Jim DeFelice

Jim DeFelice: A non-bio bio

This isn’t really a bio as much as an annotated list of (most) of the books and other major things I’ve worked on over the years. At different stages, I’ve been known and occasionally hated for various things; when you put it together, it’s both a lot of work and a lot of hate. Not too much of the latter, fortunately, though there have been a few times where I’ve had to travel with security, or at least with people who had security.

My blue-collar family transitioned from being very poor to being not-so-bad white collar middle class as I was growing up. I was the first person on both sides of my family to go to college, which was paid partly by scholarships and partly by working, eventually full-time, at radio stations and newspapers. I was lucky to have a boss who was willing to schedule me around my class times—not hard, I guess, since most of the work was at night anyway. Where I was really lucky was to have been born at a time and place where tuition for even a halfway decent school was cheap: I made literally ten cents an hour more than minimum wage at the newspapers, and still managed not only to pay tuition but also to save a bit to buy a car that wasn’t ten years old.

I liked working at newspapers and in the media, and in between getting my master’s degree I held a succession of more responsible jobs in the field. Eventually I was running a multi-million-dollar company that had six or seven newspapers, a couple of magazines, a bunch of specialty publications . . . we were killing a lot of trees. I was not yet thirty, and actually making decent, more than decent, money.

But I hadn’t written a book. From grammar school, that had been my ambition. It was the reason I’d gone to college in the first place, and gone back for my masters. (The degrees are in English, though the undergrad program was actually an integrative science program with a lot of emphasis on science and philosophy; the master’s is in English, with a creative writing concentration—in other words, I spent much of my time in workshops.) I’d written a number of plays, including a couple that had been done way-off Broadway and one that had even been on television somewhere, but that wasn’t the same. And it was impossible, really, to write a book while doing the job I had. At least for me.

So I quit.

Not cold turkey; I gave the owners six months’ notice, we set up a decent plan to keep things going in the right direction, and I walked out the door on April Fool’s Day. A deliberate statement.

My first novel was phenomenal… but didn’t sell. I got stuck in the middle of my second book, unable to figure out what came next. Not being able to sleep one night, I started thinking of a plot in the vein of Tom Clancy, the reigning techno-thriller writer at the time. (Maybe all time. But it’s important to note that he didn’t invent the genre; I’d grown up reading them. If you’re looking for the origins, and a good read, look to Jules Verne. For the most part it’s set in his present time, with the tech pushed a bit. There’s more to a techno-thriller, but that’s a start.)

The next morning I started writing, and pretty much went until I was done. That book was Coyote Bird. It got a great review in the New York Times (“DeFelice refreshes the genre”), sold very well (not just for the genre very well), and I was on my way . . .

Not. Or I was, but not in that fairy tale, overnight success kind of way we dream of. My next book, War Breaker, was a seriously good techno thriller, more great reviews—but didn’t do well enough in hardcover to overcome the fact that its editor left or was “excused” from the publisher. That meant it had no one to push for it, and the publisher opted not to bring it out in paperback—an inexplicable business decision, one of many I would encounter in my career. I went to another publisher with it, and it sold extremely well for that publisher, Dorchester Publishing, aka Leisure Books. Unfortunately, though they were great people, Leisure was better known for Romance paperbacks at the time, and they really didn’t have the marketing presence to make those very good numbers great numbers. (To tell you how much times have changed, those numbers would put the book well up on the best seller lists today. Among all books, not just the genre.)

I did two more technos with Dorchester, Havana Strike and Brother’s Keeper. At that point, I decided to really switch things up—I wrote a trilogy of historical novels, set in New York’s Hudson Valley during the American Revolution. There were a lot of reasons, only a few of which I remember at this point. Besides the fact that I was living there and familiar with the history, the most important was undoubtedly the fact that my agent managed to get me a contract to write them.

I had a lot of fun with The Silver Bullet, The Iron Chain, and The Golden Flask. The plots and much of the action in each is based on stuff that happened in the war for independence; the main character is based specifically on an American spy who had been imprisoned a few steps from one of my favorite bars at the time. His sidekick was entirely based on literary memes popular during the times the book is set in. I was channeling Henry Fielding, one of my favorite authors of all time. Funny thing is, not one critic picked that out, even while giving me generally glowing reviews. Then again, I’m not completely positive my editor did either.

He did try to help, though. I remember he sent me a diagram of a Revolution-era rifle or musket to help in my research. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I had fired the same weapon a few weeks before. That was one benefit to writing about the past rather than the near-future: you can actually touch the stuff you’re writing about. Research for me has always been a big part of the job, and almost as much fun as writing.

