I noticed Stephen England and his work pretty early during my own efforts to become an “indie” author. His Pandora’s Grave was attracting comment, and when I checked out his feisty online comments, I found that he sounded a lot like me—which, as I see things, is a good sign in any human being.
Anyway, I’ve finally started to read his novel, but I don’t want to delay any longer the publication of the interview I conducted with him recently. I first asked him for a brief biographical self-portrait, and here’s what he supplied:
“Writing isn’t just what I do. It’s who I am.
“The desire to write is nothing new—I’ve been writing for over ten years. In that time I’ve put my keyboard to just about everything—novels, short stories, political opinion pieces, even the odd bit of poetry. The manuscripts from my early days will never see the light of day, much to the collective relief of the world: It is said the definition of self-improvement is when you can recognize your previous work for the ill-written trash it was.
“My efforts at writing culminated in the publication of Sword of Neamha by Lulu Publishing in December of 2009. A first-person adventure novel set in pre-Roman Britain, the story was very much a departure from my previous efforts. Covering over thirty years, Sword chronicled the rise and fall of a kingdom as seen through the eyes Cadwalador, a young Gallic warrior caught in the middle of civil war.
“Following the publication of Sword of Neamha, I’ve turned back to my first love: counterterrorism thrillers. Pandora’s Grave, the debut novel of the “Shadow Warriors” series, came out this past summer, introducing the world to CIA paramilitary operations officer Harry Nichols.
“Pandora’s Grave is a complete novel in and of itself, but it is the start of a series, and work has already begun on the sequel, Day of Reckoning.”
The Vigilante Author: Thanks for joining me, Stephen. Your recent thriller, Pandora’s Grave, has been getting great reviews from Amazon customers, fellow authors, and reviewers. It has an Amazon reader ranking of 4.8 out of a possible 5. And one of my thriller-author heroes, Brad Thor, highly recommends it, calling it “a terrific read from a great new author.” That’s a pretty auspicious beginning for a thriller series. Tell us about it.
Stephen England: Pandora’s Grave is a political/spy thriller, the debut novel of the “Shadow Warriors” series, centering on the efforts of a CIA strike team to stop a biological attack launched against Jerusalem by the regime in Tehran. The book is written in a time-stamped format reminiscent of “24,” events unfolding in real-time throughout the weeks leading up to the attack.
But Pandora’s Grave is more than a fast-paced story of technology, of weapons—it is an intensely emotional story of the people on both sides, particularly one man, CIA paramilitary operations officer Harry Nichols. For as the minutes tick down—as Iran and Israel come to the brink of war—one thing becomes clear: to save the world, he will have to kill his friend.
The Vigilante Author: I used the time-stamped format myself in HUNTER; I like the way it slowly adds to the suspense. And I love intimate personal conflicts woven into the fabric of some grand-scale plot. So, tell us about yourself, Stephen.
Stephen England: I was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, but I’ve spent almost my entire life in Cecil County, Maryland. A red county in a sea of blue. In contrast to my characters, I’m no globetrotter. I was homeschooled K-12, which accounts for the fact that I could read by the time I graduated. (Laughs.) Don’t get me started on the marvel of public education.
The Vigilante Author: No, let’s not go there, or we’ll spend the rest of the interview time sharing our mutual indignation over the state of the nation. So, how did this homeschooled kid become a thriller writer?
Stephen England: I’ve been blessed since childhood with the mindset of a rogue, which is curiously apropos for a spy novelist. For me, the fact that my peers were all doing one thing was always sufficient reason to do another, an individualist attitude that was sure to cause to trouble in a world that values conformity above all other virtues. But no conformist has ever changed the world—or written a good novel.
The Vigilante Author: How true. Conformity and creativity are logical opposites. Any other early influences that propelled you on the path of writing fiction?
Stephen England: My parents will have to take the rap here—I’m sure I would have never become a writer without the lifelong love of reading they instilled within me.
I grew up the son of a Baptist pastor, a life that I would highly recommend for anyone looking into a writing career. Nothing else can give you such a ringside seat on human nature. I’ve seen the good, the bad—and that most dangerous of all homo sapiens—the well-intentioned. As Henry David Thoreau once said, “If I knew that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.”
We probably don’t want to get into how many of my characters are drawn from real life.
The Vigilante Author: No, let’s avoid frivolous lawsuits. How about your literary pedigree? What authors have you read that left a stamp on your own writing?
