By Sean Tuohy
Many writers haven tried to bring the halls of power to life. Few have actually worked within them. Best-selling author Ben Coes began his career a political speechwriter in Washington D.C. before focusing his attention on thrillers.
David Morrell, the creator of Rambo and Writer’s Bone podcast guest, called his first novel, Power Down, “a fresh, exciting thriller” with action scenes that were “big, vivid, and authentic.” Coes has now written four novels in total and shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.
Coes took a few minutes to sit down and talk about his career, his process, the importance of pacing, and why writing is like building a house.
Sean Tuohy: When did you decide to write a thriller?
Ben Coes: In 2007, on New Year’s Day, I woke up and looked at my wife, Shannon.
By way of background, I had been thinking of writing a thriller for several years. I love thrillers and thought I could use my background in finance, politics, and the energy industry as part of a book about terror coming to American soil. But as much as I thought about it, I never actually started writing. So on this particular morning, I told Shannon for the first time how I wanted to write a book.
“Then get up and start writing,” she said. And I did. That morning, I wrote what became the first chapter of my first book, Power Down.
ST: How long did it take you to complete your first novel?
BC: Oh, man, just answering this question brings back horrible memories. It took about two years, maybe a little more. The actual first draft took about six months. The editing process took much longer.
I’ve always known how to write, but the construction of a novel isn’t just about words. It’s about pace, plot, character development, tension, and a million other things. My first stab at Power Down was a well-written mess. So I sought out help in the form of an experienced editor, a veteran of the publishing industry who’d worked with a number of authors. Using an analogy he took from the worked of architecture, he politely explained to me that I’d built a house but placed the kitchen on the third floor, the garage in the basement, and that I was missing a roof. In other words, I had to learn how to build a real novel.
If I’m a successful author, it’s because I listen to advice and guidance. It’s a very important quality to have as a novelist. I learned that skill working as a White House-appointed speechwriter. My boss, Betty, was a tough critic, and thank God for that. A writer needs tough critics. Most people don’t like to have their work torn apart and criticized. But it’s absolutely essential if you want to be a novelist.
ST: Your characters feel so real, are they based on any real people you have met while working with the government?
BC: Well, first of all, thanks for saying that. The most important thing I’m trying to create in my books is authenticity. My characters are a mixture of people I know and people I imagine. I like to take qualities I like in some of my favorite people, or dislike in some of the people I don’t like, and embed them in the characters in my books. Sometimes, as in the case of Teddy Marks, from Power Down, the character is based entirely on someone real. The real life Teddy was my godfather. He was a Navy SEAL who fought in Vietnam. He was a very important part of my life until his death from cancer a couple years ago. Teddy helped me understand certain key operational aspects to covert war, and certain experiences he had are re-created in my books, including the final battle scene in Coup d’État, my second book.
The hardest challenge to making a character feel real is how you do it with characters that are not based on real people. Dewey Andreas, my hero, is a good example. He’s made up, and yet for my readers, and for me, he feels real. Why? I think it’s because I endeavor to show him in his raw light, with his flaws and his strengths, and to show those little moments that we all have, the unglamorous moments. At the end of The Last Refuge, Dewey plays a game of quarters with a buddy. It’s one of my favorite scenes.
ST: Your thrillers stand apart from the rest because they are ground very much in the real world. Do you believe this enhances the experience for the reader?
BC: Thanks for saying that. I believe very strongly that the best thrillers use current events as a foundational element to the plot. I want current dangers and threats to play an actual role in my books versus simply using current events as ornamentation or backdrop. The reason I do this is because, for the reader, hopefully the feeling they get is that what they’re reading could in fact happen.
Power Down is about terrorists attacking a U.S. energy company. Coup d’État is about India and Pakistan and their ongoing conflict, a conflict which is especially perilous today due to the fact that both countries possess nuclear weapons, and one of the countries, Pakistan, is 98 percent Muslim and filled with jihadists. The Last Refuge is about Iran and Israel, and Iran’s ongoing surreptitious work to develop a nuclear bomb. Eye for an Eye, my fourth book, involves China’s ongoing technological war against America, a war which U.S. policy makers are only beginning to do something about. My next book, Independence Day, is about nuclear weapons that were formerly in the possession of the Soviet Union; it features an attack on the U.S. that one source of mine, a former high-ranking Pentagon official, told me was the number one terror threat facing America.
ST: What affect did your background have on your writing?
BC: My background is important in two ways. First, I worked at the White House and on several political campaigns. I think I understand that world where politics and national security intersect.
More important than the experiences I’ve had, however, was the training I had as a speechwriter. That’s when I learned how to have my work edited; to welcome feedback no matter how harsh.
ST: What is your writing process? Do you outline?
BC: I wake up very early – usually around 5:00 a.m. – and start writing. I am almost never psyched to start but I do it anyway because, if you are a writer, you write. No matter what you feel like, you write. Writing for me is a blue-collar job, like laying bricks or hammering nails. Writers write, not because they feel like it, because oftentimes you don’t. Writers write because they have to.
I don’t outline because I think it robs a thriller of the spontaneity a thriller needs. My best scenes invariably are the result of in-the-moment ideas I have while writing a scene; unplanned and therefore unpredictable, the way actual ops unfold.
ST: What advice do you give to new writers?
BC: If you want to be a writer, you must write. Writers write. If you don’t write, you’re not a writer.
To write every day, there are steps you can take to help make it easier. Establish a routine. I like early in the day because you get it out of the way, and also because I don’t like writing at night, though I often do write at night. Set an operational goal for your writing—either word count or page count. I need to write five pages a day. That’s my minimum. Sometimes I can do that in an hour, sometimes it takes 18 hours. But if I don’t produce those five pages, I feel like I’ve failed that day.
Keep writing until you have a completed book. Don’t give up. When you do finish, then it’s time to get help. Be patient. Find the right people to help you. Don’t just start firing off a completed manuscript until you know it’s good. The process of finding an agent and ultimately a publisher is the last mile of a 26.2 mile marathon. You want to go into that final mile with your best possible work.
ST: Can you please give us one random fact about yourself?
BC: I go through about a bottle of Sriracha a week.