The historicals were a huge amount of fun to write, but they didn’t sell anywhere near the numbers that the techno-thrillers did. I should mention that I was doing a bunch of free-lancing at the time, including some political reporting that got me a regular gig as a commentator on local TV and radio. Slimy, I know, but they had free coffee. I was offered a couple of tempting job at the time—newspaper management, college professor, two different political posts (with the Republicans, if you really must know, though I was then and remain now a committed independent, equally cynical toward all). I was tempted by each, especially when the book advances started getting smaller. But then something book-related would happen, and I’d decide to turn the offer down, since I knew I couldn’t work full-time and write books at the same time, even if the freelance gigs often added up to more than forty hours a week. It helped that my girlfriend/wife and I had a low overhead and no kids.

(And let me state that I couldn’t have done any writing at all without the love, encouragement, and emotional stability that my wife provided.)

This was the late nineties, and I started trying new things. One of them was writing a true crime, Kill Grandma For Me. The circumstances of the case intrigued me; it turned out to be one of those stories where pretty much you end up feeling sorry for everyone—including, somehow, the murderers. At least to a degree.

I also wrote the book for Sixth Sense—a book never actually published in the U.S. (If there are copies, they’ve been pirated, possibly from a Japanese translation.) It’s an experience that still stings.

And it was right around then that crazy things started happening. Good crazy. One of the keys was ghostwriting for Tom Clancy, something I’m still not supposed to talk about. It didn’t exactly change my life, and I doubt the general public knows or cares. But some of the editors and agents responsible did, and that did have a very big effect on the opportunities that began coming my way.

It was during this time that I hooked up with Dale Brown, developing and writing what would become a mega-bestselling techno-thriller series called Dreamland. The series was ridiculously successful, so much so that for a while I was writing and publishing two books a year. I had to fight to get my name on the covers; I was done with doing any writing that wasn’t recognized. (Well, almost done.) Eventually, my name out there would be considered an asset. But at the time, it was just a way of me saying I’m proud of my work.

These are the titles still in print as I’m writing this. There were some short stories and maybe a novella as well. Dreamland, Nerve Center, Razor's Edge, Piranha, Strike Zone, Armageddon, Satan's Tail, End Game, Retribution, Revolution, Whiplash, Black Wolf, Raven Strike, Collateral Damage, Drone Strike, and Target Utopia. We moved from Dreamland to a new series called Puppet Master primarily for business reasons, but I only wrote two installments, Puppet Master and Act of Revenge; by the time I wrote the second book I had so many other projects that I couldn’t keep up with the series. That became an ongoing theme in my career during that time. That, and continually wanting to do something different. Invention rather than retention has always been my goal.

Something very different were horror stories for kids. My wife and I were expecting a kid, which ended up being a topic of conversation with my agent, who was in the same situation. For some reason the conversation veered to the topic of R.L. Stine, who was the ranking kids horror book writer (and eventually not-writer) at the time. I laughed at the possibility of writing any of those stories—until I was cutting the grass a few hours later, and six or seven ideas sprang into mind. Only one was bought—The Blood Red Eightball—but that was enough to start. I became M.T. Coffin, one of a rotating series of writers who scared the beegeebes out of middle grade kids and had fun doing it. The ideas were the hardest part; the books practically wrote themselves over the course of four or five days. Camp Crocodile, My Dentist is a Vampire, Leopard People . . . there may have been another one or two, but at this point I can’t recall. The fad was fading, and I’d already moved over to a quirky series based on the cult classic kids TV show, Eerie Indiana. Using pseudonyms (marketing thing, so adult readers didn’t end up wondering what they were ordering online), I wrote Bring Me a Dream, Finger-Lickin’ Strange, The Incredible Shrinking Stanley, Eerie in the Mirror and We Wish You an Eerie Christmas. Unfortunately, the popularity of the books and the TV show in reruns convinced Fox to remake the series for television; it didn’t do nearly as well as they hoped, and that ended the book series as well.

I did some other, far more serious works for young adults at that time, including a bio of Bob Dylan and a book on the King Arthur legends, both of which got great reviews and awards from school and library associations. I saw this work in general as a way to extend my own knowledge into subjects I’d long been interested in; there’s a series of books on various mythologies that I still get royalties from, though now the content is dispersed primarily on-line. They weren’t big money makers, but they weren’t intended to be, at least not by me. I loved the research and writing. But eventually there was just too much else to do.

