Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Q&A with John Mangan

Lt. Col. (R) John Mangan is the author of the new novel Into a Dark Frontier. He is a U.S. Air Force Academy graduate and decorated combat rescue pilot who deployed to the Middle East eight times.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Into a Dark Frontier and the near-future setting?

A: My experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan gave me a chance to witness ancient societies as they transition through various stages of disintegration, rebirth and change.

And seeing those violent changes taking place, literally among the ruins of other long vanished societies, gave me a sense of the impermanence of what we build.

A few reviewers of my novel have said that the premise of Africa collapsing into a giant failed state is a bit farfetched. I say, no, it’s not, a societal collapse/reformation is happening right now all across the Middle East.

In fact, for my story, I simply took the events of the last 15 years, moved them down to Africa and then imagined how it would play out.

We are living through an amazing inflection point in history, where the borders, nations, alliances, currencies and power structures of the last 100 years are disintegrating before our eyes.

My novel is focused not so much on what the collapse would be like, but what would happen immediately after the collapse, as the world’s power players scramble to take advantage of the chaos and turn it to their advantage.

However, I don’t tell that story from a God’s-eye view, big-picture perspective, I tell it from ground level, with the limited vision of a single man caught up in the chaos and violence. I felt that this limited viewpoint would create a greater sense of suspense and mystery as to other characters motives and where the story was headed.

Another element which drove the creation of IADF was my fascination with the settling of the American continent and then the American West.

When new frontiers opened up, who were some of the first people to take the risk and move there? Religious folk, that’s who: Pilgrims, Puritans, Catholic missionaries, and Mormons.

And who came along with them? The desperately poor, the outcast, the desperados, the opportunists and ambitious fortune seekers. It was an amazing cast of characters thrown together with no referee, rules or time outs.

I had a brief chance to taste what the Wild West was like during my time overseas and it was intoxicating. Back here in a peaceful, prosperous society it is so easy to slip into a comfortable Soma coma.

I think perhaps this book is a way for me to taste that freedom again. Would I actually want to go to failed state Africa and settle there? No, I love my 5 Guys burgers too much.

Q: How did your experiences in the military affect your creation of your character Slade Crawford?

A: Slade Crawford is a Frankenstein character made up of several people that I know with a dash of myself thrown in at times. My brother is a decorated Navy SEAL, and through him and my time down-range I have had the chance to know uncommon men.

What is that George Orwell quote? “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” I’ve had a chance to meet those rough men and see them in action…Slade is one of them.

So when he’s busy steamrolling the opposition and face-stomping those who need it, that’s the rough men. But when he takes a breather, stares at his belly button and asks, “but what does it all mean…” that’s me poking through.

I think what separates Slade from other broad-shouldered heroes is that because I’ve actually known these guys, I’ve also had a chance to see their human side. Slade’s life is a disaster and he believes that he’s a failure. He’s also haunted by the realization that he’s not entirely comfortable with his own morality, which is a central theme of his character arc.

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make changes along the way?

A: About 2005-ish I started with the idea of a modern Wild West, some settlers, an outlaw gunman, a big horse and went from there. The first version of the book was like an Indiana Jones adventure; a rollicking good spirited adventure.

Nothing from that story remains because I had some life events that pushed me into a pretty dark place and the book went along with the tide.

When I finally finished it the book was 150,000 words but nobody wanted to publish it and rightly so. With the help of a good editor I eventually got it down to 85,000 and finally started getting some bites.

So yes, there were years of massive changes and rewrites. One of my favorite changes was when I finally added the character Elizabeth. Throwing a young, firebrand female into the mix immediately triggered sparks, drama, humor and compelling story lines. In retrospect, the best thing you can do for a story is create characters that clash.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: James Salter, Charles Frazier and Cormac McCarthy because of their ability to blur the line between prose and poetry.

Anthony Loyd for his searing self-examination and description of his war addiction. (My War Gone By, I Miss It So.)

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on the sequel for Into a Dark Frontier. One thing that I ‘m struggling with is whether I have the guts to move my narrator into Elizabeth’s head.

In the first book we only see her through Slade’s eyes, but the journey I’m planning for her in this next story would require us to hear her inner voice. Trying to get into the head of a 19-year-old girl that has been through hell is something I don’t think I’m qualified to do. I fear that I’ll really make a hash of it.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes, I just had a strange experience. I recently came across the work of a Bulgarian investigative reporter named Dilyana Gaytandzhieva.

I haven’t had a chance to vet her work but she claims to have documented how ISIS is able to equip and sustain itself even though it is completely surrounded by the most modern armies in the world. She says that Western operatives have been supplying them.

By 2011 I had stitched together my story wherein Western operatives use United Nations aid shipments to smuggle Bulgarian and Serbian weapons to a medieval blood cult that’s terrorized civilians for a larger geopolitical goal.

Dilyana Gaytandzhieva claims that right now Western operatives are using diplomatic flights to smuggle Bulgarian and Serbian weapons to a medieval blood cult that is terrorizing civilians for a larger geopolitical goal.

I almost nailed it.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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