Photos by Brian Killigrew
In Part 1 of my interview with Vince Flynn, the #1 New York Times political-thriller author revealed his unlikely path to becoming a successful writer; his stubborn determination to overcome all obstacles in order to be successfully published; and the genesis of his lone-wolf, quasi-vigilante hero Mitch Rapp, whom he describes as “the tip of the spear” in the war against Islamist terrorists.
Here in Part 2, Vince explains the “individualism” at the core of his personal philosophy; his views about novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand; and the ongoing challenge of Islamic-based terrorism, which is the central focus of his novels of international political intrigue.
Once again, the photos from the interview were taken by Brian Killigrew.
“I AM AN INDIVIDUALIST”
The Vigilante Author: Your novels are controversial, Politically Incorrect. Were the roots of your political views in that military-school environment during your childhood? Or was there something else—some influence that propelled you to the ideas that you hold right now? Did you find some burning bush along the path somewhere?
Flynn: I have never been asked this quite this way. I have got to think about this.
The Vigilante Author: Were your parents more or less conservative in their outlook and values?
Flynn: My parents never once told us what party they belonged to, and I think that is so cool. We were never lectured to about politics. Again—big family; a lot of open discussions at the dinner table; my parents very adamant that everybody has a right to their opinion. But you’d better be able to back it up, or you’re going to be called a moron by one of your siblings, or possibly even your own father. We used to ask them who did they vote for. “None of your business,” my dad used to say.
The Vigilante Author: Secret ballot.
Flynn: Right, yes. “Me and my Creator are the only people who need to know what I did in that voting booth.”
The Vigilante Author: Minnesota has the reputation of being way-out-there liberal.
Flynn: But what you’ve got to understand about Minnesota, and St. Paul specifically, is Ronald Reagan was the first Republican that Irish Catholics ever voted for. What happened is in the late ’60s and ’70s, the Democratic Party moved to the left.
The Vigilante Author: Very much so.
Flynn: And they left all of those Reagan Democrats sitting there going, “Wait a minute. Now yeah, we’re pro-little-guy; we don’t like the English crown; we cheer for the underdog. But we’re not buying into this ‘pro-choice’ deal.” When you really saw the split was in the ’80s, when the Democrats started to say: “Not only are we a pro-choice party; we’re a pro–‘let’s take federal tax dollars and pay for people to have abortions.’” That, I think, crossed a divide where a lot of Democratic Irish, Italian, and German Catholics said, “No—you are not taking my tax dollars to pay for someone’s abortion.”
The Vigilante Author: Government started putting its thumb on the scale in so many of these social issues. I think that really drove a wedge between the Democratic Party and, well, the kind of people my parents were. They were New Deal Democrats, but they were more conservative. They were like [Senator Joseph] Lieberman.
Flynn: I’m a huge fan of Joe Lieberman. So the Democratic Party went to the left. Very socially liberal.
I am an individualist. I am someone who says, “You know what? I know quite a few gay people that I’ve met through one of my sisters, who is a hairdresser—and I think they are born that way.” I am like a lot of Republicans that I know. I will tell them, “You know what? You don’t want to admit it, but you are a libertarian.”
The Vigilante Author: You use the term “libertarian.” How would you characterize yourself politically? I don’t necessarily mean in terms of a party affiliation.
Flynn: I’ve grown a little leery about discussing this, but I don’t think I can hide my political beliefs. While I live in one of the most liberal states in the country, I am a Republican—which means my views actually line up with most Southern Democrats.
I am classic Irish Catholic in the sense that I am fiscally conservative and socially liberal. I don’t like abortion, but I’m pragmatic about it. Do I think that we’re actually going to go overturn Roe v. Wade? Possibly, but then becomes a state issue, and it will play out however it plays out. I mean, who really likes abortion?
The Vigilante Author: I don’t think anybody. I’ve heard you say that Rudy [Giuliani] is your candidate. [Note: This and the following remarks pertain to the 2008 presidential campaign.]
Flynn: Yes. But we are in the midst of a campaign cycle run by precinct politics. So you’ve got the fervent believers on the left running the [Democratic] party, and you’ve got the fervent believers on the right running the [Republican] party. And that’s who all of these candidates are playing to. So we’re going to have to hit a reset button in March [after the primaries]. Parties will reshuffle the deck and say, “All right, here is our person—let’s get behind him.”
I’m a firm believer that the republic is stronger than any one person. These people who think that President Clinton destroyed the country, that President Bush destroyed the country—or if Senator Clinton gets elected then we’re moving to Canada—it’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. I’ve told my Republican friends to stop saying that. You are insulting this country and what it stands for if you think that one person can go in there for four, maybe eight years, and so screw up this country that you need to go to Canada.
