Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Meet Stephen England, author of Pandora's Grave

I recently had the opportunity to read a fantastic book by Stephen England. From the moment I opened it up, I was caught up in the action and intricacies of political pandering, religious differences and military actions that were so well portrayed that I felt as though I was living in the midst of it all. I am pleased to have Stephen England with me today, and I hope you enjoy learning more about his great book.
Collette: Thank you for agreeing to answer my questions. I hope we have plenty of fun!
Stephen: I’m sure we will—I appreciate you takin’ the time.

Collette: When did you start writing?

Stephen: A long time ago—I was working seriously on a novel by the time I was 12. I spent my teenage years writing and rewriting, honing my craft toward the point where I could finally publish. With two novels under my belt now at 21, I think it was worth it. Writers aren’t always popular among their peers, but popularity is fleeting anyway. You do what you were born to do.

Collette: I agree completely! So where do you get your ideas?
Stephen: From the world around me, unfortunately. There’s moments when I wish I could just hang it up and write about Templars and secret societies, thousand-year-old fantasies that don’t have a prayer of coming true. But, no, I’m writing about terrorists, real-life terrorists in slightly fictional scenarios. And in the real world, every secular Arab government in the Middle East is on the verge of collapse, Hezbollah is on the U.S.-Mexico border, and in South Asia, the nuclear-armed nation states of Pakistan and India seem as close as ever to a flashpoint. We live in a world of increasing danger.

Collette: That's very true, unfortunately. Were you inspired by someone to write the genre you’re writing in?

Stephen: Oh, yes, I think everyone is to more or less an extent. In my case, it was Tom Clancy, whom I still consider a bit of a “virtual” mentor. His early novels are a case study in how to write a military/espionage thriller. I learned so much from his style of writing, and there has been no greater honor over these last few months than to hear Pandora’s Grave compared to a Clancy novel. I should also acknowledge the debt that I owe to the writers of 24. I often joke that I learned everything I know about pacing from 24, but to more or less an extent, it’s true. For all the writing I had done, I never quite got on top of pacing until I watched my first season of Bauer—I think it was Day 6—the season L.A. got nuked. It was there that I realized the critical importance of hooking a reader in every scene, and things took off.

Collette: What is your writing process?
Stephen: Anything but methodical. Going into a book I have no outline, no character profiles, nothing except a general concept of the plot in my head. I don’t write every day—yes, I break that rule, too—but I continually mull over the plot points I’ve established and figure out how to get from A to B. Once I’m to the point where I’m thinking about the book obsessively, things are going well. When I’m there, nothing offends me worse than someone saying “so what if your characters were real”. What’s this if business?

Collette: Haha, I can agree with that, too! My characters are all real. So do you write full-time?
Stephen: By no means—sales of Pandora’s Grave are going well, but not that well. I’m not sure if that’s something I would want, regardless—I do some of my best “plotting” when I’m otherwise occupied.

Collette: If not, what do you do to pay your bills?
Stephen: I’m a cleaner—no, not the hit man type, but an honest-to-goodness mop-and-bucket cleaner. Why? It keeps my hands occupied and my mind free. I know a lot of writers who have chosen a career that requires their writing talents—and I think it’s a mistake. You can’t focus on your novel if your creativity is being drained dry by the day job.

Collette: How did you come up with the idea of Pandora’s Grave?
Stephen: Pandora’s Grave is based on the premise of an Iranian-sponsored act of biological terrorism against the state of Israel. If you want to know how real that premise is, you just need to look at the news— Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in New York just a couple weeks ago. The Iranian threat is real, and more terrifying that most people know. There’s politicians who believe you could negotiate with a nuclear Iran—as though this eventuality would simply be the second coming of the Cold War. You can’t negotiate with leaders who are hell-bent on apocalypse. It’s just not happening. And biological weapons are cheaper and simpler to manufacture than nukes.

Part of the premise of Pandora’s Grave was to write a different type of thriller. To see if it was possible to strip out the profanity and graphic sex that has long characterized the genre and still write a gritty, hardcore thriller. Let’s just say, I’ve not heard any complaints—in fact I think the Christian faith of my protagonist adds a great deal of depth to the series, as you see him try to balance the conflicting demands of his faith and his job.

Collette: How long did it take you to complete?

Stephen: Well, that’s a question that takes me back to the early days of my writing. I’ve been writing about the Shadow Warriors for years now—but most of those completed manuscripts have wound up in the virtual dustbin. It wasn’t until I was 17 that I completed a manuscript that I was happy with, and then I had to go back and rewrite the beginning of the series. Pandora’s Grave is the result, and I think it lays a solid foundation for the series.

