By Alan Orloff
I had the opportunity to interview Brendan Rielly, first-time author of the fast-paced international thriller, An Unbeaten Man. Brendan is a busy, busy man (just check out his bio below!), but he found a few moments to answer some questions. Thanks for playing along, Brendan!
First, a quick summary of the book, An Unbeaten Man:
Abandoned by his father, orphaned by his drug-addled mother, and devastated by the murder of his sister, Michael McKeon was once a hardened “street dog who learned to play in traffic.” Years later, Michael is now a Bowdoin College professor with a wife and adopted daughter. When he creates a microbe that instantly cleans up any oil spill, no matter how large, by devouring the oil, that discovery should be the breakthrough that defines a career. But the microbiologist’s life is ruined when The Global Group kidnaps his wife and daughter, forcing him to use his microbe to destroy all Saudi and Russian oil.
Still haunted by the deaths in his family when he was young, Michael will do anything to save his wife and daughter, even if it means undermining the efforts of the United States, Russia, and Saudi Arabia to implement a Middle East Marshall Plan, unleashing global chaos.
The best-seller lists are festooned with ex-lawyers who have become top-flight thriller writers (John Grisham, Scott Turow, Linda Fairstein, and Allison Leotta, to name a few), but they mostly write legal thrillers. What led you to tackle a technothriller/international spy novel? Secret James Bond aspirations? How has your training in the law factored into your writing?
I’ve been a trial attorney for 19 years and am the chair of our litigation department, but I never wanted to write a legal thriller. I know the old adage is to write what you know, but, for me, part of the appeal of reading and writing thrillers is to learn new things. That and I’ve always wanted to be James Bond, particularly when I’m sitting through a long deposition.
My legal training has helped shape my writing, though. Standing in front of a judge or a jury, I usually don’t get to tell the story of the case myself. I have to tell a compelling story using other people and other evidence, so my job is to develop that compelling narrative, using the facts and witnesses that I have. In fiction writing, I get to create my own facts and characters. Some people might say that’s what lawyers do anyway (!), but I’ll leave that alone. But, in fiction writing, even though it’s made up, it still has to be realistic, move from A to B, and make sense, all while being compelling.
I’ve experimented with other writing. I wrote some children’s books when my kids were younger and a tongue-in-cheek guide to parenting, but I’ve always loved reading thrillers and decided that I should write what I love to read. In An Unbeaten Man, Bowdoin College microbiologist Michael McKeon discovers a microbe that can clean up any oil spill no matter how big. That should be the breakthrough that defines a career, but bad guys figure out a way to weaponize it and force Michael to deploy the microbe against Saudi Arabia and Russia, to destroy their oil reserves, cripple their countries, and throw the world into chaos. I got the idea for the microbe while reading Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat and Crowded. While he discusses the geopolitics of oil and how Russia and Saudi Arabia rattle their sabers when oil prices are high, it jumped into my head: what if someone took away their oil? Terrorists have attacked their oil facilities, but those can be rebuilt. What if someone actually destroyed their oil?
That was a natural fit for me. I’m not a scientist, but I’ve always loved international relations. I studied it in college along with Russian.
An Unbeaten Man takes the reader on a trip to a number of exotic locales, including the Russian oil fields, backstreets of Moscow, and a lab in the Middle East. Did you visit any of these spots in person? If not, how did you conduct the necessary research to make your descriptions so vivid?
The place definitely makes the person. Another thing I’ve always loved about thrillers is when they take me to places I haven’t been. Having exotic locales as an integral part of the plot and the character development was important to me. I have been to many, but not all, of the places in An Unbeaten Man. I’ve been to Moscow and other parts of Russia. I also relied upon a good friend who worked in Russia for years. I haven’t been to Saudi Arabia, Sakhalin Island, or the United Arab Emirates. For those, I did extensive research. I scoured the internet and read articles and blogs. I watched videos—even short videos that people post on travel sites—just to see how long it takes to walk from one point to another or how traffic flows, so if a character is running for her life under gunfire across a busy street, this is how it might look. Between all the research I did on the Middle East and the research I did into the science (how the microbe might actually destroy oil), I’m sure I’m on several watch lists at this point.
