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Mark Greaney on Modern Signed Books!
Bestselling author Mark Greaney discusses Gunmetal Grey on the Modern Signed Books podcast.

Episode transcript (also available as a PDF):
Introduction: Welcome to Modern Signed Books. If you're interested in what makes your favorite authors tick, then you'll love hearing what they have to say in our interviews. Learn how they got started writing, the books and authors that inspired them, and much more. Meet today's hottest authors as they discuss their lives and writing with art book specialist, Rodger Nichols. And don't forget to pick up a copy of your favorite books at Here's Roger.

Rodger Nichols: Welcome to Blog Talk Radio. Mark Greaney is a writer's writer. Not because he has a style that calls attention to itself a literary pretention. No, just the opposite. His prose has a clean transparency that puts you, the reader, seamlessly into the action. That does not go unnoticed by the reading public, nor does it go unnoticed by other authors. It's the reason Tom Clancy picked Mark Greaney to collaborate with him on the "Jack Ryan" series. Why he was offered the series after Tom's passing? It's because Clancy, like millions of other readers, have become a fan of "The Gray Man," Court Gentry. His on again, off again relationship with the CIA has led him to a lot of interesting situations. And now the latest in the series has a perfect title. I love the title. "Gun Metal Gray." It hits bookstores February 21st. It also has a page-turning plot that involves a Chinese government hacker who flees China when his parents, hostages for good behavior, are killed, and he knows he's next.

The Chinese want to kill him, both the Russians and the Americans would like to grab him for the knowledge in his head, and more than one criminal gang wants to exploit his hacking skills. It's up to the gray man to get him to safety. If not, an old friend held hostage will be killed. We are very delighted to welcome back Mark Greaney. Good morning.

Mark Greaney: Hey, good morning, Rodger. Thanks for having me.

Rodger Nichols: You betcha. The right name can go a long way to creating a character's identity. Court Gentry has this kind of upper-class feel, but interestingly enough, "The Gray Man" seems to echo a dramatic Pulp Fiction days, or film noir, things like "The Third Man" or "The Thin Man." Is this intentional or did it just kind of evolve that way?

Mark Greaney: Funny you say that. When I wrote the first in the series, "The Gray Man," at the time I was really binging on a lot of John le Carre, older John le Carre novels and it wasn't researching for "The Gray Man" or anything, I was just loving it. And I had watched the ... I don't know if you ever saw the BBC series of the spy who came in from ... I mean, oh "Tinker Tailor Solider Spy." [inaudible 00:03:09]

Rodger Nichols: Yes, fascinating. Oh, my gosh.

Mark Greaney: [inaudible 00:03:12] going back to, I think it was around 1980 or so. So I read the novels and I watched this really low, but tense BBC series and all that was going on at the same time as I wrote "The Gray Man," so it wasn't intentional, but I very much see that ... you have this really fast-paced action-y plot in the first book of the series, but at the same time, it kind of hearkens back to a little more I'd say, upper crust type of espionage writing. That wasn't intentional, but it was kind of a lucky, happy coincidence. I've kept that in the series a little bit. It give it a little bit of a [inaudible 00:03:57] feel because you have so much edgy stuff and so much dark stuff and I kind of like the fact of combining the two.

Rodger Nichols: It gives an interesting tension between those two aspects of it, so I really appreciate that. One of the things that really good heroes have ... everything is not sunny and bright for them.

Mark Greaney: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, and that was important from the beginning of the series. I want there to be tension on every page and I want the reader to really feel what this hero is feeling, which is a lot of daggers out for him. Not just from the obvious black hats in the story, but from people he teams up with or past relationship he's had. All sorts of things. There's a lot of tension in the guy's life. You can overdo it and just make it this masochistic, miserable story, and I don't want to do that. There's lightness and there's dark in the story, but I do like, as I said, tension on every page. Even the villains. The villains all come together and high five and work together perfectly to do take care of the hero. There's a lot of tension with all the different bureaucracies and all the different [inaudible 00:05:14] that are up against "The Gray Man." I just like it. I hate tension in my real life, but I love in my writing.

