Photos by Brian Killigrew
Vince Flynn has spun many compelling yarns, but his own story may be the most inspiring. It’s the tale of a kid from a big Midwestern family who battled dyslexia to become—through sheer grit and determination—one of the world’s best-selling novelists.
The fifth of seven children, Flynn was born in 1966 in St. Paul, Minnesota. He graduated from St. Thomas Academy in 1984, then took a degree in economics from the University of St. Thomas in 1988. After a couple of years as an account and sales marketing specialist with Kraft General Foods, he became an aviation candidate with the United States Marine Corps. Just a week before Officers Candidate School, he was medically discharged from the aviation program due to injuries sustained in his youth.
Disappointed, Flynn took a job with a commercial real estate company in the Twin Cities. But he’d long nurtured the writing bug, and during spare hours he outlined an idea for a book. After two years, he took the biggest gamble of his life. He quit his job, moved to Colorado, and began working full time on what would eventually become his first novel.
Bartending at night, Flynn wrote during the day. He persisted through five long years and more than sixty rejection letters before taking another huge career gamble: He decided to self-publish and self-promote his novel. It worked. The book soared to number one in the Twin Cities, and a week later, Flynn had a new agent and a major publishing deal. Re-released in paperback by Pocket Books, Term Limits—a frightening thriller of political revenge—hit the New York Times bestseller list.
All of his subsequent thrillers have become runaway international bestsellers, too. They include Transfer of Power, The Third Option, Separation of Power, Executive Power, Memorial Day, Consent to Kill, Act of Treason, Protect and Defend (Flynn’s first title to debut at number one on the New York Times fiction bestseller list), Extreme Measures, Pursuit of Honor, and American Assassin.
Flynn’s gripping political thrillers are centered in the post-9/11 world of terrorism and the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. His astonishing research and startling insights into that world—drawn from sources embedded deep within political, military, and intelligence circles—have made his books bedside reading for presidents, foreign leaders, and the global intelligence community. His tales also caught the attention of the producers of the hit Fox TV series “24”: He became a story consultant for season five of the show. Meanwhile, Flynn still lives in the Twin Cities with his wife and three children. (See the afterword to this interview for updated information.)
On November 28, 2007, I traveled to New York City to meet Vince Flynn at Seppi’s restaurant in the elegant Le Parker Meridien Hotel on West 57th Street. Over lunch, we had a wide-ranging discussion about Flynn’s life, and his fascinating—often surprising—views on publishing, philosophy, politics, Hollywood, the War on Terrorism, and fiction writing.
As was the case with my interview with Lee Child, I conducted this one in my capacity as then-editor of The New Individualist, the magazine of The Atlas Society; the interview is reprinted here from the March 2008 issue with their permission. And once again, as was the case in the Lee Child interview, terrific New York City photographer Brian Killigrew captured the interview in candid images.
“We needed our guy over there, assassinating these guys before they hit us . . . this kind of raw, loner, individualistic guy who was going go out there and lay it all on the line.”
The Vigilante Author: You were born in the Minneapolis area?
Vince Flynn: St. Paul. Fifth of seven children. Five boys, two girls.
The Vigilante Author: Everybody in a large family seems to have an assigned role, and I wonder what yours was.
Flynn: My assigned role was the eldest of what we referred to as “the three little ones.” I was in charge of the three little ones. But I still had the privilege of having the tar beat out of me by my older brothers.
The Vigilante Author: Hey, what are older brothers for?
Flynn: And older sisters, actually—until I hit about twelve years old or so, and I could beat them up.
The Vigilante Author: What did your parents do?
Flynn: My mom was a wildlife artist, actually fairly successful. My dad taught at St. Thomas Academy in St. Paul, where he went to high school. He was an English teacher there and coached basketball, football, and baseball. He left and went to Borg Warner Educational Systems in the mid-’70s, and then went to work for Control Data for about fifteen years.
The Vigilante Author: Were you a math or verbal guy as far as school goes?
Flynn: I grew up dyslexic and struggled big time in school. I started taking the special classes in second and third grade. “SLBP”—slow learning behavior problem. My parents knew I had this problem, but they also had seven kids. It’s not like they had two hours every night to sit there and tutor me, and they weren’t about to hire a tutor—we didn’t have that kind of money.
