'One Minute Out'

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The Gray Man has starred in nine novels by Mark Greaney

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

It took New York Times best-selling novelist Mark Greaney three tries to get published. He got it right on the fourth try with his first published novel called “The Gray Man.”

“I was a voracious reader as a kid, then I became voracious reader of spy thrillers. After years of doing that, I had a little kernel of an idea for a book and I spent 15 years trying to write it. I finally finished it. I never showed it to anybody,” recalled Greaney, a lifelong Memphis resident and alumnus of the University of Memphis where he double-majored in political science and international relations.

This book was called “Brotherhood of Vengeance.” It was followed by a second unpublished book called “The Last Enclave.” The third book was called “The Goon Squad.” Although never published, “The Goon Squad” introduced Court Gentry, better known as the Gray Man, who has starred in nine novels, including the latest called “One Minute Out.”

Greaney explained how he created the Gray Man.

“I was in a bar in El Salvador one night (circa 2006). I saw an American there who looked very different from all the other Americans I saw in Central America. Being bored sitting by myself, I created a backstory for him where he was a former CIA operative living off the grid in the Third World because the CIA’s out to kill him. By the end of the night, I was like, ‘I’m gonna write a book about this.’ That’s when it all started.”

He also explained how the character got his name.

“It’s a common term you hear in intelligence and military circles. It just denotes someone who’s able to move in and out of a situation without drawing attention to himself,” said Greaney. “It’s also a double entendre because my stories are never just simple good vs. evil stories; there’s always shades of gray in the villains and in the hero.”

Greaney gave an excerpt of “The Goon Squad” to the agent of his favorite author, Ralph Peters. While the agent told Greaney he couldn’t publish “The Goon Squad,” he believed the Gray Man had a lot of potential. So Greaney wrote the titular book in 2009, the first in a series of spy thrillers.

To date, he’s penned a total of 19 books, including three with the late Tom Clancy, the international best-selling author of “The Hunt for Red October,” which introduced Jack Ryan.

In “One Minute Out,” Gentry uncovers a human trafficking operation while on another mission. He’s determined to shut it down, but the CIA won’t green light this operation because the leader of the human trafficking ring has intel about an upcoming terrorist attack on the United States. The CIA won’t budge until they have that intel, leaving Gentry stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

“I had an idea about the Gray Man in Bosnia hunting a Serbian war criminal. I knew that wasn’t enough for a book – it was just a great opening for a book,” explained Greaney. “I just decided to have him discover something else in the process of that very simple – or contained – mission that leads him all the way around the world. Human trafficking is the third largest criminal enterprise on Planet Earth, so that definitely fits the bill.”

He continued: “There’s this moral quandary because the (CIA) doesn’t want to help him because they’re getting some intelligence from this trafficking ring that they don’t want to give up. The hero is very laser-focused on rescuing some people he came in contact with, so he has to go against his masters’ wishes to achieve his ends.”

When the series debuted 11 years ago, “The Gray Man” was published as a mass-market paperback original. When 2016’s “Back Blast” was released, it was the first hardcover book in the series. Since then, each book in the series has seen double-digit sales increases over the last one. SONY’s even optioned the rights to the character (although it’s still in development).

However, despite his success, Greaney’s greatest fear is “phoning it in.”

“I had a talk with myself when they turned this into a series that I was never gonna write the same book twice… would never phone it in,” he said. “Each book, it becomes harder and harder to come up with new ideas. The thing that keeps me going is the character himself. There’s been a development arc of (Gentry) throughout the series that’s very interesting to me – the psychology of him, what he learns about the world, and his take on things. It’s always fun to be inside his head, and I hope I can continue writing him.”

According to Greaney, what makes Gentry stand out from other heroes in spy fiction is that he’s equal measures of strength and vulnerability. 

“People identify with the fact that he doesn’t always get it right… doesn’t always know what to do,” he said. “He doesn’t always do what the reader wants him to do, but he has this moral compass and these vulnerabilities that intrigue people who want to see what direction he’s gonna go in.”

Although it’s part of a series, each book stands alone, something Greaney cannot reiterate enough.

“It would be the height of conceit for me to demand readers read nine books to understand what’s going on in the ninth book. As a long-time reader myself, I’ve come across books where I didn’t understand everything that was happening, so I make everything clear at the beginning what’s going on,” he said.

Greaney also spoke about collaborating with Clancy. Both authors had an editor in common named Tom Colgan, which led to Greaney co-writing three Ryan books with Clancy up until his death in 2013. Afterward, he wrote four more.

While Greaney was honored to work with Clancy and to continue chronicling Ryan’s adventures after the author died, he was also terrified.

“I remember exactly how I felt: I was very intimidated and felt in over my head when I was co-authoring with Tom at the beginning. After he passed away, I just had such an intimate knowledge and appreciation of Tom’s work and his characters. I remember when they announced they’d do more books (after Clancy died), I was thinking, ‘They better come to me.’ I would’ve been so disappointed if they didn’t come to me and ask me to continue. I felt I was the right man for the job but it was very, very daunting at that time,” he recalled.

Greaney had to be talked into writing his seventh entry, “Tom Clancy: True Faith and Allegiance.”

“It was, honestly, I felt I told all the stories I could tell at that point. I did seven (books) in six years. That’s a very tough schedule – they’re big books. I didn’t have fresh ideas. I was gonna step away, but they talked me into doing the seventh book and I’m really glad they did – it was probably one of the best ones I did,” he said. “I felt like there were no more gas in the tank for new stories. I knew somewhere down the road that I’d have new ideas for Clancy books, but I also knew if I stepped away from the franchise, someone else would jump in and that train would leave the station.”

Greaney compared and contrasted Jack Ryan and the Gray Man.

“Jack Ryan is a little bit more untarnished; he’s an all-American boy. He’s as gritty as Tom Clancy made him, but I think the Gray Man is a much grittier character. He’s a killer, he’s an assassin, whereas Jack Ryan is an intelligence analyst who gets into physical situations. They’re two different men with two different philosophies on life.”

Greaney still fantasizes about doing another Clancy book.

“They’d have to me ask to. Schedule-wise, I have so many irons in the fire that it wouldn’t be any time soon. But someday, I’d love to do it,” he said. “It’s been three years since I worked on the Clancy series and I look back on it like, ‘Did that really happen?’ It was an amazing experience. It was a great honor.”




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