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Written by JJ Barnes

www.jjbarnes.co.uk

I interviewed John Gilstrap about his career, what inspires his writing, and his new hit novel, Blue Fire.

Tell me a bit about who you are.

First, the important stuff. I’m a devoted family man who’s been married to his best friend for 38 years. Together, my wife and I enjoy the company of our son, who happens to be one of the finest men I have ever known.

Professionally, my resume looks like a hodgepodge of unrelated jobs that in reality turned out to be the perfect training ground to become a thriller writer. I was a firefighter and emergency medical technician for 15 years, during which time I ran thousands of emergency calls with the responsibility of bringing order to chaos. Mine was a volunteer fire department that ran over 14,000 calls per year. Each call brought a new story with characters who are living the worst days of their lives.

Concurrently with the fire service, I worked as a safety engineer, first at an explosives manufacturing plant, and then with a hazardous waste contractor before finishing that part of my career as the director of safety for a trade association. I retired from that last gig only six years ago, having held the job for 10 years.

On the writing side of my life, my first novel, Nathan’s Run, came out in 1996 and was a worldwide hit. That was 25 books ago. My newest book, Blue Fire, will hit the stands at the end of February this year. I’ve also written four screenplays for Hollywood

John Gilstrap, author of Blue Fire, interview on The Table Read

I am extrovert in the true definition of the term, and I think that makes me something of an anomaly in a profession whose works must be created in solitude. I thrive on being with people and helping them. Large gatherings of friends energize me. I’m the only writer I know who went back to a day job after writing a few bestselling novels. I missed the collegial buzz of an office environment. But not anymore. I am perfectly content as a fulltime writer now.

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When did you first WANT to write a book?

How old are you when you first learn to draw letters and make words? Six years old? Seven? Whatever the answer is, that’s when I first wanted to write a book. In fact, I did write them. I would commit stories to the page, create covers for them out of construction paper, stencils and colored pencils and then present the finished product to my mother. She assured me that they were the finest stories she had ever read.

When did you take a step to start writing?

I’m not being obtuse when I tell you that I don’t remember a time when I started to write. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t write stories. I wrote them for myself—and Mom, of course because of her brilliant eye for talent—never with the thought of seeing them in print. Even when I was writing that first published novel, Nathan’s Run, I wasn’t doing it with the thought of getting it published. I just thought the story needed to be told. It wasn’t till after it was finished that I realized that it was pretty good. In fact, I thought it was better than most of the books that I’d read.

How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?

It’s been a long time, but as I recall, I started writing Nathan’s Run in August of 1994. I remember it was shortly after Nicole Brown Simpson was murdered. (Not that one event has anything to do with the other, that’s just how my brain assigns time.) I finished it in late November, started querying agents in January, 1995. An agent agreed to represent me on February 23, 1995 (my brother’s birthday), she sold it to HarperCollins on March 1, 1995. The book hit the shelves in the spring of 1996.

How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?

Now that I’ve been doing this for a while, I produce at least one book per year. For the past three years, it’s been two books per year, so I guess that equates to about six months to write the manuscript, which then appears as a book about a year later.

Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write Blue Fire?

Blue Fire is the second book of a series that began last year with the release of Crimson Phoenix. The series features Victoria Emerson, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, who resigns on the eve of a nuclear war when she learns that her family cannot accompany her into the bunker that is designed to protect members of the government. When the war comes, it only lasts 8 hours, and tens of millions of people are dead. Tens of millions survived, though, and those survivors will all do whatever it takes to survive. Victoria turns out to be the leader that everyone has been looking for.

I wanted to write the series for the same reason I wrote those books for my mom: I thought it was a cool idea, and the only way to settle my mind was to commit the words to paper.

What were your biggest challenges with writing Blue Fire?

The biggest challenge to writing Blue Fire—the entire series, really—is to avoid the cliched dystopian tropes. Though the setting of the books is inherently disturbing—the aftermath of nuclear war—these are not dark novels. If anything, they are hopeful, and that’s what I want them to be. To be sure, they are thrillers—that is, after all, what I write—and it’s always difficult to find the balance between characters who face calamity, yet still remain helpful and kind. Until kindness doesn’t work anymore, and the time comes to protect that which is important to them.

John Gilstrap, author of Blue Fire, interview on The Table Read

Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?

Victoria Emerson’s character arrived in my head fully formed. Boom. Single mom, something of a prepper, with an unwavering moral compass. She’s kind and helpful most of the time, but brutal when brutality is called for. I think she’s who we would all like to be—man or woman—if we were living the story.

Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?

This is a tough question to answer because I don’t really have antagonists in these books in the way most people think of them. My bad guys all see themselves as good guys who are trying to survive as best they can. Societal rules are different when there are no police to enforce the laws and no courts to settle disputes. I write antagonists with the same template as I write protagonists: I explore what they want, and then decide what they would do to get it.

How does Blue Fire begin?

Blue Fire begins with a displaced National Guard unit wandering into Ortho, West Virginia, the town where Victoria Emerson is the nominal leader, and they declare they have the right to take what they want in the name of the United States government. That turns out to be a huge mistake. 

What is the main conflict of Blue Fire?

The main conflict in Blue Fire is the struggle to survive among desperate people who have become feral in their struggle to stay alive, while at the same time building a society that looks something like what used to be normal.

Did you plot Blue Fire in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?

I’m a hybrid plotter and pantser. I’m a plantser. I know where I want the story to go before I begin, but I have no idea how its going to get there until I start writing.

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Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Blue Fire need?

When I submit a book, it’s pretty clean. Lots of missed typos and such (and with nearly three million words in print, I still don’t understand the proper use of commas), but the story is pretty sound. My editor at Kensington (my publisher) is one of the best in the business, and while she has had to guide be through plot issues with previous books, I don’t remember any problems with Blue Fire. Okay, now that I think of it, there was one really big one, but it was easy to fix.

What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?

Write it. I don’t mean to be flippant. Write the damn story. Don’t worry if it’s any good, just commit it to the page. Don’t let the opinions of the internet hive mind about what does and doesn’t sell get into your head. (HINT: Most of those “experts” have no idea what they’re talking about.) Don’t worry about anything but going on a great pretend with your imaginary friends.

Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?

Sure. At the moment, I’m writing White Smoke, the sequel to Blue Fire. It will hit the stands in February, 2023. Next up I’ll write the next book (the 15th!) in my long-running Jonathan Grave series.

And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?

I’ll answer your question in the opposite order. Was it worth the effort?

TEACHABLE MOMENT ALERT:

The effort itself is the only thing to be proud of. My books have been successful and have made me a lot of money, but that’s never been why I write. I write to entertain, whether it was my mom when I was little, or the fans who read my work now.

I’m proud of the fact that I have stared down the blinking cursor on an empty Page One over two dozen times, and I’ve stayed with each of those stories even when the plot wasn’t working and the words wouldn’t come. Folks, it never gets easier.

I’m proud that time after time, for decades, I scribbled out stories that never had a chance of publication, and never will. Without that effort—without those “wasted” hours (which were anything but wasted)—none of my work would ever have been published.

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http://www.johngilstrap.com

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