Brad Thor Interview: On Islam and His Latest Book 'The Athena Project'
Brad Thor is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Lions of Lucerne, Path of the Assassin, State of the Union, Blowback (recognized as one of the “Top 100 Killer Thrillers of All Time” by NPR), Takedown, The First Commandment, The Last Patriot (nominated best thriller of the year by the International Thriller Writers Association and banned in Saudi Arabia), The Apostle, Foreign Influence, and his new spin-off series, The Athena Project.
Thor has been called “the master of thrillers,” “as current as tomorrow’s headlines,” and “quite possibly the next coming of Robert Ludlum.” His internationally bestselling novels have been published in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Spain, and Turkey just to name a few.
"The one thing we have going for us is that these idiots keep reaching out to other people to do their attacks. They haven’t completely been doing them on their own with nobody else involved. Thank God the FBI has been able to get them and stop them. But we’re talking about 1,400 years of violence and wanting to kill people because they don’t subscribe to your religion."
The author is a regular contributor to The Glenn Beck Program and has appeared on CNN Headline News as well as MSNBC, ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS programs to discuss terrorism and how closely his novels of international intrigue parallel the real threats facing the world today.
The Chicago native has served as a member of the Department of Homeland Security’s Analytic Red Cell Unit, is a fellow of the Alexandrian Defense Group, lectures to law enforcement organizations on over-the-horizon/future threats and has been the keynote speaker for the National Tactical Officers Association’s annual conference. A strong supporter of The Heritage Foundation, Thor has spoken at their national headquarters on the need for robust missile defense. He also sits on The International Free Press Society’s Board of Advisors.
Thor graduated cum laude from the University of Southern California where he studied creative writing, film, and television production. Prior to becoming a novelist, he was the award-winning creator, producer, writer and host of the critically acclaimed national public television series, Traveling Lite.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Brad, have you always wanted to be a writer?
Brad Thor: Yes, since I was a little boy. I grew up in Chicago. My dad is a former marine. Well, the proper way to say that is he’s no longer actively serving. Once a marine, always a marine. My mom was a flight attendant.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were your parents supportive of your career choice?
Brad Thor: The arts in my house were something to make you better rounded. They were not a career pursuit. I enrolled in Business Administration as my major at the University of Southern California and I really didn’t like it. I was in a macro economic class one day and I stood up and closed my books. My friends thought I was crazy. I said, “I can’t do this.” I would rather have taken a bullet between the eyes than be in middle management the rest of my life.
I didn’t go to school for a few days, just sat around my dorm room trying to figure out what I was going to do. Someone told me I should go to the career counseling office. I took the Strong Campbell personality test and scored off the charts for writing and publishing. I thought, “Wow, this is incredible and something I’ve always wanted to do.” I switched over to creative writing and that made all the difference in the world. It was an incredible experience.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That brought you to the career of writing.
Brad Thor: Well, when I graduated I went to Paris, took a laptop with me, and started writing my first book. I was several chapters into my first thriller and said to myself, “Oh my gosh, this is the most solitary, most lonely profession in the world. No wonder so many writers become drunks and put guns in their mouths.” I sent my laptop home and traveled around Europe with the money I had saved working in college.
I ended up coming back with an idea for a travel show geared toward 18-34 year olds called Traveling Lite. I got it launched on Public Television. But what I was feeling about writing was that I was afraid if I wrote a book no one would publish it and I wouldn’t be able to get it sold. A long time ago I co-opted the United Negro College Fund slogan which is, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” and I just clipped the end off of it. I just said, “A mind is a terrible thing.”
I think we all have moments in our lives where that little voice in the back of our heads starts telling us, “You can’t do this. What if you fail?” I think the things we’re most destined to do in life are often those we’re the most afraid of. It’s in overcoming that fear that you really realize success. In doing the TV show I was running away from what I really wanted to do which was to write books.
My wife and I, on our honeymoon in Europe, were sitting at a piazza one night and she asked, “Brad, what would you regret on your deathbed never having done?” Before I could grab the words out of the air and shove them back into my mouth, I had revealed my deepest darkest secret to my wife which was to write a book and get it published. She wanted me to take the time to do it. There’s a certain amount of macho in me and I couldn’t face her every day and basically say, “No, I’m still too scared.” That is what brought me to my career of writing.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You also had an encounter with a publisher on a train, isn’t that correct?
