Mark Greaney is a New York Times bestselling author perhaps best known for collaborating with Tom Clancy on three books, but Greaney’s own spy series has been ongoing since 2009. He joins the show to talk about his Gray Man series, where he gets his inspiration, and to separate the true elements he learned from real US operatives from the fiction he imagines when writing.
- Mark Greaney, author, Gunmetal Gray
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What Goes Into a Spy Thriller Series
Gary Price: If you’re a fan of spy thrillers and military fiction by authors like Tom Clancy and Mark Greaney (“grainy”), you may have wondered how much of it is real. Well, according to Greaney, who collaborated with Clancy on three Jack Ryan books and wrote three more after Clancy died, the details in Greaney’s own original Gray Man series are very real.
Mark Greaney: I’ve trained with Seals; I’ve trained under a guy who was a Delta assaulter. I’ve done a lot of training with law enforcement and other members of the military, like Green Berets, ex-Green Berets and that sort of thing, and started out just looking for information for my books, and became really into it. Now it’s just sort of like I pretend it’s all for research purposes and something I really love to do. I own a lot of the firearms that end up in my books and do a lot of that type of training and get a lot of fun out of it.
Price: Greaney got his start in the thriller genre by being a fan himself.
Greaney: I was just a fan of the spy thriller and military fiction and non-fiction growing up. I worked in international business for a long time. But through that whole time I wanted to be a writer and I was a voracious reader in that genre. So I developed my chops and contacts and did a lot of research. I did a lot of research with firearms. I have a lot of contacts in military and intelligence, former intelligence officers. Even around the world I’ve done a lot of vocation travel and stuff like that. So it’s all very specific to my novel. I have played opposition force for SWAT teams and stuff like that in shoot houses where you have these things called simunitions, which are real bullets but they’re filled with paint, fired out of real guns. They hurt really bad. I’ve been the bad guy at the gang house where the SWAT team comes in and I have to shoot my way out and the SWAT team has to take me down. I’ve done a lot of that sort of stuff.
Price: Greaney has heard from Navy Seals and secret service agents who admire the accuracy of his work.
Greaney: I reach out to them and ask questions to get information. They tell me what they can tell me and tell me what they don’t want to talk about and I go from there. Then after the fact I’ve heard from everything from secret service agents on the presidential detail that they like the scenes that involve them and that sort of stuff. That’s a lot of fun and it’s very rewarding afterwards to hear from the actual people that do these things.
Price: Greaney says that once in awhile when digging for information he does get some push back.
Greaney: There’ve been points where I will ask about one program or one division or something of a group which is denied operation or denied this or that. They’ll basically say okay we need to stop that conversation and let’s go out of that and come back into something else. Even with technology I’ve asked people specific questions about software that I understood that was being used by the government for some intelligence purpose. And then somebody will say, that’s not something that we can talk about, but we can talk about this, or something like that. These relationships are really important to me personally and professionally. I wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize them. I’m the first person to say, okay I went too far, let’s go somewhere else and see what we can talk about.
Price: Greaney says his Gray Man character is an amalgamation of all the people he’s met in his travels. But one person in particular was the spark that got Greaney’s creative juices flowing.
Greaney: I met a guy in a bar in El Salvador and just created this whole fantasy for him that he was CIA. He was an American and he was trying to not be noticed in this bar, basically full of language students like me and surfers, and that type of an expatriate. This guy was something different. So I created this whole backstory of this CIA guy who’s living off-grid and he’s on the run from the CIA. That became the genesis of the Gray Man, but since then and since I started working with Tom Clancy, which I did for a while in my career, I met so many people on the inside of the government and the different agencies, so I meet people along the way that have made me morph his character based on real people.
Price: Greaney’s Newest Book “Gunmetal Gray,” is The Sixth Novel In His Gray man series.
Greaney: He’s on his way to Hong Kong by himself, but working as a contract agent for the CIA. His job is to find and kidnap or rescue, depending on where we are in the story, a Chinese defector who is a soldier who holds the keys to China’s cyber warfare kingdom. Cyber warfare, I think the Chinese are really good at it. We are coming up second and coming up short in that aspect of our security. It’s something that I’m fascinated by because intelligence and espionage has always been an important thing, but with cyber warfare, right now it’s not catching somebody doing a dead drop or catching a spy in Washington, D.C. The spying is going on in an apartment in Shanghai or something like that, and we’re just as vulnerable.
Price: That’s Greaney’s real world talk. He says he reads novels to learn things about the real world we live in.
Greaney: I do like to do that and I do like to take as much real world as possible and put it into my story before that big jumping off point where we go into fantasyland and fiction.