Collette: Pandora’s Grave was so intricate and intense. Can you describe your research into your subject?
Stephen: For me, the research of a story is almost as fun as the writing itself. For Pandora’s Grave, I did a lot of research into the culture and religion of the Middle East, which included reading the Qur’an and many of the hadiths. And that was only one facet of the story—I spent months researching the CIA, special operations, and the intelligence community. Above all, I trust the story has conveyed my immense respect for the real-life counterparts of my characters—they truly are the only ones standing between this country and another terrorist attack.

Collette: Can you describe your protagonist Harry Nichols in a few sentences? What is he like? What does he want? Goals, strengths, weaknesses, etc.

Stephen: Harry differs from your traditional thriller character in a lot of ways. One of the most profound is probably the fact that he is a team leader, not the classic “lone wolf”. Which means he brings to the table a completely different skill set of leadership abilities—one reviewer compared him to Alistair Maclean’s Keith Mallory from the Guns of Navarone, and I’d say it’s an apt comparison.

He’s profoundly good at what he does, particularly in judging people and knowing the amount of force to use in a given situation. He’s a minimalist—never do more than you have to in order to achieve the desired result. Weaknesses? I think I’ll let the series play out and reveal those—he does have them. One of the core things about Harry is that taking a human life is not something he does lightly, even if he has learned to do it effectively. As he says during the early pages of Day of Reckoning, the sequel to Pandora’s Grave, he walks with the ghosts of every man he’s ever killed. What affect that burden has on him is yet to be seen.

Collette: I did find him very human in the story. So did you have a favorite character to develop? If so, who?

Stephen: Oh, my, that’s a hard one. I love all my characters—and prove it by blowing them up, shooting them, throwing them off buildings, etc. I think one of my favorites—and I know one of yours—would be the character of Harry’s boss, Bernard Kranemeyer. Kranemeyer is such an interesting character in that he’s a former Delta Force sergeant, and he brings a lot of that attitude to his current job as Director of the Clandestine Service. He views it as his responsibility to keep the bureaucrats and politicos of D.C. off the backs of his men in the field, and has few scruples as to how he goes about it. In some ways, Kranemeyer is the reluctant bureaucrat—someone who, despite losing a leg to an IED attack, has never lost those instincts that go with being in the field. I think fans of Kranemeyer in Pandora’s Grave will be delighted to see him return in an even larger role in the sequel.

Collette: Definitely. He was one that I admired tremendously. Are any of your characters based on real-life friends or acquaintances?

Stephen: How about enemies? There’s a few of them in the novel—I always tell people to tread carefully, or they might wind up an Iranian terrorist, a corrupt bureaucrat, or some such villain. None of my characters are taken directly from life, but I certainly draw character traits, personality quirks, dialogue, etc. from just about everyone I’ve ever known. It’s one of the side effects of being a pastor’s son—you become a pretty keen observer of human nature.

Collette: Ha, that's great! Well, do you ever incorporate yourself into your characters?
Stephen: Definitely. I’m particularly invested in Harry—I can probably say that there’s no emotion he feels that I haven’t felt, albeit on a considerably less dramatic scale. I don’t think I could write about it convincingly otherwise.

Collette: Tell me a little about how you were able to balance the different countries, ideologies, characters and military presence throughout the story.

Stephen: Well, despite my emotional attachment to the characters, particularly Harry—I consider my role in the story as that of reporter, in the sense that I don’t so much create the events as simply tell what happens. I work very hard not to editorialize, to keep my own voice and ideology out of the story—which I achieve by honoring the point of view. In other words, when I write a scene—I write it through the eyes and belief system of the central character in that scene. And it doesn’t really matter if that character believes in pink elephants—I write it as if it were true and count on the readers to figure out that the guy’s nuts.

Collette: Your descriptions of the inner workings of the CIA really threw me for a loop. It all seemed like a firsthand account of what really goes on behind the scenes. Can you tell me how you were able to express that so well?

Stephen: Yes, but then I’d have to kill you. . .Seriously, I’ve had people ask if my background was in the intelligence community, if I had to file Freedom of Information Act papers to do my research, etc., but everything I wrote about is public knowledge, supplemented by a few educated guesses on my part, based on the research I’ve done through the years. And yet, since the book has come out, I’ve been told that my portrayal of Langley was spot-on. It’s a good feeling.

One of the things that is so realistic about Pandora’s Grave is that it is a team-based thriller. The “lone wolf” stories truly are a product of fiction—I was told by one former member of the intelligence community that there’s a support team of twenty for every man out in the field. Now, I don’t convey things to that extent—as I told Suspense Magazine, I had to strip away a lot of layers of bureaucracy just to tell my story—but I do convey the essence of reality.
Collette: You did a great job with what you had, Stephen!  

