Tom Wither writes thrillers involving military intelligence. He draws on his decades of service and experiences in that shadowy world, bringing authenticity to the dominion of James Bond and Jason Bourne and all those agents in between, by replacing myth-building with realistic scenarios drawn from today’s news stories.
Please give us a brief synopsis of AUTUMN FIRE?
AUTUMN FIRE begins a few days after THE INHERITOR, and takes the reader back into the world of counter-terror operations as David Cain, his protégé Emily Thompson, and Shane Mathews and his Wraith Team commandos continue their pursuit of Aziz, the head of the reborn al-Qaeda, and mastermind of a series of attacks carried out against America’s electrical power infrastructure.
In AUTUMN FIRE, Aziz, through his mercenary facilitator Vladimir Repin, carries out a second wave of strikes against the United States. The Saudis, annoyed that the covert mission Mathews led into Iran to capture Aziz has failed, demand an explanation from the U.S. government. After thwarting an attack on a nuclear reactor on the east coast, Mathews is ordered back to Saudi Arabia for an explanatory audience with the King. Mathews works to allay the concerns of the Saudis, and Cain tries to fathom Aziz’s real intent in the face of the nuclear poisoning of public water supplies.
Aziz travels to Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to personally oversee his next operation against the pre-positioned U.S. military supply ships, and then launches a cunning cyber-attack against U.S. airliners to lay the groundwork for achieving the first major step in restoring the Islamic Caliphate. Standing mere feet from the Saudi King, supported by traitorous members of the Royal Guard, can Cain, Mathews, and the Wraiths track down and stop Aziz before it’s too late?
AUTUMN FIRE is the second book featuring your protagonists, chasing the same anti-hero as in THE INHERITOR. Was that the plan when you began?
Yes. I’d always envisioned writing a three-book series using this set of characters. I wanted to illustrate some of the vulnerabilities in our national infrastructure, without drawing a roadmap for terrorists, and more importantly, bring to life through a compelling story, as well as the courage and sacrifices of our men and women in uniform and civil service.
So are you working on the third book now?
Yes, I’m currently in the midst of research and work on the manuscript. It is tentatively entitled SWIFT JUSTICE.
What made you decide to become a writer?
I was always an avid reader, and I spent countless hours in my teens and twenties enjoying books by Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, James Clavell, and others. After nine-eleven, and some of the assertions made in the press about the intelligence community’s “failures,” particularly in light of the tremendous dedication and professionalism I was witnessing first hand, I decided to couple my creativity and my love of reading by trying my hand as a writer. I thought that the pen and keyboard would give me an opportunity to craft the same kind of stories I’d enjoyed reading, and also give me an opportunity to give people a peek inside the normally closed world of intelligence and special operations, primarily by using characters that are just what the reader is—educated, patriotic, and sometimes imperfect Americans, working in challenging professions and asked to take on seemingly impossible missions and accomplish them.
Your military career has involved numerous intelligence positions. How much of that have you drawn on for your writing?
Quite a bit. I’ve tried to leverage my long experience in the intelligence community to show the reader “what’s behind the curtain,” but without exposing classified information that would place lives at risk—be they those of our military or intelligence professionals, or American or other nation’s citizens in general. The goal is to show the reader what it’s like to work behind the necessary wall of secrecy without giving terrorists or other adversaries a road map to evade our intelligence services or imperil the lives of our military men and women on a battlefield, now or in the future.
Your books are thrillers and take on very up-to-the-minute events. How much can the reader assume is true behind your story?
My books are novels, and as such are works of fiction, but they are based on certain real-life things. Two brief examples: 1) The drones I use in the books, like the MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 Global Hawk, are real drones in use today, but I’m careful not to illustrate their capabilities beyond what is listed in the unclassified fact sheets the military or the drone manufacturer has available on their own websites. 2) The formats of the messages in AUTUMN FIRE are based very closely on what real military message traffic looks like—orders to go to war or report back on events aren’t sent in the modern email format most people are very familiar with. It’s one of the more anachronistic, but real things in the books. Also, the re-emergent al-Qaeda I write about can also easily be likened to the rise of ISIS or ISIL in Syria and Iraq in that committed extremists, who have gained access to the materiel resources they need, will attempt to impose their will on the world through terrorist acts and actual war if they can make it. The use of terrorism by radical organizations is something that has been with us since before nine-eleven, and has now become, unfortunately, a more pervasive threat that will continue for many years.
