Article first published as An Interview with Mark Henshaw About His Debut Novel Red Cell on Blogcritics.
With Red Cell, published May 1, Mark Henshaw has written a great thriller and showed his prowess as a writer. The book is particularly impressive when you factor in that it is his debut.
Crenshaw, for his book, has been described as "The Clancy of a new generation."
I think that, while well intentioned, that description and comparison is not entirely fair in that, for some, Clancy's name carries some baggage. Put simply, when I think Tom Clancy I don't think tight writing. Rather, I think clunky dialogue, characters without much depth and books that are 100 or 200 pages longer than they need to be.
Red Cell, rather, is tightly written, with interesting characters and good dialogue. Clancy may just wish he wrote this book but it does contain his flaws.
If you look good espionage thrillers - regardless of whether you dislike or like Clancy - I think you will like this book. You can thank me later.
Congratulations on a great debut novel. The publicity materials for the book are calling you "The Tom Clancy of a new generation" - what do you think of that label? I suppose it depends partly on your thoughts on Clancy.
I consider it an honor to be compared to Mr. Clancy. His first novel, The Hunt for Red October, is a classic in the espionage/military thriller genre that I think will still be read decades from now — in fact, I have a first edition Naval Institute Press copy of it on my bookshelf along with several of his other works. His name is instantly recognizable even to people who don't read thrillers and, love him or hate him, he's sold and continues to sell a lot of books. The "Tom Clancy of a new generation" label itself is a de facto admission that he's the standard against which American writers in the genre are measured. You can't write in this genre and not respect the impact that he's had.
Also, many people might not realize that Mr. Clancy also produced an excellent set of non-fiction works that take readers inside US military units and co-authored memoirs with several of our country's most recent outstanding military officers — Fred Franks, Tony Zinni, Chuck Horner, etc. So he's made a major contribution to our military literature as well, and I used several of those non-fiction books in my research for Red Cell. So he's set another high bar on the non-fiction side as well.
But I'd be lying if I said it didn't also make me a little nervous. Being compared to someone who has made such an impact creates high expectations. We'll see how the readers feel about it.
How did you come up with the story for Red Cell? Can you summarize it for the readers? Also how would you describe the two protagonists, Jonathan and Kyra?
I like stories that integrate real history in their backgrounds, so I figured that I could come up with a story idea by taking an interesting historical event and projecting the implication into the future. During my research, I came across two interesting events, geographically close, that happened with six weeks of each other in 1999. I won't reveal them here, but readers of the book will see what they are. I thought "if those two were connected, that would be very interesting," and the rest of the story grew out of that.
The story revolves around Kyra Stryker, a CIA case officer who gets shot during her first assignment and ends up reassigned to a desk job in the CIA Red Cell--the Agency's real out-of-the-box think tank.
There she partners with Jonathan Burke, a smart but prickly officer who decides the young woman has potential and makes it his mission to teach her how to think like an analyst. They get their first assignment when the Taiwanese government arrests several Chinese spies in Taipei, which provokes the Chinese and sparks a major military escalation. The Chinese are oddly unfazed by the threat of US naval intervention, so CIA director Kathy Cooke tasks the two analysts to study why the PRC isn't backing down.
Burke and Stryker realize that the Chinese military might have finished building a weapon called the Assassin's Mace. A longtime CIA asset in Beijing codenamed Pioneer might have information they need to identify it, but the Chinese government has identified him as a traitor and put him under tight surveillance, making communication difficult and his eventual arrest and execution a certainty. Stryker gets a shot at redemption when Cooke offers her the chance to help save Pioneer and what they finally learn leads them to the Taiwan Strait, where the USS Abraham Lincoln battle group is preparing to fight the Battle of the Taiwan Strait.
So I love the story behind the book, that your wife said, essentially, you had to write this book in one year or she'd get your laptop. Can you share that story with our readers?
Back in 2003, my wife and I were recent college graduates, still paying down students loans and living as cheaply as possible in Northern Virginia, which is an expensive place to be for a GS-11 government analyst. At the time, I had been threatening to write a book for years but, like many writers, needed that swift kick to get moving. Procrastination has killed many would-be writers' careers before they ever got started, and my wife decided she wasn't going to let that happen.
Then I received an Exceptional Performance Award at work that came with $1,500 attached. My manager, in a strange bit of foreshadowing, asked me whether they shouldn't just make the check out to Apple (I do love my high-tech toys). I laughed that off, assuming that we would just throw the money at one of our student loans or maybe a home improvement project. But my wife surprised me by delivering that swift kick in the form of a challenge—I could use the money to buy a Mac PowerBook, but I had to use it to write my book and I had to finish it in one year or she got the laptop. She didn't even care if I got published. She just thought I was a good writer who needed to be developing my talents and that challenge, she said, would get me invested and keep me motivated.
The first draft of Red Cell actually took five years to finish, as I was learning to write a novel the hard way and I was a little overambitious in the scope of the plot—the first draft clocked in at 180,000 words. Some major life events interfered as well, but my wife was satisfied with my progress and let me keep the laptop anyway.
How did you come up with the story for Red Cell? Can you summarize it for the readers?
You have a background yourself in intelligence, including being part of this "Red Cell?" Can you explain what the Red Cell is and what your background is?