Collette: The tenuous balance between friend and foe was a strong component in Pandora’s Grave. We see it in personal interactions as well as political ones. How close to reality do you think your story is?

Stephen: Closer than I’d like to think, probably. One thing about Pandora’s Grave—while the good guys do win in the end, it’s not always clear who they are. I enjoy painting characters in shades of grey—not in the sense of moral equivalency, but in the sense that every man has his own morality, no matter how twisted. And that creates interesting scenarios when people like Harry find themselves working alongside very unsavory characters toward a “common” goal. Or at least what seemed like one at the time.

Collette: Are you still writing? If so, what will your future projects entail?

Stephen: Well, the Shadow Warriors haven’t seen their last curtain call—not by a long shot. The team from Pandora’s Grave returns for an encore in Day of Reckoning, the second book in the series. A Pakistani terrorist is on U.S. soil with a chemical weapon, and the only man who can stop him is on the run, suspected of involvement in the bombing of the CIA Headquarters Building and the assassination of CIA Director David Lay. With twenty days till Christmas, Harry Nichols finds himself out in the cold. . .and the clock is ticking down toward the most horrific attack ever launched against this country.

Collette: How often do you read?

Stephen: All the time—I don’t read as much fiction now, unfortunately, due to the amount of research I have to sift through for my own writing. But I’ll never stop reading, it’s been a lifelong passion.

Collette: What is your favorite genre to read?
Stephen: Thrillers—surprise, surprise. I read extensively in the genre to keep myself fresh—although I do branch out. I love historical fiction, a genre I dabbled in with my first book Sword of Neamha, a Celtic adventure novel set in pre-Roman Britain—and I do a lot of other reading. My most recent read was the 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged by the Objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand. A truly prophetic foretelling of the world we live in today.

Collette: Do you prefer eBooks, paperbacks or hardcovers?

Stephen: Well, I read in part to get away from the screens in my life, so I definitely prefer my books to be in print. That said, the low cost of e-books has enabled me to familiarize myself with a lot of great authors over the last year, thriller writers like Gary Ponzo, Lili Tufel, and R.E. McDermott. A paperless future? I don’t think so, but the e-book tide is building.

Where can we find you online?
Barnes & Noble:

Collette: Where is Pandora’s Grave available for purchase?

Stephen: It is available at the above links for electronic readers of all varieties, as well as in paperback at

Collette: Do you have a release date for your next book?

Stephen: My hope is to have Day of Reckoning out by late next year, but we’ll see how it goes. No hard and fast release dates, editing can really mess those up.

Collette: Thank you so much, Stephen! What an intense story you have. A great read!!

Stephen: Thanks so much for having me, Collette. It was great talking with you.

Here is my review of Pandora’s Grave:

When I first opened this book, I grew very excited. A thriller lover at heart, I began a ride that kept me belted in my rollercoaster car from the very first page. All the while I kept thinking, oh my goodness, this story is great! Stephen England has written an intense, powerful and exciting thriller that seems so realistic that you feel as though he has seen it with his own eyes and survived it to sit down and tell the tale.

Meet Harry Nichols, a CIA operative, sent all over the world with his team to prevent a terrible attack that could kill millions. His job is not easy. His life is not perfect. Yet his loyalty to his country sees him willing to kill and be killed to save it. While Harry is completing his job, governments, military agencies and other operatives are all working either with him or against him.

England has written a thoroughly researched story that is so vivid and realistic that you will truly believe you are reading a first-hand account. His characters are human, his governments are shallow and tricky webs of lies and personal ambition woven among the brave and stouthearted, and his agencies are a tenuous balance of trust and mistrust. On top of that, Mr. England has also integrated the different ideologies and religious beliefs of the Middle East in such a knowledgeable way that I could not believe how well thought out and brilliantly written this book was. Move over Steve Berry, James Rollins and Lee Child!


jenny milchman said...

I've read about your work before, Stephen, and was glad to hear these more in depth thoughts here. It's interesting that you've read mainstream thrillers that are characterized by profanity and sex, as that hasn't been my experience with the authors I tend to. I agree that the best suspense doesn't depend on those elements at all.

Stephen England said...

Thanks for your comment, Jenny. I view such content as gratuitous "filler" at best--so I was happy to leave it behind with this book. It was a fun book to write and I enjoyed being interviewed by Collette

Collette said...

Thank you both for stopping in and commenting! I love action stories that stick to the action myself, and your story had enough of that to keep everyone busy, Stephen! Well done!