Dreamland and my undercover work for Clancy had set me up as someone who could write a pretty good techno or action scene—and more importantly, someone who could do it in a very commercially successful way. I ended up developing an espionage/techno-thriller series called Deep Black, writing five other titles—Biowar, Dark Zone, Payback, Jihad, and Conspiracy—before Steve Coonts and William H. Keith Jr. took over that responsibility. I launched two different series with my friend Larry Bond: First Team, which besides that title included Angels of Wrath, Fires of War, and Soul of the Assassin. We then turned to a series that was intended as the basis for a video game, Red Dragon Rising, which had four books: Shadows of War, Edge of War, Shock of War, and Blood of War (sense a theme?). The video game never got developed; I’ll talk about those a bit more below.

In the middle of that streak, while already publishing four or five books a year, Simon & Schuster introduced me to Richard Marcinko, who’d had some sort of falling out with John Weisman, who’d written the original Rogue Warrior and a number of military-thriller paperbacks that followed. Dick had a reputation for being hard to work with, but I have never worked with someone who was more up front, encouraging, and inspirational. I couldn’t keep up with him, but I can easily see why the people he led into battle would have gone through the gates of hell with him (and often did). Our books were Vengeance, Holy Terror, Dictator’s Ransom, Seize the Day, Domino Theory, Blook Lies, and Curse of the Infidel.

The series thrillers I’ve been talking about—all best-sellers—were marketed as collaborations, SOMEONE with Jim DeFelice. But that’s a crock. I wrote them, pretty much every word. Sometimes, I had a lot of input from a “cowriter”—Dick Marcinko and I would discuss things in depth before I started typing—but they are absolutely my work.

The one time anyone tried to hand off a series was on Deep Black, which I had developed and written “with” Stephen Coonts. That was the one series I dropped entirely for business reasons—basically they wanted to shaft me on the money; I’d be getting less than anyone, including I believe the agents. Whatever. The series quickly tanked.

Which is a bummer. I loved the characters and the situations. What’s being done with AI right now was all in the book, where I got to mix some historical stuff about the NSA and CIA with a lot of stuff on the drawing boards and DARPA labs. Part of me says, that’s what you get from trying to screw me, but another part says, it’s a bummer. That series could have outlived me, with new writers pumping new life in every few years.

As for my own series—that would be Hogs, which I originally published with a pseudonym, James Ferro. The pseud was mostly a marketing decision—supposedly it would be bad to be publishing too many books under my own name in a given year. It was also meant to honor my wife’s family, especially her dad, a Marine who read every novel I ever wrote and was a huge supporter up to his untimely death. The titles: Going Deep, Hog Down, Target Sadaam, Fort Apache, Snake Eaters, Death Wish. They’re not the most historically accurate books I ever wrote, but they weren't intended to be taken that way.

I also published two techno-thrillers at this time, introducing the character of Andy Fisher. Andy is a coffee-swilling, wise-ass FBI special agent, who specializes in pissing people off, primarily his bosses. He bears no resemblance to any of the FBI agents I’ve known and coached baseball with. Andy started out as kind of secondary character in Cyclops One; by the time of Threat Level Black, he was the lead. A few years later, with a different publisher, he reprised his star turn in The Helios Conspiracy.

In between was Leopards Kill, a novel set in Afghanistan around the time of the American withdrawal, though written well before that withdrawal took place. Critics and even the marketing people compared it to the movie,  Apocalypse Now, which was fair I guess, as both that film and my book were deeply inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But an even bigger influence was Dante’s Inferno, which no one picked up on, even though the book starts with my translation from the epic poem and has several other giveaways. Hopefully, the novel stands on its own.

The decision to write Leopards Kill meant a break with my publisher at the time, who had just brought out Threat Level Black and wanted me to continue in that vein. Maybe they were right from a commercial point of view; I did go back to Andy Fisher eventually. But I felt I really had to write Leopards; I’d woken up with the idea one morning, took a walk, and by the end of the walk had the book in my head. The advance I got was a fraction of what I would have gotten for another Andy book, and the marketing support was nonexistent. But I knew all that, and I’m stubborn.

And it’s a great book.

