Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Conversation with John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap began his phenomenal publishing career with Nathan's Run, which was followed by five more bestselling thriller novels, four of them Literary Guild selections. No Mercy, his latest release, is the first of a new series. John will be giving away two copies of No Mercy in a drawing from visitors who leave a comment here.

John, how does a former firefighter, EMT, and explosives safety expert, with a master’s degree in safety engineering, become a bestselling author?

It all starts with an obsession to tell stories. I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember—as early as elementary school. In junior high and high school, I would write stories just for my own pleasure. I’ve never been any good at sports, but I’ve always been good with words, so I guess it only made sense that during those formative years when every kid is trying to cut a niche for himself, I chose the creative one.

Still, one has to make a living. That’s what the safety engineering was about; but I continued to write for my own pleasure. Since fiction writing is equal parts talent and craft, I think you get better with each new effort. In 1995, I finally landed on a story that people thought was worth buying. That book became Nathan’s Run, and when it sold, it sold big.

With six thrillers on the bestseller's list and four of them Literary Guild selections, do you feel secure in your writing career?

I think that anyone who feels “secure” in any sector of the entertainment business is not paying attention. Authors exist to serve a certain appetite for entertainment, and previous success is no guarantee for tomorrow. It’s particularly unnerving when you think that books are among the oldest and potentially most stale forms of entertainment. We have to compete with TV and movies and video games and whatever really cool thing is coming around the corner tomorrow. I think there’ll always be a market for books—more are published now than ever before—but I think there’s no room to become complacent

I am keenly aware that when people plunk down their hard-earned money for one of my books, I owe them at least as good a ride as I gave them last time. That’s my commitment as a professional. If I come through on my end of the bargain, I hope that they’ll come through on theirs.

It's hard to believe that with all your writing successes that you went back to work during the day and write at night. Was it because you don't like the loneliness of full time writing?

I’m the classical Type A personality. I’m an extrovert. I love meeting people and helping them to solve problems. So, for the seven years or so that I wrote more or less full-time, I found myself longing for social outlets. Spending all day alone in a room with your imaginary friends can get a little stifling. Many of my writer colleagues love the solitude. I didn’t love it so much.

Also, at the risk of sounding immodest, I am very good at solving complex problems and leading diverse groups to a common goal. The same creative bent that allows me to write books serves me well in illustrating to people why they need to change their behaviors. My current job is to serve as the director of safety for a trade association for an industry that has killed many, many people over the years. When I first started, the fatality rate was 43.8 deaths per 100,000 workers. In the five years I’ve been in the job, the rate has dropped to 22.3 deaths per 100,000 workers. I can’t claim credit for all of that change, but a slice of it is mine, and it’s a great source of pride. In its own way, it’s way more gratifying than writing books.

How much of your novels are taken from your own background?

One hundred percent. And zero percent. As a practical matter, I think that every author writes from his or her own experience, because that’s the only frame of reference we have. While I’ve never killed anyone, through my fire service experience I’ve seen more than a few people die, and I’ve witnessed the aftermath. I hope I’m able to bring that kind of human drama to life on the page.

At one level or another, all my books deal with families in turmoil. As a devoted family man, I can extrapolate the love I feel in my own life to imagine what it would be to have a family member endangered. So, emotionally, the vast majority of my work is drawn from my own background. In terms of plot, though, none of it is.

I know that you earned your safety engineering degree from USC and a bachelor's degree in history from William and Mary. Why the diverse courses? And if you wanted to become a journalist, why didn't you major in journalism?

When I was 10 or 12 years old, some famous old-school journalists told me that a degree in journalism was not necessary to pursue a news career. They advised me to concentrate on other liberal arts disciplines, which in theory would give me a better perspective on the news I was reporting. Since William and Mary was the only school I ever wanted to go to, and they did not offer a journalism degree, this was exactly what I wanted to hear. In the end, it turned out that the old school journalists were wrong.

The safety engineering thing was a direct outgrowth of my fire service experience.

How did you get into screenwriting?

After two years in development at Warner Brothers, in which two different screenwriters created two thoroughly awful screenplays, I got word that Nathan’s Run was being put into turnaround, which is Hollywood-speak for being mothballed. When my Hollywood agent told me the news, I was angry. I told him that I could write a better script than the ones the “professionals” did, and I’d never even seen a screenplay. He asked me if I could do it by the next week. I did, and for a while, the project was pulled back into active development. In the end, though, the film still has not been made.

That script I wrote for Nathan’s Run served as a sample that got me three additional screenwriting gigs. Most recently, when I sold the film rights to my book Six Minutes to Freedom, I made my assignment as screenwriter a non-negotiable element of the deal. SixMin will be my first trifecta: I’ll have been paid to write the book, for the movie rights, and for the screenplay. Plus, at least the first version of the script will be one that I like.