So, you just learned to cope with it. I was okay, a B-minus, C-plus student—one of those guys who knew how to figure out the game and was always respectful to my teachers and tried hard. As long as you did that, it didn’t matter how poorly you did on tests; they were going to pass you. What happens with dyslexic kids is, because you’re so bad at writing and reading, you develop verbal skills. You participate in class discussions and the teacher says, “This kid gets it; he just doesn’t test well.”
You learn to deal with it. For me the big problem was b’s and d’s. I couldn’t tell what they were. And any word with a lot of consonants in the middle. So you learn to skip the word. It’s like running the hurdles. You just jump over that word, go to the next one, and still probably understand the context of the sentence.
But anything that you’re not good at, you run from.
The Vigilante Author: So you weren’t a reader then as a kid?
Flynn: Oh God, no. The first book that I read for enjoyment was Trinity by Leon Uris, my sophomore year in college. My parents had been on me for years to read Trinity. But before that, it was CliffsNotes. Shakespeare, all of the classic stuff—it was painful. It was just next to impossible for me to read.
THE MILITARY INFLUENCE
The Vigilante Author: Your books focus a lot on military action. Is there anything in your background that gave you your interest in the military?
Flynn: I went to St. Thomas Academy, which is a military school. It’s an all-male, Catholic school. I actually considered going to Annapolis to play football, but I knew my grades just weren’t good enough.
The Vigilante Author: Did you go to St. Thomas out of a real interest in things military?
Flynn: No, there was no option involved. St. Thomas Academy was founded to educate poor Irish, Italian, and German Catholic kids that were growing up in St. Paul, Minnesota. My dad came from a very lower-middle-class, Irish-Catholic family. They never owned a house; they lived in an apartment, which was common back then. So my grandma and grandpa scrimped and saved and sent my dad and his brother there, and then they had scholarships to go to college. My dad graduated from high school in ’55 and he was the first one of any generation on his father’s or mother’s side to go to college.
Then my dad taught there at St. Thomas for thirteen years. It’s a very tight-knit community. When I was there, there were a lot of third-generation kids going through the school. There’s a lot of family tradition, and the Flynn family name is pretty prevalent there.
So it was never a question. My older brothers went there, I went there, my younger brothers went there. My stepson will start there next year. Most of the grandkids will go there. I devote a lot of my time to Catholic and private education because I believe in it so much. I speak at and raise money for grade schools in the Twin Cities.
The Vigilante Author: It sounds like your family moved up from lower-middle class, though.
Flynn: Yes, into the upper-middle class. I think this story is very common. It’s the American story. I don’t care if it’s Jewish immigrants or Italian or German, the great bond they had in this country is that they got education. Education was the way that you left your kids a better life.
Anyway, I went to college in the same part of Minnesota, the University of St. Thomas. Later, I lived in Denver for six months when I was writing my first book, Term Limits. And I spent a fair amount of time in D.C.—I was there for five months at one point.
The Vigilante Author: After getting out of college into the corporate world for a couple of years, didn’t you serve in the military?
Flynn: I left Kraft General Foods for a Marine aviation program, but I’ve got to clear one thing up. I never served in the Marine Corps. At the time, they gave out I think two Marine aviation slots for Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. They had over one hundred applicants, and they gave out two. I had gone through all of the testing, passed all of the exams, had to run three miles in eighteen minutes and do one hundred sit-ups and all that, and take a battery of tests. Based on that, I was selected out of a pool of over one hundred candidates. So I signed my aviation package, and I was now on the hook: I was going into the Marine Corps.
They sent me down to Glenview Naval Air Station to do my flight physical in Chicago. But I did not know that you’re supposed to lie when they ask you questions.
The Vigilante Author: Such as?
Flynn: Such as, “Have you ever had any head injuries, concussions?” Growing up with four brothers, we were a very physical family, and I played football in high school and college, Division III. I had a number of concussions—two real bad ones, one from a car accident when I was five and another one when I was eleven. Both of those resulted in convulsive seizures and vomiting and a lot of other problems. One football game my junior year, I don’t even remember the third quarter. And I had been in more than my fair share of fights, where I had gotten off the ground and started walking in one direction, even though I thought I was going in the other.
I had a not-healthy number of concussions. So I washed out of the flight program.
