Welcome, Steven. What is your book about?
The First Bayonet deals with Zaina Anwar, who is a professor at the American University in Cairo, and has taken to protesting the Mubarak government about five years before Arab Spring. She is arrested, and her cousin, a member of Unit 777 (Egypt’s premier counterterrorist unit) reaches out to a friend of his named Ben Williams, a retired sergeant major, former Delta operator, and current CIA paramilitary officer. Given the relationship between the United States and Egypt, no official attempt to spring Zaina (who holds dual Egyptian and American citizenship) will be made, so Williams to go “off the reservation” (Spyspeak for “conduct an unauthorized action”) to spring her from prison and escort her and her cousin to the United States.
What inspired you to write this particular story?
A friend of mine was actually a participant in Arab Spring, and I read her personal account of it to see what it was all about, since I had heard several things on the news and know that the best way to learn about an event is to ask somebody who was there. Her account was probably the most moving piece of literary work I have ever read, and it drove me to want to tell her story through fiction. However, the continuity of my characters didn’t allow for Arab Spring to be a direct topic, so instead I rewound the clock to a suitable place and created the character of Zaina, who was the first to rally to the cause of freedom for her people in the modern era.
How long did it take you to write your book?
A little under a month, total. I had my idea and I ran with it. It was originally meant to be a short story, specifically for my friend, and it grew from a short story into a novelette, and from a novelette to a novella. Once I’d hit that length, I finally felt I had told the entire story and considered it done.
Did you do any research for the book?
Oh, plenty…I always do research for my novels. I am a nitpicker for tiny details that most friends of mine I know that read don’t pay attention to. One of my biggest things is that when I set my novels in the past, I pull up a calendar so I know exactly what day it is I’m setting the story on. If I can pull up moon charts or weather reports for those days, it’s even better to better create a new event in the world that we know. As far as the research on Egypt, I read my friend’s account on Arab Spring, as well as received research tips from her on the history of Egypt and why the Egyptian people were opposed to Mubarak. And of course, I made sure to research the weapons. As a reader, nothing frustrates me more than lack of research, especially with the internet literally at a writer’s fingertips.
How many stories do you currently have swirling around in your head?
At least seven other projects are on my mind at this moment, but I’ve only touched one of them.
Describe your writing in three words.
War, love, politics.
How has your background influenced your writing?
Being a military brat and a veteran myself has definitely played into the development of my characters, especially in their personal aspects. Also, being an infantryman, I have an appreciation for what soldiers want to read when they read about war, so I do my best to make the battle scenes as authentic as possible. Of course, there is the occasional stylization in the prose, but I want to not only entertain the general populace, but to have a brother grunt set the book down and go, “Well, damn, that was a hell of a firefight!”
What writer influenced you the most?
Depends on what aspects we’re talking. If you’re talking action and partially my prose, then my mentor, Doug Wojtowicz (a contributor to the Executioner pulp action series from Gold Eagle) is the biggest influence. If you talk descriptions, then Robert Ludlum always did the best job of making me feel as if I was there. David Mamet revolutionized the way I approached dialogue, and Tom Clancy and Vince Flynn were big influences on plotting. Hideo Kojima, the creator of the Metal Gear video games, was the major influence behind getting me into writing in the first place, and in being a details kind of guy when it comes to writing. The amount of research he puts into his games, on all sorts of subjects, is absolutely astounding.
What are you working on right now?
Since November of 2010, I have been working on my first full-sized novel, The African Catalyst. I took a short break to work on The First Bayonet, then another short break after NaNoWriMo 2011. I have since resumed writing The African Catalyst and hope to have the manuscript completed no later than June of this year.
How much of a story do you have in mind before you start writing it?
I have a direction, a skeleton. The meat of the story comes as I write it. This way, I do not lose my focus, but I retain some room for improvisation and new ideas.
Who gave you the best writing advice you ever received and what was it?
Doug Wojtowicz gave me the best advice. I had submitted to him the opening of a proposed novel, and he absolutely gutted it. I recall him saying something to the effect of, “’He felt somewhat perturbed?’ What the hell are you, Hillary Clinton’s speechwriter? Don’t be a grass-eater! Be carnivorous. Lean, mean, hard-hitting. Get in, get out, stay in one timezone.” I think for suspense and thriller writers—especially action thriller writers—this is the most critical piece of advice.
Do your characters ever take on a life of their own?
Yes and no. I tend to base my characters directly off of people I know, or off of a combination of people I know. This tends to make it easier to develop distinct speech patterns, quirks, styles of dress, etc. So, I suppose you could say that my characters have a life of their own from the moment I jot them down.
Where can we learn more about you and your books?
AUTHOR BLOG: http://stevenhildrethjr.blogspot.com
Click here for an interview with: Sergeant Major Ben Williams, hero of “The First Bayonet: A Novella” by Steven Hildreth, Jr.