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By Derek Gunnhostage-zero.jpg

Jonathan “Digger” Grave is a free lance hostage rescue operative. When two teenage boys are inexplicably kidnapped from a Virginia residential school for children of incarcerated parents, Grave and his crew set out to locate the victims and apprehend the abductors.

When Hostage Zero by John Gilstrap came into my mailbox I wondered if I would have the time to read it all in time for this article. Hostage negotiation novels are not my first choice usually so I began it with a little trepidation. This novel was nothing like any hostage negotiation I have ever read before. In fact there was no negotiation at all, only blistering action and a taut plot that keeps you turning the pages. Two days later, and suffering from lack of sleep, I finished the book and immediately ordered the first one in this series, No Mercy. Hostage Zero was nothing like I had expected. The pace is frantic, the characters believable and you will end up shouting encouragement to the good guys as they dole out well-deserved punishment to the bad guys.

Hostage Zero is the second book featuring John Gilstrap’s operative. As John explains below Jonathan Grave is a man who applies his own set of rules to protect the innocent in a country that offers too much protection to the criminals. This regularly leaves him on the wrong side of the law so our hero is often pitted against both sides as he strives to protect the innocent. Hostage Zero can easily be read as a stand-alone novel but, for completists like myself, it is worth starting with No Mercy as this will introduce the characters.

Grave operates with a network of loyal ’employees’ who offer their not inconsiderable skills to the mix. You will be able to guess the skills involved; a computer expert, a field operative and an investigator, but it is the way that Gilstrap weaves his story and reveals the reasons behind each operative’s position in the team that lifts this book way above the competition.

I was lucky enough to be able to put a few questions to John Gilstrap who, as you will see, had bucked the trend and has returned to full time work in order to write more. Confused? Read on and all will be revealed.

Well you certainly are the first person I’ve talked to that has gone back to his day job, especially when the books are doing so well. It doesn’t seem to have slowed down your output though, how do you find the time?

I made the decision to ditch the full-time writing gig and go back to a day job because, as a Type-A personality, I grew tired of hanging out exclusively with my imaginary friends.  I found it intellectually confining, and, frankly, lonely.  After some soul searching, I realized that the happiest I was as a writer was when I was working a day job full time, when the writing was an escape, a way to wind down.  I wrote my first two novels,Nathan’s Run and At All Costs, not only while I was working full time, but while I was president of a consulting firm.  Those books took me four months and twelve months, respectively, to write.  After I started writing full time, my production dropped to a book every two years.  Of course, I was doing a good bit of screenwriting then as well, but the bottom line was that without constraints on my time, I grew woefully inefficient in my writing.

I try to write a thousand words a day, but I don’t always succeed.  On some weekends, I’ll churn out six or seven thousand words.  Since I travel a lot for my day job, I try to make best use of those lonely hotel nights and airport layovers to get writing done there, as well.  It works for me.  And now I’m back to a book a year.

Three books under film option is very impressive. Can you give us a quick update on whether we will be seeing any of them soon?

gilstrap-john1.jpgActually, I’ve sold or optioned movie rights on four of my books:Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Scott Free, and Six Minutes to Freedom. That’s the good news.  The bad news is that none of them have yet made it to the screen.  I could be elected mayor of Development Hell.  Film rights for Nathan’s Run and At All Costswere purchased outright by Warner Brothers and Arnold Kopelson, respectively.  There’s been no movement on either one in over a decade, and because it was a purchase, I’ll never see the rights again.  I think Nathan’s Run in particular would make a great movie, so that’s one of my great career disappointments.

As for Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom, the jury’s still out.  Both have been optioned and are in active development, and I am hopeful.  It’s particularly exciting that these projects are in the hands of young, ambitious filmmakers who may very well be the big names of the future.  I think their story instincts are terrific, and best of all, they deeply love the stories they optioned.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Do you find scriptwriting very different from writing novels? Will we lose you to the movies?

I find the writing process itself to be very similar for both novels and scripts.  Both are about creating compelling characters doing exciting things.  Writing for the screen requires a leanness of prose that is actually very helpful to my novel writing, and the visual orientation of film helps me think in pictures rather than words, thus making my writing across the board that much better.

That said, screenwriting doesn’t provide nearly the rush that novel writing does.  Part of it is the fact that every screenplay is work for hire, meaning that I have no ownership rights in the images I create for a script.  That’s the way it has to be, due to the collaborative nature of filmmaking, but it’s nowhere near as fun as the novels, where I have complete control over everything.