MAKING OF A WRITER
The Vigilante Author: How was it that you, a dyslexic kid, suddenly decided to start writing? Where did that bug come from?
Flynn: Well, I read Trinity, and it opened up my eyes to a world that I had run from my whole life.
The Vigilante Author: How old were you then?
Flynn: Nineteen. Sophomore year in college. So I start reading for the first time for enjoyment. And what happened was: I read all these books, and I always figure out what’s going to happen next. I’ve got an extremely intuitive mind that is never surprised by how books turn out. I literally know what’s going to happen from almost the first chapter on—which gets me thinking. I think almost every person at some point asks themselves, “Do I have it in me to write a book?”
I graduated from college in ’88. In ’89, the Berlin Wall comes down. At that point, I’m already thinking about writing a novel someday. So I thought, “The poor son of a bitch who is writing the Cold War novel when that wall came down, he’s screwed.” I think that most of your good authors spend a lot of time daydreaming and thinking. You look down the road—where’s it all going? You try to get out in front of reality and at least give people a rough sense of what it’s going to be like.
I had a friend who had been murdered after college in Washington D.C., and that provided the impetus for Term Limits. It eventually came down to a kind of epiphany: “Hey, if Clancy can do it, why can’t I? They need books; somebody has got to be the next Tom Clancy.”
The Vigilante Author: You imagined this team of former Special Forces guys with a personal grudge against certain corrupt, powerful politicians—a team led by a former Navy SEAL, Scott Coleman. And they decide to take justice into their own hands. That story line taps powerful emotions. Everybody is infuriated by powerful persons who have stuck it to everyone and who get away with it.
The Vigilante Author: And you think, “Boy, I would love to waste that guy!” Naturally, you immediately push it out of your mind. You can’t do that. But you tapped that powerful revenge fantasy in this novel.
Flynn: The book scares me. It scares me more now than it ever has before, because I see the national debt rising, getting worse and worse; I see the country possibly headed for some extremely dangerous economic times; I see the disapproval rating of politicians getting worse and worse. The novel scares me. And I get letters from people, I get comments from people.
The Vigilante Author: They all live in Idaho and they drive Ryder trucks.
Flynn: Some of them are military people who say, “Too bad this can’t be real.”
The Vigilante Author: And they say it way too seriously.
The Vigilante Author: So, you wrote the book and got an agent.
Flynn: I had an agent during the process of amassing sixty-plus rejection letters.
The Vigilante Author: Many people would find that impossible to believe, because Term Limits was compelling storytelling. What were some of the reasons you were given for the rejections?
Flynn: “No market.” “I can’t see who would buy this.” This, from people who have never listened to Rush Limbaugh, for instance; but they will tell you they hate Rush.
The Vigilante Author: I read that you tacked all of those rejections onto your bulletin board.
Flynn: As a source of motivation. I looked through the file the other day. Quite a few people who rejected me still work at 1230 Avenue of the Americas—Simon and Schuster. I saw a couple of them last night. I always smile when I see them.
The Vigilante Author: “Living well is the best revenge.” What surprises me is that it took so long to get the book accepted and published.
Flynn: It doesn’t surprise me, and it shouldn’t surprise you if you know this town. There are a lot of people who let their personal politics get in the way of making a good business decision. It’s also Hollywood’s biggest problem right now. Now that I’ve gotten to know the business, it doesn’t surprise me at all that the manuscript was rejected that many times.
The Vigilante Author: After this thing went through sixty rejections, you finally decided to self-publish it, and then you shopped it around Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Flynn: I hand-sold it. I hired a publicist. It was not complicated. I was lucky that right after college I worked for Kraft General Foods. I knew how to go into an account: grocery store, bookstore—not a big difference. People in this business hate it when I say that, but marketing a box of Grape-Nuts is not that different from marketing a book. In fact, more and more, this industry is learning to take a cue from retail marketing: how to “brand” an author and give the readers what they want.
I looked at that issue back then and said to myself: “New York missed both [John] Grisham and Clancy. Grisham had to go through a small press down in Mississippi. Clancy had to go through the Naval Institute Press in Annapolis, Maryland. The two biggest authors of the ’90s, bar none, other than maybe Crichton—and New York missed them.”
What you learn, growing up in a big family, is: You try not to take it personally. You dust yourself off, you keep going, and you say, “Hey, I still have got a shot at this.”