There are other, less exotic, settings in An Unbeaten Man that I’m intimately familiar with. I went to Bowdoin College, where Michael works, and my son goes there now. Michael grew up in Westbrook, which is my hometown. Michael had an extremely rough childhood (unlike me—I had a wonderful family) and ended up at the Mission Possible Teen Center, which is a real place in Westbrook, helping at-risk teens. I served on the board for the MPTC (now called the My Place Teen Center) and recently had the honor of talking with the director and the kids at MPTC about the role that place played in Michael McKeon’s life. The kids were very interested in that and in how someone from Westbrook would actually write a book, which was very moving for me.
I’m working on the second book in the Michael McKeon series, which will have more exotic settings. Barcelona, Bratislava, Normandy, and Iran are all key settings. I’ve been to Barcelona and Normandy. A friend of mine worked in Bratislava for years, and, for Iran, I’ll rely on information from others and extensive research.
An Unbeaten Man is a fast-paced roller coaster ride, full of conspiracies and intrigue. Who were some of your favorite writers as an impressionable youth? Did they also write in this genre (i.e., were you weaned on this type of book?)? Who are some of your more contemporary favorites?
Thank you! I just received my favorite review so far when an old high school friend said she was staying in on New Year’s Eve because she couldn’t put the book down!
It’s probably cliché, but the Hardy Boys and James Bond books warped me enough as a young boy to make it inevitable that I’d do this someday. During high school, I read Robert Ludlum’s Bourne trilogy and that sealed the deal. Now, my favorites include Daniel Silva, Gayle Lynds, Steve Berry, James Rollins, Lee Child, Douglas Preston, and many others. I love the underdog hero. I recently blogged about this for ITW. There is something about the hero who must overcome her or his own limitations as well as external threats and challenges, that is so compelling and relatable. I may never be James Bond, but we all know what it’s like to face and overcome fear or do something we never thought we could do because it had to be done to help someone else.
All cool superheroes have origin stories (you know, significant childhood events, like a bite from a radioactive spider, a planet exploding, or the traumatic death of a mystical mentor). Was there a significant event/inciting incident/epiphany that turned you from writer into SUPERwriter?
I never knew my parents. I was left in the care of a gruff aunt and uncle on a desert planet with two suns and nothing to do besides moisture farming. But I always knew that, one day, I would blast off that planet, have a strange and confusing relationship with someone who turned out to be my sister, almost be killed by my father, and restore balance to the Force.
Or become a writer, one or the other.
I had a wonderful family growing up who failed miserably at turning me into a tortured writer, but I’ve always loved reading and writing. Growing up, I would write stories that were usually rip-offs of the Hardy Boys or Star Wars or E.T. I stopped for a long time, though, and didn’t rediscover writing until I was in law school. I took an advanced fiction writing class with some undergraduates. While they were writing operettas, channeling Kerouac, and raging against the night, I wrote about my newborn son’s clown mobile, leading to probably the most awkward critique ever:
“I like your use of clowns to comment on the absurdity of the patriarchal society.”
“No, they’re his clowns and he likes looking at them, but some day he’s going to grow up and not want them and I’ll have to pack them away and he’ll move away, and…I really can’t talk about this right now.”
I wrote a novel during law school, which was horrible and which I’ve never shared with anyone, but it was an exercise of simply getting from start to finish. It sits in a box of shame in my basement. I wrote a number of different things over the years (children’s books, a YA fantasy that was like a science-based Harry Potter, and a tongue-in-cheek guide to parenting), many of which I like and would like to get published, but, at the time, I was writing more for myself and my kids. With my YA fantasy, I would read each chapter to them as I wrote. A group of their friends also read and loved the book, which was fun. Then I decided that I should write what I love to read: a thriller.
After I wrote An Unbeaten Man, though, I didn’t immediately try to get published, because my son was working on his book. I shelved my book and helped him. In a bit of good karma, once my son’s book was published, he and I were at the BookExpo in NYC. Several publishers were joking with Morgan and me about how my son and father were both published and I was a slacker. It was Morgan’s event and I wasn’t going to jump in to promote myself, but Morgan was a good agent. He said, “Hey, my dad has a book,” and that’s how I got published. So now I have to do the process in reverse and find an agent.
