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Thriller Novelist John Fenzel To Visit Broadneck

Zach Sparks
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June 27, 2018

Annapolis Resident Discusses Writing, Military Service And More

John Fenzel has worked in the White House and served in command and staff positions around the world. Now, he’s the author of three novels that explore faith, friendship and threats both foreign and domestic.

Voice assistant editor Zach Sparks recently asked Fenzel about his inspiration for writing, his military background and his upcoming trip to Broadneck Library on Monday, July 16, at 6:30pm.

Zach: Your third book, "The Fifth Column," follows retired Special Forces colonel and CIA operator Luke Archer as he works to uncover threats to the security and stability of the nation. Why was this a story you wanted to tell?

John: Ah! That’s the best question to ask any author! “Why is this a story you wanted to tell?” Because if there’s not a compelling reason, why should anyone feel compelled to read it? My first two books were international thrillers. Early on, I was searching for a publisher for “The Lazarus Covenant,” set in the Balkans. Tom Clancy’s publisher expressed an interest.

“We love your novel!” he said. “But to publish it, we’d need you to make a few changes.”

“What changes?” I asked.

“Well, we’d need you to change the setting entirely to the United States. And the characters....”

“What about the characters?”

“Well, you'd need to make them all American.”

“So you don’t want an international thriller. You want a domestic thriller?

“Exactly. That's what sells.”

And so I figured, “if that’s what it takes to get published, I’ll do it.”

I spent months rewriting and retooling the story. But when I finished, I just didn’t like it as much as the original international version.

My second novel, “The Sterling Forest” is also an international thriller, set in the Baltics.

“The Fifth Column” is my first domestic thriller. A good friend of mine, Tom Rendall, a brilliant guy, good friend, and also a senior retired Army Special Forces officer, helped me write it.

Zach: In terms of global affairs, why is it especially timely?

John: There’s no doubt that current and recent events played a role in some of the plot dynamics, but primarily, the story asks an important question: What if our nation were taken over by a group that was solely motivated by profit and personal enrichment? How could that ever happen? And finally, who could stop them?

Regardless of our own political convictions, this is a universal, nonpartisan concern — or at least it should be. Our goal in writing this story is to get people to at least think about it. In terms of global affairs, think back to Eisenhower's famous warning about the military industrial complex:

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.”

“The Fifth Column” carries Ike's warning a step further, to an even more frightening scenario — where elective wars and crises are routinely employed to consolidate political power. How do you address that kind of internal threat against our nation?

Zach: Are there personal experiences you have not included in your writing yet that you would like to?

John: Well, you’ve touched on a really interesting topic. A lot of what I write about is based on my own actual experiences through the years, with people I’ve met — the “good, the bad and the ugly” — and the places I’ve been. They inspire you and sometimes keep you up at night. And I've found they even call you up on the phone at 2:00am from some obscure corner of the world! So, I suppose to explain, make sense of, and even to cope with those experiences — I started writing about them. At first it was non-fiction, but then I realized our government would never let me publish any of it. So I switched to writing fiction. But, even that has had to be cleared through the Department of Defense.

Interestingly, after an inordinately long review period, they finally came back to us and made us remove some of the content in “The Fifth Column.” Nothing major. Evidently though, a few things struck a nerve!

I have many more experiences to write about, and a fascinating reservoir of intriguing characters who I’ve run across over my career as a Green Beret. From the West Wing to the Pentagon’s E-Ring, and to all of the war and crisis zones I’ve deployed to around the world, there's plenty of grist for future mills!

Zach: You're an avid reader of authors Alan Furst, Brian Moore and Graham Greene. In what ways do you consider your writing similar and different from some of your influences?

John: What do each of these great authors all have in common? Smart fiction, grounded in fact — often bordering on historical fiction. They're all authors of thrillers. And, importantly, they're undisputed masters at their craft. For me, they’re not just inspirational — they’re also aspirational. They make you laugh, they make you cry when you least expect it. They keep you up at night. More than anything else though, they make you think! Ultimately, that’s my goal for all of my novels — to make you think about things you might not ordinarily consider. That's what smart fiction does!

Zach: How did you and Tom Rendall collaborate on the writing process for "The Fifth Column?" Did you alternate chapters?

John: It was very much a “blended” approach. Tom and I know each other very well, so we have no problem differing with one another, debating, or communicating. And you know, if you can do those things when bullets are flying and bombs are exploding, everything else should be easy, right?

The issue for any two coauthors of a novel isn’t so much plotting or setting, it’s that you both have to internalize the voices of your characters. That’s hard enough to do when it’s just you as the author. Add a coauthor, and it’s automatically a challenge you must continuously address. Tom Rendall is such a smart guy, though — when we both served together, he would often be five steps ahead of all the generals! His perspectives and incredible energy were crucial to this story. Because he lives on a ranch in Kansas, and I live in Annapolis, our collaboration was by phone and through Google Docs. A fabulous tool!

Zach: You and Tom have both been to war, both served in the Special Forces. From a writing perspective, do you each offer something different?

John: It’s funny because when I think about it, I’d classify Tom as a “radial thinker” and me perhaps as more of a “linear thinker.” A good combination for coauthors, because the last thing you would want are two radial thinkers or two linear thinkers — you'd probably end up with a sort of “literary groupthink,” and definitely not a compelling or relevant story. Throughout writing “The Fifth Column,” we both served as a good check and balance to each other. Most importantly, though, we allowed the characters to decide the course of the story. We just helped keep the story on the page!

Zach: What can library visitors expect during your event at Broadneck Library?

John: I like to start off talking about what led me down this path of writing novels, and then discuss the real value of storytelling. Then open it up for questions. That's where I no longer quite know what to expect. And then the real fun starts!

You know, now that I’m out of uniform, it's really great, because I'm no longer restricted to what I can talk about! We don’t have to skirt around issues, and we can discuss them openly. I never know quite what to expect, but always leave encouraged, and with my batteries fully recharged.

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