Brad Thor: That same trip! The sponsor of Traveling Lite was the Rail Europe group, the people that do the rail passes. As a present they had given us passes and told me they’d comp us for as many overnight train rides as we wanted. They’re a great way to save money plus I always loved Murder on the Orient Express and North by Northwest. I thought, “Wow, that’s so romantic, traveling overnight to Europe by train.” What I didn’t know was that my wife gets motion sick so it wasn’t as romantic as I would have liked (laughs).
It was very nice because we had private compartments except for the last overnight trip which was from Munich where we were going to Oktoberfest over to Amsterdam. I shared compartments before and had gypsies start little fires to cook in there, people tried to mug me, had many bad experiences.
I didn’t want to share a compartment on my honeymoon with Lord knows who so every little town we went through that had a train station I would see if there had been a cancellation for that particular leg of our journey. My wife eventually said, “You’re ruining our honeymoon! Every time we go to a city with a train station you’re spending all of your time there! Aren’t you the one who always says to his friends, 'Everything happens for a reason and it all works out for the best?'” I said, “That’s what I say to my friends when they refuse to take my advice. That’s just a quick way to get them to quiet down and stop talking about whatever is bugging them.”
Anyway, I had a hangover all day from Oktoberfest and I was convinced we’re going to be sharing this compartment with Ted Bundy. But, to my surprise, it’s a lovely brother and sister from Atlanta, Georgia. The sister and I found we had the shared love of both travel and books so we talked books all night. She asked, “What will you be doing when you get home?” I said, “I’m actually going to take time and write my first book.” We got into Amsterdam the next morning and traded business cards. Lo and behold she’s a sales rep for Simon & Schuster. She said, “When you finish your manuscript I’d like to read it because if I can help you at Simon & Schuster I would love to do that.” Ten books later I’m still at Simon & Schuster!
I filmed an episode of my TV show in Lucerne, Switzerland and there’s this gorgeous lion monument called the Lion of Lucerne. The lion has a spear broken off in its side and it’s dying. Mark Twain called it the most moving piece of rock in the world and it was sculpted to commemorate the 700 plus Swiss guards who died defending King Louis and Marie Antoinette in the initial throes of the French Revolution. I thought, “If I ever wrote a book I’d love to play with that title.” I like the alliteration.
The Lions of Lucerne would be a great book title. I’d have to figure out how to tie in the Swiss and Lucerne though (laughs). I now had the title, the desire, and I had admitted to my wife I wanted to write. Then I met a publishing sales rep on the train going into Amsterdam.
My wife and I got to the hotel and our room wasn’t ready so the manager tells us of this little café around the corner. We go for coffee and a sandwich at the café. I look next to me and there’s a copy of the International Herald Tribune. I pick it up and find this little intelligence brief concerning a Swiss intelligence officer who’s embezzled all this money from the Swiss army and is training his own shadow militia high in the alps using high tech weapons from his own private arsenal. I said, “That’s going to be The Lions of Lucerne.” That honeymoon was big!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Everything came together on the honeymoon!
Brad Thor: I think when it’s supposed to come together it does come together!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Why the interest in espionage and spies?
Brad Thor: One of the worst pieces of advice you get as a writer starting out is to write what you know. If that were true, we would have never had a Tom Clancy. He’d be selling insurance. How about J.K. Rowling? It’s not like she could jet off to Hogwarts and learn about grooming wizards!
I tell people they should write about what they love to read because that’s where their passion is. You’d be surprised how much you know about your favorite genre. You just can’t pick a genre because you think you’ll make a lot of money. I also believe you can’t be a great writer either unless you’re a great reader. I’d started reading mystery books when I was a little boy. I moved from the Hardy Boys into other authors, as I got older.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’ve had a male hero, Scot Harvath, and now all of a sudden you have four heroines. Did you feel like you were taking a chance changing the main character?
Brad Thor: I didn’t then but I do now that the book is out (laughs). I wanted to do a spinoff series but I didn’t want to just take Scot Harvath, clone him three more times, and put him in a skirt. Brilliant women surround me: my wife, my editor, my agent, my mom, and friends. I also have a daughter. When I heard that Delta Force, the world’s most elite counterterrorism unit was going to female triathlon events in Hawaii and tapping some of these women on the shoulder saying, “How about giving up the sporting world to serve your country?” I thought that was great. Nobody had done that. What a fascinating group of characters you could create out of that.
