Walt Gragg pulled off a neat trick in his debut thriller, THE RED LINE—he made a five hundred-page novel feel like an action-packed short story. His book, detailing a futuristic war between Russia and the United States, starts in a war zone and never lets the reader out of it. Which isn’t to say that the book is all blood and bullets. Gragg’s characters are deeply-sketched, and we feel their injuries and frustrations as sharply as they do.
I was excited to talk more with Gragg about THE RED LINE, and what led him to take on such a difficult task for his first book.
How long did THE RED LINE take you to write?
I actually began writing it in 1994. It took some time to figure this writing thing out. It was probably three years before I was confident enough to start looking to get it published. Over the years we went back many times to revise and update, trying to make it the best it could be.
How did you conduct the research? Did you have a handful of contacts you relied on, or did you talk to dozens and dozens of people?
Since I had served for over three years at United States European Command Headquarters in Germany during the middle of the first Cold War, much of the story came from personal knowledge of the American plans for the defense of Europe and theater-level war games in which I’d participated. I knew what we expected the Soviet Union to do in such a war and what our greatest fears were. So the bulk of the story came from those firsthand events. I had significant experience with American command and control systems and some of the weapons in the book, like the Patriot Air Defense Missile system, so that also helped in creating the story. The rest we got from reference books and occasional discussions with people who had worked with various weapons. In the past few years I’ve used Google as a source of keeping up with military units and weapons system changes. These things change so fast it is almost impossible to stay current. For example, the Russians have recently debuted a new main battle tank, the M-14. It was impossible to include it in the book (no doubt I’ll hear about that from the techno-fans).
Nothing in your bio indicates the traditional paths writers take, for example, an MFA program or a career in journalism. What led you to writing?
Writing is as natural as breathing to many of my fellow authors. That’s not me. I had taken a few creative writing classes in college but gave them scant significance. Being a writer wasn’t something I’d even considered until experiencing what I did in Europe and the story coming to me. Even then, it took many years before I began writing. With my first novel about to reach the bookstores I still don’t consider myself a writer. I’m just someone with a few stories to tell who does his best to tell them.
What led to a book where Russia is the antagonist to the United States, as opposed to China, North Korea, Iran, or another country that could be considered a threat to U.S. interests?
Given current events, THE RED LINE, as a warning about the consequences of eventually finding ourselves facing Russia across a scorched battlefield, should be quite timely. I can think of no greater peril to the survival of the planet than the clash of the two great nuclear powers. As I mentioned above, I spent a great deal of time in the Cold War involved with facing the Soviet Union. Out of that came what I hope is a great story. Given Russia’s history, no one should be fooled. The looming threat should not be ignored. There is little doubt their desires are quite strong to return to what they view as their rightful place in the world order. Attempting to accomplish that militarily is certainly a growing possibility. At the moment, we find ourselves on the edge of a second Cold War. We survived forty-five years in the first one without a major conflict. This time we may not be so fortunate. So it’s a story that needs to be told and hopefully read by a wide audience.
What other writers are you reading, and who has inspired you in the past?
Although set in World War I, Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is one of my absolute favorites and the standard for what a military thriller should be. I also lean toward the more epic, big, bold novels by writers like Uris, Clavell, and Michener.
Every year at ThrillerFest my wife and I take the opportunity to pick up lots of autographed books. We’ve encountered tons of great writers and stories this way. I think the last one we read was The Freedom Broker by ThrillerFest Executive Director and fellow debut author, Kim Howe. I know my wife’s book club has read and skyped with Sandra Brannan, Jenny Milchman, and Mark Leggatt in the past year and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
You make a point of thanking ITW (and, in particular, ThrillerFest) in the acknowledgements. How did T-Fest work into your book’s publication?
I am a true ThrillerFest success story. As Publishers Weekly confirmed in their February 2017 “starred” review of THE RED LINE, we suspected we had something special, but until stumbling across ThrillerFest in 2014, were unable to break through for 20 years. The moment we found ThrillerFest, all that changed. As soon as I saw the website there was no doubt this was a conference we needed to attend. And it did not disappoint. It was by far the best we had ever gone to and both my wife and I marveled at how helpful everyone was. It was obvious from the first moment that they really did want the aspiring writers to succeed and went out of their way to help. Thoroughly prepared, pitch polished, agents selected, I got in line at PitchFest and from there, as you’ll see later in this interview, everything fell into place.