Somewhere around this period—the end of oughts and beginning of the tens—I worked on two nonfiction World War Two books, Rangers at Dieppe and Omar Bradley: General at War. Rangers, which my wife helped research, was as much about the impossibility of precision in (much) historical writing as the first U.S. Army action in Europe during the war, which had been entirely overlooked until then. The Bradley project, again with my wife’s help, was somewhat in that vein as well; to that point, and even now, Bradley really has not gotten his due. Originally intended as a full-length bio of his whole life, I had trouble finding a publisher and had to cut its scope way down to get it in print. It was a huge amount of work, not in any way worth the time and effort if considered as a commercial venture, which writing really is. But it was important for me to do, and given that it still sells a decent amount every year, apparently readers agree.

But I did have to support us during those years. Partly to offset the expenses and burden of purposely doing noncommercial books, and partly because I have varied interests, I did a few things on the side, sometimes with pseudonyms. My favorites were a bunch of wrestling books, mostly memoirs I wrote as Jeremy Roberts (again, a marketing thing). There was Eric Bishoff Controversy Means Cash, Rey Mysterio Behind the Mask, and Dave Batista Unleashed. They were all interesting men in their own way. Eric is a commercially successful creative genius, an almost impossible thing to be. I spent a bunch of time on the road with Dave—whose real last name has a “u” in it; he was a man with deep grace and a heartful soul before he became a star, and somehow managed to keep both.

Somewhere in there I got involved in video games.

The games are a bit of a side story, so I won’t go into any depth. A lot of what I did never saw the actual game made; like books and movies, the ratio of proposals to finished pieces is unfortunately very low. My very first introduction to that world was through “Wild Bill” Stealy, a legend in the early gaming industry—among other things, he and Sid Meier founded MicroProse. After failing to get a deal going for a game based on Deep Black, he had me work up a concept for a game and book franchise. Unfortunately, the efforts to raise the money needed for a Triple-A game fell a bit short, and the project stalled. A Rogue Warrior game which may (or may not) have been inspired by some of the titles in that series came out without my direct involvement. Namco-Bandai (as they were known at the time) then contacted me to help develop what became Assault Horizon, part of the Ace Combat series. I worked on a number of other projects with them, and then with an independent studio whose main claim to fame was Afro Samurai. Nothing I’ve done since has made it to the paying public.

I was working on Assault Horizon and some book projects when I got a call from Peter Hubbard, an editor at Harper Collins who had worked with me on the Dreamland series. He asked if I knew Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL sniper who had killed a large number of terrorists in the Iraq war. I didn’t, though I’d heard rumors secondhand; Chris wasn’t very well known even among the older SEALs I had contact with.

I’ve told the story elsewhere, so I won’t go into detail here. Basically, I had too much else to do and wasn’t sure about doing another memoir. But I felt obliged to talk with him. Within thirty seconds I knew I was going to do the book: Chris was just way too honest and upfront to turn away. He didn’t want to do a book, certainly not a memoir, and was only thinking about agreeing as a way to get money to the families of two men who’d died while under his command. He and I hit it off immediately for whatever reason: I wanted to do a book that told exactly what a SEAL in combat thought, to which he said, in effect, “duh, what else would it be?” I also wanted to include some of what his family went through back home, which he also was totally for, and ended up convincing his wife to go along with.

By that time, I’d had I think ten books on the New York Times best-seller list. That list is a bit eccentric—plenty of my books were best sellers on other lists, but it happens to be the list that New York publishing pays attention to. In any event, I figured the book might make the list: I knew the story was a good one, and I was pretty cocky about how well I’d written it. I know from the original print run that the publisher thought it would do OK, but they weren’t thinking blockbuster (and the advance reflected that). Then, a few weeks before publication, Time magazine called and wanted to do a big interview. Even better, Bill O’Reilly scheduled Chris for an interview timed to the week the book came out.

American Sniper was number two on the list in week one. The next week, number one. It stayed there for something like a year. Bradley Cooper ended up getting the rights to make a movie.

Then Chris was murdered. The first call I got the following morning was from a BBC reporter asking if it had been a Muslim terrorist. “No,” I told them as I slammed the phone down.

Anyway, the movie propelled the book back to the top of the lists. It was tough, though. Chris had and I had gotten close, and personally I’d trade anything to have him back walking the earth, being Chris.

His wife Taya and I wrote about some of the aftermath of the book and his murder in American Wife. We also did a book called American Spirit, highlighting what people famous and not famous are doing to help their communities. Spirit didn’t sell as well as those books, but I’m very, very proud that she and I got a chance to do it. It restored my faith in people, even if it didn’t completely vanish my cynicism. Taya is a remarkable person.

She’s also the only person who could have gotten me to finish American Gun, which I completely rewrote and finished, without credit, in two incredible weeks, with a lot of help from her, my wife, Marcus Luttrell’s father-in-law, and the publisher. The full story on that will cost you a bourbon.

