There’s still half an hour before I’m due to interview thriller writer Steven Hildreth, Jr., meaning that it’s half past one in the afternoon and I’m sitting on my bed with a frankly enormous jar of olives I picked up in Lidl for a quid. Olives are one of those things I fucking hate, like mushrooms or arguments on message boards, until I have one and can’t stop, until the point at which I can’t really say I hate them any more. In fact, I pretty much love them.
I’m like that with thrillers. There’s some deeply unpleasant aristocrat enfolded in a lithium prison somewhere in my brain that makes me want to sneer at all genre literature, and an equally disgusting Guardian-reader in the next cell muttering about the responsibility and potential consequences of any fiction that has an MI6 or CIA agent as its protagonist. But fuck it, I don’t care. I love Kingsley Amis, reactionary pulp writer that he could at times be. I adore Graham Greene, especially when he most resembled an adolescently agnostic Catholic. I grew up reading Ian Fleming, racist and rape-fantasist, and if anyone ever asked me to write a Bond script my cremaster gland would probably explode. Len Deighton, Joe R. Lansdale, James Ellroy, John le Carré… they’ll all do nicely, thanks.
What I can’t stand are the more recent spate of post-9/11 covert action novels that sup like mangy puppies at Tom Clancy’s shrivelled tits, with Glenn Beck acting as their Hitler (mental-) Youth version of Oprah. Vince Flynn, Brad Meltzer, Brad Thor (could you get a more white supremacist name than that, incidentally? I read about half of one of his books last year, and it was basically Storm Saxon for MMA hillbillies); all of them inevitably either involving the United States military-industrial complex as the hero or filthy Middle Easterners as the villain, or both.
So I approached The First Bayonet, Steven Hildreth’s spy novella set in Egypt under Hosni Mubarak, with some trepidation. Hildreth and I have been banging heads over politics on a biweekly basis for the best part of a decade now. (And I know he reads Clancy and Flynn and Thor. I know it because I followed him onto Thor’s official Facebook fanpage and trolled it mercilessly). In addition, there’s always that risk when looking at a friend’s work that you become too critical, either out of overreaching for objectivity or simple jealousy.
But, damn it, The First Bayonet was good. And, as such, I swallowed whatever Cain-and-Abel complex I might have had and gave it a good review.
Could I maintain this positive air in the subsequent interview? Not wholly – I wanted to cover new ground, and there’s no way to do that by dick-sucking for sixty minutes. That said, there’s no point in trying to rile Hildreth: I’ve called him every name under the sun and some that aren’t, and he’s shrugged it off and continued to debate in a firm but respectful manner.
So, mouth crammed full of salty oleacean horribleness, I picked up my laptop and told myself to strike a fair balance (it was, after all, 6am for him, the morning before a PT test). But this isn’t easy when you only have an hour; for example, there was one question I had to apologise for afterwards.
Nevertheless, I hope you enjoy it.
Implicate Disorder: Your novella, The First Bayonet, was e-published last year. What was it about mainstream publishing that caused you to take this route instead? Was there something inherent in the work that made it more suitable?
Steven Hildreth, Jr.: Well, I don’t think it was the content, in and of itself, that caused me to take the self-publishing route, though I’ve known a couple of authors who have done that for exactly that reason. Really, what it is is that the publishing industry has become something of a good old boy network. For ordinary people trying to break into the writing game, it’s an enormous catch-22: you can’t be published mainstream unless you’ve been published mainstream before. If you know somebody who knows somebody, then the doors open, but most people—myself included—don’t know those people. So, my options really became either to attempt to break mainstream and repeat the same action with hopes for a different result, or jump in on self-publishing.
ID: Did you attempt to find an industry publisher or agent, or opt for the e-pub route from the beginning?
SH: I opted for e-publishing from the onset. I’ve witnessed colleagues of mine trying to break mainstream and saw the struggle they had to go through to market their work. I was not looking to go through the same process. I circumvented that and figured I would find a way to make up for the lack of advertising later.
ID: Yeah, the disadvantages of this approach I assume speak for themselves – having to self-edit, self-promote and so forth. On the other hand, has there been anything about self-publishing you’ve found particularly advantageous, that wouldn’t be the case if you’d sought a more traditional route?
SH: It has afforded complete autonomy in just about everything—my pricing, my cover, my marketing scheme, and so on. That does come as a double-edged blade, as you mentioned, but it also serves as a hell of a learning experience, taking control of all aspects of the writing and publishing process. Also, it kept me from wasting time looking for a publisher, which allowed me to roll right onto other projects.
ID: We’ve spoken before about post-scarcity economics and I’ve been reading with some interest about algamics recently – as I understand them, newer, generally online economies that are roughly analogous with potlatch systems. Once you become more established, have you given any thought to going down the path of several e-publishers: getting a Creative Commons licence and distributing any of your work for free, as a way of generating interest in your name?