The Vigilante Author: So, your self-published, self-sold Term Limits took off in the Twin Cities and became a local bestseller—and that finally got you a New York publisher for it. Was the new edition cleaned up a little bit?
Flynn: Yes, cleaned up a little bit. But still a very raw novel. I could not write that novel today. I think it’s very typical of a first book for an author. There are some imperfections in that book that I cringe over. I don’t go back and read my books.
The Vigilante Author: You don’t?
Flynn: No, it’s painful to go back and read it. I will go back occasionally to check a fact, and I will read a sentence and go, “Oooh, I can’t believe I wrote that sentence; that’s horrible.”
The Vigilante Author: Nonetheless, it was a great fantasy, and I think that’s why it worked.
A HERO FOR THE WAR ON TERRORISM
The Vigilante Author: For your next book, Transfer of Power, you created a new hero: Mitch Rapp, a secret assassin for the CIA in the War on Terror. You’ve described him as “the tip of the spear” defending America. You’ve now built a series of books around him.
Flynn: Midway through Term Limits, I started thinking about Transfer of Power, and how am I going to do this, and where is it going to go. I had the idea of “the tip of the spear”: We needed our guy over there, assassinating these guys before they hit us.
People don’t like to talk about this in public; they don’t want to talk about torture, they don’t want to talk about assassination. But in private, you ask anybody in this country, “Would it have been acceptable to you if your government had assassinated Osama bin Laden prior to 9/11? And here’s your choice:
“Would you have wanted to know about it, and would you have accepted it?
“Or would you have not wanted to know about it, but still kind of quietly accepted it?
“Or would you not want your government to do something like that?”
I think that ninety-eight percent of the people would answer either one or two. That’s why Rapp does what other people debate.
I needed this kind of raw, loner, individualistic guy who was going go out there and lay it all on the line. So he’s got the American Indian background; he’s got the dark features; he becomes a linguist; he understands Arabic and Farsi and speaks it fluently; he understands the customs; he can walk among the people.
The Vigilante Author: Why the evolution from Scott Coleman to Mitch Rapp? Your first book, with Coleman, was a bestseller in paperback. Many authors would have grabbed Scott Coleman and said, “I’m going to turn him into a series character.”
Flynn: A couple of problems. Scott Coleman is blond-haired, blue-eyed. He could never be “the tip of the spear.”
The Vigilante Author: Because he can’t fit into the Middle East?
Flynn: He can’t fit in. You can’t have a blond-haired, blue-eyed Mitch Rapp; it’s not going to make sense.
The other thing is, Scott Coleman is “dirty.” He’s a really wounded hero. He’s a guy who got screwed over by his own government, by a loudmouthed senator. So he started whacking politicians. And as corrupt as they are, it’s hard to carry that kind of baggage forward, and have this guy not be part of the government.
The Vigilante Author: Yes—how do you rehabilitate him?
Flynn: It’s much easier to use Coleman now as kind of an independent contractor, and pull him and his guys in when you need them. But I didn’t see it as possible to have all of the books centered around him.
The Vigilante Author: Mitch Rapp—where did he come from?
Flynn: Well, from some people I had met. A lot of these Special Forces guys I’ve met who then go on to work for the CIA—they are a unique bird. If you are an aware person, you can pick up some pretty easy tip-offs of who they are. You look at their hands; they’ve got scars on their knuckles. Are their knuckles battered, what does their nose look like, how are their ears? How observant are they?
Go into a crowded bar and drag a chair across the tile floor real quickly and loudly. And you’re going to see if there are any cops in the room, because men of action who’ve had to deal with things, their heads snap up while other people keep talking. They think a fight might be about to start. The cops or the Special Forces guys, they are just hyper-aware of their surroundings.
The Vigilante Author: Did you pick that name, Mitch Rapp, for any special reason?
Flynn: A buddy from college, Eric Rapp. Liked his last name, wanted it to be monosyllabic, easy to remember. “Mitch Rapp” went well together.
In the upcoming Part 2 of this fascinating, wide-ranging interview, Vince Flynn discusses the provocative “individualist” political views that underlie his novels; where he agrees, and disagrees, with controversial novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand; and meeting the challenge of Islamic-based terrorism, which is the backdrop for his tales of international political intrigue.
For more information on Vince and his books, be sure to visit his website.