The Red Cell is a real CIA unit created on September 13, 2011 by then-CIA director George Tenet. Within minutes after the first planes had hit the World Trade Center, it had become obvious inside Langley that there had been "a failure of imagination" as the 9-11 Commission later phrased it. Even if there had been more intelligence information pointing towards the possibility, the attack were so far outside the bounds of what anyone considered plausible that no one would have predicted them. The human brain always wants to reject possibilities that fall too far outside our experience, and Director Tenet wanted to make sure that wouldn't happen again.
So he called into two senior analysts and told them that he wanted to set up a unit that would be dedicated to thinking outside the traditional analytical box. To paraphrase a bit, he told them, "I want you to tell me what no one else is telling me, and I want you to make the other analysts nervous." The unit would be special in that it would have total freedom to write about any subject that any other analyst studies, and it wouldn't have to coordinate its work with other analytic offices. Those two analysts realized that such an arrangement guaranteed the Red Cell would be disliked in some quarters because it would step on people's professional toes at will and no one could block its output through bureaucratic maneuvering. That's proven to be true. Most Agency analysts either love or hate the Red Cell. The only ones who are uncommitted are the ones who haven't dealt with it yet.
I became a military analyst in 1999 after graduating from Brigham Young University with a pair of master's degrees — International Relations from the David M. Kennedy School of International Relations and an MBA from the Marriott School of Management. I did a three-year rotation in the Red Cell a few years after it was created. It was, hands-down, the best assignment I had with the Agency. It gave me the freedom to look at any subject I found interesting, but it's definitely not for everyone. Red Cell analysis takes a creative, free-thinking mind and a tolerance for, shall we say, harsh criticism. In my book, Jonathan, my Red Cell analyst says "occasional hostility is the acceptable price of doing this business" and that's actually a direct quote from one of the Red Cell's real founders to me.
How much of your own background and experiences did you get a chance to draw upon when writing this?
A fair amount. Some of the bureaucratic challenges dealing with hostile analysts and case officers that Jonathan and Kyra face in the book are events that I actually witnessed. Intelligence analysis isn't for the faint of heart. You either develop a thick skin or find something else to do. So Kyra, being new to the work, is much like I was at the beginning of my career. Jonathan's personality and reactions are more like mine are now after more than a decade of experience.
And, obviously, my time inside the building allowed me to offer accurate descriptions of the grounds and the facilities. I regret that the Red Cell vault has been renovated since my time there and now looks nothing like what I describe in the book. My description of it is accurate as of 2005. It was a more interesting place then… much more character.
What did research entail for the book? I'm curious about whether certain details were fact or fiction - for example, a piece of burned flag that was a remnant of the Twin Towers attacks and was in the CIA director's office. Was that fact or fiction?
I did a huge amount of research, but that's the fun part of writing. I spent a lot of lunch hours in the Agency library hunched over a copy of Jane's Fighting Ships or All the World's Aircraft. I think most readers in this genre enjoy feeling like they're getting an education while they read, and they appreciate accurate details; that's half the fun of reading a military/espionage thriller, and they're not afraid to point out an author's mistakes. So I wanted to get the details right in every respect. For example, when Kyra or Mitchell are working the streets in Caracas or Beijing, I was staring at maps as I wrote to make sure that I got the street names right. I wanted a reader to be able to pull out a street map and follow along if they so desired. The flag in the CIA director's office is real.
So as you were writing this were you already thinking ahead to the question of "how much of what is in the story will I be allowed to publish because it might be seen as classified? Or did that dilemma come later? Can you explain how that process with the CIA Publication Review Board worked of them deciding what you could and couldn't share?
I didn't worry about it too much. I think a decade in the Agency gives one a pretty good sense for what they'll allow you to say in public or not. I just wrote the story I wanted to tell. There were a few times I pulled back a bit, but not many.
I can't go into how the Publications Review Board does its work too much, but the PRB was actually very easy to work with. I submitted the manuscript and they plowed through it in a month. In cases where there is a question about whether something is classified, they will contact the actual office in the Agency referred to in the book and consult with them to make sure that I wouldn't be revealing sources or methods. They requested a few changes and in most cases I was able to convince them the information had been previously cleared or otherwise wasn't classified. It was a surprisingly fast and pleasant experience.
How different was the finished product from what you wanted published before the censors insisted on things being changed or removed?
Very little was taken out. In fact, my editor at Simon & Schuster suggested more changes than the PRB and she was just trying to streamline the story.
Were you surprised the book was quickly optioned by Johnny Depp's production company?
Yes, but not for the reasons you might think. China has become a very important market for Hollywood, so filmmakers have to be sensitive to anything in their movies that might offend the Chinese. The events of Tiananmen Square are integral to one of my character's motivations, so I wondered how much that would give any production company pause. But for every hundred books optioned by Hollywood, maybe one gets made into a movie, so perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised. Production companies often have the resources to option literary properties en masse and then sort out later which ones they'll turn into films. We'll see what happens.
Are you working on a followup book? Would it be a standalone or was Red Cell the start of a series?
I am working on a second novel and it will be part of the Red Cell series. If my writing career lasts long enough, I'm sure that I'll write a standalone book with different characters; but for now I'm having fun with Jonathan and Kyra. As long as they've got room to grow, I'll be content to follow them around.
Was there anything I missed that you wanted to share?
I would just like to thank you for the chance to communicate with the readers and to thank everyone who reads a copy of the book. I hope you enjoy it.
This is the third of three recent interviews - the last one until, at minimum, this weekend. I prewrote two of them a few days before their May 1 publication date because I knew once this new job started my life would get crazy for a month.