I met John Gilstrap last year at the Creatures, Crime and Creativity Conference in Maryland, and I became an instant fan. You may remember that I reviewed his first book, [easyazon-link asin=”B006M0KPRU” locale=”us”]Nathan’s Run[/easyazon-link], last year.
He was the Saturday keynote speaker at this year’s conference, and it was one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard. Too bad this conference isn’t one where every panel and keynote is recorded and posted on YouTube. It was worth hearing again. The gist of his message, to authors, was never give up, and he had the personal story to back it up. In lieu of a video of his keynote, here’s an interview.
TeleRead: In the bio on your site, you say you’ve always been a writer. When and why did you decide to start writing novels?
John:I don’t remember a moment when I “decided” to write a novel. Instead, I’ve always enjoyed writing stories that turned out to be novel length. I’m addicted to writing multiple, shifting points of view. I think it’s the most exciting way to reveal the story to the reader. Given my attraction to fairly complex plots, the novel was the only way that I could get the stories out.
TeleRead: What made you choose the thriller genre?
John: I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie. My favorite sport is skiing, and it’s most fun when I’m really pushing the envelope, right out there on the edge of my capabilities. It was the adrenaline rush as much as anything else that got me into the fire service. Think about it: there’s no thrill quite like walking into the worst moments of people’s lives and bringing order to their chaos. Now layer in the fact that I was 22 years old when I first started in the fire service, and there’s just nothing like it. Nothing can duplicate it.
The adrenaline addiction has always invaded my reading tastes as well. From as long ago as I can remember, fear and entertainment hold places that are very close to each other on my enjoyment spectrum. Since that’s all I’ve ever read, I guess it makes sense that thrillers would be what I am drawn to write.
TeleRead: Nathan’s Run was the fourth novel you wrote, but the first one published. Which leads to the obvious question. What about any of the earlier three?
John: In retrospect, the first three novels were my training ground. Through writing them–and then reading them and editing them and ultimately walking away from them, I honed my craftsmanship. While those earlier efforts ultimately suffered from fatal flaws, they each had little nuggets of character or action that were very good. All of those nuggets have been cannibalized and folded into other books.
TeleRead: How did you end up writing [easyazon-link asin=”B007AIT48O” locale=”us”]Six Minutes To Freedom[/easyazon-link]? And can you tell us a bit about it, your first foray into non-fiction?
John: I stumbled into the project that became SIX MINUTES TO FREEDOM through pure serendipity. My fiction career had taken some pretty serious hits, thanks to the bizarre vagaries of the publishing business, and when a buddy of mine said that he knew a guy named Kurt Muse who was a political prisoner in Panama and was rescued in a midnightraid by Delta Force, it resonated as a great opportunity. As it turned out, I had no idea how great an opportunity it would be. The story is amazing–a true life thriller that has a lot of heart–exactly the kind of story I like to write. In a very real way, that book about a rescue in fact rescued my writing career.
TeleRead: You’ve been a full-time writer, gone back to a day job and are now moving back to full time as a writer. Can you tell us a bit about that journey?
John: As I alluded above, I got caught in some really uncomfortable cracks in the publishing/movie biz–way too complicated for this space–and the collateral damage of that experience illustrated to me how little sense the entertainment business makes. I’d made lots of money, and there was much about the freedom that I loved, but I also began to feel unfulfilled. Fact is, I’m a very good safety engineer–that’s how I’d made my living for many years before I sold my first book–and I missed the precision of that profession.
Just about the time my thoughts had started drifting that way, the job of a lifetime fell into my lap. I have been the director of safety for a major trade association in Washington for over ten years now.
After a decade, though, that job has worn old, so I have announced my retirement from there, effective January 1, 2015, to go back to full-time writing. I’m tired of the constant traveling, and of the inside-Washington nature of the job, and now I’m ready to retreat back to the pace of full-time writing.
TeleRead: How did you balance full-time work and continuing to write a novel a year?
John: My answer to this question is often seen as flippant, but it is the only way I know how to put it: We all have the same 24 hours in every day. It’s astonishing how much you can fit in if you set priorities and stick to them. I don’t watch a lot of television, and my weekends are pretty much devoted exclusively to writing. (It also helps to sign a contract and cash a check that requires delivery of a book every year.)
TeleRead: What made you switch from stand-alone novels to a series?
John: Readers like series, and my overarching goal in what I do is to please readers. Truthfully, though, it wasn’t really a decision as much as an opportunity. In my first four books–the stand-alones–when the story was over, there was no place else for the characters to go. It wasn’t until I got the idea for a freelance hostage rescue specialist–Jonathan Grave, the recurring character in my most recent books–that I realized I had a structural skeleton that could support many different stories.
TeleRead: Many readers of the site are aspiring or early-stage authors. Any words of advice?
John: Write. A lot. Obsessively. Never submit anything for publication that you don’t believe is damn near perfect. Be honest with your assessment of your work–don’t let desire blind you–and continually strive to improve your craft. When Book One is finished, start right into Book Two. Understand that your first effort is in all likelihood not of professional quality, and cut yourself a break. Most of all, though, don’t give up. Never, ever give up.
TeleRead: Anything else we need to know about you that I haven’t asked?
John: Hmm. How’s this: When the story stops flowing through the keyboard, I revert back to a fountain pen and high-quality paper. There’s something about that direct contact that always gets the juices flowing. Probably 25% of my books are written by hand that way.