August 27, 2012
The books and beliefs of Brad Thor
JOHN J. MILLER
A few pages into Brad Thor’s new thriller, the hero, Scot Harvath, wipes out a squad of trained killers who come to murder him. “He was an apex predator — at the top of the food chain,” writes Thor of his protagonist in Black List. “People didn’t hunt him. He was the hunter, and he hunted them.”
Book buyers continue to hunt down Thor and his tales of a counterterrorism operative who once served in Navy SEAL Team Six. Black List, released on July 24, is the twelfth title in Thor’s oeuvre. And with at least 7 million books in print, Thor is one of the most successful thriller writers now at work.
He’s also an unabashed conservative. There are other right-of-center bestselling novelists: Vince Flynn has lampooned liberal pieties in his Mitch Rapp series, and Stephen Hunter’s latest novel, Soft Target, includes a send-up of President Obama. Yet perhaps no other bard of the potboiler is as forthright about politics as Thor, who not only inserts them into his books but also tweets his opinions to a wide following and even stumps for candidates. (Full disclosure: Thor provided a generous blurb for my novel, The First Assassin.)
The first question many people ask Thor regards his byline: Is he trying to channel the Nordic god of thunder through a nom de plume? “Thor really is my last name — it’s Swedish,” he says. “If I had picked a pen name, I would have started it with a ‘C,’ so my books would sit between ‘Clancy’ and ‘Cussler.’” In the future, however, would-be Tom Clancys and Clive Cusslers may want to start their pen names with a “T,” so they’re stocked near “Thor.”
Thor, now 42, grew up in Chicago and attended the Francis W. Parker School, an exclusive academy, where his classmates in the late 1980s included the actors Anne Heche and Billy Zane. Then he went off to the University of Southern California, where his father, a real-estate developer, expected him to study business. “I was in an economics class one day, and the professor was all jazzed about a project that would have us pretending to be the managers of flower stores,” says Thor. “I closed my book and walked out. I’d rather take a bullet than be the manager of a flower shop.”
He moped around for a couple of days, trying to decide what to do next. At a career-counseling office, Thor took the Strong-Campbell psychology test. “I scored off the charts for writing and publishing,” he says. So he switched his major to creative writing, but didn’t tell his dad. A few months later, Thor’s father was looking over a report card and saw a bunch of writing classes. “He confronted me about it, and I told him it was the way into the television and film industry,” says Thor. The explanation worked.
One of Thor’s writing instructors at USC was T. C. Boyle, the renowned novelist. “He taught me to be fearless — to write for no one but yourself,” says Thor. Boyle’s prominent students have included Téa Obreht, who won last year’s Orange Prize for Fiction, but Thor probably has enjoyed the most commercial success. “He was then a fine writer, but you never know which students will succeed in the field and which will not,” says Boyle.
For Thor, success as a novelist didn’t come immediately. He struggled with a first novel. “A couple of chapters into it, I thought writing was the most solitary profession in the world,” he says. “But that’s not true. Today, I’m on the phone and on e-mail every day, consulting with subject experts. Back then, I just didn’t know.” He traveled through Europe and came up with an idea for a television show on getting around with a backpack, rail pass, and shoestring budget. That turned into Traveling Lite, which appeared on public television for two seasons.
In 1998, Thor married his wife, a doctor. On their honeymoon, over dinner in Italy, he told her about his desire to write and publish a novel. She urged him to set aside a couple of hours each day. “I had told her my deepest, darkest secret,” says Thor. “Now I had to write it. My man card was on the line.”
Then came a stroke of luck. A few days later, on an evening train from Munich to Amsterdam, the Thors shared a compartment with a brother and sister from Atlanta. “We stayed up talking about our love of books,” says Thor. “I even mentioned that I wanted to write one.” When the train reached its destination, the woman informed Thor that she was a sales rep for Simon & Schuster. She told him to send her a manuscript when he was ready.
Back home, Traveling Lite went on hiatus, due to a dispute with a public television station. Meanwhile, Thor wrote The Lions of Lucerne, about a massacre of Secret Service agents and the kidnapping of a president. “People always say ‘Write what you know,’” says Thor. “That’s bad advice. You should write what you love to read. You have a Ph.D. in that genre.”
Simon & Schuster offered a contract, and Thor prepared to become a professional author. Right before his book went to press, however, Osama bin Laden’s terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Thor hustled to update his book, which came out a few months later. “To the best of my knowledge, I was the first thriller writer to mention 9/11 in print,” he says. The disaster also galvanized him: “I wanted to pay more attention to our government. Why weren’t the CIA and FBI talking to each other? How did 19 goat herders take down our great symbol of capitalism?”
