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A Survival Expert Gets More Than He Bargained For

By Neil Nyren

I’m doing this for my family. I’m doing this to be with them again. I’m serving my country.

But none of that may be enough to get Derek Harrington out of a very, very bad situation.

In T. R. Hendricks’ THE INSTRUCTOR, Harrington is a retired 22-years-in Marine Force Recon and SERE specialist who’s just scratching by. He’s got PTSD and anger issues, his wife’s divorcing him and taking his son, his father needs a full-care facility, and the wilderness survival classes he teaches to a mixed bag of civilians barely keeps him afloat.

And then one of those civilians offers him ten grand to teach those skills to a more concentrated group. “Just a bunch of concerned citizens looking to safeguard their future,” he says. Derek doesn’t like it—“I sense even the slightest bit of impropriety, I’m gone”—but can he afford to pass it up?

At first, everything seems to go all right. It’s a dozen men deep in the woods, no one particularly imposing, and he schools them on some of the basics: how to make flint knives, use plant fibers for binding, recognize edible plants and grubs, create primitive tools, trap small game. And then they make another offer. We need more than the basics, their leader tells him. Outlaw groups have been harassing them and their families. They need the real deal—advanced combat and defensive training—they need to become an army.

Harrington is even more reluctant now. Something else is going on here—gun-running? Drug-dealing? Money-laundering? When he contacts an FBI friend, though, the agent convinces him to go back in. The opportunity to stop these people is too good to waste, he says. But be careful.

And that’s when things really start to go pear-shaped. Nothing is what it seems. Hidden agendas abound. The more Harrington teaches, the deeper he gets, and the stakes are higher than he could imagine—for him, for his family, for the United States. In the end, he’ll have to rely on every ounce of his skills not only to stop what is happening—but simply to stay alive.

He has taught them all too well.

THE INSTRUCTOR is an extraordinary combination of suspense and action, packed with memorable characters and the kind of authentic detail that could only come from someone who has been there and done that. T. R. Hendricks is a former US Army Captain who served as a tank platoon leader, and then a military intelligence officer, during two deployments to Iraq. Many years conducting private security operations in the States followed. He learned a lot in that time. So will you.

He had a lot of help, though. “Believe it or not,” he says, “the idea for THE INSTRUCTOR was born during an impromptu coffee break when a friend and colleague stepped into my office back in 2018. Since we’re both veterans, we did what happens pretty much anytime you put two vets together in the same room: swapped war stories endlessly. (No, seriously, our boss had to come break us up after a while.)

“Before the boss did so however, my friend regaled me with a story of how he was almost picked up by Hollywood on two separate occasions. You see, on top of being a retired Marine, he is also a wilderness survival expert. Producers were considering him for a reality show along the lines of Survivorman or Bear Grylls, but ultimately passed because his backstory was—according to them—that of a “boring house Dad living on Long Island.” (Little did they know, by the way.)

T. R. Hendricks

“That’s where I came in. Somewhat jokingly, I told my friend that I could create a fictional backstory for him that he could then pitch to Hollywood as his, ‘based on true events’ pedigree. He gave me his blessing, and I got to work that night on what I thought would be a fun short story to write, nothing more. Then the idea…took…off.

“I wrote furiously for 90 straight days, like a man possessed, and when all was said and done, I had my first 90k word draft of THE INSTRUCTOR. Through countless revisions spurred on by the feedback of beta readers, fellow authors both published and unpublished, subject matter experts, my dynamic agent and editor duo, and the entire network of support around me, we’ve now reached the point where my debut is ready to be released into the wild.

“My own military background is rather pedestrian compared to that of the Special Operations community that Derek comes from, but it did lend itself to some unique experiences that I could draw upon. As an Army officer, upon my commissioning, I volunteered for a branch detail program. All this really means is that while I was commissioned as a Military Intelligence officer, I was loaned out by M.I. to the Armor (tanks) branch until I was promoted to Captain, at which point I switched back to intel.