The Vigilante Author: In fact, you have a number of Democrat presidents in your novels.
Flynn: I have a good Democratic president. My villains are always terrorists, and the secondary villains are either politicians or bureaucrats who get in the way—and they’ve been both Republicans and Democrats. I try to keep Mitch Rapp neutral.
And this gets to my individualist leanings. I don’t like the idea of the government getting too involved in my life. I don’t like the fact that we have taken so much of what originally was run by charities, and it is now handled by the government. We have created a dependent, impoverished class in this country.
If you’ve read any of the Benjamin Franklin biographies, he was such a visionary. He struggled with this idea of where we were going to go as a country. He never wanted to institutionalize the charitable aspect of trying to help the poor, because he was afraid that we would make it too easy for these people. Sometimes you need some “tough love.”
So I’m always leery of the federal government, or state and local, stepping in and doing too much. I don’t know where this comes from in my youth. Part of me thinks that you are born that way, to a degree. And because my dad was a high school football, basketball, and baseball coach, we were always in a sport. It didn’t matter—it was baseball all summer long, football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and track in the spring, for all of us. I think that especially a sport like track, where it’s not a team sport—
The Vigilante Author: It’s a very individual sport.
Flynn: It’s a very individual sport, and you have nobody to blame but yourself if you don’t win the race. All of those sports lend themselves to the idea that you need to bust your ass and make yourself better if you want to succeed in this world.
The Vigilante Author: Self-responsibility.
Flynn: Self-responsibility. My parents—when you have seven kids, you have to run it a little bit like a military operation, and my dad did, by the way. We had the matrix charts when he was at Control Data: Here’s the kids; here’s the day of the week; here’s your chores on this day. My dad was a results-oriented kind of guy.
I don’t know where I got this, probably more from my father than my mother, but I have this innate sense of fairness—like to the point where I probably need therapy for it, because I get really frustrated if things aren’t fair. It drives me nuts.
The Vigilante Author: [Thriller novelist] Lee Child told me the same thing when I interviewed him.
Flynn: Oh, really?
The Vigilante Author: Yes, because he cannot walk away from an unfair situation or an injustice. And so he got in a lot of fights as a kid.
Flynn: The same thing for me.
The Vigilante Author: Right. You would like that guy.
Flynn: I read Lee. He is one of my favorite authors, and I love the Jack Reacher character. Down in Minneapolis, I knocked a guy out last year, on the pavement, for this exact reason. My brother, who is a cop, said to me, “Have you lost your mind? You were right; you defended yourself; but my God, that doesn’t matter! This guy, if he wasn’t hammered out of his mind, and he actually found out who you were—”
The Vigilante Author: There goes the house, there goes the cars.
Flynn: Well actually, I have a big umbrella policy, but still—
The Vigilante Author: There goes the big umbrella.
Flynn: I believe in this set of values that my parents raised us with: to be honest, be truthful. It’s the old, “Mean what you say, and do what you mean.” Like me, Mitch doesn’t like people getting away with stuff. He doesn’t like politicians who lie and cheat to get to the top.
The Vigilante Author: I get the impression that Mitch Rapp is probably a projection of yourself—because hero characters generally are, for an author, an idealized projection. Lee Child said that Jack Reacher is what he would be if he could get away with it.
Flynn: Which is why I think the two characters have been so successful.
FLYNN ON AYN RAND
The Vigilante Author: Your political viewpoint seems to defy the conventional pigeonholes. You say “fiscally conservative, socially liberal.” Now, I more or less eschew the term “libertarian” because it has become associated with foreign-policy nuttiness.
Flynn: I’m talking about a Jeffersonian libertarian. You can’t fault libertarianism for being co-opted by certain people who are unhappy with either party.
The Vigilante Author: Is that a term that you use in self-description?
Flynn: I am a registered Republican. But as I’ve said to my friends, if we were to show up at the convention and espouse our personal views, we would be thrown out of the tent.
The Vigilante Author: Obviously, this outlook had to be supplemented by reading. Any seminal influences on you that helped either focus or solidify your politics or your general philosophy of life?
Flynn: Well, not really in fiction so much—other than Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.
The Vigilante Author: Oh, you read those?
Flynn: Oh, yes. [Atlas] is a fascinating book for me, because everything that I just told you, that book kind of awakens in you—even more so. Makes you very in tune with how unfair the world can be, especially Washington.