The Lions of Lucerne didn’t hit the bestseller lists, but it performed well enough for Thor to ink a three-book deal. He began to pump out novel after novel, at a clip of about one per year. Sales mounted steadily — and then in 2008, Thor hit No. 1 on the bestseller lists with The Last Patriot, which is a clever cross between an episode of 24, the National Treasure films, and The Da Vinci Code, but with an emphasis on Islam rather than Catholicism. The story involves a lost revelation of Mohammed that undermines extreme Islam, a trail of clues planted by Thomas Jefferson, and a group of modern-day terror fighters who try to make sense of it all. The hero is once again Scot Harvath, whose unusual first name comes from Thor’s brother. Their mother liked the name “Scott” but thought that “Scott Thor” had too many “T”s in a row.
As The Last Patriot came out, the death threats from Islamic radicals poured in — and Thor became the Salman Rushdie of thriller writers. “I had taken no steps to protect myself or my family,” he says. Thor turned to friends in law enforcement for advice. He changed addresses, hired security, and varied his daily routine. Today, he writes in a Chicago high rise, with a view of Lake Michigan. He doesn’t want anything more specific said in print, on account of the harassment he continues to face. In February, for instance, he posted a comment to Twitter: “The life of one U.S. soldier is worth more than all the Korans in Afghanistan.” An hour later, Barei Danish, a Kabul-based blogger, issued a typo-ridden response: “One word of Koran is worth more than all property of US gov))shut up,u will die near future.”
Many of his readers might have guessed that Thor is a conservative. “I write about American exceptionalism and look at the United States as the greatest force for good in the world,” says Thor. “Also, I don’t think a lot of liberals are reading in my genre, on counterterrorism and national security.” Yet it took the election of Barack Obama for Thor to decide that he would make his politics plain: “That’s when I said ‘I’m going to scream it from the mountaintops.’” He put his conservative views on Facebook and Twitter, made appearances on Glenn Beck’s show, and contributed to Andrew Breitbart’s websites. The decision influenced his novels as well. In Full Black, published in 2011, a sinister character resembles George Soros. “I’ve never said he’s based on anybody,” says Thor, trying to suppress a smirk.
A year ago, Thor endorsed Rick Santorum for president, back when most Republicans were ignoring the former senator from Pennsylvania. A mutual friend had introduced them. “Rick is fluent in conversation,” says Thor. “I was impressed with what he had to say about everything from judges to the family to Iran.” As the Iowa caucuses approached, Thor traveled with Santorum’s campaign and introduced the candidate at several stops. With the GOP primaries over, he’s backing Mitt Romney: “Obama must be defeated.”
Despite Thor’s involvement in presidential politics, his new book, Black List, doesn’t have anything to do with the 2012 election. Instead, it’s about the rise of the surveillance state: “Privacy had been obliterated,” writes Thor in the book. He points to everything from warrantless wiretapping to Future Attribute Screening Technology, a Department of Homeland Security project that aims to predict criminal behavior. “I’m the most straight-and-narrow, law-and-order guy you’ll ever meet,” says Thor. “But now I’m starting to see that parts of the Patriot Act overreached.”
Black List is fundamentally an adventure story, though Thor also seeks to plant a few ideas with his readers. About halfway through the book, Harvath delivers a short monologue that sounds like a libertarian call to arms: “Every e-mail, all our Internet activity, the entirety of every single phone conversation, every piece of GPS data, all your social media interactions, every credit card transaction, every single electronic detail about your life, like it or not, is being placed into a safety deposit box that you have no control over. The government can come in at any point, open that box, and conduct retroactive surveillance on you. They will be able to create a perfect profile of your behavior, and they’ll be exceptionally well armed if they deem your behavior to be in opposition to the best interests of the state.” (In the pre-publication galleys of Black List, Thor even capitalized the “S” in “state,” deploying a conventional right-wing trope. A copy editor apparently didn’t get it, and in the finished editions now on sale the word appears in lower case.)
Critics of Thor complain that his heroes are too good, his villains too evil, and his action sequences too extravagant. One bad guy in Black List doesn’t merely exhibit the familiar human weakness of lust for power; his awfulness is so complete that he once wrote a comprehensive report on how the Nazis could have improved the efficiency of the Holocaust. Thor makes no apologies: “I’m an entertainer, first and foremost.” He wants his readers to think, but first he wants them to have a good time.
Would he ever consider taking his career in a different direction — possibly by running for office? “I’ve shot my mouth off a lot,” says Thor. He pauses and then adds: “Maybe in ten years, when I’m in my 50s.” Vote for Thor: It would be a great bumper sticker, and an even better plot twist.