Interview with Walt Gragg for “The Red Line”

An Interview with

WALT GRAGG

  Q:  Where did you receive inspiration for THE RED LINE?

I have probably always had a strong anti-war view of the follies of needlessly killing our fellow man.  I’m not saying war is never justified (World War II for example where we had no choice but to defend ourselves) but that we are far too casual with the lives of others and the cruel toll such events take on all of us.

My favorite book in high school was Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front – a story about the reality of being an ordinary soldier in the trenches of World War I.  It is by far the best anti-war novel I’ve ever read.  Although told from the perspective of a German soldier it easily transfers over to being a story about all soldiers caught in that nightmare and in all future wars.  It was Remarque’s admirable attempt, after seeing what was happening in Germany in the period between the two World Wars, to warn his country away from making the same mistake again.  Of course, he failed miserably.  Hitler came to power and 70 million of this planet’s citizens ended up dying because of his perversion.  But, at least, Remarque tried.

My view was strengthened further by being drafted during the Vietnam War.  With hundreds of others I showed up at the induction station in Portland, OR on the morning of June 12, 1968. We were lined up alphabetically in a huge formation.  The guy on my left as we were being processed into the Army was named Mark Gorman.   We were in the same basic training platoon and were together for over two incredibly intense months.  So I got to know him fairly well.  With basic training over, we then went off to our further training – Mark across the parade field at Fort Lewis, WA to advanced infantry training and me to the signal school at Fort Monmouth, NJ.  By Christmas, while I was still in training, 19 year old Mark was dead in the rotting jungles of a place none of us had ever even heard of until the war began.  A number of others from our basic training platoon and company also had their lives cut short for some vague purpose we did not understand.  They were just ordinary guys, nothing special really, but they were all great people.  They all had reasons to live long, happy lives.  My suspicions about needlessly killing were confirmed by those events.  Even so, I agreed to remain in the military as a trade off for being allowed to spend most of my weekends and lunch hours for a number of years working diligently through the on-base education programs they offered.  I received both my Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees that way.

I actually came up with the idea for THE RED LINE while serving at United States European Command Headquarters. in Germany in the mid-1970s at the height of the first Cold War.  In my 38 months there, I was able to gain a great deal of insight into how such a ground war in Europe would look and what the American military feared most about a Russian attack.  What I saw was a potential nightmare of unspeakable proportions.  But at that point I wasn’t ready to become a writer.  So I tucked the story into the back of my mind and continued on with my life.  After our easy victory over a weak Third World country in Desert Storm, like Remarque, I began to grow concerned by the casual attitude my countrymen were developing about war and its consequences.  America was invincible.  America could never be beaten on the battlefield.  Along with that it was all becoming so impersonal and detached to the average person.  War was being transformed into little more than video games and home entertainment. So in 1994 I decided THE RED LINE needed to be told and began putting together the story of this future war.  It was my turn to try.

 

Q:  The events of THE RED LINE—particularly the outbreak of the “new Cold War” between a resurgent Russian Empire and The United States—seem especially poignant given recent headlines and our current sociopolitical climate. Do you see similarities between your fictional plot and current politics? Do you think it’s possible that fact may mirror fiction in the future, and we could enter a new Cold War?

 

You need to remember I actually created the political backdrop for this fictional war in 1994 and at least 90% of what I wrote over 20 years ago remains intact in the story.  At that time, Russia gave every appearance of successfully progressing through the difficult transition to democracy.  Even so, it was quite obvious that given Russia’s history and the immense pride of the Russian people, they would carry the deep scars of losing the 1st Cold War with them for a long time.  You can see those wounds being reflected right now in Putin’s actions.

I cannot deny there are certainly elements in the novel playing out.  And I do not expect things to suddenly get better. Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine was just a foreshadowing of things to come.  They are strengthening their nuclear arsenal.  They are rebuilding a powerful military and modernizing their conventional weapons.  They are engaging in cyber-warfare.  The Russian leadership is looking with envy at their neighbors.  Putin would like nothing more than to return his country to the preeminent place it held prior to their defeat in 1989.  With our present administration, the NATO alliance is under attack from within that may forever cause it to splinter.  Should that happen, Russia will seize the opportunity.  The chances of having to face a reconstituted Soviet Union in a 2nd Cold War certainly was something I hoped we would never address but the scenario now appears plausible and growing stronger with each passing day. Hopefully, such an eventuality won’t lead to the occurrence of anything close to what has been foretold in THE RED LINE.  Still, given the events that have occurred in the past couple of years it cannot be entirely discounted.

 

Q: What was your publishing journey like?

Unlike many of the writers I know, I never dreamed of being published from an early age. Many of them are compelled to write and to continue writing.  Writing to them is as natural as breathing.  That’s not me.  I write solely because of the belief I have a few stories to tell based on the world I’ve been fortunate to see.  I will stop my efforts when my tales reach their natural end.  I have written a 2nd novel that Penguin Random House is presently considering.  And am part way through a 3rd one.  Nevertheless, my books don’t come from an innate need to write but from a desire to address issues and examine the difficult world that challenges us all.

