Stephen Coonts

by John J. Miller on August 10, 2010 · 1 comment

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WALL STREET JOURNAL
October 24, 2006

WAR STORIES
How Coonts’s career took off

JOHN J. MILLER

The first sentence in the first novel by Stephen Coonts provides a fitting metaphor for the author’s literary career: “The starboard bow catapult fired, and the A-6A Intruder accelerated down the flight deck with a roar that engulfed the aircraft carrier and reverberated over the night sea.”

After a white-knuckle launch, Mr. Coonts’s career is still soaring. It began two decades ago, with the publication of “Flight of the Intruder.” That book boomed onto the best-seller lists — seemingly out of nowhere — and stayed there for more than six months. It won raves from naval aviators and sold millions of copies. Since then, the industrious Mr. Coonts has been good for about one book a year. His latest, “The Traitor,” came out in June.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of “Flight of the Intruder,” the U.S. Naval Institute has just released a hardcover edition that features a new preface and postscript by Mr. Coonts. Amazingly, the original book almost wasn’t even published. Today, however, it is widely recognized as a classic in the genre of modern military thrillers.

“I got 34 rejections,” says Mr. Coonts, from a home in his native West Virginia. Most were polite turndowns printed on mass-produced postcards. But at least one publisher admitted to a blanket policy against Vietnam fiction.

That certainly ruled out “Flight of the Intruder,” which tells the story of Jake Grafton, a Navy lieutenant who pilots an A-6 bomber. When a stray bullet kills his bombardier-navigator on a flight over North Vietnam, Grafton begins to question the purpose of his nightly missions. “We never get the guys who dug the holes at Hue and machine-gunned the civilians,” he complains. “McPherson didn’t get killed hitting a worthwhile target. He died bombing a bunch of trees.”

Grafton suspects that Vietnam was a mistake. “But that’s water over the dam,” he says to a woman he’s courting. “The fact is, we are there, and I don’t think we can just cut and run.” He adds: “What kind of credibility would the U.S. have, what kind of respect would we have, if we ran from a fight for freedom?”

It’s quite a predicament — and not much different from how a lot of Americans view the current struggle in Iraq. Grafton’s own solution is to ditch his orders one night and embark on a rogue raid over Hanoi, where he hopes to bomb the Communist Party headquarters. The results are at once disappointing (he doesn’t hit much) and cathartic (he comes to terms with Vietnam).

Mr. Coonts was an A-6 pilot himself during the war — he logged 1,600 hours and 305 carrier landings. He insists that he never entertained any Walter Mitty fantasies of insubordination. “I was just a little guy who did what he was told,” he says. “Flight of the Intruder” nevertheless draws deeply from his personal experience. The flying scenes are full of technical detail, and Mr. Coonts provides plenty of colorful observations, such as the one about how jet pilots often suffer from hemorrhoids — an “occupational disease” that results from “extreme G-loadings.”

The plot device of airborne defiance came after Vietnam, when Mr. Coonts was trying to string together a series of flying tales he had written. “I wanted to finish a novel, just to see if I could do it,” he says.

“Flight of the Intruder” might have remained buried in a desk drawer but for Tom Clancy. After collecting his pile of rejection slips, Mr. Coonts noticed that Mr. Clancy’s hot-selling debut novel, “The Hunt for Red October,” had come out not from one of the big New York publishing houses, but rather the U.S. Naval Institute, in Annapolis, Md.

“I looked them up and learned that they published ‘serious naval fiction,’” says Mr. Coonts. “I know I’m not Joseph Conrad, but I figured I had nothing to lose.” A few weeks later, he agreed to terms with the nonprofit publisher, which was looking to duplicate Mr. Clancy’s success. “I was so happy, I didn’t even read the contract,” says Mr. Coonts.

Shortly before the book’s release, “Top Gun” became a smash-hit movie. Although the film skipped over the question of whether Tom Cruise’s character suffered from hemorrhoids, Mr. Coonts believes it primed the public for a realistic novel on military aviation. Even more important was then-Navy Secretary John Lehman. He didn’t know Mr. Coonts, but he enjoyed a prerelease copy of the book so much that he sent it to his boss, telling him that if he liked “The Hunt for Red October,” then he would love “Flight of the Intruder.”

Ronald Reagan left this copy on his desk, beside a jar of jellybeans, on the day a photographer for Fortune visited the Oval Office. When the picture appeared in the magazine, publicists at the U.S. Naval Institute made sure that everybody knew what was on the president’s reading list.

Although Jake Grafton has appeared in more than a dozen subsequent titles, none of these are set in Vietnam. “I wanted to get past it,” says Mr. Coonts. In addition, Mr. Coonts had become comfortable with his skills as a writer. Whereas “Flight of the Intruder” closely tracked his own experience as an A-6 pilot — Grafton is clearly a rebellious version of the author — more recent books have tried to keep pace with world headlines.

Sometimes Mr. Coonts even gets ahead of them: In “Cuba,” a 1999 thriller that Mr. Coonts considers his personal best, he speculates about a succession struggle as Fidel Castro lies dying. It wasn’t the first time he had turned his eye toward Havana: In “Under Siege,” a 1991 book, a firing squad executes the Cuban dictator. “Yeah, I’ve killed Castro two times,” says Mr. Coonts. “Anything worth doing once is worth doing twice.”

Five years ago, on 9/11, Coonts was working on a book that imagined the secession of California. “I scrapped it,” he says. “I figured that nobody wanted to read about America breaking apart.” What came next was “Liberty,” in which an aging Jake Grafton, now a high-ranking intelligence official, learns that renegade Russians have sold four nuclear warheads to radical Islamic terrorists who plan to detonate them in the U.S. The most recent books have started to ease out Grafton in favor of Tommy Carmellini, a CIA burglar. “He’s young, single and hip,” says Mr. Coonts. “And he’s a lot easier to work into my plots.”

Mr. Coonts is now finishing his next novel, “The Assassin.” It’s another terror-war thriller, and it should be available in 2007. Around the time it comes out, however, Mr. Coonts doesn’t expect to be working on another adventure story. Instead, he’ll be floating toward the Gulf of Mexico, on a boat trip he plans to start on the Monongahela River, whose headwaters rise not far from his home. He wants to write a new book in the style of “The Cannibal Queen,” a 1992 memoir of flying around the U.S. with his teenage son in an open-cockpit biplane.

Mr. Coonts has been eager to work outside his genre. He’s written a pair of novels about flying saucers. Last year, he released “The Garden of Eden,” under the corny pseudonym of Eve Adams. It’s a story of small-town relationships rather than globetrotting thrills.

But after the boat trip, he’ll probably go back to what he knows best. “They pay me for shoot-’em-ups,” he says. “That’s my business, and there’s always something to write about.”

Mr. Miller writes for National Review and is the author of “A Gift of Freedom.”

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    Grafton suspects that Vietnam was a mistake.

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