Price: The fantasyland and fiction part is where Court Gentry, a.k.a. the Gray Man takes on opponents on his own.
Greaney: The one thing in a novel is you’ll have one guy doing something where in the real world the CIA would send 75 people into Milan to kidnap a terrorist or something like that. You can’t really tell a story that way with 75 characters as easily, so my experience in talking to people in the intelligence world on the analytic side or on the operations side is there’s a lot more people involved than there would be in a story, but you do your best to get the reality as close as possible. I’ve known people that have had different roles in special mission units in the government and that sort of thing that are very interesting characters and their stories aren’t told and they are patriots that are working very hard to keep us all safe.
Price: Greaney says that while the specific stories are untold, under the veil of anonymity, the soldiers are eager to tell them.
Greaney: I remember the first couple times sitting and having barbeque with a Navy Seal and very intimidated by the aspect; not that he was going to beat me up or anything like that, but just here I am some schlub trying to get information for his book. It’s fascinating what people like to talk about and enjoy talking. If you cultivate those relationships right and they realize that you are trying to get it right and you’re interested in their story then it all works out really well.
Price: Greaney says the Gray Man even shows signs of strain, mentally, physically and emotionally.
Greaney: In some books it’s been bigger than others. Obviously there’s the physical strain as well. I have shown him very weary of some of the things he’s done, and he definitely second-guesses himself now in the series more than he used to because of some things that have happened. So, as compared to other spy genre characters I think he is a little more introspective, a little more road weary than some of the others. I would say he has a compass that doesn’t point true north, but he is a good guy and his moral code gets him into more trouble than it gets him out of. I like to throw a little bit of humor, I mean life has moments of black and white and moments of darkness and light, and all that, so I try to represent it as real as possible.
Price: The Gray Man also has a great sense of humor and clever wit.
Greaney: The great thing about being a writer is in the real world when you can’t think of the perfect comeback when you need it, as a writer you have a few months to come up with the comeback for your hero in the novel, so he’s always a little bit more clever than I would be on the fly.
Price: The Gray Man is an assassin who takes out the bad guys in this world – drug lords, slave traders and the like. Greaney has no inside knowledge as to how many so-called extra judicial executions actually take place on behalf of the United States government, but he says many of them these days are conducted by drones.
Greaney: There’s so much that’s happened by drone right now. If you counted the people that have been killed by drones in the past… President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize the first year he was President, and then went ahead and drone killed hundreds of people after that, which I’m not necessarily against, but I think it was fascinating that it was seen as a cleaner time and it wasn’t really like that. But as far as snipers taking people out on street corners you know it happens, I just don’t know how much it happens.
Price: And, according to Greaney, it will continue to happen.
Greaney: Boy I think we’re always going to have threats to America. The existential threats like Russia and China and then the security threats like ISIS and other groups, Al Qaeda and other groups out there. There’s always threats to America. This, as a writer, this sort of story is timeless. You could go back 2,000 years and read stories about warriors and lone wolves standing up against the other wolves out there.
Price: In his latest novel “Gunmetal Gray” Greaney introduces a new lone wolf character that acts as the perfect foil to the Gray Man.
Greaney: Her name is Zoya Zakharova. She is an SVR agent, so SVR is Russia’s foreign intelligence. Hopefully there will be more from her. I enjoyed writing her and I thought it was a good dynamic between her and the Gray Man.
Price: Greaney writes elements of real world politics into his novels. He’s currently working on a Gray Man book that focuses on Syria and features characters that reflect Syria’s current president and wife. But Greaney says certain real world political events taking place today he couldn’t have dreamed up on his own, and they wouldn’t be believed if he did.
Greaney: The thing with General Flynn is something I couldn’t have imagined. If I’d written a story where the national security adviser who used to be the head of the defense intelligence agency called up the Russian ambassador and didn’t realize there’d be a whole bunch of people listening in on the phone call I think my editor would just laugh at me and say that doesn’t seem very realistic. So that whole thing from a tradecraft perspective fascinates me. I don’t really know what’s going on with that. There’s an old Tom Clancy line…he said that the difference between fiction and reality is fiction has to make sense, and reality doesn’t. So that was something that what just happened you could never put in to a book because nobody would believe that could happen.
Price: The title of mark Greaney’s newest book is “Gunmetal Gray.” You can learn more about Mark Greaney and the Gray Man series at his website MarkGreaneybooks.com. Greaney is spelled g-r-e-a-n-e-y, or you can visit our website at viewpointsonline.net. Our writer/producer this week is Polly Hansen. Our production director is Sean Waldron. I’m Gary Price.