In between, I wrote a memoir with Johnny Walker, an Iraqi interpreter who had worked with Chris (“the only Iraqi I ever trusted behind me with a gun”). Titled Code Name Johnny Walker, the book was as much a philosophical treatise as a war story, though there was plenty of that.

A lieutenant colonel from SOCCOM (Special Operations Command) suggested I meet Ivan Castro, a blind Special Forces soldier who had become a marathon runner after losing his sight (along with other injuries) in Iraq. Fighting Blind was a surprisingly hard sell to publishers, though we did finally find a home. If Sniper is about courage in war, Fighting Blind is (mostly) about courage after war.

There are many ways to be brave in wartime Mostly your job is to kill people, but there’s one role where the opposite is true: medic. And that’s what Every Man a Hero was about: World War II Army medic Ray Lambert.

I didn’t actually start out to write about World War II medic. I was looking to do a book on D-Day, again at the suggestion of Peter. We were coming up on the 75th anniversary of the invasion, and I talked to a good number of the survivors of that battle. Unfortunately, given how long it had been since the invasion, not many were still with us. Their memories in most cases were pretty ravaged. And then I found Ray Lambert, a medic who had not only been at D-Day, but in the invasions of North Africa and Sicily as well. He wasn't part of a book; he was THE book.

Ray took an enormous amount of convincing; Peter traveled with me to convince him. Now I’m not saying the bottle of bourbon I shared with him sealed the deal, but by the end of our visit, he was definitely warming up. It took a trip with him to the battlefield to get the final OK.

Whatever It Took, the story of paratrooper Henry Langrehr, is the flip side of World War Two. I met him during a talk we gave to First Army on the anniversary of D-Day. Henry was and is a remarkable survivor, who’s as proud of the schools he built after the war as anything he did in battle.

I grew up listening to Irish folk songs, country, big band jazz, and of course rock. My tastes have expanded since then—I’ve been known to listen to my share of rap—but there’s nothing like a song with a fun hook and a wink or two in the lyrics to boost my mood. Which is why I always liked “Red Neck Yacht Club.” I didn’t know much about the guy who sang it, Craig Morgan, until his agents got ahold of me through some old contacts and asked if I’d be interested in collaborating with him on a memoir. That took about five seconds to decide, and that was even before I had heard “The Father, My Son, and the Holy Ghost,” a song which encapsulates much of the human spirit and speaks directly to anyone who has ever been a father. Craig’s about a lot more than just music, as God, Family, Country proves.

I was at a party at a bar frequented by Green Berets in North Carolina when a retired colonel I know pulled me aside as asked if I could help out a couple of friends of his who were being screwed by Hollywood. I didn’t have the heart—or maybe had had too much to drink—to tell him that everyone gets screwed by Hollywood. I ended up giving them and their lawyers some useful advice, I guess; more importantly, we became friends. They had been among the first Special Forces soldiers in Afghanistan after 9/11, and ended up liberating the country. They also were embarking on a plan to make bourbon. Hard to resist that. Swords of Lightning is about what really happened in Afghanistan.

Funny thing about that book—it’s the only book I’ve ever written that sold out completely within a few days of publication. Sounds like a good thing, but it isn't, not really; every success comes with its own complications and consequences. In any event, the book has survived and even thrived in the aftermath.

Over the years, I’ve had plenty of suggestions for books from agents and editors. Most were decent ideas, but for whatever reason they didn’t click. The suggestions that have come from Peter Hubbard, however, have generally been pretty good. One of these was the idea of a book on the Pony Express, which eventually became West Like Lightning. Researching the Pony, as the insiders called it, took me across the country, flying, driving, walking, and occasionally trespassing along and around the route. Often, I’d show up unannounced at a small-town museum or history collection to poke around. Without exception, the folks I met along the way were incredibly hospitable and very helpful. There was a lot of research in dusty archives (and the internet of course), but it’s those people who really helped me make the book.

It was Peter, also, who hooked me up with Ruben Gallego, a Harvard graduate and Marine who served with the hardest hit unit in the Iraq War. Ruben is probably the most introspective person I’ve worked on a book with, whether about war, PTSD, or raising kids. And that’s true even though he was a congressman at the time. They Called Us Lucky isn’t just his story or that of the Marines he served with, but of all fighting men and women.

There’s a lot I’ve left out here—Hollywood and its ups and downs would take even longer to detail. But that’s the big stuff to this point. The interesting thing to me, though, is what’s next.