I know a lot of people who work at Blackwater [the private security contractor, now renamed Xe Services LLC]. I told Eric Prince, the owner, more than three years ago, “Eric, you need to start giving money to Democrats.” Eric is a devout Catholic, ultra-conservative, and he said, “Absolutely not—I don’t agree with their stance on national security.” I said, “Eric, as a businessman, if you are going to operate in this town, you need to spread the wealth around.” And I actually talked about Atlas Shrugged a little.
The Vigilante Author: Oh, wow.
Flynn: I said, “The way this town operates is: They start seeing somebody making money, and if they are not getting a piece of it, they are going to come after you—just like in Atlas Shrugged.” There are people out there—and Washington is full of them—that are not producing anything. But they want a piece of the action. And they will drag down the people who are producers. Her two novels, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead—well, it’s individualism through and through, and respect for producers—respect for people who take responsibility for their own lives.
The Vigilante Author: That’s very interesting, because many readers of [The New Individualist, the magazine where this interview first appeared in 2007] are fans of Ayn Rand’s writing, too.
Flynn: Yes. But here’s where I parted ways with it. I was ninety percent of the way there in both of those books; loved them. But I had this very empty kind of feeling in my heart that she had taken it too far—too cold.
Now, I understand her mistrust of organizations; but I don’t want to live in a society where religion doesn’t play a role. I mean religion in the best way. Like the religion that produced Archbishop [John] Ireland, who founded St. Thomas Academy. You can take any organization in the world, you’re going to find some misdeeds, you are going to find some problems. The Catholic Church—they’ve blown it with pedophilia, big time. But that doesn’t mean that they haven’t done a lot of other great things. Especially, how the Church has touched my life with these great schools that they have built. I never paid full tuition in high school or college. It’s mind-boggling to think that in one generation, my mom and dad put seven kids through private Catholic high schools that cost a lot of money. Seven kids in ten years. And then six of us through college. And we never paid full tuition. A lot of that aid came from the Archdiocese in the Twin Cities. There is a lot that the Church does that doesn’t get told.
So when I read Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, this thought of living in a world where there is no religion kind of bothers me. Here’s the analogy I always give.
I’ll meet an agnostic or an atheist, and I’ll ask them, “Do you believe in the body, mind, and the soul?” And your agnostic will say, “Yes, I believe in the body, the mind, and the soul; but I hate organized religion. I think it’s a drug for the weak, just to get them to cope with how horrible the world is without an afterlife.”
And I say, “All right, so you belong to an athletic club?” They say, Yeah, they believe in staying in shape, they want to stay healthy. So I say, “You believe in an athletic club, where you pay a couple of hundred bucks a month to go and work out three to five times a week for a couple of hours; but you don’t believe in somebody joining a place of worship to go take care of their soul, and spend maybe a couple of hours once a week?” It doesn’t match up.
PC AND THE WAR ON TERRORISM
The Vigilante Author: The War on Terrorism is the backdrop for all your Mitch Rapp novels. You’ve talked about the impact that the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988 had on you during your college days.
Flynn: Yes. Twenty-six Syracuse University students died on that plane. And it was a civilian target. Now, the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon—I remember that vividly, as well. But that was a military target; you can understand why they were attacked. At Lockerbie, two-hundred-plus innocent people, civilians on an airplane—it’s mind-boggling. So yes, it affected me deeply.
I saw this threat from Islamist terrorism getting worse and worse, not better. I knew that they were coming to America, that it was only a matter of time. Sooner or later, these crazy Islamic radical fundamentalists who preach this cult of death—the suicide bomber, the martyr—they were going to hit us, and it was going to be painful. The 1993 World Trade Center bombing—the first attack—didn’t affect me because at that point, I already knew what was happening.
The Vigilante Author: You started reading up on Islamic radical fundamentalism while you were still in college?
Flynn: After college, really.
The Vigilante Author: You’ve described Islam as having been hijacked and bastardized by these fundamentalists, with their strict form of Islam and global aspirations of conquest. You’ve also said that you don’t want us to get in a situation where we are at war with the entire Islamic world.
The Vigilante Author: You obviously believe that the majority of Muslims are not jihadists or fundamentalists.
Flynn: Correct. I will cut to the chase for you. I think Islam is a religion in dire need of a reformation. It is a religion in crisis. Women have very few rights; they are treated as chattel in most cases. You’ve got a young woman over in Saudi Arabia right now who is going to get sixty lashes because she was in public with some male other than a relative, and they appealed it. So what did the judge do? “We’re going to give you two hundred lashes for even daring to appeal this.”
My greatest fear is that because of Political Correctness, we in the West will not criticize Islam. We are so afraid because if you criticize a “minority” group, you are deemed to be an intolerant bigot. It’s mind-boggling that in today’s world, in this country, as far as we’ve come with feminism and a lot of equality issues, no one will stand up in the national media and criticize Islam the way it needs to be.