Rodger Nichols: What's interesting, because one of the questions or comments as I read this thing, I wrote down "inter-service rivalry, not just in the U.S. but in Russia and Chinese as well." And the tension between the various agents there and various services working or not cooperating with each other, I thought, "That's a really interesting aspect of it." Of course, you are doing this very much consciously.

Mark Greaney: Yeah, that is conscious. And I do think it lends realism to it. And it also ... the average reader probably isn't working for the Russian FSD, but the average reader probably works in a big company where people are vying for power and authority and there's the guy up the hall that rules with an iron fist or is a big fish in a little pond. And I think that's very relatable. I worked in the corporate world, and I loved the company I worked for, I'm not saying that there was that level of backstabbing, but it's just kind of fun to translate that into a bigger story with life and death issues going within these sort of inter-agency rivalries.

Rodger Nichols: Any time there are more than three people, you've got politics involved. In fact, more than two actually.

Mark Greaney: Very true. Yeah.

Rodger Nichols: As I went through I happened to jot down some, what I thought were character revealing moments and I'm interested to see those are the same things that you were thinking of as you wrote. I'm sure you were, but ... almost at the very end, one of the things he says, he says, "Everybody I've ever met was hiding something."

Mark Greaney: The person I've created in the series, he works for a deniable department in a shady, or shadowy, let's say, organization and he comes from a history of a lot of deceit and a lot of darkness. He's always ... if he's having any sort of an interaction with someone, it usually involves sort of a lie. Either his legend or his identity or his mission. They say cover for action and then cover for status. Both of those are things that an operative will do in the field which involves deception. So he's deceiving people, he's expecting other people are deceiving him, and that's just the life in which he lives. So the reader is locked into this guy for better or worse and you're along for the ride in that. You have to sort of doubt or be suspicious of everyone you come in contact with in this story.

Rodger Nichols: Yeah. It's a matter of self-preservation a certain amount, I would say.

Mark Greaney: Right. Exactly. Yeah.

Rodger Nichols: And then at the beginning of the book or very close to the beginning, it says, "Being the gray man didn't mean being in control at all times. Sometimes it meant relinquishing all control, playing the game." That is an interesting insight.

Mark Greaney: It's so easy to make these characters like they're some sort of a superhero and they do ... either with their fists or their wits they go through and push things aside and enact their will throughout the whole story. And I think that makes for kind of a boring story, where you feel this superhuman nature of the character. In the real world, he has to ... I mean, he's been a ... this is the sixth book in the series, and I can't tell you how many times he's had his hands tied behind his back or a hood over his head or he somehow had to put himself unarmed in a dangerous situation because that's the only way he could get into the situation. Cover for action. I think that that just lends a reality to the situation. He's not Iron Man coming through, completely able to defend himself at all times. I want to create a slightly more realistic world.

Rodger Nichols: Yeah. There is a noble streak in him too, that shows up from time to time. He has, maybe a little different than most people, but he has a very strong sense of ethics.

Mark Greaney: Yes and he has a conscience that gets him into a lot of trouble throughout. And in this story ... I use that in all the books, to some degree. At some point he evaluates the mission that's he on and determines how right or how wrong he is throughout what's going on. And in this story, he has a pretty cut and dried mission that the CIA sends him on, but as he learns more and more about it, not just that he's being duped by the CIA, which he sort of is to some degree. It's a little shady and I don't want to give too much away, but he does feel like his target ... his mission doesn't necessarily serve his target in the way that he thinks would best work. I thought it would be interesting, as I was writing this story, that it's okay with me if some of the readers think he's doing the wrong thing. They think, "Well, it'd just be better if he did X, Y, or Z instead of A, B, and C," which is what he wants to do.