SH: I have considered that with the The First Bayonet, as well as some other novellas I have planned…I’ve considered selling them electronically for a period of time, then after that initial time period, releasing them under a Creative Commons License. I think it’s a sound strategy. Furthermore, if I was established enough to where I could live solely off of my writing, I would consider putting out novellas for free from the onset.
ID: I’d like to turn more in the direction of content, if I may. Now, your novella, The First Bayonet, concerns CIA action within Egypt and was written in light of the Arab Spring. In my view, your work differs from several writers in the contemporary, post-9/11 covert thriller field in that it doesn’t present a simplistic narrative of good, represented by the United States, versus evil, represented by Islamist terrorism. What do you see as the US’s future role in the Middle East, and was this a theme you wanted to play with in the book?
SH: I think the role of the United States in the Middle East will probably end up becoming one of attempting to mend fences and do business. While foreign policy mistakes on the scale of the Cold War have been avoided, there still has been plenty of mistakes made, by both administrations in the war, that will haunt the region for years to come. As far as The First Bayonet goes, I think the best way to touch on that theme would be the actions of the US government within. Without giving spoilers, the protagonist, Ben Williams, is left out in the cold due to misguided political agendas and questionable allegiances.
ID: I got that impression – it was as if it almost didn’t matter what Williams did, because the cunts upstairs would find a way to undo it. Was it difficult to avoid a nihilistic, Sisyphean tone with the novella, that good men are essentially banging their head against a brick wall when larger diplomatic forces get involved?
SH: I actually think that after a fashion, that is basically where Williams is at. That comes up during a conversation between Williams and his principal, Zaina Anwar. To paraphrase, they mention his participation in covert operations in El Salvador back in the 1980s, and she asks him why he continues to work for the government if he knows there will be people within it that will abuse their power and use the soldiers at their command as pawns in a crooked power game. What keeps Williams going is the men he commands. He wants to insulate them from the shenanigans on Capitol Hill and teach them to have a moral compass that is pure and unable to be diluted by war or by orders from higher.
ID: Williams is an agent and you were a soldier, but to what extent do you think this atmosphere was informed by your infantry experiences in Iraq?
SH: I would have to say my experiences in Iraq not so much pushed me in the direction of portraying Williams as a man stuck between what he feels is his duty and the marching orders from a bumbling, inept government apparatus, but more accurately gave me what I needed to provide the necessary gravity to that portrayal. And even despite his job title, at heart, Williams is very much a grunt and an operator, so when I write his reactions to what’s going on, I have my own experiences as an infantryman and the experiences of others who served in the infantry or in SOF to draw upon.
ID: Who are your literary influences? Do you generally tend to keep to the thriller genre?
SH: I do, mostly, though recently I have ventured into non-fiction in an attempt to expand my understanding of the special operations community. I’d have to say that my major influences are Doug Wojtowicz, who is a ghost writer for the Mack Bolan pulp action series and the man who taught me how to write; Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy, David Mamet, and Andrew Britton, who was a thriller author starting to break it big before his tragic death at the age of twenty-seven. All of these authors have shown me a facet of writing that I incorporate into my work.
I should mention, though, that I have been trying to find the time to get into hardboiled detective fiction…that’s something I would like to try my hand at someday!
ID: Do you feel, as a soldier, a reader, and a writer, betrayed by the image of the United States that finds its apotheosis in the paperback thriller industry, or in contemporary TV or film that deals with foreign policy and armed combat?
SH: Well, I cannot speak as a soldier, and as a quick legal CYA, none of my views reflect the views of the US Army, past or present. Having said that—I think it is and it isn’t a little troubling at the same time. It is in that it suggests a disconnect in Washington between reality and fiction. However, there was a project initiated after 9/11 where the government contacted thriller writers and asked them to brainstorm possible scenarios where there might be terrorist attacks, done in coordination with terrorism experts. This kind of thing, I would not be opposed to, as it brings an outsider’s perspective to things and allows new ideas to be introduced and vetted by the experts. So, in that aspect, it can be a good thing. It all depends on how much the politicians want to run with it. When they model the National Counterterrorism Center off of 24’s CTU and Homeland Security calls a law enforcement program “Project Chloe,” then you know it just might be time for a temperature check.
ID: One last question before we wrap up. How is your current novel progressing, and will it pick up on any of the themes begun in The First Bayonet?
SH: The novel I’m currently working on is actually an unrelated prequel, and it focuses less on relevant politics. It is a LOT more personal for Williams than The First Bayonet. I think some might see slight similarity in themes, but that’s all I can say without giving away what the plot is. But it’s coming along, if not as fast as I would like, and hopefully, it’ll get done soon. This will actually be my first print novel, so the problems some have had with e-publishing will be circumvented.
ID: Steven Hildreth, Jr., thank you very much for your time.
SH: Thank you for having me…next time, let’s not wait eight or nine years between interviews, yeah?