I also wanted to do it to stretch myself and do something different. My Scot Harvath books are true political thrillers. There’s politics in there. There isn’t any politics in The Athena Project. It is a straight thriller and deals with counterterrorism and national security. It’s not supposed to be Scot Harvath. It’s supposed to be different. I’ve seen people that absolutely love them and people have said, “Well, Scot Harvath makes an appearance in it but he’s not there long enough. It’s not focused on him enough.” It’s not supposed to be about him.
I wanted to stay in the genre, in this milieu that I know well, which is counterterrorism and espionage, but I wanted to inject some different elements into it, throwing some conspiracy theories out there about cutting edge technologies our enemies were into at the end of World War Two. It was a chance to do something new and a chance to do something from the beginning. So was it a risk? I think anytime you try to do something new, it’s a risk. I’ve had diehard Scot Harvath fans say, “I don’t care if you ever write another Scot Harvath book. I can’t wait for the next Athena!” It was a lot of fun to write that book.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did your wife or any other female aid in the writing of the banter between the four girls?
Brad Thor: Yes they did. I’ve had several women read what I was writing and Melissa, there were times when I’m like, “I know what the male operators say in certain situations.” There’s a lot of gallows humor that exists when you find yourself in dangerous situations. I got to the point where I said, “Okay this is what I think would be said here.” My wife would say, “Don’t filter yourself too much! Write it how you think it would be and I’ll read it tonight.” She’d say, “You’ve got to take that little censor off your shoulder and allow the characters to come through the way you’re feeling them in your writing.”
I also showed it to friends and relatives and it was funny how my instincts were right on the money. The women banter the same way the guys do except they banter about different things. They talk about their personal lives the same way the guys do, although women have a different way of looking at their lives.
This book really didn’t have much male insight. My usual guys who know weapons and tactics and stuff read over the manuscript but there were so many women involved in the process here that there’s no way I could’ve slipped through dialogue and banter that wasn’t authentic. These incredible brilliant women had no problems telling me where they thought I went wrong (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are any of the women in The Athena Project similar to the females in your life?
Brad Thor: Yes, each of the women in this book has character traits based on these strong independent brilliant women that I know in my own life so I was channeling some of these women whom I highly respect and admire in my own circle.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Brad, how long does it take to do the research for one of your books?
Brad Thor: I do a certain amount of research in the beginning, but it’s ongoing all of the time. I’ve got a stack of books wherever I go. I’ll tear post-it notes up so I’ll get more life out of them and stack them in the books. I’ll do several months of research before, but I find as I’m writing I don’t have near the amount of research I need so it’s always ongoing. You have the best of intentions of getting your research done in the beginning but then you sit down and the story takes you in a completely different direction.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You spent some time researching in Afghanistan a couple of years ago.
Brad Thor: I did that for a prior thriller, The Apostle. I want to get as close to what I’m writing as possible. I was doing the research for The Apostle and was invited by a team of men to come and spend time with them in Afghanistan to see how they did everything. They said, “You write about this all the time, but why don’t you come and see how Scot Harvath really operates?” That was the trip of a lifetime.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That had to have been scary also.
Brad Thor: It was, but to be with men of this caliber who had been trained the way these men had been trained, I was probably safer with them in Afghanistan than I was crossing the street outside my house in Chicago. I mean, of course, it was very dangerous and times when things were very frightening, but that had been a dream of mine.
I wanted to be with men of incredible honor. It’s probably for the same reason that Hemingway wanted to drive an ambulance in the war. He wanted to see it first hand. I forget who said it, Melissa, but there is a quote about how vain it is to sit down and write when you have yet to ever stand up and live.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): There is a terrorist attack that has happened in Rome in The Athena Project. Do you think the US will ever experience another attack similar to 9/11?
Brad Thor: I’ve got to break your question into two parts. Do I think we’ll see another attack? Yeah. Will it be similar to 9/11? That becomes the real interesting question. As you and I are doing this interview we’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of the underwear bomber on Christmas.
We had this chucklehead in Portland who was thinking he was going to blow up the Christmas tree lighting ceremony. In Chicago we had another idiot. God Bless the FBI. They were able to get to this guy before he was able to put his own bomb together and they gave him a fake bomb to plant at the Chicago Cubs baseball field outside Wrigley Field. He had wanted to nail people coming out of the Dave Matthews concert.
It has been said repeatedly. We have to be successful 100% of the time. They only have to be successful once. The one thing we have going for us is that these idiots keep reaching out to other people to do their attacks. They haven’t completely been doing them on their own with nobody else involved. Thank God the FBI has been able to get them and stop them. But we’re talking about 1,400 years of violence and wanting to kill people because they don’t subscribe to your religion.