I wonder, when the book comes out, if I'll get some pushback, I'll get some fan mail that says, "I liked the book and it was fun, it was exciting, but I don't know why the gray man did this and he could've just done this," sort of ignoring the moral code that I've created for this guy over the past six books. But I think this is what the character would do in that situation and if some of the fans think that he should've done something else, I'm okay with that because I think that just makes for interesting reading.

Rodger Nichols: It does. There's on point, again, not to give away too much, where there are heavy duty firefight, he risks himself to save several women in the situation. And that goes a long way to indicate moral character.

Mark Greaney: Right. Yeah, he's in this situation and every fiber of his being wants to continue on with his mission and get out of there, but he just can't turn away from the plight of these people he realizes will be left in harm's way. I've had him do that before. It's like he'll do the right thing. He might go kicking and screaming into it, he might be very sarcastic and complaining about it the whole way, he definitely is a guy that knows right from wrong, although his compass doesn't true north, there are these moments where it's very on the surface what he needs to do, regardless of whether that puts him jeopardy.

Rodger Nichols: And interestingly enough, that leads into the quote from his old friend Fitzroy, who says to him at one point, he says, "With you it's all about doing the right thing, come what may. You'll do it with an ally, you'll do it with an enemy, or you'll do it alone. You'll die before you got against what you believe in. It makes you the one good man in all this." And then he answers, he says, "It makes me exploitable and expendable." And the other guy says, "Too true. No argument there, lad." That's a nice little exchange.

Mark Greaney: Yeah. And that's sort of the theory. I should use that as an explanation of the series at large because something along those lines comes up in each one of these novels, because it's just ... the character that I created six or seven years ago when I wrote the first book, has stayed true to that and the story has revolved around him having a plan A and maybe deciding on a plan B and then turns out plan C is the only thing that's going to work for anybody. I like twists and turns in novels, personally. I'm a reader, first and foremost. And this is what I like to read. I want to put enough intrigue in there to where it doesn't become a convoluted story because these are fun action novels at their core and just build as much other sort of nuance and texture to the story as I think will fit.

Rodger Nichols: One of the delights of a series character that each time they appear the reader gets a little bit more information about them. How do you think Court Gentry has changed over the series?

Mark Greaney: That's a good question. I think he was very sure of himself in book one. He felt like he'd been wronged and he was somebody that ... he wasn't actually working on trying to clear his name, but he was definitely working on trying to make it through the day very sure of himself. He's less sure of himself now because of some textural things that have happened in the story, some history that's come out. And so now he's someone that sees himself definitely as a weapon that can be put to good use for doing the right thing, but I think he's a little bit more fatalistic, he's a little bit more aware that he might not have all the answers. He second guesses himself a little bit. There is a time where he flips the switch and does what he has to do, but just like in the real world, his character and his moral compass or whatever is this maturing aspect of him. He's a fun character to write as long as I make each story very different from the last, which I've been able to do so far. That makes it fun for me. I feel like he's always going to be growing as a character.

Rodger Nichols: And again, that's the way we, as readers enjoy it. I mean, yeah, there are series characters who never change at all, and the plot is a formula and they read it over and over again because they love the formula, but I think it's much more interesting to have something where you get a familiar character and put him in really different situations and give him different responses and that, as I say, you learn more about the character as a result of those situations.

Mark Greaney: Yeah. It's two sides of the same coin, though. Because there are some books that I read and I know exactly what I'm going to get when I pick it up, but I still pick it up. And I'm still like, "That's the book that I'm looking forward to." And there's not a lot of change in the character or whatever. But it's all in the execution of how the author does it. But it's two sides of the same coin. For me personally, I like each book to definitely be a standalone novel, but at the same time, that has this larger story arc, which is a treat for the readers and it stuck with me the whole time. It's the readers that want to go back. They might read "Gun Metal Gray," book six, and say, "Wow, I need to know what's gotten him to this point." And each one of the novels is a standalone but you build a little bit on each story to where it should be a pretty fulfilling experience to take in the whole series. So that's just how I like to write.