“Framed through the lens of two deployments in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, (2004-2005 & 2007-2008), I was able to experience what it means to be both a front-lines, boots-on-the-ground soldier and a (somewhat) behind-the-scenes intelligence officer and military advisor. Each perspective garnered scene descriptions, sights and sounds, dialogue and interactions, even scents like the Baghdad pollution or JP-8 fuel, all wrapped up in participating in the daily workings of the military from the inside, both home and abroad. As you might have imagined, many of those experiences stay with you, and I’ve been fortunate enough to parlay them into my writing.

“In addition, through working in the private security industry there is a seemingly never-ending wealth of knowledge available to you. Former military, retired law enforcement, veterans of the three-letter government agencies—a great deal of them end up in private security as the next iteration of their careers. Again, I was fortunate enough to have some great mentors and partners lend me their expertise. In particular, a lot of the detail regarding the FBI in the first book comes from those individuals. While my time working as private security management (and my brief stint as an A-list Executive Protection agent) in New York City doesn’t feature as much in THE INSTRUCTOR, I have big plans for using that experience in future novels. Stay tuned…”

Even with all that expertise on hand, though, Hendricks still had plenty of research to do. “This is probably the perfect opportunity to definitively state that I am not a wilderness survival expert. I am however, thanks to my undergraduate history degree, a somewhat decent researcher. And like I said earlier, I’m good friends with an actual survival practitioner. Beyond the firsthand knowledge that he imparted, I turned to multiple volumes of survival and bushcraft books, of which there are thousands, and the proliferation of wilderness survival websites, YouTube channels, and chat forums on the internet, of which there are millions (at least it seems that way.)

“Probably the most interesting rabbit hole I went down while researching THE INSTRUCTOR was an extensive review of booby traps. The types and sources varied from primitive traps using simple methods such as deadfalls, to sophisticated improvised explosive devices and munitions found in Army field and technical manuals. One session along these lines devolved into venomous snakes indigenous to the northeastern United States, which then further slipped into a far-too-long expenditure of time learning about envenomation and its effects on the human anatomy if left untreated. I found the topic fascinating, but as someone with a lifelong fear of snakes, the images returned were highly…disturbing. Yeah. Some of those Google images still haunt my dreams.”

That’s not all that haunts his dreams. He is very open about the fact that Derek Harringon’s PTSD symptoms and episodes are based on his own.

“I am of the belief that in being honest and open about my struggles with PTSD over the years, perhaps I can help individuals wrestling with the same by raising awareness and showing them that it’s okay to ask for help. I’ve dubbed it, ‘navigating the minefield.’ So many have already blazed a path through the explosives. Following their footsteps is much easier than trying to create your own way. In this manner it’s my sincere hope that trauma survivors will avoid the mines that unfortunately myself and so many others have previously stepped on.

“PTSD is truly a spectrum disorder. In my time post-military I’ve experienced symptoms such as unbridled rage, crippling depression leaving me bedridden for days, flashbacks and hallucinations, hypervigilance, insomnia, and what was probably my most prevalent symptom, vivid life-like nightmares. My longtime refusal to seek help and instead indulge a proclivity to self-medicate with alcohol compounded these symptoms.

However, it was my writing that started me on my healing journey.

“I found that after a particularly visceral nightmare, I couldn’t bring myself to describe it verbally, but I could do so by putting the episode down on paper. And so I began keeping a log of them. I found that the more I wrote the nightmares down, the more quickly I was able to move on from them. Initially, writing provided a catharsis that allowed me to function when previously, the day would have been lost to me before even getting out of bed. My treatment journey is a long and winding path—one that I am happy to revisit in another piece—but in the interest of brevity I will say that eventually I came to the conclusion that I should attempt to make something good out of all that struggle. Or as my youngest brother so eloquently put it to me one time, ‘Make that shit my bitch.’

Neil Nyren

“The result of that was to weave these experiences of mine, and that of others gracious enough to share and give their permission for me to use, into my stories and novels. While it still serves as my catharsis and helps me along my journey, as I said earlier, it’s my hope that describing the struggles of Derek and others in my books will at the very least help raise awareness and spur on continued dialogue about PTSD.”