There needs to be a national debate of great urgency about where Islam is going and how we’re going to bring it into the next century. Because they are taking young men and turning them into “martyrs.” They are preaching this cult of death. But I am shocked that we live in a world where a Danish newspaper wants to publish a cartoon of Muhammad, and pretty much everybody in the West pisses down their pant leg and says, “Oh, my God—we don’t want to offend them!”
The Vigilante Author: You should know that The New Individualist [the magazine that I edited at the time] was the first magazine in the United States to reprint the cartoon of Muhammad on its cover, in protest.
Flynn: Oh, good! It drives me nuts. It’s a freedom-of-speech issue—period.
The Vigilante Author: Absolutely, and you can’t knuckle under to these people on that.
The Vigilante Author: You criticized how we tolerate the intolerance of Islamic fundamentalism: the liberal mentality of multiculturalism, of infinite tolerance of anything—the relativism.
Flynn: [My view] is fairly common for individualists and for those who followed Ayn Rand and admired her writings. Individualists tend to be very logical and very philosophically grounded. So, you look at this issue of “diversity,” and it is a red herring. Diversity in and of itself has no inherent value. Diversity could mean you sit down with a Nazi, a member of the KKK, and Islamic radical fundamentalists. Now where has that gotten you? At the end of the day, if you still are not willing to judge this person and their actions and their beliefs, you’ve gotten nowhere.
If diversity is, in and of itself, so fantastic, why did we get rid of the KKK? “I’m a Northern white guy, but I don’t want to judge them; I didn’t grow up in the South and I don’t want to be too critical.” B.S. We went after the KKK because they were a group of scumbags who thought that it was okay to terrorize black people. So let’s call evil and immorality for what it is, and let’s confront it.
The Vigilante Author: Absolutely.
Flynn: I mean, you can look at Judaism, and you are going to find something to criticize. You can do the same with Christianity and Catholicism, Hindus, Buddhists. But our problems right now amongst those other faiths pale in comparison to what is going on in Islam.
After 9/11, you would hear people say that this isn’t about religion; it’s about poverty, it’s about economic opportunity. I would say, “Really? Then where are all the Mexican terrorists? If it is about poverty, why don’t we have Mexicans streaming across the border blowing up buildings?”
It’s not about poverty. Saudi Arabia, for instance, fed by petrodollars, 40 percent unemployment amongst men from the ages of eighteen to thirty-two—and they are all on the government dole, making a very good living. They have nowhere to go. So they go hang out in coffee shops and they go to mosque five times a day; and they hear an imam get up and tell them how horrible Jews are, and how horrible the West is, and how we need to fight the infidels. “You need to martyr yourselves.” They are indoctrinating, literally, millions of young men.
We in the West have failed to criticize and confront this, because we are so afraid that if we criticize a religion that we don’t understand—one that is proportionally made up of people with darker skin than white Anglo-Saxon Protestants—then we will be called “racist.”
This is about a religion where it’s a male-dominated culture. Women have no role in Islam. People get upset with me about this; but you show me a mainstream mosque in America, then I want you to show me the role that the women are playing in that mosque. In almost all mosques, women are in the back of the bus, or they are in another building. It is very segregated.
The Vigilante Author: Still back in the fourteenth century.
Flynn: I’m fine about criticizing the Catholic Church for not letting women play a role on the altar; but women are allowed on the altar now. So how do you go after Catholicism the way Hollywood and the New York media did in the ’80s and ’90s—for two straight decades, three really—and then not say a word about Islam?
The Vigilante Author: They give it a pass. This double standard brings me to ask you about Hollywood. Have any of your books yet been optioned for film?
(Update: This interview was conducted late in 2007. Four years later, in June 2011, Vince announced that CBS Films had optioned his latest thriller, American Assassin. The details can be found here, on his website. CBS Films has optioned the rights for all his novels, and it also has a previous Mitch Rapp thriller, Consent to Kill, under development.)
In the third and final installment of this interview, Vince Flynn chronicles the difficulties that he has faced in bringing his novels to the Big Screen, due to left-wing political bias in Hollywood. He also confronts head-on one of the major political criticisms of his Mitch Rapp character: Rapp’s use of torture and other “extreme measures” against terrorists during vital interrogations. Vince then offers insights about the craft of writing thrillers. And I end the interview with an update concerning Vince’s shocking recent announcement about his health. You won’t want to miss any of this.
(This interview was first published in the March 2008 issue of The New Individualist, (c) 2008 by The Atlas Society, and is reprinted with permission.)