Rodger Nichols: I was just curious about the way you plan out when you look ahead, because obviously with as many obligations as you have, you have got to be really focused and planned. So how often do I want to stop doing the Jack Ryan stuff and stop a day a Gray Man stuff. Does that long range planned out for the next three or four years or do you just kind of go as you go?

Mark Greaney: A little bit go as I go. With the publisher, I've got a deal for two Gray Man books after Gun Metal Gray so far, and the books are doing really great, so I'm in a lucky position where I expect things will ... I'll be offered more after that, and I'm happy to write them. The only thing is I want to have some control over my deadline, so that I know that I'll have a good book out. If you just have to have a book turned in every January first or something, I think after awhile the quality would suffer, and I don't want that to ever often. So I want to have the time I need to work on the stories and develop the stories. It's not like painting a fence or something. So many times people will read your book and they'll be like, "You need to write faster. I can't believe I have to wait X amount of time for the next book," and it's not just a certain number of hours it takes to create a book.

That works for some people. And it works for me for awhile, but you pick your low hanging fruit earlier on in your career and you have to do a lot more work and do a lot more research and talk to more people and let ideas germinate. I've always said that I made a Gray Man book that people don't like, but it's never going to be from lack of trying. It'll be maybe I'm swinging for the fences and hit a foul ball somewhere down the road, but I put my all into each of these books and that will always continue.

Rodger Nichols: It's interesting is, how often do people bring you ideas or situations that they'd love to see him in?

Mark Greaney: I get ideas a lot. I don't read things. I've had people that are like, "Could you read ... here's an idea I have." And I don't even open the attachment because I don't want to be accused of "You used somebody's idea." Early on, somebody would send me something on Facebook, which sounded exactly like a book that I was ghostwriting at the time and I thought, "Wow, if that person knew that I was ghostwriting this book, they would totally think I stole their idea." It wasn't the whole plot, it was just an aspect of one of the characters. And it kind of made me take a step back and say, "It's great that people have ideas and I hope people write their own books because some of these ideas are pretty good, but I don't want to touch them." I have enough ideas right now. If I didn't think of anything else new- I'd be writing books for 15 years, it's just you have to develop those ideas. And you have to go out yourself and do the research and talk to the right people or whatever.

It does sometimes, to me, feel like a lot of people think that authors are just sitting at home checking their email to see if anybody's got an idea for them to write a book about. Because I do get something every couple of days about "You should do this" or "you should do that" or "you should talk to my uncle who was a tailgunner in the Vietnam war," or something like that, and it's like, "You need to write a book about him." And perhaps there are authors that don't have their own creative ideas that are just sitting back, waiting to get those emails, but I just have a lot going on as is that I'm passionate about.

Rodger Nichols: Of course there are the ones that say, "I've got this great idea. We'll split it. You write the book. I'll put the idea up and we'll split the profits." I've heard that way too many times.

Mark Greaney: Have you? Same thing. And it's like, "I'm not a writer, but I've got this great idea," and I hate to sound like this, but I bet you everybody, there's 400 million people in America, and I bet you every one of us has a great idea, it just takes a lot of discipline and refining it. Your elevator pitch, it does not translate ... it's not just something you hand over to an author and then they write a bestseller. I don't think it works that way that often.

Rodger Nichols: Not very much. I want to point out one little item that just popped up at me. We're reading through this. At one point, he tapes night vision binoculars to the bill of his ball cap to give him hands free. Just like ... oh, that's a great idea. Is that something you picked up from one of your contacts in the community or just an idea that came to you?

Mark Greaney: Not specifically. I was doing research on the googles, and just thinking about the mechanics of where he was in the story and what he might do. And I have him using [inaudible 00:20:57] methods all the time to make the most of what he has. He's not always parachuted in behind the lines with the latest and greatest CIA gadgetry. And Gray Man as a character is a denied CIA contract agent at this point in his career, so they don't give him CIA equipment, they give him off the shelf material here and there, which means he doesn't ... buy surveillance gear that you can buy off the shelf from a company in Japan or Korea and he'll use that because it can't be traced back to the CIA. Also early on in the story, he feels like maybe his cover's been blown with the CIA, so he takes a lot of the gadgetry that they gave me him and he dumps it in the garbage can. Fortunately, for him he's in Hong Kong, which if you've ever been to Hong Kong, there's an electronic, the high-tech electronic shop about every 15 feet.

