John Gilstrap saw the trailer to Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" as a kid. Not only did he not sleep, but the razor-edge suspense of the British master sank so deep into his consciousness, Gilstrap never forgot it.
Perhaps that's the origin of Gilstrap's success today. A New York Times best-selling author of thriller novels, he has the mechanism of horrific anticipation so deep in his bones he probably couldn't shake it off if he wanted to.
The irony is that, like most of us, Gilstrap has led a life steeped in routine. Adding irony to irony, the man even has a master of science degree in safety engineering and works as director of safety for a trade association in Washington, D. C.
Good thing his plots run all over the rails before biting off every last reader's fingernail as if on autopilot. Thriller fans praised Gilstrap's 2009 book No Mercy as aptly titled, and then some. Publishers Weekly which tosses off most mass-market paperbacks like heaping road-kill of the highway praised Gilstrap's newest book for its "exceptional characterization and an intricate, flawlessly crafted story line."
Speaking from his home in Fairfax, Va., the "skiller thriller" was polite and humble, if just a tad upset The League of Utah Writers didn't schedule his visit to Salt Lake City closer to the ski season. "But this is Utah," Gilstrap said. "I've no idea what it looks like in September."
The gravity of your latest book, Hostage Zero, pulls toward the kidnapping of two schoolchildren whose parents are incarcerated. Most thrillers, by contrast, revolve around the super-rich or politically powerful. Why did you choose this socio-economic setting?
It's less of a social statement than what I thought would make a great story hook. Jonathan Grave, the main character, is a former Delta Force operator who also happens to be wealthy as a result of his father's activities in what's known as the Dixie Mafia in Virginia. When Jonathan came of age, he donated the estate where he grew up to create Resurrection House for children of the incarcerated. He used his father's ill-gotten gains for good. That's a long way to get around the fact that you need a character with skin in the game. Watching a character do what they do because they're paid is a lot less interesting than watching a character who does something because they have an ethical or moral stake in the outcome.
With your expert background in constructing thrillers, do you ever despair at the formulaic cliffhanger approach of so many movies?
I despair a lot about what's going on in Hollywood. But I understand the Hollywood business model. Movies are such a huge investment, with an average cost of $80 million. The sure thing is the last formula that worked. There are a lot of new stories out there to be told, but aren't being told because every new movie has to play it safe. Ultimately, of course, the opposite happens because moviegoers get tired of the same-old, same- old. The new, wide-open territory is all in the literary world.
Do you remember the first thriller you read that impressed you so much you felt you could never improve on it?
Let me change your question. The first thriller I read that let me see exactly how the writer did it was Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal. It was like understanding the skeleton of a thriller, and it was very special.
Many writers debate endlessly on which must come first in a writer's conception, character or plot. Where do you fall?
Character is plot. Without a compelling character nothing matters. But the most compelling character who does nothing interesting isn't much of a book. They're hopelessly and forever intertwined.
One of your readers gushed that "Gilstrap somehow makes a three-man assault against a heavily fortified compound seem plausible ... the most natural thing in the world." Care to share any trade secrets?
You asked that question as if [making something implausible real] was my goal. But that assault is not all fiction. In many cases, it's what hostage rescue forces do. Six Minutes to Freedom, my nonfiction book, tells the story of a successful Delta Force. I got unprecedented access, and in the process of getting to know these folks you learn about the amazing things they do with relatively few people.
Do you always know where your story is going? If you do, how do you convey the texture of suspense if you know the outcome?
I know where it's going before I write the first word, but I may not know how I'm going to get there. With thrillers, more than other genres, pacing is so important. If you're watching movie, you get a sense of what may happen if the music gets louder and faster. It all comes down to sentence length. Chapter length. Word choice. If I don't know where the story's going, I'm not going to choose the fastest route to get there. I have a contract to produce one book per year, after all.
If you were forced to write another genre, say romance, could you do it?
No. Not romance. I'm a guy, OK? A lot of other genres perhaps, but not romance. Westerns? Perhaps. I was certainly a devotee in the days of television. I'm sure it informs my sensibilities. That's one of the scary things about being a professional storyteller. It's not knowing where the stories coming from. Because I can't bottle it, I'm not always sure it will be there when I need it. So far so good.
What's the most interesting response you've received to one of your books?
Anytime I get a sense that the story has impact beyond mere impact, that's great. I hear stories about people in the emergency room who read my books, and [they] say it made the wait easier. That kind of stuff I find very touching. What I find a satisfying thriller, and that's what I try to write, there's a very strong sense of justice and good things happening to good people. They're good people who help others. The fictional world can put the real world right.
P Best-selling writer John Gilstrap appears at The League of Utah Writer's 75th annual statewide convention
When • Friday and Saturday, Sept. 17-18
Where • Hampton Inn & Suites, 307 N. Admiral Byrd Road, Salt Lake City
Info • Convention registration is $128 for League members, $160 for others. Call 435-619-0331 for more information, or visit http://www.luwriters.org/events.html.