get your weight going in the right direction. But by and large, they are stepping into it, keeping that back elbow up. They are not thinking, “Am I breathing in or out? And what I am doing with my left toe? Am I going to step into the plate—”
TNI: I am going to shock you. I don’t know whether you read my Lee Child interview, but he used exactly the same baseball metaphor.
Flynn: Oh, you are kidding!
TNI: He used that baseball metaphor. He was talking about exactly the same thing—self-consciousness and how it kills you. He was saying that you can’t be thinking, “Well, I have to please this demographic or that demographic.” You know who your audience is; but then it’s just communicating with that person, and you can’t be self-conscious.
Flynn: Well, you can go too far. If you become so self-absorbed that you are saying to yourself, “I’m so liberated, I don’t need to think about my audience; I’m just going to write.” Now, there are a lot of great writers who write great books, from a technical and creative standpoint, and they lose their audience because they want to “grow.” You see it with musicians every once in awhile. They want to do their kind of music, and then they go and make—
TNI: Something inaccessible.
Flynn: It’s narcissistic. The studio, the label is telling them that this isn’t going to sell. So you have to make a choice. I’m 41. I’ve got three kids I have to send to college. I am a capitalist, an individualist, and I enjoy making money. So if I want to make more money, I have got to keep perfecting what I’m doing—or, at the bare minimum, keep that level of performance. I’ve got to bat .300 every year. It’s not complicated; why screw with it? If you’ve gotten .300, you’re going to the Hall of Fame.
Flynn: So why would you all of a sudden decide to change your stance or something? So I don’t. Now, am I going to write about Mitch Rapp forever? No, but I’m not going to go write the feel-good romance novel.
TNI: I’m heartbroken.
Seriously, I think your characterizations have grown over time, significantly. The focus at the beginning was more action. But now, the depth of the characterizations—you’ve said that you had tears while writing what happened to a character in one novel.
Flynn: Consent to Kill.
TNI: So, what do we have to look forward to next?
Flynn: The Grinder—that’s the working title.
TNI: The Grinder?
Flynn: Didn’t I ever tell you my story about the grinder? I went to dinner with the president of Hormel Foods, who grew up working in the slaughterhouse in Austin, Minnesota. He said he wanted me to come down and tour the slaughterhouse. I said no—I like my sausage; I don’t want to see how it’s made.
TNI: So there is a metaphor going on here.
Flynn: The meat grinder. And Rapp plays a minor role.
TNI: So this is a Scott Coleman—
Flynn: Scott Coleman is going to be in it, and [CIA Director] Irene Kennedy.
TNI: We’re going to have to see how you’re going to make Irene recuperate after what you put her through this last time.
Flynn: People want her to find a love.
TNI: Yes, well, that is tricky.
Anyway, thank you, Vince. This has been great.