I don’t see it slowing down. Back then they could put their radical hate-filled venom-filled sermons on cassette tapes so that they could be spread around far and wide. That marked a real turning point. Now you get into the Internet where these idiots can talk to each other even easier. I don’t see how it stops.
There are some wonderful committed Muslim people in the world who are against what’s happening with the Jihad but you could fit them on the head of a pin. There isn’t this outcry from the Muslim community. There are some good people but their voices are completely being lost in the deafening roar of silence that comes out from the Muslim community around the world. Most Muslim people are peaceful and tolerant, just want to feed their families, and get along with their neighbors.
The problem with that religion is they’ve been taught that their Holy Book is beyond question, that it’s a perfect copy of a perfect book that exists in paradise. So when the bad guys do their stuff they use the Koran to justify their violence. To question when they’re citing chapter and verse from the Koran is questioning the Koran and that’s forbidden in Islam. It’s this horrific catch 22.
Unlike Judaism and Christianity there has never been a reformation in Islam. As a matter of fact (and this is something I always say) Osama bin Laden is one of the best practicing Muslims in the world today because he is practicing Islam the way Mohammed wanted it practiced.
I don’t know where we get this line that Islam is a religion of peace. Islam is a religion of peace only when the entire world is under the control of Islam. Nobody ever finishes that sentence that there will be no peace until Islam subjugates the entire world. So when you hear Islam is peace, that’s only half of the story. You’re not being told the rest of it. We do ourselves a great disservice in this country when we go around saying Islam is a peaceful religion because it’s not. We’re not at war with the Irish, you know?
I love seeing people with artificial limbs and metal implants being patted down while we’re not profiling men from Muslim countries between the ages of 18 and 34 … or even just talking to them. You can train people to see what are called micro expressions, how the Secret Service looks for people that are going to do bad things when the President is out shaking hands. There are certain cues that people give off unknowingly that they have bad intentions. I’d love to get rid of all the TSA and give our returning men and women jobs at the ticket counters asking questions of every single person. It’s all about the person’s facial cues. I’d love to see that happen.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You really have to wonder with bin Laden still on the loose whether he’s planning another terrorist attack.
Brad Thor: Well, you gotta wonder. Let me come back on what you asked about 9/11. We know something for a fact that Al-Qaeda is planning their attack. They love these little onesy twosy deals like the idiot in Portland at the Christmas tree lighting ceremony or the underwear bomber. They love those, but what they want is to plan them based on how deep and long the media coverage for those attacks will be.
How do you get the deepest longest media coverage on the next attack you do especially if it’s done in America? You involve women and children. That is your target victim population. If you can get women and children, the media will be on it and will stay on it and keep talking about it longer than if you had a bunch of men. If you slaughter 100 men it’s going to be horrific and there will be media coverage but if it’s women and kids it will go and go and go, especially if you have a situation where you take people hostage.
My concern is that we’ll see at some point a Beslan style thing here where these guys are going to come for schools. I’m also concerned they might come with a backpack to a movie theater. A backpack doesn’t get searched. You don’t even need a suicide bomber. You need a delivery boy who goes in, sits down, and while the lights go down leaves his backpack and activates the bomb then walks out of the theater. He doesn’t even need to die.
That is such a quintessential American experience. We sit together in the dark with strangers and fellow Americans. We sit there alone in the dark and have a story told to us. If you had a Saturday night in this country where bombs went off across the nation, Sunday the movie theater business would be out of business. There’s one thing that the Muslims say, “We export our horrible culture.” They always point to film and television. This would have an unbelievable psychological impact on our nation and an economic impact which is what they’re after.
If they do a Beslan style thing here where they do a school siege, kill teachers and kids that would also have a huge economic impact because we have so many families who are struggling to make ends meet. If that happens, one of those two working parents will then stay home and across this country you’ll see home schooling skyrocket. If you think we’ve got economic troubles now …
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes, that would be tragic.
Brad Thor: I’m cheering you up, aren’t I? I think I heard a hot bath being drawn and you looking for a box of razor blades. I’m just Mr. Cheerful when it comes to that stuff (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Brad, have you ever personally feared for your life after writing a novel?
