The #friends section of this website is all about walking and talking with awesome mystery and thriller authors. This week I was lucky enough to catch up with David Bruns, half of a dynamic writing duo (with JR Olson) that gave us the contemporary thriller Weapons of Mass Deception. David talked about the delicate business of writing terror-based fiction, his favorite author, and what it takes to collaborate with a co-author. A new role for me in there? Read on!
1. Carmen Amato: David, thanks so much for stopping by. I was really impressed with your thriller Weapons of Mass Deception and am looking forward to your new book, Jihadi Apprentice. Both are about terrorism from two points of view: those defending US national security and terrorists bent on destroying Western civilization. What are the pros and cons of using terrorism as the basis for fiction?
David Bruns: Writing about a politically charged topic like terrorism is an artistic tightrope. On the plus side, we extrapolate from current events so the story has a sense of relevance and immediacy that grabs a reader’s attention. The downside is that exploring these topics can be scary. There’s a saying that the FBI agents use in Jihadi Apprentice: “The bad guys only need to be successful once. We need to be right every single day.” Unfortunately, I think it’s true.
My writing partner was a naval intelligence officer for 21 years and he’s witnessed scary events that never made the news–most of which he can’t talk about, even with me. One of the points we make in our books is that the world has become a gigantic game of Whack-A-Mole for the people trying to protect us. It’s scary, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s also real and makes for compelling fiction.
2. CA: How do you create multi-dimensional fictional characters, including the terrorists? Where do you look for inspiration when creating characters?
DB: In Jihadi Apprentice, we took on a difficult artistic challenge: how do we write a sympathetic terrorist? The inspiration for Ayana, a Somali-American teenager who is recruited by a terrorist group, was the newspaper articles about young Somalis being recruited to fight for ISIS. These are US citizens–born in America but with one foot in the traditional culture of their immigrant parents–who are persuaded to leave the US to fight overseas.
After consulting with contacts in law enforcement, academia and in the Somali community, our approach was to show the process of the young person being recruited, groomed, and manipulated into betraying their country, then realize what they’ve done.
Related post: A chat with Khaled Talib, author of Smokescreen
3. CA: You and J.R. Olson are co-authors and bill yourselves as the Two Navy Guys writing team. If you and I were to write a thriller together, what expectations would you have and what would you want to know about my writing habits and style?
DB: First off, I would love to collaborate with you! Co-writing has been a wonderful experience for us. Having someone to share the endless duties of plotting, writing, editing, and marketing is a godsend. I think the most important part of any collaboration is to understand where each person’s strengths lie and plan your project accordingly. In our case, we come up with the story idea and overall arc together, but JR does most of the plotting and research. I do the actual writing of the first drafts. We revise and edit together and share the marketing duties.
4. CA: Transition is a huge part of a mystery or thriller novel. Change amps up tension and forces characters to adapt in order to keep moving forward. Can you share a significant transition that you experienced or that you wrote for a character?
DB: I’ll use an example from Weapons of Mass Deception so I don’t want to give away any of the plot points in the new book. In WMD, Rafiq Roshed is a Hezbollah agent, and a very bad dude. About midway through the book, Rafiq gets sent to South America to develop a sleeper cell. While there, Rafiq falls in love with a wealthy heiress. He marries her, becomes a father, and inherits a massive fortune. Then he’s called on to fulfill his mission for his Iraqi handlers. The transition from despised terrorist to loving family man back to terrorist made Rafiq one of our most interesting characters.
5. CA: Now for some fun. You are shipwrecked with a crate labeled “Books.” What 3 books do you hope are in it?
DB: Only three? Wow, that’s tough. The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy is the book that enticed me to become a submarine officer. DUNE by Frank Herbert is my all-time favorite sci-fi novel and The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay is the absolute best coming-of-age story ever.
6. CA: You can invite any author, living or dead, to dinner at your home. What are you serving and what will the conversation be about?
DB: Charles Dickens and there wouldn’t be any food–just beer, lots of beer. To me, Dickens is the full package, the guy who recognized at an astonishingly early time that writing is a business. He was writing great stories, but also constantly reinventing how those works would be delivered to his reading public.
7. CA: Can you leave us with a quote, a place, or a concept from a book that inspired you?
DB: Louis L’Amour, one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century, had a great saying that I keep posted next to my computer: “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”
So many people talk about writing, but never actually get around to doing it. I think Louis has the right idea.
Want to know more about David Bruns and his books?
David is a recovering corporate executive who writes science fiction under his own name and thrillers with co-author, JR Olson. Weapons of Mass Deception, a novel of modern day nuclear terrorism, was their first co-authored book. Their latest novel, Jihadi Apprentice, about homegrown radicalism in the American Heartland, comes out in June 2016. Visit www.davidbruns.com to find out more.
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