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Inside the World of Brad Thor

Comments he made last summer about removing Donald Trump, then a candidate, from the presidency if he won the election were interpreted in some corners as advocating harm. He prefaced the remarks as “a hypothetical I am going to ask as a thriller writer,” and denies he meant any form of violence.

He pals around with former Navy SEALs and intelligence operatives, even dedicating “Use of Force” to the former C.I.A. operations officer Duane R. Clarridge, who died last year. Mr. Clarridge ran secret wars for the C.I.A. in Central America, was indicted on charges of lying to Congress in the Iran-contra scandal and later pardoned.

Yet Mr. Thor’s impish sense of humor comes through over social media, as when he worked with a designer to photoshop the cover of “Use of Force” into Gov. Chris Christie’s hands (along with some suggestive pixelation between his legs) in the now-infamous aerial beach photograph. Mr. Thor’s Twitter message declaring he might be “the only one in American not mad at” Mr. Christie, was retweeted close to 12,000 times and liked more than 65,000, to the point where more than a few people believe the governor was in fact reading the book.

He may not have moved that copy, but according to his publisher Mr. Thor has sold nearly 15 million copies of his books worldwide. That would be an absolutely extraordinary number in literary circles. In the world of mysteries, suspense novels and thrillers it means he still has a bit of work ahead of him to make that leap to the level of ubiquity and universal name recognition (and yes, Thor is his real name) of a Dan Brown or John Grisham.


Patricia Wall/The New York Times

“Use of Force” debuted at No. 2 on the combined print and e-book New York Times best-seller list, behind Mr. Grisham’s “Camino Island” but above the latest James Patterson. The French director Louis Leterrier, whose action films like “The Incredible Hulk” and “Clash of the Titans” have grossed nearly $1.3 billion at the global box office, will take the helm of the film adaptation of Mr. Thor’s debut novel, “The Lions of Lucerne.”

Ryan Steck, who runs the website The Real Book Spy, said that Mr. Thor’s fans are particularly passionate. “Earlier in the year people were writing in, wanting to know when the release date for his next book was so that they could plan their vacation around when the book came out,” Mr. Steck said. “Not only have I never gotten emails like that for any other author, but I’ve gotten about a dozen like that for Brad this year alone.”

The thriller genre is a crowded field and breaking through is all the more difficult because the most successful series continue even after authors like Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum have died. Mr. Thor’s ability to crank out books on the grueling annual schedule was, his editor, Emily Bestler said, an important part of developing a loyal fan base. “For a certain kind of book it’s hugely important but also hugely difficult to pull off,” Ms. Bestler said. “Not many can.”

The new Scot Harvath book opens with a refugee boat sinking in the Mediterranean before moving from Libya to Langley, from Malta to Paris, and includes a stop for Harvath in true terra incognita: the Burning Man festival. Mr. Thor did not travel to the Nevada desert, dad-joking that his wife let him go to Afghanistan “but Burning Man might be a bridge too far.”

He does like to bring up that time he shadowed a black-ops team in Afghanistan for research, a mission he described as “on the intel-gathering side, low visibility, thin-skinned vehicles.” Mr. Thor declined to share additional details except to say it was not a direct-action mission, “not grabbing someone, putting a bag over their head.”

His acknowledgments include the names of former Navy SEALs in addition to the dedication to Mr. Clarridge, with whom he was friendly and who, after leaving the C.I.A., went on to run a network of spies from his home near San Diego. His organization was a kind of private spy agency similar to one that appears in the novel, led by “a legendary spymaster with more than thirty years in the business,” who had “gotten fed up with all of the bureaucratic red tape at Langley and had left to start his own company.”

“I’m always talking to friends of mine who are active in the military, law enforcement and intelligence communities,” Mr. Thor said. “What keeps you up at night? What are you seeing that you’re concerned about?”

A self-described conservative libertarian Mr. Thor has lectured at the Heritage Foundation about missile defense and used his creative imagination to advise the Department of Homeland Security in what is known as a red cell, gaming out ideas for unconventional attacks from the terrorist’s perspective.

“What I do is faction, where you don’t know where the facts end and the fiction begins,” Mr. Thor said. “One of the coolest compliments I get is people say, ‘I love to read your books with my laptop open,’” to see which parts are true.


Mr. Thor has a knack not just for churning out books but for thrusting himself into controversies major and minor.

Adrian Mesko for The New York Times

Indeed, in a genre ignored by the mandarins of literature but vacuumed up by the masses, Mr. Thor has the kind of fans more turned off by mistakes in firearm caliber than workmanlike similes including “like a coiled snake, ready to strike” or legs that felt “as if they were made of lead.”

“I had a lot of lovely gun owners come out of the woodwork and say, ‘O.K. listen, you called this thing a clip. It’s not a clip. It’s called a magazine. You don’t squeeze the trigger, you press the trigger,’” he recalled. Before his book tour he posted photos on Twitter of three different handguns on his book cover, asking which he should bring with him.

As a Chicago native, friends would ask him when he would be on the Oprah Winfrey show. “I think I’ve got one too many car chases and my body count’s too high for an Oprah club pick,” Mr. Thor would tell them.

Despite those body counts and the dire sheep-and-wolves worldview expressed in his latest book, Mr. Thor is relentlessly sunny and a natural, even compulsive storyteller in person. Order shrimp and grits, as I did at Oceana, and he will regale you with the tale of the first time he ever ate that meal at “a little restaurant down by the water in St. Marys, Ga.,” while traveling for the wedding of the thriller writer Steve Berry, author of the Cotton Malone series.

In his Ray-Bans, blue blazer and immaculate white pants, which match the face of his Rolex Explorer II, Mr. Thor looks like the former television personality he is. After college he had his own show on public television about budget travel, “Traveling Lite,” that took him to countries all over Europe, many of which pop up in “Use of Force.”

Growing up, he read Frederick Forsyth and Tom Clancy. In college his favorite writer was David Morrell, who first created the character of Vietnam veteran John Rambo. He studied creative writing under T. C. Boyle at the University of Southern California, graduating in 1992, and then moved to Paris to try to write a novel. After three chapters he gave up and instead of pursuing fiction went on to make his travel show.

It was not until he went on his honeymoon in 1999 that his wife asked him what he wanted to do more than anything else and he said, “Publish a novel.” Shortly thereafter, on a night train to Amsterdam, he stayed up all night talking to a sales rep for Simon & Schuster who said if he ever wrote a book to send it her way.

In Amsterdam he read an article about a Swiss intelligence officer embezzling money to set up a militia, inspiring “The Lions of Lucerne.” “Call it kismet,” he said. “The universe was telling me, ‘Get to work on that book, Thor.’”

He’s hardly stopped since and is already working out his next idea on a white board. Mr. Thor is not ready to start giving out plot points yet though.

“Every time you talk about the plot,” he said, “you’re giving away a little bit of that rocket fuel that’s supposed to propel you through the year.”

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