Brad Thor: I did a book called The Last Patriot which is a thriller. There’s something interesting about Islam and the way the Koran is organized. It’s not organized in chronological order the way the Bible is organized. It’s organized based on the length of the chapters so what you find is when Mohammed started preaching Islam he was very peaceful and tolerant. He was trying to get Jews and Christians to try to join his religion, but then later on when he became a powerful warlord he became increasingly intolerant, very aggressive, and violent. His followers said, “You’re contradicting yourself now, Mohammed. How is it possible that you can tell us you got a message from the angel Gabriel that Allah said this but now he said that?” It put him in a very different position.
Mohammed came up with a concept called abrogation which basically says that if I give you something today that contradicts something Allah passed through the Angel Gabriel to me, what I’m giving you today abrogates (cancels out) that other stuff. What’s interesting, Melissa, is that the last true set of guidelines (commandments if you will) that Mohammed left his followers is summed up in the ninth Chapter of the Koran and that is the only chapter that doesn’t begin “By the grace of Allah the most compassionate, the most merciful.”
Many people who know the Koran say it’s because there’s no compassion or mercy in this entire chapter, but this is the chapter that the terrorists focus on and use to justify their violence because it cancels everything out in the Koran. You hear Muslims say, “Oh you’re just cherry picking the violent verses. Peaceful verses can be found throughout the Koran.” The reason they can be found physically throughout the Koran is like I told you, it’s organized by the length of the chapters not by the timeline in which they were revealed. You could front load the Koran if you did it chronologically. The beginning would be front-loaded.
The idea behind The Last Patriot was that there is actually evidence out there that Mohammed was assassinated. I thought, “Why would somebody want to assassinate this guy?” I started compiling a huge list because he was like Attila the Hun the way he killed people after they surrendered, chopping off their heads and such. I said, “Okay, make it more interesting. Why might his own people want to kill him?
That would be interesting if one of his disciples wanted to assassinate him. How about after that last set of commandments where he was so violent, what if he had one more revelation and there is evidence that the Koran is incomplete? There have been Muslim scholars who have quietly admitted to this over the years. What if we discovered there was a final set of commands that Mohammed left his followers, but his disciples couldn’t take it? They thought he was getting to be a crazy old man and what if they killed him to keep it out of the Koran? I said, “There is some intrigue!” What if you could find this missing text from the Koran today?
That’s what The Last Patriot was based on. Thomas Jefferson was the first president to go to war with Islam. We have the Marine Corps hymn – “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.” That’s where Jefferson sent the marines – to do battle with the Muslim pirates of the Barbary Coast including Tripoli. Jefferson was really into how violent the Muslims were and how they used their religion to justify all the horrific things they did. What if Jefferson had gotten on to this missing text from the Koran and what if he left us clues today on how to complete his search for it? The Last Patriot got banned in Saudi Arabia and also got me many death threats.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): An interview you had with Glenn Beck came to mind where he predicted you would be assassinated.
Brad Thor: Yes, I let Glenn see the manuscript on that book. One of his producers called me when Glenn was on the radio. He said, “Brad, I don’t think you should publish this book. You are going to be dead within a year. They will kill you over this book.” They threatened to do it. We had to take many security measures to guarantee our safety. We ended up selling our house and moving. But, I’m still kicking!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That’s a good thing! Also a good thing is that your books will be turned into films in the near future!
Brad Thor: This is very exciting! Warner Bros. just picked up the rights to all of my books. Warner Bros. does not have a James Bond or a Jason Bourne franchise. My Scot Harvath is going to be that for them. They went crazy for The Athena Project as well and that’s going to be another big budget action movie franchise. The people at Warner Bros. get the books. I think they realize what Americans want to see and they want to be as true to the books as possible. I couldn’t be happier.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will you be on the set as a consultant?
Brad Thor: I’m going to be there. You know, at the end of the day they are the moviemakers. I said, “If Stephen King can put himself in every one of his movies with a speaking part I want that same thing!” I don’t want to be a creepy innkeeper (laughs). You can put me in with the heroes in the book even if I could be the fifth guy in a line that’s going into a terrorist stronghold. I would love to do that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): At least make an appearance ala Hitchcock (laughs).
Brad Thor: Yeah, like Hitchcock, exactly! I want to have a cameo in my films, too!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What’s next for you, Brad?
Brad Thor: We definitely have another book coming for Athena next year, but now I’m writing the next Scot Harvath thriller which will come out just before Father’s Day.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Great, perhaps we can speak again at that time.
Brad Thor: I hope so! Now, it doesn’t bother you that I’m a wallflower and I just give the “yes” or “no” answers to your questions?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Not in the least (laughs).
Brad Thor: Well, this has been my pleasure, Melissa. Thank you.
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