Getting Personal and Pushing Boundaries
Don Bentley returns this year with an encore of book releases.
April saw the release of FORGOTTEN WAR, the fourth book in the Matt Drake series, which begins when Drake’s best friend, Frodo, is arrested for committing a war crime. DIA operative Matt Drake must travel to Afghanistan to find the one man who can clear Frodo’s name. The novel takes place during the 2021 US withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is fiction, but many of the operations depicted were real or based on actual events.
Bentley’s second 2023 release, TOM CLANCY’S FLASH POINT (May 23), is his third book about Jack Ryan Jr. This time out, a benign surveillance operation takes a deadly turn when Jack Jr. discovers a new enemy whose mission is to destroy The Campus.
Mr. Bentley took time out of a very busy schedule to talk with The Big Thrill about his spring releases, keeping his characters fresh, and lessons learned along the journey.
How did the story for FORGOTTEN WAR come about?
One of the great things about writing a series is that you get feedback from readers on what they’d like to see in the next book. Readers love Frodo, and I received more than a few requests to show sort of an origin story about how he and Matt began working together. At the same time, I wanted to write a book that had our 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan as its backdrop and those two ideas became my novel.
What can you tell us about Matt Drake, how do you keep him fresh in his fourth outing?
Matt Drake is a former US Army Ranger and current operative for the Defense Intelligence Agency, or DIA. Matt is a case officer which is a fancy way of saying he’s a spy. His job is to run and recruit assets and this job takes him all around the world including multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. This time, I really wanted to focus on Matt’s experience in Afghanistan, both as a Ranger and a clandestine operative, and I think this choice takes the series in a new direction.
Matt Drake must deal with two main problems, one relating to Frodo, but also a personal one brought about by his in-laws. Can we talk about them? Without spoilers, of course.
When the story begins, Frodo is arrested by two army CID agents for a supposed war crime that took place in Afghanistan ten years prior. Matt sets out to prove Frodo’s innocence by contacting other members of the Army Special Forces A-team that were on the mission, but his efforts are thwarted when the survivors begin to die one by one under mysterious circumstances. Desperate to clear Frodo’s name, Matt decides to go back to Afghanistan to find the Afghan interpreter who was also present on the operation. This means Matt is trying to get into Afghanistan as everyone else is trying to get out. As he prepares to leave with an ad hoc team of former operators he put together just for this mission, Matt learns that the teenage daughter of a family friend was in Kabul for a wedding and is now on the run from the Taliban. As a favor to his wife Laila, Matt agrees to try and rescue the teenager as well.
One unforgettable action story starts with the weather, but on this occasion, it’s used as a plot device, to the point that the action can’t possibly happen in any other place.
The editor serves as the author’s guardrails so the author can feel free to tackle the biggest story they can imagine.Texas thunderstorms are legendary, especially summer thunderstorms. In addition to spawning the occasional tornado and snarling air travel, Texas thunderstorms produce hail at a size and quantity capable of doing serious damage to cars and houses. In fact, most folks who live in the Austin area have to replace the roofs on their houses every ten or so years. Even the rain in Texas can be treacherous. Because we go long stretches with no rain at all, the dirt and grime on the road bakes under the summer sun into a crusty mixture that becomes extremely slick during rainstorms. Say, someone should use this in a book…
What kind of research did you have to do for FORGOTTEN WAR?
As an Afghanistan veteran, this book was deeply personal to me. The conversations between fellow veterans which take place in the book, form the novel’s emotional core and are reflective of texts and phone calls I exchanged with fellow vets as we tried to process what the fall of Afghanistan meant for our individual service and the brothers and sisters we lost in America’s longest war. Many of the events depicted are real or are at least in part based on actual operations.
I also did quite a bit of research on the country of Afghanistan. I was deployed there as an Air Cavalry Troop Commander from 2005-2006, so I knew there were parts I wanted to revisit. Other portions of the book came from research I did to better flesh these areas out. In addition to the geography of Afghanistan, I also spent a lot of time researching its people, specifically the Taliban and the tactics and techniques they employed to recapture power so swiftly.
Is it becoming easier or harder to continue with the series, and why?
Maybe a little bit of both. It’s easier in the sense that the world is established and I’m much more familiar with the characters and their relationships to each other. It’s harder from the standpoint that it becomes more difficult to keep the series fresh and not episodic. My editor, Tom Colgan, says that the difference between a good writer and a great writer is that a great writer pushes the envelope with every book. Hopefully, FORGOTTEN WAR does that.
As an oddity, you have two books coming out a month apart. What can you tell us about TOM CLANCY’S FLASH POINT?
It was an incredibly fun book to write. Tons of points of view characters that show the story unfold from locales ranging from the White House to a Virginia-class nuclear submarine. It’s much bigger than a typical Jack Ryan, Junior book, and I’m very proud of the end result.
Working with Tom Colgan is really great in that he serves as the continuity for the series. Because of this, I don’t really think about what my rules are for a particular character. I just write the most compelling story I can. Sometimes that means that Tom has to pull me in a bit during the edit phase, but most times he finds a way to make what I’m trying to do work. I think this is what makes for a great author/editor team. The editor serves as the author’s guardrails so the author can feel free to tackle the biggest story they can imagine.
Can you share some lessons learned about writing Tom Clancy books?
I think I get a better sense of the Clancy Universe with every book that I write. When you come to a legacy series, you want to stay within the confines established by the writers before you, but still find some fresh piece of dirt to till. I think the more books you write in the series, the more untilled dirt you find, and the more opportunities you discover to push the boundaries just a bit more.
Congratulations to Don Bentley and his double book birthdays!