I cannot express how happy I am to be a small part of ITW and ThrillerFest. For the past two years I’ve been one of the volunteer coordinators and been honored to work with the 300-400 aspiring writers to get them ready for PitchFest. I owe so much to Kim Howe, Sandra Brannan, Terry Rogers, Jon Land, Kathleen Antrim, Jenny Milchman, Mark Leggatt, Grant Blackwood…the list goes on and on.
Can you describe the moment you found out you were getting published? I love those stories.
Actually, it’s quite an interesting little tale. In 1997, I entered the story in a writing contest. It ended up taking second place. One of the people present when I received my award was an editor for what was then Putnam Berkley. He asked for the manuscript. Three months later he called. He absolutely loved the novel and wanted to acquire it. The story was “incredible” and I was a “remarkable” talent. Eight days after we talked, he called again to tell me his publisher had turned it down. Everything with Russia at that point looked rosy and they just didn’t think it was a timely enough story. It was certainly a disappointment, but with the editor’s kind words to buoy us, we continued to try through queries and conferences to find an agent. We had no luck whatsoever getting anyone else to take a serious look. I cannot tell you how many rejections we received.
Finally, thoroughly discouraged, I put the manuscript on a shelf where it gathered dust for probably 10 years. I promised my wife that when we retired we would try again, but honestly didn’t know if I was willing to go through the rejection all over again. In 2014, it was time to try a final time. We would give it one more shot and, if that failed, consider self-publishing. That’s when we found ThrillerFest. At the conference, the editor who had loved the book 17 years earlier was on a panel. Afterwards, I went up, reintroduced myself, and thanked him for the things he’d said about my story. Naturally, after so long, he didn’t remember me or THE RED LINE.
Quite by accident, the next morning we ended up having breakfast together. Two weeks later I got up the nerve and emailed to see if he wanted to take another look. Within ten minutes the answer came—“yes.” So I contacted an agent I’d pitched at PitchFest with whom I wanted to work. Fortunately, she had requested the full manuscript and was able to get her readers right on it. By the end of the day I had an agent. After some edits she gave the editor an exclusive. In October 2014, just 15 weeks after I pitched at PitchFest, Penguin Random House offered and we were on our way. So it only took 15 weeks (and 17 years). My editor is one of the most respected in the industry. He is Vice President and Editorial Director for the Berkley Publishing Group/New American Library and personally handles the Tom Clancy books along with a host of other great writers. And none of this would have happened without ThrillerFest.
What are you working on now? What’s coming out next?
Not 100 percent certain what comes next. Berkley has my second novel, The Chosen One. It addresses the appearance of the Mahdi, the guided or chosen one prophesied to rise, conquer the world for Islam, and lead the planet during its final days. Don’t know at the moment if they will wait until they see how THE RED LINE does before possibly offering. I am presently working on a third novel, The Long November, about what the United States would face if the Pakistani government and military collapsed and extremists were able to seize that country’s vast nuclear arsenal.
Walt Gragg lives in the Austin, Texas area with his wife, children, and grandchildren. He has been one of the truly fortunate individuals who have had the opportunity to live in many places around the world including Europe, Asia, and in every time zone within the United States. Born in Los Angeles, he has spent his life experiencing some of the world’s largest cities and smallest towns. He is a retired attorney and former Texas State Prosecutor. He has a Bachelor’s Degree Summa cum Laude from the University of Maryland, Master’s Degree from Pepperdine University, and Juris Doctorate from the University of Texas.
E.A. Aymar’s latest novel is You’re As Good As Dead. He writes a monthly column for the Washington Independent Review of Books, and is the Managing Editor of The Thrill Begins. E.A. Aymar is also involved in a collaboration with DJ Alkimist, a NY and DC-based DJ, where his stories are set to her music.
For more information about that project, please visit their website.