What distinguishes a good thriller novel from the best? Brad Thor.
He’s been hailed as the “undisputed king of the genre” by a critic. A reviewer once commented, “No one writes a better thriller than Brad Thor.” He is the author of the wildly popular, bestselling Scot Harvath series, including his recently released thriller “Black Ice.”
What separates this author’s work from the rest of the genre? It’s uncanny how a Brad Thor novel comes across as not merely an entertaining work of fiction, but often also a prediction of tomorrow’s news.
He always writes an engaging narrative, and his dedication to grounding his novels with real-world events backed by meticulous research with a keen eye for detail is unmatched. He even went so far as to get himself embedded as an observer with a U.S. black-ops mission in Afghanistan to make his novels as realistic as possible.
His dedication to realism has led the author to become an authority figure on national security issues, and news outlets have sought out his opinion about the threats facing America.
With “Black Ice,” Thor shifts his focus to the threat posed by the tremendous increase in China’s power and its pursuit to become the dominant global superpower.
In this 21st novel in his Scot Harvath thriller series, Thor takes the reader to a part of the world few would imagine as a location for espionage intrigue entangling the world’s three major powers—the frozen depths of the remote Arctic Circle region.
Why are China and Russia suddenly closely allied in targeting the Arctic? What could possibly be buried deep under the snow and ice that now garners so much attention from them? Will America’s North Atlantic defense system be put at risk? It’s a thrilling adventure when it falls to Harvath to find out and thwart any threat to America.
Scot Harvath is no ordinary espionage operative. He’s the U.S. president’s secret weapon, the counter-intelligence operative to turn to when extraordinary, possibly unsanctioned, measures may be called for in battling bad actors. He works for a super secretive private operation that parallels the CIA, working with, but not officially for it (and the president), to ensure deniability. A publication that specializes in reporting on thriller novels and their authors, “The Real Book Spy,” dubbed Thor’s character Scot Harvath “America’s favorite hero.”
I interviewed Thor by phone from his home in Nashville, Tennessee, about “Black Ice,” his writing, and his views on current events.
Zachary Warner: “Black Ice” will be viewed by many as a warning about global Chinese ambitions. Can we expect this to be a recurring theme for your upcoming novels?
Brad Thor: I go where the most pressing threats take me. My goal, first and foremost, is to give people a great, edge-of-their-seat, white-knuckle thrill ride. If I have done that, I have done my job as an entertainer. If they close the book a little bit smarter, a little bit more knowledgeable, then I have done my job as an American. Each book is different, so I cannot tell you how China will play in the novels going forward.
Mr. Warner: What are the appropriate steps the United States and the international community can follow in holding the Chinese Communist Party responsible for the spread of the COVID-19?
Mr. Thor: To hold the CCP responsible, the U.S. and the international community must have hard evidence. Just before we spoke, it was learned that the intelligence community was able to secure an enormous catalog of information, including genetic blueprints of virus samples, from the lab in Wuhan—likely from hacking the cloud-based servers the lab is assumed to have used. Analyzing it will prove a nightmare, however, as it will require massive computing power and scientists with the proper security clearances who can also speak Mandarin. If it can be proven that the COVID-19 virus escaped the Wuhan lab, then the world can begin discussing the next steps.
Mr. Warner: What are some of the international security lessons learned from COVID-19?
Mr. Thor: Number one is that our supply chains are much too fragile and we are far too dependent on just-in-time manufacturing from China. It is a major threat to America’s national security. From pharmaceuticals to semiconductors, we need a Manhattan project aimed at reshoring and “disruption-proofing” the manufacture of our most critical products.
Mr. Warner: In “Black Ice,” the reader is witness to an uneasy alliance between China and Russia. Except, for opposition to the United States, what does each of them benefit from greater collaboration with the other? Is a Russian–Chinese alliance a permanent fixture on the international stage?
Mr. Thor: Beijing is, in fact, growing closer to Moscow. It is an uneasy marriage of convenience. Each has things the other needs. But, as history has shown, alliances have ways of fraying and breaking apart.
Mr. Warner: Our international focus seems to be shifting to China and the Pacific. What new challenges does the Chinese Communist Party pose to America?
Mr. Thor: China is a country in which the CCP does not recognize the rights of the individual. When individual liberty is not fostered and protected it is impossible for creativity to flourish. And when creativity is unable to flourish, a nation is incapable of innovation. And when a nation is incapable of innovation it stagnates—particularly in science and technology. This leaves said nation with only one avenue—theft. Unable to scientifically and technologically advance, China must steal from freer, more prosperous, more advanced nations like the United States.
Therefore, Chinese espionage remains a serious threat to the United States. China’s construction of faux islands/atolls in the South China Sea, its position vis-à-vis Taiwan, and the immediate risk it poses to the other first island chain nations, are all ongoing threats that need to be closely watched.
Mr. Warner: The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative [BRI] has been the subject of important strategic conversations: some experts believe it will have drastic implications on the United States’ foreign policy and role in the world; however, the focus is usually on developing nations. What is the future international role of Western, developed countries, such as Norway, who might share more cultural similarities with the United States but might benefit from Chinese economic investment?
Mr. Thor: When it comes to China, there is no “free” lunch. The BRI is how the polar bear gets his nose inside your tent. It allows China to lock up the resources it needs for its continued growth. The flip side of the BRI coin is that it provides the CCP with a powerful seat at the table and influence over the nations that take their money—both in terms of domestic and foreign policy.
Countries like Canada and Norway have seen China’s moves in the Arctic for what they are and have flatly shut the Chinese down. They have wisely said no to China trying to purchase a seat at their tables.
