His orders are simple: ‘The safety catch is off. Return that girl to her family and drag those bastards back to justice. Dead or alive. It makes no difference to me.’
Alex Morgan – policeman, soldier and spy for Intrepid, the black ops division of Interpol – is on the hunt for Serbian war criminals. But these guys were never going to let it be that simple. An assassination attempt is made on the presiding judge of the international tribunal. Days later, the judge’s daughter, the famous and beautiful classical pianist Charlotte Rose, vanishes in mysterious circumstances.
The girl is not just a pretty face and the daughter of a judge, however. She’s also the goddaughter of Intrepid’s veteran commander, General Davenport. It’s up to Morgan and the Intrepid team to track the kidnappers and the missing woman before the very fabric of international justice is picked apart at its fraying edges.
Part James Bond and part Jason Bourne, Alex Morgan must walk the line between doing the right thing and getting the job done. And this time he’s got permission to make it personal.
Author Chris Allen recently sat down for an interview with The Big Thrill:
It appears that the warrior tradition runs deep in your family. Tell us a bit about how that led to your own military career, which obviously informs your fiction so powerfully.
I’m a first generation Australian, with a strong British lineage in both my paternal and maternal ancestry. So, almost all of my earliest influences can be traced back to Britain in some way, specifically England and Wales. I grew up on the stories my father told of my grandfather and my uncles during both world wars and I guess, as a young lad, those things really resonated with me. I felt a strong pull towards military service very early on and, as I got older, I became serious about it and that childhood interest grew into a real sense of duty. It was inevitable that I would ultimately choose a military career. I feel extremely privileged to have served.
We have a great and very eclectic mix of military service on both sides of the family, soldiers, sailors and airmen, but I feel the strongest link to my father’s eldest brother, Stanley, who served with the Parachute Regiment during the Second World War. Sadly, I never met Uncle Stan but you can imagine the great sense of pride and accomplishment I felt when, many years later as a young Australian Army Officer, I was chosen for a highly coveted attachment to British Airborne Forces. In terms of my family history, I really felt as though I had come full circle at that point.
When injuries I’d sustained in service eventually caught up with me, I was medically retired having reached the rank of Major. Following a brief sojourn into the world of humanitarian aid during the emergency in East Timor in 1999, my post-military career has predominantly been in law enforcement and government security roles.
Getting paid to jump out airplanes sounds too good to be true (for some of us, anyway). But it must have been harrowing as well. Can you talk about a real-life experience or two that might have found its way into Alex Morgan’s exploits?
You know, it’s a funny question, because if there’s one thing paratroopers love to do – especially ex-paratroopers – it’s exchange stories about ‘that one jump’. In fact, just this morning, I received an email from an old friend who said “Paratroopers are great optimists. We have to be to survive some of the stuff we’ve done.”
There are literally hundreds of experiences I can draw on and many of them have and will continue to appear in my Alex Morgan novels. One stands out that I decided to include in the very first Alex Morgan adventure, DEFENDER. I don’t want to spoil it too much but it involved a number of jumps we were doing while I was attached to 3PARA in the UK. The Regiment was required to trial the new low level parachute being considered for introduction into British Airborne Forces. These particular ‘chutes are designed to deploy, as the name implies, at very low levels. We’d jumped a few times on this particular day at a much lower altitude than we usually would have – so the margin for error was significantly reduced i.e. jumping out of the aircraft at low altitude means less air time = much less time to rectify a problem should the need arise. In essence, you jump with a large parachute on your back (the Main) and a much smaller parachute on your chest (the Reserve) – although despite the fact that we were still jumping with Reserve parachutes, at such low altitude they were more or less along for the ride rather than being of any actual use to us.
On this particular jump, when I exited the aircraft into the full blast of the aircraft’s slipstream and carried out all of the drills familiar to every paratrooper, my Main parachute wasn’t quite in the mood to comply. In fact, it was almost belligerently refusing to participate in the activity at all. I thought at the time that it must have had something against Australians! So, realizing that the ground was rapidly on its way up to meet us and that my Reserve parachute was nothing more than a reluctant passenger, my only option was to somehow convince the Main parachute to do what it was supposed – fly!
After a few – very few – thought provoking seconds engaged in a macabre parody of riding an invisible bicycle while trying to pull apart the support chains of a children’s playground swing, I eventually managed to get some air into the canopy and the recalcitrant parachute deployed. Needless to say, I survived unharmed albeit a little shaken and stirred.