He also has to thank the other influences in his life, both literary and personal. “I’m sure that any writer could go on for days with this topic. Earliest author influences were giants like Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum, and action movies like First Blood, Die Hard, Predator, and Lethal Weapon. As I started reading and writing in the thriller genre, I began to really pay attention to authors like Nick Petrie, Don Bentley, Gregg Hurwitz, and Jack Carr. To me, they’re each unique in their storytelling, but alike in that they seem to have mastered the ‘winning’ formula to creating a stellar thriller novel.

“Outside of those, the greatest influence in life has been my father. He set the stage for me to reach this point by demonstrating daily what it means to be a man of honor, integrity, and self-sacrifice for the good of your family. He’s also a Marine, and Derek is very much a combination of my Dad, my colleague the survival expert, and myself (even though I’m Army), however my father is the predominant factor in that assembly. It’s why the book is dedicated to him.”

Hendricks has to thank, as well, the “dynamic agent and editor duo” mentioned near the beginning of this interview—though he had to work hard to get them.

“My story almost certainly mirrors that of a thousand other authors just like me. I queried THE INSTRUCTOR and received upwards of at least 65 or 70 rejections, but I also received two full requests. While the first passed, my agent Barbara Poelle of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency ultimately (obviously) did not, but she also didn’t take me on right away, either.

“When I received, ‘the call,’ and after discussing such things as my influences and writing process, Barbara went on to describe my manuscript as a potentially great book, but one that was structurally flawed and in need of a major reorganization. Challenging me to do so, she set me loose with the task of reworking my original submission in accordance with her vision and guidance. After first freaking out and wondering how the hell I was going to pull off what she asked me to do, I hitched up my big boy pants and got back to work.

“On our next call after resubmitting, Barbara picked up where she left off, asking why I chose to do this or that? What was I thinking here? Where was this scene going? We talked through my thought processes with each successive question. I listened to her recommendations that were obviously more extensively rooted in thriller experience than mine, and proposed how I might rework the manuscript even further to achieve what she was looking for. After what seemed like an eternity, and right on the cusp of when I was resigned to think that she wasn’t going to, Barbara uttered the words, ‘Good. Then I’d like to formally offer you representation.’

“Dumbfounded I blurted out, ‘Are you serious?’ after several stunned moments. She was indeed, and we set off together to find THE INSTRUCTOR a home. The road has had many ups, one gigantic down, but all in all it has been an incredible journey that ultimately ended with Robert Davis and the fantastic team at Tor/Forge. I am exceptionally fortunate and grateful to have been graced with such dedicated and amazing professionals all working in concert to bring this debut to life.”

Up next is the sequel to THE INSTRUCTOR, “titled as of right now The Infiltrator,” plus “the outline for book three is formulating in the back of my mind. I’ve got some initial research requests out to help with that plot, and I’m eager to get started on weaving that tale.

“I truly am grateful for everyone’s support, encouragement, and faith in me. This is a dream come true, the achievement of one of my life goals, and I certainly couldn’t have done it alone. I’m a lucky man, and I don’t take the trust people have placed in me lightly. I hope to be around a long time bringing to life the best stories that I can create, and I promise, everyone will always get my best efforts in doing so!”


Neil Nyren is the former EVP, associate publisher, and editor in chief of G.P. Putnam’s Sons and the winner of the 2017 Ellery Queen Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Among the writers of crime and suspense he has edited are Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, John Sandford, C. J. Box, Robert Crais, Carl Hiaasen, Daniel Silva, Jack Higgins, Frederick Forsyth, Ken Follett, Jonathan Kellerman, Ed McBain, and Ace Atkins. He now writes about crime fiction and publishing for CrimeReads, BookTrib, The Big Thrill, and The Third Degree, among others, and is a contributing writer to the Anthony/Agatha/Macavity-winning How to Write a Mystery.

He is currently writing a monthly publishing column for the MWA newsletter The Third Degree, as well as a regular ITW-sponsored series on debut thriller authors for and is an editor at large for CrimeReads.

This column originally ran on Booktrib, where writers and readers meet.