As per Western nations culturally aligned with the United States and whether or not they should accept Chinese investment—one needs to always remember that there are always strings attached, even if said strings are not immediately visible. Bottom line—is the juice worth the squeeze?
Mr. Warner: What is the greatest obstacle the average citizen faces when understanding foreign policy?
Mr. Thor: The greatest obstacle is how Americans silo themselves. If you get all of your news from Facebook groups, you’re not getting the entire picture—and you are likely a ripe target for disinformation.
As human beings, we’re hardwired to want to function in small bands, or tribes. We seek out like-minded people online. But the price of staying in a digital tribe is often complete and full agreement with a particular viewpoint. If everyone thinks the same—that’s a problem. Not only that, malign foreign actors find such digital tribes ripe for disinformation campaigns.
I eat vegetables not because I like them, but because I know I need to. The same can be said for media consumption—you can have favorites, but you should consume a wide and varied diet. As a responsible steward of the Republic, it is your duty to be civic-minded and as well informed as possible. That means picking your head up, breaking the Facebook barrier, and consuming multiple types of news and information.
Mr. Warner: What is your opinion on the current administration’s approach to national security affairs?
Mr. Thor: As with every administration, it’s a mixed bag. The Afghanistan pullout is a continuation of the Trump policy. I think it will be an absolute disaster for the Afghans, but we’ve been there for 20 years. We can make a United States Marine in 13 weeks, but after two decades, the Afghan Army cannot stand on its own two feet? That’s a problem—a big one.
Kabul could fall by the end of this September (if not sooner). [Editor’s note: This interview was conducted prior to the fall of Kabul.] That will be game over—and like I said, it will be terrible. But it wasn’t that we did too little, it was that the Afghans didn’t do enough. You cannot hand a nation freedom and democracy on a silver platter. They have to want it more than anything else. They have to be willing to fight, bleed, and die for it. I think they are too tribal, too fractured, for a shared national identity to be at the forefront of how they see themselves.
Culturally, the hierarchical “family, village, tribe” ethos is too hard to break. We could have remained another 20 years, possibly even 100, and still not have been able to impact that identity. It is a shame because there are many really good people in Afghanistan. I feel especially heartbroken for the lives the women and girls will be forced back into. The one hope I have is that having had a taste of freedom, perhaps the seeds of liberty have been sown. Perhaps they will organize and push back against the Taliban. Time will tell.
Mr. Warner: What is America’s role in the world?
Mr. Thor: I believe America’s role is to be that shining city on a hill—a beacon for all to see; an example of what can be done when the individual is free, protected in the eyes of the law, and pursues his or her life via ordered liberty and a sense of civic virtue.
Mr. Warner: What will the international world lose from an isolationist United States of America?
Mr. Thor: When we are strong and united at home, we can be strong and united (with our allies) abroad. A robust, confident American presence on the global stage helps secure peace and prosperity internationally. When we are fractured at home and retreat within our borders, other actors (most certainly malign) will step in to fill that void. Nature (and global leadership) abhors a vacuum.
Mr. Warner: How do you maintain a balance between writing a story that is engaging to the reader, yet also grounded to realism?
Mr. Thor: I call what I do “faction,” where you don’t know where the facts end and the fiction begins. One of the greatest compliments I get paid is that many readers love to read my thrillers with their laptops nearby so they can look things up.
When I plot my novels, I want a big, real-life scenario to act as my backdrop. I award bonus points to the scenario if it’s something that isn’t getting enough media attention. In the case of “Black Ice,” it was China’s push into the Arctic and their enlistment of Russia to help get them a toehold.
Mr. Warner: How do you explain your ability to write stories that almost seem to be taken from tomorrow’s news?
Mr. Thor: I am a voracious consumer of news. I am always looking at stories and examining them from different angles. I like to ask myself, “What if it happened this way?” Or, “What if this happened instead?”
As a thriller writer, my job is to beat the headlines, so I am constantly trying to peer over the horizon.
Mr. Warner: What piece of advice helped you the most as a writer?
Mr. Thor: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club!” [from] Jack London.
Mr. Warner: What advice would you give a new writer seeking to improve their writing skill?
Mr. Thor: Read. Read. Read. You cannot be even a halfway decent writer without being a passionate reader.
Mr. Warner: Do you believe there is any Brad Thor in Scot Harvath?
Mr. Thor: Absolutely. In fact, I tell people he is my alter ego, much in the same way I’m sure James Bond was for Ian Fleming and Jack Ryan was for Tom Clancy.
Mr. Warner: Every entry in the Scot Harvath series has been a huge bestseller, how are you able to consistently able to imagine new plot points and flesh them out into a bestseller?
Mr. Thor: The key is in finding something happening in the real world that I am surprised to learn about. That becomes the rocket fuel that propels my writing. Again, I’m all about giving you the best white-knuckle thrill ride I am capable of. If you close one of my thrillers having had a fantastic adventure, I’ve done my job as an author. If you close it a little bit smarter about any number of fascinating things going on in the world, then I’ve done my job as an American.
Mr. Warner: A major theme of “Black Ice” was Scot Harvath’s possible life as a retired operative. What does this signal to readers who might take this as a sign that Harvath’s journey is coming to an end soon?
Mr. Thor: He can never give it up—that’s a big part of his struggle. He loves his career. It’s a calling and he deeply believes in it. There can be no American dream without those willing to protect it. It does get harder as he gets older, but that’s something we can all relate to.
Mr. Warner: What’s next for you?
Mr. Thor: Currently, I am writing next summer’s thriller. It will take readers to a part of the world I have never written about before. There is something fascinating, simmering just beneath the surface, on the other side of the globe. It was too good not to base a thriller on. I only hope I can get the book complete before the real-world events break wide open.