In another interview, for the blog THE CREATIVE PENN, you provided an absolutely fascinating (and invaluable, for other authors) narrative, “FIVE THINGS PARATROOPING CAN TEACH YOU ABOUT SELF-PUBLISHING.” Can you recap that distilled wisdom here?
‘To the brave belong all things’ – sometimes whenever I needed encouragement to launch out into the unknown, that famous Celtic motto would come to me and it worked every time. It applies equally to writers confronted by the challenges of this new era of publishing when we find ourselves somewhere between traditional publishing and eBook/digital domination. In my humble view, there’s still a way to go before the world’s readers unanimously adopt digital reading platforms. In the meantime, the priority remains – good storytelling. If you can create a good story, people will read it no matter what format it’s in.
So, in addition to my pilfering of the motto of the Celts, there are other things I learned as a Paratrooper that have equal application as a writer.
(1) Trust your peers: In the paratroops we would always check and double-check each other’s gear before doing anything dangerous. As writers we have friends, family, colleagues, fellow authors and online communities who will encourage, support and where necessary guide us, too. Writers are no longer alone in the world. Listen to honest feedback and use it – it’s your lifeline.
(2) It’s a long way down: It can be overwhelming venturing out into the world of publishing. I recall peering over the ramps of aircraft many times and being so weighed down by the gear I was carrying that I just wanted to jump, if only to take a load off. Once you get on your way in publishing, adrenaline and pig-headedness will keep you going. Stay the course, even when it seems like it’ll never end, and resist the urge to hurl your computer out of the nearest window.
(3) Believe in yourself: If you don’t believe in yourself, how can you expect others to? All writers have a vision for their work and their story, so whenever decisions need to be made – from editing to book covers – try to remember your original vision and trust your instinct. Extra points if you can take direction from the experts to help you realise that vision!
(4) Have some balls (if you’ll pardon the expression!): Dr Seuss told us: “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.” So, heed that advice and be YOU – no one else can. Be authentic and different and courageous, and you’ll find people who enjoy your work and engage with it. Then, once your book is ready, go out at find your readership!
(5) Outsmart, outwit, outmanoeuvre: Did you know that obstacles are designed to deliberately manoeuvre us in a direction someone else wants us to go? On your publishing journey you’ll find people and organisations who, for whatever reasons, will put up roadblocks to your progress. The trick is to know how to get around them, and bring your best game so that you can regroup and find another way to achieve your objective. You should keep this in mind at all times.
Finally, enjoy the ride – Just as exhilarating as parachuting is the feeling that you’re part of the groundswell that is changing the publishing industry, taking your books to market and connecting with readers on your own terms. Yes, it can feel scary, overwhelming, incredibly exciting, and frustrating – but take a risk and live your dreams!
You’ve often mentioned Ian Fleming’s influence on your writing. What impressed you most about his work? What were the practical lessons you took away from reading him?
There are legions of much better qualified people than I who have tackled this question. However, from my personal perspective it was very simple: no matter how many times I read his work, Ian Fleming has always managed to make me feel as though I’m standing right there in the middle of the story.
Like so many of his fans from my generation, I discovered Fleming’s writing as a consequence of the films. In fact, I remember the very moment when a school mate told me that I absolutely had to watch a movie that was going to be on TV that Friday night. The movie was Dr No featuring James Bond. At that point, I’d never heard of it. Of course, I watched it with my dad and was sold for life. The great thing was that the TV channel was playing the whole series every Friday night leading up to the launch of the (then) latest Bond epic THE SPY WHO LOVED ME. So, not only did I get to watch all of the movies for the first time over those weeks, I then had my first ultimate Bond experience and got to attend my very first Bond film at the cinema. It was 1977.
The most important thing in all this was that I immediately started searching for the books. You see, this was the 1970s, pre-video etc, when you literally had to wait for things to appear on TV purely by chance. So, if I wanted more, re-playing a movie over and over was not an option. The natural alternative was to actually read the stories. As a twelve or thirteen year old boy, I was just developing my love of reading and Fleming gave me exactly the kinds of stories that encouraged me to devour the books whenever I could find them. It wasn’t long before my love of his books vastly outweighed my interest in the films – many of which, as we all know, strayed light years away from the original stories. I have Fleming’s books to thank for both my love of reading and, appropriately, my dream to become a published author of action thrillers.
