A raid on a Pakistan Al-Qaeda cell recovers two laptops. When the computers’ booby-traps are defused and the computers decrypted and translated, they indicate that Al-Qaeda has planned a series of simultaneous attacks in five U.S. cities involving potential dirty bombs, biological weapons and maybe even a nuclear weapon—on Election Day. Derek Stillwater, troubleshooter for the Department of Homeland Security, is assigned to a multi-jurisdictional Special Terrorism Activity Response Team (START) to locate the weapon and terrorists in Los Angeles and prevent the attack. They have two days. But as they close in on their targets, Derek begins to think that the intelligence they gathered is a sideshow to distract them from the real target—one of the two candidates for President of the United States.
Sound like a Mark Terry espionage-thriller novel? That’s because it is. The new book in the Derek Stillwater series is due out in June, and fans can’t wait! Publishers Weekly claims that “Terry mashes the action pedal to the floor in this solid fourth Derek Stillwater novel,” and his praises are being sung by the likes of Douglas Preston, Gayle Lynds and Jon Land.
Ever wonder what’s behind the novels? Recently The Big Thrill contributing editor, Christine Goff, caught up with Terry and asked him a few questions:
You started your career writing standalone thrillers—ten of them to be exact. What made you want to create a series of books that follow one particular character?
Not quite right. My first book, CATFISH GURU, is actually a collection of novellas featuring a forensic toxicologist. It was supposed to be a prelude to a series of novels, but the publisher went bankrupt before the novel could come out. Then I wrote DIRTY DEEDS, which I thought would become a series, but I was happier writing about Meg Malloy just once. Then I wrote the first Derek Stillwater novel, THE DEVIL’S PITCHFORK, and it caught on. But I like to write other things as well, push my own personal envelope, so I put out the occasional standalone. I do find it difficult to write a series, actually. You have to fight repeating yourself.
Your protagonist, Derek Stillwater, is a Homeland Security troubleshooter, who wages war on terrorism in the U.S. In your first book in the series, THE DEVIL’S PITCHFORK, what came first, the story idea or the character?
Hard to say. Character, I think. The prologue in THE DEVIL’S PITCHFORK had actually been written several times for a couple thrillers that never worked out – I never finished them. Then I decided I wanted to write about terrorists who steal a genetically engineered virus, and I came back to that prologue, tweaked it, and Derek Stillwater and Richard Coffee came out of that prologue. And Coffee’s been in two books and Derek in four and one short story (“11 Minutes,” available as a free download on my website).
While a large number of writers come to the table with a background in what they write, I read on your website that you started writing during your senior year at college (Go Green), and I don’t see anywhere that you have ever worked in counterintelligence or anti-terrorism. How much research did it require for you to create such realistic scenarios, or did you just make it all up?
You forgot to ask me if I’ve ever been a terrorist. And I’m not sayin’. But actually, my degree was in microbiology & public health with a minor in biochemistry. I worked in infectious disease research and in a genetics lab for years, so in many ways I do have a similar background to Derek. I’m a full time writer now, though. In terms of research, I read a lot, ask questions, find experts, and make up everything else.
Is “Homeland Security Troubleshooter” an actual Homeland Security job title? If not, why choose “troubleshooter”? Did that open you up to more possible plot scenarios than an actual job title would?
If it ain’t, it should be. I don’t know if it’s an actual title or not, probably not. In the early books Derek’s job description is to “evaluate, coordinate and investigate” domestic terror attacks that may involve chemical and biological agents. The title gives him – and me – a lot of freedom to involve him in investigations that the real world might not. Also, I made him basically answerable to the Director of Homeland Security, so he gets sent where he’s needed, rather than tied to a particular jurisdiction. More fun for me.
Derek works for Homeland Security, so it tracks that all of your books are all set in various U.S. cities. In THE VALLEY OF SHADOWS, you actually have the terrorists targeting multiple U.S. cities. Is it possible that Derek will ever find himself fighting terrorism on foreign soil or is that prohibited by the parameters of his job description?
I’m working on a fifth and I can tell you that it takes place primarily in Moscow with a side trip to the Siberian capital of Novosibirsk (where, as it happens, the Russian military biological and chemical research center, VECTOR, is located). Readers might remember in THE FALLEN that a major character is Robert Mandalevo, who in that book is Director of National Intelligence. In the future he becomes Secretary of State and he has some thoughts on favors Derek might do for him.
What is your greatest challenge as a thriller writer?
Balancing the need/urge to keep the reader turning pages with the slow-down required to develop characters.
What type of fan mail do you get? I know a lot of thriller writers who have received scary mail – either from people who are angry with the way an author depicted something or (sometimes more scary) from someone creepy who thinks of themselves as the author’s new best friend. Have you ever received any communications that set you on edge?
Not really. Every now and then someone will let me know all the things they think I got wrong. But most say, “Loved the book.” Actually, the single most common fan mail I get – I’m not kidding – is from French-speaking readers in Canada. The first two Derek Stillwater novels, THE DEVIL’S PITCHFORK and THE SERPENT’S KISS, were translated into French, German and Slovak. The French publisher, AdA Inc, is in Quebec and distributes through other publishers to France, Belgium and Switzerland. Anyway, due to a change in my American publisher, things never really gelled for the French translations of THE FALLEN and THE VALLEY OF SHADOWS (yet, anyway), and I regularly get French readers of the first two books contacting me asking when the next two are coming out in French. Hey French language publishers, hear that?
What do you think makes a thriller great?
Interesting, memorable characters, fast pace, escalating stakes. The overall plot needs to resonate, either globally or individually.
What’s next for Derek Stillwater?
As mentioned above, I’m doing some work on a fifth novel that has some very personal things in it for Derek, and much more of an international flavor. I’m also dabbling in a Derek Stillwater novella that I may e-publish that’s more of a prequel involving Cuba, but I don’t actually have much work done on it yet. I’ve got two other novels I’m working on right now, one that will go as a proposal to my agent soon and the other a standalone tech thriller that I will probably e-publish. My nonfiction agent will shortly begin marketing a book proposal about military medicine in World War II, so I’m keeping busy.
Terry is the author of 3 previous Derek Stillwater thrillers, including the award-winning THE FALLEN, and THE DEVIL’S PITCHFORK and THE SERPENT’S KISS, as well as 10 other standalone novels. A full-time freelance, writer, editor and ghostwriter, Mark Terry lives in Michigan where he teaches karate, bikes, lifts weights and generally tries not to present a stationary target. Please check out his website and go out and pick up your copy of THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOWS, due to hit the shelves June 2011.