So, no radioactive spider, just a love of reading and writing and some good karma. And my father has never tried to kill me.
If you asked ten writers about their process, I think you’d get fifteen different answers. How do you write? Outliner or pantser? Morning or night? Music or quietude? Clothes or au naturel?
I require my wife and our three children (ages 20, 18, and 15) to gather around me, fanning me and chanting how much they love me.
I write whenever, wherever I can. I wish I could set aside four hours each morning or every night and retreat to my Fortress of Solitude (while I’m wishing, I’d like a Fortress of Solitude), but that’s not possible with my schedule. We have three very busy kids. I have a very busy law practice. I’m also the president of the Westbrook City Council and we’re involved in all kinds of community activities and organizations. There is no one set time I can write, so I’m always carrying it with me in my head. I’ll write notes to myself or send myself an email with ideas and then, when I can grab some time, it comes pouring out.
The fanning and chanting thing wouldn’t be bad, though.
Who is your first reader? At what stage do you turn over your manuscript for this first read?
My absolute first readers are still my parents. They’re both teachers. My father is an English professor and author himself. I also have a small group of early readers who have no problem sharing opinions and telling me what works or what doesn’t. If I get stuck with a plot, I might talk a section of the book through with others, but I typically don’t turn my manuscript over until the first or second (or third) draft is finished.
Writing books seems to be in your family’s genes. A child-rearing secret? Something in the water? Explain!
Electrodes. Couple good shocks and everyone starts writing fast and furious!
Thank you for pointing that out because I’m very proud to be the middle of three generations of Maine authors. Although, as the last to be published, I’m the slacker. We have a website for the three of us: www.riellybooks.com.
We’ve grown up around books for generations. My father, Ed Rielly, lived on a remote farm in southern Wisconsin and remembers being thrilled to receive his Book of the Month delivery. He grew up, got his doctorate, and has been an English professor for decades. He’s written more than 20 books, mostly poetry and haiku, educational books, and biographies (like F. Scott Fitzgerald or Geronimo). He’s literally written the book on baseball and football (encyclopedias on both). More recently, he wrote his own memoir of growing up on the farm and wrote two children’s books.
My son, Morgan Rielly, was published as a high school senior. In eighth grade, he read an African proverb that when an old man dies, a library burns to the ground. That resonated with him and he decided to save the stories of Maine WWII veterans. He spent the next four years finding and interviewing Maine WWII veterans and then turned their stories into a book: Neighborhood Heroes: Life Lessons Learned from Maine’s Greatest Generation. He’s now a sophomore at college and is working on a second book, sharing the stories of teenage immigrants to Maine.
Our two girls have also written stories that they haven’t felt ready to try to get published. Like my dad, my sister has written a lot of poetry. And then there’s me. The slacker who can’t write poetry to save his life. I’m working on the second book in the Michael McKeon series and I want to try to get my tongue-in-cheek guide to parenting (How to Raise the Perfect Child, Or At Least Lie About It) published.
Brendan Rielly was born in 1970 in South Bend, Indiana, and subsequently moved to Maine, where he graduated from Bowdoin College (with a major in government and legal studies and a minor in Russian). He went on to graduate from Notre Dame Law School and is now chair of the litigation department at Jensen Baird in Portland, Maine. While at Bowdoin, he wrote for The Times Record, the American Journal, and The Bowdoin Orient. At Notre Dame, he studied advanced fiction writing and never looked back. He belongs to the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance and International Thriller Writers. An Unbeaten Man is the first novel in the Michael McKeon series.
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Alan Orloff’s debut mystery, Diamonds for the Dead, was an Agatha Award finalist and his most recent novel, Running from the Past, was a winner in Amazon’s Kindle Scout program. His short fiction has appeared or will appear in Needle, Shotgun Honey, Jewish Nour, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning. Alan lives in Northern Virginia and teaches fiction-writing at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda.
To order copies of any of Alan Orloff’s novels, click on the covers below.