(interview conducted by Susie Sheehey for the Greater Fort Worth Writers Group.)
Patrick Larkin is a bestselling author specializing in historical, military, and espionage thrillers. His collaborations with Larry Bond—including Red Phoenix, Vortex, Cauldron, The Enemy Within, and Day of Wrath—have won critical acclaim for their suspense, realism, and unblinking appreciation of geopolitical and modern military realities. He spent several years in Washington, D.C. as a researcher for a committee of the House of Representatives, and then became a political and corporate speech writer. He's co-written multiple novels with Robert Ludlum and Larry Bond, as well as written adventures for a Star Trek role-playing game and created the background history for Battletech- which has spawned a whole series of popular board games, computer games and novels.
Thanks so much for joining us today, Pat!
Tell us a bit about your latest novel and its characters.
THE STANDARD-BEARER is the first of a number of planned sequels to my Roman-era historical mystery/thriller, THE TRIBUNE. And like THE TRIBUNE, it’s told as a first-person narrative by my protagonist, the young, determined, honorable, and sometimes reckless Roman soldier, Lucius Aurelius Valens. Many of the characters I introduced in the first book appear again. Among them are: Aedan, Valens’s lighthearted Celtic comrade-in-arms. His older, wiser, and more cautious personal physician, Aristides. And Marah of Magdala, a beautiful, troubled, and wealthy widow with whom he had a tempestuous and illicit affair, an affair condemned by Roman law, by her family, and by her faith.
When book opens in the summer of A.D. 20, Valens and his men intercept a caravan from the East smuggling arms and armor into the province, and he’s ordered to track down and destroy those plotting rebellion against Roman rule. What might seem a simple and straightforward task quickly becomes a nightmare as Valens and his companions are drawn deeper into a maze of treachery, deceit, and murder. If I do my job right, THE STANDARD-BEARER will take readers on a wild, breakneck ride from the barren hills beyond the Jordan, through Jerusalem’s twisting, crowded, and dangerous streets, and finally deep into the desolate wilderness around the Dead Sea.
What inspired you to write this story?
When I started writing THE TRIBUNE, I thought of it as a stand-alone historical thriller. But by the time I finished the last scene, I realized that the story was much larger and more intricate than I’d first imagined. And that meant I had more mysteries for Valens and his companions to solve, more conspiracies to unravel, and more deadly battles to fight. There won’t be any cliff-hangers in the series—no books that leave the reader waiting for the next novel to find out what happened. But each new book will reveal another piece of the bigger, underlying story.
Who is your favorite character and why?
The cheap answer would be: Whichever one I’m writing now…because if I didn’t find them interesting—even the villains—I’m too naturally lazy to do the hard work involved in pulling them out of my mind and onto the page. [Grin.]
Probably, though, my longest-running favorite would be Lucius Aurelius Valens. I’d never written in the first-person before THE TRIBUNE and being forced to tell a whole story in one voice meant I had to dig deeply into his personality. From a purely practical perspective, he’s also a great character for a thriller. Valens is a man out-of-sync with his times. In an age when Imperial Rome is ruled by aging cynics like Tiberius Caesar and Sejanus, the cruel, conniving Praetorian Prefect, any man who genuinely tries to live up to the old Republican virtues of honor, honesty, and courage is just asking for trouble! Like most writers, I tend to be a thinker and an observer…not a doer. So it’s a lot of fun to dive into the mind of a character whose first impulse is to act, sometimes unwisely, if always with the best of intentions, and who usually puts himself in mortal danger as a result.
But I do have a new character in a book I’m outlining—this one set during the American Civil War—who I think will become another favorite. Where Valens always tries to act rightly and inevitably puts himself in danger, Nathaniel Fox ends up in danger and forced to act heroically despite doing everything he can to avoid both.
Tell us about your writing process (outline or a die-hard ‘pantser’).
Oh, I’ve learned that I need a detailed outline before I really commit to writing anything more than a few thousand words. Knowing that I’ve got the whole arc of a real story in hand is vital. A few years ago, I got cocky and figured that I could write a contemporary thriller I’d been contemplating without bothering with an outline. After all, I thought, with six published books to my name, I was a pro, a literary veteran. And since I had a fantastic opening and a spectacular climax already firmly in mind, all I had to do was write my way through the middle. Well, I hit the creative wall about 10,000 words in…and I still haven’t yet figured out how the two pieces of that story connect!
Now, before I start writing, I make sure that I’ve got a fairly clear understanding of the main characters—everything from their appearance to brief bios to their motivations and quirks. And then I lay out the book by chapter and scene, sketching in each plot point and location in enough detail so that I can see how all the pieces fit together. That doesn’t mean that things won’t change as I fight my way through the book. Scenes and chapters often shift and some pieces of action or narrative that seemed important vanish, while newer scenes I hadn’t first contemplated take shape. I think I’ve hit a new record, though, with the outline for THE STANDARD-BEARER. It’s close to 40,000 words, complete with whole sections of dialogue, description, and action…not bad for a book that will probably clock out at 110,000 words in total!