You’ve said you want your writing to lend authenticity to the intelligence thriller, in place of Hollywood’s embellishment of it. How do you do that?
I prefer to “keep it real” in my novels, and to do that I try keep everything I portray in my fiction within the realm of existing military technology or soon-to-be-released military technology. So I would never include things like a hacker who just taps on a keyboard for ten seconds and can crash the entire power grid while exciting music plays in the background. Cyber-attacks on that scale require long-term planning, vulnerability discovery, and subsequent programming (which can take months). Moreover, I would never allow a character to plug the enemy’s laptop into MI-6 computer network allowing the bad guy to escape (as in Skyfall)—that violates some of the basic tenants of good computer security practices. I also dislike the general notion that senior professionals in government are often portrayed as either inept, willfully ignoring the law, or traitorous. In my experience, inept professionals don’t get promoted very far and usually leave government employment, and a professional at a senior level got there by obeying the law and upholding to his oath to the Constitution. I won’t say I don’t take a certain amount of license in creating the fictional story, but I try to keep the characters reflective of the professionalism I’ve been exposed to and their use of technology within the limits of current, and not too far in the future reality.
As ex-military intelligence, do you have to show your writing to an intelligence authority to receive clearance for publication?
Yes, but there are certain bounds to that review process. The reviewers are only permitted to review my writing to see if I’ve included any classified intelligence information, or classified military capability or plans information in my writing. I understand and respect the legitimate need and motivation for that kind of a review, as well as its limitations. For instance, the reviewers are not permitted under their charge to edit the story in any way, to change a character or plot element to portray the government or military in a better light, or for that matter, to make the antagonist(s) worse than he is. Also, it’s never been my intent to expose classified intelligence operations, sources and methods information, or military plans and capabilities. Doing so would only place lives at risk, and I’m pleased to say that all of my writing has sailed through the review process without the slightest objection or hint of concern being raised by the reviewers. In fact, they’ve asked when I might be giving them the next book to read.
What do you hope readers will take away from your books?
I’d like readers to find my stories enjoyable thrill rides, but I want them to take away a better sense of what it’s like to stand in the boots of our men and women in uniform, and the shoes of the professionals in the intelligence community. What it’s like to stand watch for hours in an operations center supporting a battle or a special operations mission hundreds or thousands of miles away, knowing what you do will have a direct effect on whether those soldiers, sailors, airmen, or marines will go home alive afterward. Know what it’s like to look down the metal sight or through an optic at the person your commander-in-chief has decided is a threat to your nation, and then pickle off the hellfire missile or fire the round that kills them. In the end, I’d like them to take away a greater appreciation for the men and women who defend our nation, often risking their lives in places and against adversaries you may only read about anecdotally in the newspaper at their breakfast table, thinking about what items to put on the grocery list, or worrying about getting the kids to school on time.
Is there a stand-alone book in your future or are all your energies focused on the series?
The series of novels with Aziz as the antagonist was always planned to end, one way or the other, with the third book, SWIFT JUSTICE, but I’ve also planned out a stand-alone fourth book, and I’m beginning the development work for my fifth and sixth novels as well. I’m expecting to carry over many of my protagonists to the next books.
What authors do you read?
I’ve enjoyed reading J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan and John Clark novels, Clavell’s Asian Saga (TAIPAN, SHOGUN, NOBLE HOUSE), Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt and Oregon series, and Eric Van Lustbader’s Ninja and Miko series. I’m also a fan of Robert Ludlum’s PARSIFAL MOSAIC and BOURNE IDENTITY, as well as the Star Wars novels by Troy Eden, Michael Stackpole, and Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon’s novels.
Tom Wither is the author of the military/intelligence thrillers: THE INHERITOR (Turner Publishing, June 2014) and AUTUMN FIRE (Turner Publishing, September 2014). He is also a 25 year veteran of the intelligence community. Tom served for more than 25 years as a member of the Air Force’s Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Agency and its predecessor organizations on active duty as an intelligence analyst at various overseas locations and is a veteran of the Persian Gulf War. In addition to his graduate-level IT/Computer Security education, Tom holds professional certifications from the NSA as an Intelligence Analyst, and the Director of National Intelligence as an Intelligence Community Officer. He lives near Baltimore.
To learn more about Tom, please visit his website.