Stephen England: Tom Clancy is undoubtedly one of my prime influences in terms of style and execution. From the first time I read through Hunt for Red October, I was hooked. That being said, imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but as a business policy, it stinks on ice. I had to chuckle when I ran into a reader of Pandora’s Grave the other day who said, “It was just like Tom Clancy—except completely different!”
The Vigilante Author: That sounds so clever that I just don’t get it.
Stephen England: As paradoxical as her statement sounds, it was a confirmation that I had accomplished my goal. There’s enough Clancy imitators out there, no need for someone else to add to the dogpile. I am a huge fan of Vince Flynn, Brad Thor, and Daniel Silva, but my own style was firmly established by the time I was introduced to their work. In terms of other influences—other than books, the TV show “24” was hugely formative. Everything I know about pacing I learned at the feet of Jack Bauer.
The Vigilante Author: Like all good thriller heroes, Jack was always “running out of time.” Okay, what makes Stephen tick as a writer? What compels you to take on the lonely task of sitting for hours in a chair before a keyboard, making things up in your head?
Stephen England: Writing is intensely personal for me—I had to laugh the other day as I watched a writer take a poll on his blog on what he should choose as the topic of his next novel. I could never do that—if I’m going to spend years of my life on a nearly 150,000 word novel, then it had better be about something I feel passionately about, not a topic chosen at random by a few bored Internet surfers.
In the case of Pandora’s Grave, the threat posed by Islamic terrorism. Despite the fact that over a decade has passed since the attacks of 9/11, America has still not come to terms with the nature of the threat. There is a huge difference between being honestly fair and being politically correct—and the American left has taken great pains to err on the side of political correctness, even blindness to the dangers we face in this country. Until the leadership of this country wakes up to the reality of Islamic jihad and our position in the Dar el Harb—the house of war as defined by the jihadists—we will continue fighting the “war on terror” with one hand tied behind our back.
The Vigilante Author: I couldn’t agree more. You know, from even a quick look at your online presence, one might infer that you are an opinionated—some might say “fiery”— conservative. How has this impacted your writing career? And can people expect to find those same political viewpoints in your novels?
Stephen England: If that was the inference, it would be right. I am a conservative and a TEA Party activist in my “spare” time. To the right of Rush and the left of God, as the saying goes. It’s not the type of political philosophy that makes a guy my age popular among his peers, but there goes the rogue. I wasn’t placed on this earth to win popularity contests.
The Vigilante Author: I can relate.
Stephen England: In terms of impact on my career—I might count myself blessed. While the “literary” world is dominated by liberals, the best-selling novelists in my genre—authors like Clancy, Thor, Silva, and Flynn—are predominantly conservative. Which tells you a lot about the market.
As far as the “Shadow Warriors” series, while the stories are told from a conservative Christian viewpoint, the books themselves are not political. Covert officers work in the shadows—political grandstanding is not part of their playbook. The political views of Harry Nichols are simple: Politicians are universally corrupt and self-serving. His primary concern is how to protect his men from the bureaucrats and politicos sending them into the field. Their party is of no particular concern.
The Vigilante Author: I think you’ve accurately captured the attitude of most people in covert and special ops. When I’ve interviewed other authors, I’ve asked them why they’ve chosen such a tough and lonely profession. How about you?
Stephen England: Life is tough and lonely. Writing is what I’ve done about it.
The Vigilante Author: I really like that. In fact, I love that.
Stephan England: Writing is definitely a form of catharsis for me—it’s a way to express how I see the world. Harry Nichols is definitely not a physical alter ego of his creator, but he is that emotionally. Writing what you know is Writing 101, and I’ve done that. I know what it feels like to be betrayed. I know what it feels like to lose someone you love. It’s just a matter of amplifying those emotions to the level of a thriller novel.
The Vigilante Author: People who’ve never written are fascinated by an author’s writing habits. Tell us about yours. Are you a compulsive planner and plotter, like me, or more “seat of the pants”? Where and how do you work?
Stephen England: Seat of the pants, definitely. All my outlining is mental, juggling the flow of information from one character to another, which is so important when you’re writing a novel about the intelligence community. It’s all about information. My “special place” is my desktop computer, often early morning or late evening. Any time I can slip on the headphones and completely zone out. Finish one scene, figure out where it’s going—write the next scene. Rinse and repeat.
The Vigilante Author: What gives you the greatest kick as a writer?