Tell us about your self-publishing experience (or e-pub experience).
I’ve been looking forward to testing the eBook waters for a couple of years now. The old publishing model—the one where a relative handful of people control which stories are printed and which ones are ignored—has been dying for a long time. The old model was great if you wrote books that fit the template these gatekeepers thought would sell. But it was terrible if you were trying to think outside of that rather cramped New York insider box. And, in the end, the results—rapidly declining sales and profits—tell the whole story. If something can’t go on, it won’t.
From a writer’s perspective, the ongoing collapse of the old publishing world means an end to those comforting advance checks—and those usefully dire punishments always threatened for failing to meet a deadline. On the other hand, I think the new eBook world offers writers some real advantages of its own, including creative freedom and the chance for their stories to build audiences over time. I’ve always hated the fact that most new books only get six to eight weeks on the shelves of most bookstores. That really isn’t enough time for anyone to buy, read, and recommend most books. And that, in turn, pushed publishers to emphasize copycat stories that followed existing trends…not original works that would make trends. Also, research and anecdotal evidence show that readers buy more eBooks and read them faster than they do print versions. And finally, from a crassly commercial but realistic viewpoint, authors selling their eBooks at $2.99 make more per book than they would from a $9.99 paperback and close to what they would from hardbacks priced at $25.00 and more. (In the end, I suspect that the surviving publishers will find themselves buying the rights to print books that sold well as eBooks, rather than the other way around.)
Fortunately, my agent, Robert Gottlieb, the head of Trident Media Group, is a shrewd and creative guy in his own right. So Trident has opened its own eBook Operation. Although Trident isn’t acting a publisher, Robert and his people are doing their best to make the process of putting out eBooks as seamless and pain-free as possible—including handling the digital conversion of manuscripts, ISBN numbers, and putting authors in touch with a range of cover artists and PR people.
Right now, Larry Bond and I are working through the process of putting out the five military and counter-terrorist thrillers we co-wrote—RED PHOENIX, VORTEX, CAULDRON, THE ENEMY WITHIN, and DAY OF WRATH. It’s been both humbling to read through a million-plus words we wrote 10-20 years ago and exciting to see these novels coming back to life. I just got a look at the new cover for RED PHOENIX, created by a very talented artist, Kimberly Killion (www.kimberlykillion.com), and it’s better than the original cover from Warner Books. With luck and some hard work, all five will be available for the Kindle, Nook, and other eReaders in just a few weeks.
And once they’re out the door, I can get back to finishing THE STANDARD-BEARER and preparing THE TRIBUNE for a simultaneous eBook rerelease.
What are your key factors in writing action scenes?
The great difficulty lies in capturing the sheer intensity and split-second immediacy involved in any fight or chase. To do that you need to focus tightly, zooming in only on a few of the things your point-of-view character sees, says, hears, smells, feels, and, most importantly, does. Sentences compress. Secondary clauses vanish. There’s no room for extended interior monologues, elegant dialogue, and thorough, lovingly detailed description. If you want to capture the reader, to bring him fully into that short, sharp, and deadly moment, you can’t drag things out. The bad news is that most readers have seen a lot of action scenes in films and television, so they have certain expectations of how gunfights and hand-to-hand melees go. The good news is that those images they bring with them also mean you don’t have describe every movement involved in a sword fight, a gun battle, or a hand-to-hand struggle. Their imaginations work for you.
Here’s an example from THE TRIBUNE, part of a scene where Valens is jumped by two assassins in an alley in Antioch:
There were two men close behind me – one much taller and broader-shouldered than the other. Both wore tattered, sand-colored robes. Loose hoods concealed most of their faces. Both carried long knives.
Stunned, I stepped back just as the big man lunged at me. I threw my left arm up in a desperate bid to knock the dagger away. The blade tore a line of fire across my forearm and then skidded off the bone.
Panting, I fell back. I needed time. Time to get my sword out. Time to defend myself
The big man flicked my blood from his knife, grinned nastily at me, and waved his comrade forward.
I spun round and pulled the stack of cages over, spilling birds and broken wicker across the alley. The frightened doves whirled up in a cloud of beating wings.
Caught off-guard, the smaller man backed off with his hands shielding his face, swearing loudly.
I yanked my sword out of its scabbard and thrust it into his stomach in the same smooth motion. I could feel it bite deep. He screamed and folded over the blade. I tore the sword loose as he went down.