When I began in 1994, it took a great deal of time to learn how to do this.  I certainly wasn’t a natural and since I had never planned to be a writer had given such classes little emphasis in college.  The story was there, but getting the words on paper in a manner that people would enjoy took a great deal of time to develop.  And as the reader will see, THE RED LINE, describing an entire, complex war in one book, was not a simple one to create.  Fortunately, I discovered through trial and error that writing is a skill that can be developed and polished if you’re willing to put in the long hours.

It took me 3 years, but by 1997, I finally had the basic skills to revise the manuscript to a point where it was ready to be seen.  So I entered it in a writing contest.  It ended up taking 2nd place and while attending the writers conference and receiving the award, I met an editor from what was then Putnam Berkley.  He asked to see the entire manuscript so I gladly sent it to him unagented.  Three months later to my great surprise he called – he absolutely loved it.  The book was “tremendous,” and I was an “incredible talent.”  A week later he called again to tell me his publisher had rejected it.  War with Russia wasn’t exactly a hot topic and this was a book filled with controversy the publisher didn’t believe readers would embrace at that time. Even so, this was validation that I had the story I’d hoped to have written. It had clearly made an impact on the editor.  I began shopping it around to agents.  What I didn’t know, however, was I’d broken a cardinal rule for debut writers – never write a manuscript over 100,000 words. Mine was 150,000.  But it told five different occasionally intertwining stories of the ordinary soldiers and airmen caught in extraordinary events and covered the entire war from beginning to end.  Not one of its words were wasted.  Yet, none of that mattered.  No one would look at it.  I wrote my 2nd novel, still unaware of the length rule. It was just as long as the first. Nothing changed.  After a number of years of trying, I set both manuscripts on my shelf where they gathered dust for over 10 years.  I promised my wife and my test readers that when I retired we would try one more time.  But to be honest, I wasn’t sure if I could stand the endless rejection another time.

 

In late 2012 I retired.  Reluctantly, I tried again – more query letters, and unfortunately, more rejection.  Still we were convinced we had a great book, and my wife continued to push me to not give up.  We talked about self-publishing but weren’t quite ready to go there just yet. That’s when my big break came.  In early 2014, I stumbled across the ThrillerFest writer’s conference held in New York City every July.  I wrote military thrillers and this looked like a conference made for THE RED LINE.  One of the elements that fascinated me was PitchFest – an entire afternoon to speak with some of the 50-60 agents who came to listen to pitches.  I put a significant amount of time polishing my pitch and preparing for whatever was about to happen.  Along with 400 other aspiring writers I was there, standing in the lines fully prepared to pitch in the 3 minutes I was given a story they would find was like no other.  I was able to pitch 9 agents in the time given, with 3 asking for the entire manuscript and 4 others requesting partials.  Little did I know, however, that my real break was still to come.  The next day, much to my surprise, the editor who had loved it so many years earlier was on a panel.  Afterwards, I approached him, reintroduced myself, and thanked him for his kind words.  Of course, he didn’t remember me or my novel after 17 years, but that was okay.  The next morning, quite by accident, we ended up having breakfast together and talking about my book.  Two weeks later, with his help, I had an agent.  Three months after that he called, The Berkley Publishing Group at Penguin Random House wanted to publish THE RED LINE.

So 20 years after I began writing the story I’d first thought of nearly 20 years before that the difficult journey ended.  And a new journey began.  On May 2, 2017, THE RED LINE finally will be released.

 

Q: Who are your greatest literary influences?

Remarque (see above)

Along with that I liked the big, bold books, often with multiple storylines, from the 1970s and beyond – Clavell, Uris, and Michener stand out although there were certainly others.

 

 Q: What is the number one thing you hope readers take away from your novel?

The thing I personally like most about the book is that the style is entirely mine.  I’m not aware of anyone who writes quite like I do.  When I started, I was determined to become the first me, not the 10th someone else.  And I’m told I succeeded.

Readers are going to first find that THE RED LINE is highly entertaining, and filled with non-stop, edge of their seat action.  This is a book whose vivid scenes are going to stay with the reader for a long time.   It is a story with depth.  If you let it, it will rock you to your core.  It is stark, alive, and filled with realism.  Multiple test readers have said they would suddenly find themselves shivering in the snow alongside the American soldiers as the Russian tanks came toward them.

What I would like the potential reader to do is to realize that just because it falls into the techno-thriller category, it really was written as a book that can be enjoyed by a vast audience. Once they begin to read, I hope they will start to analyze what their mind is seeing.  After they complete the final page, I hope they will pause, reflect and discuss.

More than anything, I hope when they reach the story’s end, they understand that war, the killing of others, is never something any of us should ignore or take lightly.

 

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