To this day, the shelf directly behind my writing desk is all Ian Fleming. I strive to achieve that same balance of realism and escapism that entertains the reader – an experience somewhere between the credible and the fantastic. Now, with two thrillers under my belt and a third underway, I feel confident that I’m achieving that.
Your out-of-the-gate command of storytelling tools in both DEFENDER and HUNTER is extraordinary, to say the least. At university, though, you studied business and security. How (besides diving into James Bond novels!) did you develop your impressive fiction skills?
I’ve never taken any formal writing courses or studied writing or literature at school or anything like that. But, during the course of my career – in the military and later in law enforcement – I learned to ‘get to the point’. When compiling reports we were always required to tell it like it was and to leave out any unnecessary bullshit. So, I’ve consciously adopted that approach to my storytelling. In modern action thrillers, the discerning reader doesn’t want to be bogged down in baggage that it going to interrupt the flow and pace of the story and I feel that way myself, as a reader. Of course, there will always be things that we absolutely must include in order to establish a context or a feeling but if it gets in the way, take it out. If you can’t bring yourself to remove some excess baggage completely, then put it somewhere else.
These days, authors have to be masterful marketers, as well. Your websites, www.defenderofthefaith.com and www.intrepidallen.com are clean, elegant, and powerful in the same way the books are. Tell us how you honed your own marketing skills. (And, as a follow-up, what advice can you offer for those just coming along?)
Well, I don’t mind admitting to having a lot of help in this regard.
My wife, Sarah Allen, is a social marketing consultant and very much the Captain of the ship when it comes to my online presence. Sarah and I have spent hours and hours in developing a look and feel for my work. The original Defender of the Faith website was the first stage in visualizing that but it won’t be around for much longer. We have now developed and enhanced the overall look and recently transitioned to the new IntrepidAllen site which is aligned to the new covers of both DEFENDER and HUNTER as issued by my publisher.
It’s absolutely invaluable for any author to have someone in your corner who is personally invested in bringing to life your vision – for yourself and your work – both online and offline.
For us it’s all about identifying me as a writer of old-school action thrillers balanced with a very contemporary look and feel that does Alex Morgan and INTREPID real justice. I’m a pretty old-fashioned guy generally and so reflecting that whilst also highlighting the excitement and integrity of the books was a challenge but I feel that we’ve really achieved something great and, above all, a bit different.
There is a thing called “Second Novel Syndrome,” wherein authors of very successful first books may find their next to be, let us say, a bit more challenging. Did that happen to you? And, if so, how did you push on through?
You know, that’s such an interesting point because I was really worried about it when I sat down to begin the novel that would become HUNTER. When I wrote DEFENDER I wasn’t signed to a publisher, so I had unlimited time (years) and could make as many corrections and deletions, including complete rewrites etc as I liked. It was a very different story with HUNTER. For the first time, I was under contract and had only a matter of months to get the story together from scratch. I felt a responsibility to turn out an even better story because that second novel is the make or break. Everyone says they have a novel in them but I want to write many more than just one. So, when the moment came to finally get the story down on the page, I treated it like any military task. It had to be done, I had a fixed timeframe within which to achieve it and failure was not an option!
I’m very happy to report that once I got started, there was no stopping me. The story was well established in my head and within my notes and it was just waiting to be told. I burned the midnight oil in order to achieve the deadline and it really kept me focused. As I said earlier, there was no room or time for any unnecessary baggage.
Overwhelmingly, the responses to HUNTER have been outstanding. My objective was to cement Alex Morgan and INTREPID as a new breed of action thriller with an old school familiarity and I feel that I’ve achieved that.
Your website bio mentions that you’re exploring film interest in DEFENDER and HUNTER. After getting published in the first place, film is probably every writer’s second greatest dream. What is your approach to developing film properties?
I’m exactly the same as many other writers and getting my stories onto the big screen has been a dream of mine since the days when I first saw DR. NO on TV and followed up weeks later with seeing THE SPY WHO LOVED ME at the cinema.
