Clearly a believer that you should, “write what you know,” foreign correspondent and Pentagon press corps member Al Pessin is once again using his years of journalistic experience for fiction with Blowback (paperback, Kindle, audiobook), the second book in his Task Force Epsilon series. In the following email interview, Pessin discusses what inspired and influenced this military spy thriller, how it connects to the previous novel, Sandblast, and his plans for future installments.
Photo Credit: Lucy Blase, ForeverStudios
I’d like to begin with some background. What is the Task Force Epsilon series about, and when and where does it take place?
Task Force Epsilon is the Pentagon’s top covert counterterrorism unit, led by West Point grad and combat zone veteran Bridget Davenport. Her top agent is Faraz Abdallah, an Afghan-American U.S. Army lieutenant, whose first mission [told in the novel Sandblast] takes him to his parents’ homeland, where he infiltrates the Taliban in search of the new global terrorist mastermind.
The series takes place in the early 2010s, with scenes in Washington following Bridget as she works to keep the missions on track, and in the field, where we go inside terrorist training camps and attack scenarios with Faraz.
And then what is Blowback about, and how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to the first book, Sandblast?
Blowback starts immediately after Sandblast ended. In the War On Terrorism, no victory is absolute. The terrorists seem to always find a way to strike back, and this time they do so in a big way. The president needs Bridget and Faraz again, even though Bridget is injured in the new attack and Faraz is in no shape to go back out into the field. Still using his ethnicity, Faraz takes on a different identity to join the jihad in Syria and stop the next big attack.
When in the process of writing Sandblast did you come up with the idea for Blowback, and how, if at all, did that idea change as you wrote this second book?
I always planned for Sandblast to be the first in a series. As I wrote it, I realized I had set up the foundation for Blowback by making the chief villain, al-Souri, a Syrian. No spoilers, but you can see where this is going. The fact that al-Souri already knows Faraz when Blowback begins adds extra levels of danger and tension to the mission. Faraz needs to find him, but al-Souri is likely to shoot him on sight, creating a life-and-death confrontation for Faraz to navigate.
Sandblast was a military spy thriller. Is Blowback one as well?
Yes, the entire series falls into that genre. But it’s also a tribute to our troops and civilians who endure so much to protect us. And the series provides a window into the psyches of our enemies, who, as twisted and violent as they are, also have beliefs, motivations, and emotions that in some ways parallel our own — through the looking glass, if you will. This theme is prevalent in Sandblast and Blowback, and really comes to the fore in the third book, Shock Wave [which will be out in 2022].
What do you consider to be the big influences on Blowback? And I mean Blowback specifically, not Sandblast as well or your style as a whole.
I’m a big consumer of TV series and movies, as well as books, but I wouldn’t say any one or two had particular influence on the series. The biggest influences were the people I met and the experiences I had when I covered the White House and the Middle East in the 1990s, and the Pentagon and war zones in the 2000s. Later, I spent more time in the Middle East in the 2010s, during and after the Arab Spring. In life, everyone has a story. One of the great things about being a journalist is that it was my job to listen to people’s stories and then tell them to the world, in the context of the broader story of which they were a part. While some individuals still stand out in my memory, on many sides of many conflicts, it was the totality of the experience that led to the characters in Sandblast, Blowback, and Shock Wave. My hope is that I was able to make my characters fully three dimensional and imperfect, on both sides, and that I was able to make their victories and defeats as complex as they are in real life.
As you mentioned, you were both a foreign correspondent and a member of the Pentagon press corps before you started writing fiction. How did you decide how realistic to get in Blowback? Obviously, you don’t want the FBI coming to your house to arrest you for spilling secrets…
The question of how realistic to be is faced by most fiction writers. Even fantasy, horror and sci-fi writers have to decide, for example, whether there are basic elements in their worlds that we take for granted, like gravity, oxygen, humans, etc. For me, it means not setting up false choices or indestructible heroes or irredeemably evil villains. As a writer, I strive to create edgy scenarios and unlikely plot twists without making them ridiculous and unbelievable. Smaller elements are also a challenge — issues like what weapons various forces use, how serious wounds would be, and even the geography of the various locations in the books. In a book that takes place in the real world, you can stretch the truth, but best not to break it.
Though I did sometimes worry that the FBI might come to my house based on my internet searches: bomb making, city maps, militant Islamic doctrine, etc.
Do you think, because of your background as a news writer, that you either couldn’t write something unrealistic or fantastic, or that you could but it wouldn’t be very good? Like, do you think your background in news precludes you from writing a science fiction story or a fantasy novel?
I don’t think my background as a journalist prevents me from writing something totally unrealistic. In fact, I wrote an award-winning play, Murder At The Butcher’s, that is completely off the wall: a farce about a fake murder, an unnecessary coverup, dual identities, star-crossed lovers and a bumbling detective who sorts it out in spite of himself. It’s completely unrealistic.
But I take your point. The closer a story is to reality, in my view as a writer and consumer, the more it has to be grounded in the real world. That’s why I prefer realistic characters, plots, and locations. At the same time, I’d love to have a great sci-fi or fantasy idea hit me. What fun!
In the previous interview we did about Sandblast [which you can read by clicking here], you said there would ultimately be three books in your Task Force Epsilon series, but that they did not form a trilogy. Is this still the plan?
I didn’t use the word “trilogy” because we were not, and still are not, sure how many books there will be. The plan was always to link the first three books through Task Force Epsilon, Faraz, Bridget and other characters. Their stories, and the story of the terror network, travel arcs that are complete within each book but also build to some twists and resolutions in the third book. Still, as I mentioned, victories are never absolute in the War On Terror. As of now, we haven’t decided whether there will be additional Task Force Epsilon books, but I certainly have more stories to tell, whether in this series or something different.
Finally, if someone enjoys Sandblast and Blowback, what book about the current political situation would you recommend they check out?
I’m reading a non-fiction book called Tightrope: Americans Reaching For Hope by Nicholas D. Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn, the Pulitzer Prize winning husband-and-wife team. Full disclosure: I knew Nick and Sheryl when we all covered China in the late 1980s. Their new book explores how the 21st century American underclass was created through a series of government and individual choices over several decades that had a devastating impact on millions of people. It is in part the story of the roots of America’s political, economic and social divide. The book does what I said I like fiction to do — it transforms the “other” from stick figure to fully three-dimensional human, making it possible to understand even if still not agreeing with their views, and to feel empathy even if still not condoning their actions.