How do you write? Do you have a ritual, do you plan out every detail or do you see where the story leads?

I really don’t have writing rituals, per se, because of the intrusions of the day job and my travel schedule.  I’ve gotten pretty good at taking advantage of random moments of opportunity.  Recently, I’ve even started writing large sections of my books long hand, making use of my fountain pen collection.  I’ve found, in fact, that hand-writing is a great way for me to work through particularly difficult sections.

As my writing career progresses, I find myself outlining less and less.  I always know the basic structure before I begin–what the beginning, the middle and the end look like at least in a macro view–but I’m allowing myself more freedom to develop the details on the fly.

Your first few books featured characters that would feel at home in Young Adult fiction. Did you consider going down this road?

Absolutely not.  In fact, that road terrified me.  Back in the late nineties, when Nathan’s Run came out, the YA market was presented to me as an ugly ghetto for writers.  Nobody paid real money for YA, and once an author was identified as a YA writer, there was no escape.  I have no idea if that perception was true, but it was what I believed.  Plus, I thought that Nathan’s story deserved a mainstream audience.  As it turned out, I ended up in the best of both worlds when Nathan’s Run and At All Costs both won an Alex Award from the American Library Association, as being among of the best adult-market books for adolescent readers.

Hostage Zero is the second book featuring Jonathan Grave. You have a really cool character here; wealthy, interesting gadgets hidden in every pocket, a burning desire to help the innocent and kill the guilty. He’s great – images of The Shadow, The Spider and others come to my mind. Can you tell us how the character was born?

Jonathan Grave was born as I was researching my nonfiction book, Six Minutes to Freedom, which tells the story of a Delta Force mission to break an American citizen out of a high-security prison in Panama.  I learned that when an American citizen is kidnapped on foreign soil, various US agencies begin gathering intelligence to effect a rescue.  If the go order is given, clandestine operators will do everything necessary to bring the good guys home, and no one gives much thought to what happens to the bad guys.  The rescue is the rescuers’ single focus.  Here in America, by contrast, because we are a nation of laws, the rights of the bad guy need to be preserved, sometimes at the expense of swift resolution.

My character Jonathan Grave is a very talented former Unit operator who applies the single-focus foreign hostage rescue model to domestic kidnappings.  He doesn’t care about collecting evidence or preserving crime scenes.  Instead, he and his team remain focused solely on getting innocent victims out alive and returning them to their loved ones.  To do that, of course, he has to violate the law from time to time, but he never strays from his very keen sense of right and wrong.  He’s a philanthropist, and the kind of friend that inspires intense loyalty among his few close friends.

If you were given one paragraph to convince people to buy your novel what would it say?

Actually, Publishers Weekly wrote that paragraph for me in their starred review: “The addictively readable second thriller featuring freelance hostage rescue operative Jonathan “Digger” Grave (after 2009’s No Mercy) marries a breakneck pace to a complex, multilayered plot. When two teenage boys are inexplicably kidnapped from a Virginia residential school for children of incarcerated parents, Grave and his crew set out to locate the victims and apprehend the abductors. Then one of the boys is drugged and left to die in a field, saved only by the fateful intervention of a passing homeless man, and Grave’s investigation begins to turn up leads that point to government and organized crime connections. A roller-coaster ride of adrenaline-inducing plot twists leads to a riveting and highly satisfying conclusion. Exceptional characterization and an intricate, flawlessly crafted story line make this an absolute must read for thriller fans.”

How cool is that?

In between work and writing do you have any time to read? Who do you enjoy most?

This is such a hard question, because I read so much.  Among my favorites are Vince Flynn, Jeffery Deaver, Harlan Coben, Tess Gerritsen, Robert Crais, Linda Fairstein, Joe Finder, and . . .  Really, it’s a long list.  Plus, I read a lot of nonfiction as research for my books.

What’s next?

I am thrilled to announce that I have signed with Kensington for two more Jonathan Grave books, to be published in July of 2011 and 2012.  Alas, I don’t have titles for either of them yet.

Hostage Zero is out on July 6th in paperback and e-book formats at all book stores and on-line retailers. You can read up on John at his web site Amazon have two chapters available through their ‘Look In’ facility if you want to try before you buy. Trust me though, you will want the book ready to hand by the time you finish the first two chapters so be ready to run to your nearest book store. Personally, I will have the next installments on pre-order as soon as they are announced.

Derek Gunn
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