Is Nathan's Run your favorite book?

I know this sounds trite, but my favorite book is always the one I’m working on right now. I think I need that level of commitment to keep writing, to keep it exciting. Since it was the book that gave me my big break, Nathan’s Run will always hold a special place in my heart, but I can’t say it’s my favorite.

What advice would you give novice writers and screenwriters?

First, write, write, and write. Continually hone your craft. Second, quit listening to all the naysayers who love to tell you that the industry is dying and that it’s impossible anymore to get published through traditional means. It simply is not true. Third, remember that while writing is an art form, selling one’s writing is a business and needs to be treated as such. If your passion is to write a Western, then you need to accept the fact that there’s currently a very limited market for your book. Maybe you can write the one that re-launches the genre, but know that the odds are stacked against you.

Most importantly, if your dream is to become a respected writer of commercially viable fiction or nonfiction, self-publishing is almost always a huge mistake. In this business, the money—all of it—flows only one way, to the writer. Your agent (and yes, you need to have one) should only get paid when you do. Anyone who asks you to pay for anything up front is likely trying to rip you off.

Which part of writing do you enjoy most?

I hope this doesn’t sound too shallow, but one of the aspects of writing that I enjoy most is simply being a member of the club that I’ve admired for as long as I can remember. I love the company of other writers. I love the intellectual bantering and the sheer expanse of their talent. To be treated as an equal by people you’ve admired your whole life—well, it doesn’t get any better than that.

What have you found to be the best way to promote your books? And would you rather promote in person or online?

I’m just now trying to figure that out. Clearly, the day of the traditional book tour is dead. Truthfully, it never did make much sense to me to spend thousands of dollars flying an author all over the country or around the world. It was fun, but I don’t see how the publisher ever made money off of it. So, here we are in the world of 21st century publishing, and I think everyone’s trying to figure out what works best. As publishers slash costs, it’s becoming more and more important for authors to promote their own books.

I participate in a blog,, and I have a website and I’ve hired a publicist and an advertising consultant. No Mercy came out in July. I figured that by September I should know if my efforts were effective.

Anything else you'd like to add?

Just one thing, and it’s an opportunity for budding filmmakers. In what’s left of my spare time, I serve as the executive director of the Northern Virginia Film festival, which is currently accepting submissions for this year’s film competition. The idea is to give young filmmakers a chance for recognition. For details, please visit

And finally, thanks, Jean, for this opportunity.

Thank you, John.

John's web and blog sites:


Helen Ginger said...

Very interesting. Thank you John. I've put No Mercy on my buy list. It sounds like one both my husband and I will like.


Msmstry said...

Thanks for helping me catch up with John. I had the pleasure of introducing him at his very first reading, but I've lost touch with him recently. It's good to hear the latest news.

Roberta Isleib said...

John, you are one busy dude. The new book sounds like a winner!

Sheila Deeth said...

Nice to meet you, and interesting to learn how an always-writing writer becomes a published writer.

L.J. Sellers said...

Great interview. Thanks for the refreshing honesty. I love the premise of your new character too. It makes me eager to start a new series.

Anonymous said...

This is a different type of mystery so I am interested in reading it. Thank you for the interview.

Helen Kiker

Jean Henry Mead said...

You're welcome, Helen. I've read John's books and I know you'll be hooked on them as I am.

shirley said...

Fascinating interview. And No Mercy sounds like a book to read in one sitting ... my favorite kind.


Jonathan E. Quist said...


The thought of a thriller with a protagonist named Jonathan is an appealing one, with some Walter Mitty potential for me. Unfortunately, that we first met at Bouchercon '09 limits my delusional possibilities. I guess I'll settle for a good read instead.


J D Webb said...

I'm awed by the perseverance you show, John. I thought I had some, but you're the champ. Love your books and enjoyed your presentations at the Midwest Writers Workshop this year. Not only are you talented but you're a truly nice guy. Wishing you much further success.

Julie Godfrey Miller said...

Thank you, John, for your inspiring comments. They are just the nudge I needed to get back to my WIP and stop making excuses.

Carol M said...

I enjoyed reading your comments. This sounds like a book my husband and I would enjoy!
mittens0831 at aol dot com

pennyt said...

I enjoyed the interview and your new book sounds like something I'd enjoy!! Thank you.

Susan said...

The new book sounds like a good one. I look forward to reading it.

L.J. Sellers said...

I'm posting again because I'd love to win a copy of No Mercy. I enjoyed meeting you at B-con, John, you're sweet and funny.