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Weldon Writes ... Almost a Blog

An Interview with Thriller Novelist Stephen England

When you think of counterterrorism political thrillers, perhaps Tom Clancy, Brad Thor, and Brad Meltzer come to mind. Soon, you may be adding Stephen England to that venerable list. His new novel, Pandora’s Grave, the debut novel of his Shadow Warriors series, is an action-filled espionage/military thriller sure to impress many readers and rightfully garner him many fans. (Read my review!) And, at the age of 21, he has many years of writing ahead of him!

I asked Stephen to talk with us about his experiences during the creation, editing, and self-publication of Pandora’s Grave, among other things. He kindly agreed to the following interview.

Weldon Burge (WB): Pandora’s Grave includes many Christian, Jewish, and Muslim characters. Did you write character profiles before starting the novel, to keep things straight?

Stephen England (SE): Not really. I learned so many things about my characters through the course of the novel—I’m afraid it would have been a very boring book if I had attempted to lock them away at the start. To give an example—about half-way through Pandora’s Grave I realized that the character of Bernard Kranemeyer, the Director of the Clandestine Service, was really little more than another faceless bureaucrat. A major problem considering the major role he plays in the story. But then it occurred to me one day—what if? What if he was a retired Delta Force operative, an amputee who had lost his leg in an IED attack? It was quite literally as though someone had turned a light on for me—it’s those type of revelations that make writing so rewarding for me—those moments when you turn a corner and something fits so perfectly—I can’t imagine Kranemeyer any other way now. That’s who he is.



WB: I was impressed with your objectivity and balance when it came to the contrasting religious motivations of the characters. How much research did you do concerning the three major religions to provide this balance?

SE: I firmly believe it helps when you have absolutely no agenda going into the book—I didn’t have an axe to grind. That said, it’s impossible to write about the modern-day Middle East without dealing with the developing clash of civilizations between the West, with its Judeo-Christian underpinnings, and a radical interpretation of Islam which has yet to leave the Middle Ages.

I did a lot of research into Islam for the book, read the Qur’an and many of the hadiths. What I found is a religion that is full of schisms and contradictions. Some verses of the Qur’an do explicitly call for violence, while others preach peace. What we here in the States have to understand is that while there are elements of Islam at war with the West, Islam is also at war with itself over the future of their religion. I tried to capture this through the wide variety of Muslim characters in Pandora’s Grave. They may all read from the same book, but they don’t all believe the same thing. On the other side, my main character, Harry Nichols, struggles to balance his Christian faith with the deceit and violence demanded by his job as CIA strike team leader.

WB: I was also impressed with the verisimilitude in the book. The characters and the details of their paramilitary missions seemed realistic and accurate. How much research went into the technical military aspects of the book?

SE: Quite literally years of research. As a long-time fan of Tom Clancy, I was very concerned with getting the details as accurate as possible without sacrificing story. Now, is the book completely accurate? No—I had to cut out about twenty layers of CIA bureaucracy just to maintain a half-way manageable cast of characters. And if I had to do that for a novel . . . well, it gives you a whole new appreciation for the weight of what the men in the field labor under.

WB: What was your biggest challenge when writing the novel?

SE: My biggest challenge undoubtedly stemmed from the fact that I’ve been working on the Shadow Warriors series, of which Pandora’s Grave is the debut novel, for the better part of a decade. And I’ve thrown out five or six manuscripts in that time—for different books in the series, before I arrived at one I was happy with a few years back. But to go back and rewrite the introduction to the series, to lay the foundation for Nichols and his associates—that was challenging.

WB: Did you work from an outline, or did you pretty much improvise?

SE: No, we have no outlines here. I have three things in mind whenever I begin a story—a premise, a few scenes sketched out in my mind, and a climax—in Pandora’s Grave, the terrorist attack on Israel. But getting from point to point, well, that’s a journey of discovery, for me as much as the reader. And I prefer to keep it that way.

WB: If you could meet your lead character, Harry Nichols, in real life, what question would you ask him?

SE: I’m really not sure—you see I know him better than anyone else already. And if I met his real-life counterparts in the Clandestine Service, well, I respect them too much to pry into their affairs. It is my sincere prayer that I have honored their service with my portrayal of Nichols and the brave men and women who surround him.

WB: If you could go back in time and start over with Pandora’s Grave, what would you have done differently?

SE: Already done. Pandora’s Grave underwent at least three complete rewrites, so I think I changed everything I wanted to write differently. A number of things changed over the course of the novel for the simple reason that the situation in the Middle East has changed so dramatically over the years.