Like we have Burger Kings in America. So he does do some shopping in the store. No, it was just something he put together because of the mechanics of what he was doing, which means me as the author put it together because not wanting to have him fool with his hands so much as I was writing the story, it just seemed like it could be the thing to do.

Rodger Nichols: It seems to me that every spy or agent needs to carry a roll of duct tape wherever they go. That just seems like logic.

Mark Greaney: Yeah. They say that in the military. If the answer to your problem is with some duct tape, you're not asking the right questions.

Rodger Nichols: There's another quote you have in here from the military. It's a quote from the Seal, that says, "The only easy day was yesterday." And I like that too. I thought that was pretty cool.

Mark Greaney: Yeah, that's a real thing the Seals say for sure.

Rodger Nichols: When ... you mention in it that his father was a Marine Scout Sniper ... are you looking that being some of the influence on him as a character?

Mark Greaney: Yes. I had created, early on in the series, that his father was a police officer in Florida who had a background in the Marines and he had started a firearm school and that's where Court grew up, basically, as almost a mascot for the school. S.W.A.T. guys coming in from all over the country, and finally the CIA at the school got bigger and bigger. That's where he learned a lot of his chops as a boy. So his dad has always this influence on him. Not completely positive. And you see that play out in different parts of the series, just as any legitimate ... the father has a huge role over the son and that's just a reality, and you spend a lot of time in The Gray Man's head in these novels, obviously. I've written six now and I guess they're 2,500 pages or something of gray man stories. So there's a whole lot of time where the effect of his father or the effect of his past has an effect on him.

Also he's in Vietnam at the time and I had said that his dad had been in Vietnam, so I wanted to explore that a little bit, just in a very small way. Just him thinking about his father and what his father might've experienced while he was over there.

Rodger Nichols: Right. It adds a lot of depth to it, I think. It's one of those small things that build character like that that I really enjoyed about the book. Which is highly recommended, by the way. This is good stuff. I will sell it to you directly. Dang got good stuff. So there you go. Is there anything about the book that I haven't asked that you would like to share with the listeners?

Mark Greaney: No, not that I know of. I think that when you pick this book up, you do get ... a lot of people come to me having read my Tom Clancy novel. You do get a geopolitical flavor that you get in a Tom Clancy novel, in that it is a very contemporary look on what's going on in the world. The Chinese People's Liberation Army, cyber warfare, the criminal organizations in Vietnam and Cambodia and Thailand. So there is a very ... it is the world as we see it now. And then it departs from the Tom Clancy series in that you ... it's edgier, it's a little gritter and you spend a lot of time at the street level, whereas with the Tom Clancy books you inevitably spend a good bit of time in the Oval Office or in the Kremlin or whatever. And this book basically is about a denied CIA contract agent on a mission with more enemies than friends by a factor of about 100, and how he navigates through that. So a lot of people think that it's a Tom Clancy novel because I'm the guy that likes Tom Clancy novels, and when they see it, when they read it, they'll actually see an edgier of a geopolitical story. I hope they like that distinction and difference.

Rodger Nichols: I think that there'll be no problem with that. I know that the advanced work has gotten a lot of positive reviews and I think it's going to continue on like that. Mark, I want to thank you so much for taking time to talk with you and I want to mention that if you are listening out there to this broadcast and you are a fan of Mark's, you can pick up an autographed copy at VJ Books because they do a fabulous job.

Mark Greaney: They sure do. And I appreciate you having me on. Thanks.

Rodger Nichols: Thank you so much. Our guest has been Mark Greaney. The latest in his "Gray Man" series is "Gun Metal Gray." It publishes February 21st. Thank you so much and keep up the good work.

Mark Greaney: Thank you very much.