For a start, I write in a cinematic way because I see the stories that way when I’m creating them. So, in terms of how that would translate to the screen, I feel that they are easily ready for screen adaptation now. All that aside, the most important thing that a writer needs when navigating their way through the treacle of the film & TV world is good legal advice. Forget the obvious attraction and promise of fame and fortune that comes hand in hand with film interest. If the deal isn’t in your favour, you’ll never forgive yourself for giving away your work. It is a whole new ballgame when you start receiving the first drafts of legal agreements surrounding how an arrangement might work between you as the creator and a production company or partner. So, good legal advice – experienced specifically in the area of film & TV – is essential. One final piece of advice is that no matter how far you may have progressed in film negotiations, be prepared to walk away at anytime if you feel (and your legal advice supports) that the deal isn’t good for you. It’s your work. Make sure you benefit from any adaptations of it.
Down to the nitty-gritty, here. Hemingway famously wrote standing up. Capote, perhaps infamously, wrote in bed. What’s your typical writing day? Spare no details, no matter how excruciating and revealing.
I once joked online that writers like to think of themselves (in my case anyway) as sitting behind a golden typewriter, wearing a tuxedo, sipping on martinis, tapping 3000 words a day with ease before retiring to a swim up bar for the evening. The reality is that when you’re on deadline you normally (again, in my case) stumble out of bed with a head full of dreams about your story, make coffee or tea or whatever your personal poison first thing in the morning, and then you find your way to your computer and remain that way until feeding time, or whatever, only to return and perpetuate the vicious cycle throughout the days and weeks prior to turning it in. Your family and friends become a distant memory – as does personal hygiene. I even kept a scrap of paper right beside the mouse where I would scrawl the word count down every time I reached some particular break point, in order to give myself immediate goals that would ultimately keep my numbers on track. Pathetic really. There ended up being a dozen or so pieces of paper scattered around my study with these ridiculous numbers scratched all over them which my wife, God bless her (and much to my humiliation) photographed and posted online. Probably no surprise that those same pages pretty much all contained tell-tale coffee stains or spilled Scotch – depending on the time of day!
So, in short, for me it’s about getting the words on the page and making sure that I’m sitting at the computer ready to record them whenever and however they’re ready to tumble forth from my imagination. If you’re going to procrastinate, then procrastinate at the keyboard. Don’t allow yourself to find distractions elsewhere in the house. You’ll never get a word written if you do!
Superstar thriller writer Lee Child says that he writes just one (as in, one) draft and sends that off to his publisher. What was your process for producing the final cuts of HUNTER and DEFENDER?
I love Lee Child’s books. He is a master storyteller and Jack Reacher is one of the great fictional characters of our time. I wish I could write with the same discipline as Lee: I’m not quite there – yet. But never say never, right?
The process of writing DEFENDER was very different from HUNTER. As I said earlier, it was my first and so it evolved over many years in various iterations before I finally arrived at the finished product. HUNTER on the other hand is a much better reflection of the way I work now. I spent time mapping out the general concept and then began to compile the structural plan, character development and research needs before I sat down at the computer. My routine is that I write from beginning to end and as I turn out a chapter or a number of chapters I stomp upstairs, hand them over to my chief reviewer, my wife Sarah, and then return to my writing dungeon and continue. When I eventually surface again, Sarah hands the pages back with her suggestions and corrections, and I return to the cave with my revisions. Sounds a little like the Eloi and the Morlocks! Pretty close, in fact.
Chris Allen writes escapist action thrillers for realists, having seen and done it all. Serving in three Commonwealth armies across two decades and four continents, one of the paratrooping elite, Chris saw the world from under a billowing parachute, often by night, entering foreign countries with the usual passport-stamping obligations eschewed. Exiting military life with injuries, Chris transitioned into humanitarian aid work during the East Timorese emergency, served with three major law enforcement agencies in Australia, protected Sydney’s most iconic landmark in the wake of 9-11 and between 2008 & 2012 was the Sheriff of New South Wales, one of the oldest law enforcement appointments in the land.
The Sword of INTERPOL: Chris’s creative literary brainchild, INTREPID, is a culmination of his military and law enforcement insider experience. INTREPID is the Intelligence, Recovery, Protection and Infiltration Division: the razor-sharp, ultra-secret, black ops division of INTERPOL, established to operate across the world, regardless of borders, politics or race.
Tabor earned an MFA from Johns Hopkins University and won the O.Henry Award for short fiction. He was the host and writer of the national PBS series, “The Great Outdoors, andco-creator and executive producer of The History Channel special, “Journey to the Center of the World.” He lives in Vermont, where he is at work on his next novel and a memoir about his days as a street cop in Washington, D.C.