WB: Do you have a certain type of scene that you don’t like to write, or avoid completely?

SE: You might say that—the Shadow Warriors series is unique in that it is written for the Christian market, while retaining the hard-edged action you would expect from a mainstream thriller. But it’s no accident that the novels are free from profanity and sex scenes. That was by design, and I’ve gotten some very positive feedback concerning it from a wide variety of people.

WB: Your first novel, Sword of Neamha, was historical fiction set in pre-Roman Britain. Considering you prefer counterterrorism thrillers, why did you opt to write your first published book set in Britain of 2,000 years ago?

SE: At the time, I was in the middle of rewriting Pandora’s Grave and I wasn’t getting anywhere fast. I needed a break from writing about counterterrorism, and so I turned to my other great passion, historical fiction. Doing a different type of writing is better than no writing at all. The decision to publish Sword of Neamha was in some ways a trial balloon—to see if independent publishing was a viable option. I was very pleased by the reception it received, and I returned to the writing of Pandora’s Grave with renewed energy.

WB: Both of your novels have been self-published via Lulu. When you decided to write your first novel, was self-publishing already in your overall strategy?

SE: In a word, no. Of course, I started writing about nine years ago—when independent publishing was truly dominated by the vanity press. Print on demand and particularly electronic publishing have revolutionized the industry, and social media has given writers the tools they need to get their name and their message out there cheaply. And in today’s economy, with the publishing houses tightening their belts and relying ever more heavily on their existing stable of authors, I believe independent publishing may be the future.

WB: What advice would you offer writers who plan to self-publish and market a novel?

SE: I’ve said it for some time—if you’re going to self-publish, you have to be self-motivated and self-critical. If you aren’t, there’s no way you can succeed. The last one is perhaps most important—if you can’t be critical of your own work, you’d better find someone who is. There’s a lot of really good independent fiction out there—there’s also a lot of trash. Don’t add to the trash.

WB: What’s your next project?

SE: Well, without giving anything away of the climax of Pandora’s Grave, which is a complete story in and of itself, there is a plot point left unresolved.

That plot point blows up, quite literally, when two bombs go off in the U.S. in the first few hours of Day of Reckoning, the second novel of the Shadow Warriors series. Day of Reckoning continues the story of Harry Nichols, as well as introducing a new terrorist threat, this time against the homeland. The CIA has never operated on U.S. soil, but all that’s about to change. People can go to www.stephenwrites.com for further information about the sequel.

WB: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

SE: Assuming nothing of what I’ve written about actually comes true? Well, I’d like to think I will be a successful author at that point in time. But I’m afraid the next ten years will be very difficult ones for the country as a whole. Here’s praying we make it through.

WB: If I looked at your bookshelf at home, which authors would I find?

SE: Well, if you had time to look through thousands of books you’d find everyone from modern greats like Brad Thor and Daniel Silva to the classics of Victorian juvenile fiction—G.A. Henty, Edward Stratemeyer, etc. And that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the volumes of nonfiction. I’ve had a lifelong love affair with books, and I trust it’s just beginning.

WB: What are you reading now?

SE: As far as fiction goes, I’m currently enjoying Ryne Douglas Pearson’s novel October’s Ghost, a highly entertaining thriller about Cuba. I’m always somewhere in the middle of three or four non-fiction books, often for research—one of which at the moment is Christopher Andrews book on MI-5, Her Majesty’s Secret Service. That’s actually research for the 3rd book in the Shadow Warriors series, which has yet to be announced.

WB: If you could collaborate with any writer, living or dead, who would it be and what would you write?

SE: Goodness, that’s a tough question—I’ve enjoyed so many authors through the years. If I had to pick the one who has probably been most influential upon my present course of writing, it would be Tom Clancy. His books from Hunt for Red October on defined my conception of what a thriller should be.

WB: One last question, just for fun. If you could remake a thriller movie, which one would it be, and what would
you change in the film?


SE: Just one? It’s hard to choose, but I can say one thing I would change: ban all sports cars from spy movies. Yes, I know I’m a killjoy—but real spies drive the most nondescript cars they can find—the type of vehicles you’d never look at twice. Or remember. I’m sorry, but a fire-engine red Corvette does not make a good tail car, I don’t care what Hollywood says.

Thanks, Weldon, it’s been fun talking with you!

WB: Thanks for a great interview, Stephen. Good luck with your future work.

For more on Stephen England and his work, visit his Web site at www.stephenwrites.com.

(A version of this review was also published in the September 2011 issue of Suspense Magazine.)



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