Stephen England: I love it when a plot comes together. That quite simply is the greatest pleasure in writing. Positive review, reader feedback, customer reviews—those are all simply gravy on top—confirmation that your message got across. The ultimate satisfaction is when you see the threads of the plot converge and say to yourself, “Yeah, this is going to work.” The ending of every book is the same for me—a euphoric race to the climax. At that point, I can often write 6-7 pages in a day—and I think the adrenaline rush conveys itself through the writing.
The Vigilante Author: Like me, Stephen, you chose self-publish. Why did you do that, instead of going after an agent and a traditional publisher? And how is indie publishing working out for you?
Stephen England: I never submitted my manuscript to a traditional publisher, for one primary reason—I had already been forced to change the plot twice over the course of writing it in order to adjust for unfolding world events. No way I was going to sit on it for another ten years shopping it around to agents.
The Vigilante Author: This also sounds familiar.
Stephen England: Independent publishing is the future of the industry, but it’s not going to be an easy road, for several reasons. For one thing, writers have gotten the idea that publishing their first manuscript is bright, when it is anything but. To give a sense of perspective, Sword of Neamha, my first published manuscript, was my seventh fully realized manuscript. The first six will never see the light of day, for good reason. There’s a lot of indie trash out there, and people are starting to get tired sifting through it.
The Vigilante Author: Yep. I’ve been complaining about this for some time. It sustains the stigma against self-published work that we have to fight against.
Stephen England: Secondly, the indie gurus are pushing hard for people to write fast, faster than New York—which is absurd, when you think about it. If you watch the big-name industry authors—the good ones generally last a decade before the strain of producing a top-notch novel every twelve months breaks them down. And then they put out another five to seven sub-par books before enough people catch on to stop buying. The premise is to keep people reading your books, which I gave up on the day I realized that an avid reader could read in thirty minutes the chapter that I labored on for a week. Tell authors to write fast? You must be out of your ever-lovin’ mind.
The Vigilante Author: You sound like a recording of me, because I’ve been saying the same thing to indies: Take your time and write a quality book.
Stephen England: And finally, we’re going to have to brace for even stronger pushback from New York. There’s a lot of big-name authors that are seriously unhappy with both the e-book and indie revolutions. I think Niccolo Machiavelli put it best: “The innovator makes enemies of all who prospered under the old order.”
The Vigilante Author: But it’s easy to conform. It takes certain qualities of character to go against the flow when it makes no sense. So, what qualities do you think are most important for an author to cultivate?
Stephen England: You’ve got to be self-critical, above all. Contentment is the sworn enemy of excellence. I’ve talked with writers who tell me, “Well, yes, I could be better, but I’m selling books now and that’s the important thing.” It is, and it isn’t. The most important thing is to never stop honing your craft. You’re never as good as you could be, and it’s that type of self-motivation that will keep you going in the long run.
That said, while you always want to keep learning, you must be very careful who you listen to. Never take counsel of your peers. Most people who know me know that I have a very low opinion of critique groups. It’s the rogue within rearing its head—along with the practical observation that the successful authors are already out there, doing their thing. The people in the critique groups are typically people just like you, the people who haven’t figured out what they’re doing. Find your niche and leave the losers behind.
The Vigilante Author: Great advice.
Pandora’s Grave ends with a teaser for the next book in the “Shadow Warriors” series, Day of Reckoning. Can you give us a look as to where you’re headed with your writing, Stephen?
Stephen England: Sure thing. Day of Reckoning is going to put a new twist on the series as the action comes to the shores of America. The Agency has never operated on US soil, but all that is about to change when a bomb targets CIA Director David Lay in suburban Virginia. With a kill team of ex-Spetsnaz on the loose, there are no answers, only the question: Who ordered the hit?
As the FBI and CIA coordinate the search for suspects, it soon becomes apparent that the attack was one part contract hit, one part misdirection. And the kill team is the least of their worries. It should be quite a ride.
The Vigilante Author: I think you’ve got a lot of readers here eager to buy and read your books. Where can they get them, and how can they follow or reach you?
Stephen England: They can find out more about my writing and read short stories and excerpts at www.stephenwrites.com. They can also follow me on Twitter by searching for @stephenmengland
The Vigilante Author: Great. Any final comments?
Stephen England: Only this: Many thanks for hosting this interview, Robert. It’s been a pleasure talking with you—I know that your own success has been an inspiration to many of us. From the Rogue to the Vigilante, here’s to the future.