Before I could bring my blade back into position, the big man attacked again. He leaped straight over the body of his dying comrade and threw himself into me.
I slammed into the stone wall at my back, gasping as the impact knocked the air out of my lungs. My sword spun away. His dagger grated along my ribs, ripping more flesh and muscle.
How much in-depth research did you do for your historical novel, THE TRIBUNE? Was it mostly done before, or researched as you wrote along?
I did a lot of the research while outlining the novel. Part of that was because I love history, so it was pure fun to learn more about Roman-controlled Syria and Galilee and the tactics, weapons, and equipment of a Roman auxiliary cavalry regiment. But part of that was out of sheer terror at the thought of getting something significant wrong. Historical fiction readers are generally a well-educated and merciless bunch. They seize on errors of fact or interpretation with great and public glee. But really the process of research never ended. Even with the most thorough outline and the most in-depth research, the act of writing each scene inevitably turned up something new I needed to learn more about—everything from the street layout of Antioch-on-the-Orontes, to the menu for an elaborate Roman meal, to the methods used by a competent Greek doctor to suture and treat a wound.
How did you get involved with co-author Larry Bond?
When I was working as a researcher for a House committee in Washington, D.C., a Chicago-based game company asked me to write the future history for a science fiction wargame they were releasing. Creating a fictional history of the human race up to the year 3025 sounded like a lot of fun, so I agreed. But when they asked me whether I wanted a 1 percent royalty or a straight $400 fee, I made my first big publishing error. I took the cash. After all, I thought, how many copies of a game about giant robots running around bashing each other can they possibly sell? Well…a lot it turns out. BATTLETECH went on to spawn a whole series of computer games, novels, and even an animated series.
On the other hand, before I fully realized my blunder, the game company asked me to give a seminar on the background history I’d written at that year’s National Wargaming Convention. Well, I gave my talk and then ended up signing a copy of the game for one of the guys who’d attended. He invited me to join a gaming group that met at a friend’s house in northern Virginia every Saturday. Politely, I thanked him and, politely, took the address he offered. But I didn’t really plan to ever go. I mean, I was a hotshot Congressional staffer…and no longer a mere gaming geek.
So, naturally, the next Saturday I showed up at the address I’d been given. It was Larry Bond’s house. He showed me inside. There was a guy sitting on the floor, chain-smoking, while typing away at a Mac. “This is Tom Clancy,” Larry told me.
I stared. THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER had just come out and it was already a bestseller.
“Tom and I are writing a book together,” Larry said matter-of-factly. “We’re calling it RED STORM RISING, and the guys and I are wargaming out the battles in the book.”
Larry and I became good friends and, later, when he and Clancy finished RED STORM RISING, we decided to write our own military thriller—one set in a second Korean War. That became RED PHOENIX, and it was the start of a very productive and very fun ten-year-plus writing partnership.
How did you acquire the knowledge to write this genre convincingly?
Reading, reading, and more reading. Since I’ve never been in a battle myself, the closest I can ever come is to read every piece of military history, every soldier’s memoir, and every piece of classic historical and military fiction I can get my hands on. One of the most lasting influences on me has been John Keegan’s THE FACE OF BATTLE. Although it focuses on what Keegan hopes is a clearer means of describing historical battles and combat, his emphasis on knowing as much as possible about what those in battle could really see and hear and understand—and in knowing whether they were tired or panicked or drunk or wildly excited—seems to apply also to writing convincing and plausible, and, hopefully, realistic military fiction.
One of my treasured memories is hearing a story told by one of my younger brothers. When he was a cadet at West Point in the early 1990s, he encountered an older sergeant, a Vietnam veteran, reading RED PHOENIX. He told my brother, “These guys get it. They know what a firefight can be like.”
That meant a lot to me.
If you could have lunch/coffee/tea with anyone, living or deceased, who would it be and why?
Now that is a tough question. I mean, how do you choose between Churchill, Wellington, Lincoln, John Paul II, President Reagan, or any one of hundreds of fascinating personalities? But, if pressed, I’d pick Ulysses S. Grant. Although underrated by most of his contemporaries and by many historians, he was probably the most successful general in American history—the man whose courage, firmness of purpose, insight, and humanity perfectly matched our country’s need. Without the wartime partnership of Lincoln and Grant, the Civil War could easily have had a very different and an even more tragic ending. He was also, from the evidence of his wartime dispatches and his MEMOIRS, a great writer, capable of producing clear, coherent, and memorable prose under extreme pressure. And, despite his reputation as a taciturn, silent man, he was a gifted and funny conversationalist with those he trusted.
Besides, part of my not-so-secret plan in writing one or more Civil War novels would be the chance to use Grant as a character!
Thanks so much for this inspiring interview, Pat!
Return to the front page