In his new post-apocalyptic thriller Crimson Phoenix (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), writer John Gilstrap is not only making a departure from the real world thrillers he’s known for, but — as he explains in the following email interview — he’s also making a departure from what we usually see in post-apocalyptic movies, books, TV shows, and games.
Photo Credit: Amy Cesal
To start, what is Crimson Phoenix about, and when and where is it set?
In Crimson Phoenix, a rapid-fire series of communication fumbles leads to World War III, which lasts all of eight hours. By the time it’s over, the Unites States is in ruins. Millions die, yet millions survive. With all the infrastructure gone, elected leaders are unable to communicate with people outside of the bunkers that protected official Washington. It falls to individual citizens to figure out a way to continue living.
It doesn’t take long for the weak to turn feral. In one corner of West Virginia, though, a single mom named Victoria Emerson turns out to be the leader that everyone’s been looking for. Here’s the thing, though: She doesn’t want to lead. In fact, she quit Congress that very day because the rules of the Annex — the bunker to which the House and Senate are evacuated to — would not allow her children to accompany her. All she wants is to protect her family from harm. But the community of desperate refugees instinctively look to her for leadership.
Crimson Phoenix is the first book in a new series. Inspired by books from my youth like Nevil Shute’s On The Beach and Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon, it’s fundamentally different than anything I’ve written before. And I find that very exciting.
Me too. So, where did you originally get the idea for this story, and how, if at all, did it change as you wrote it?
In 1994, The Washington Post published a story that revealed the presence of the U.S. Government Relocation Center hiding in plain sight in the Greenbriar Resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, shattering a secret that had been closely guarded since the days of the Eisenhower administration. Now, tours of the bunker are available to the public. A couple of years ago, my wife and I stayed there at the resort and took the tour.
That’s when I learned that members of Congress were allowed to bring only themselves and one staff member. Families were specifically excluded. Only once before in my career has a story materialized fully-formed in my head — and that one was Nathan’s Run, my first thriller, written 25 years ago. I imagined a new facility, set it in the present day, and I was off and running.
Is there a particular reason why you made the lead character, Victoria Emerson, a single mom as opposed to a single dad or a divorced mom or even a widowed mom who lost her husband in the nuclear war?
Victoria ran for Congress after her husband, a career military officer, was killed in the Middle East. Her platform called for the Unites States to either abandon the wars or double-down on them and fight to crush the enemy. I enjoy writing about strong women. In my Jonathan Grave series, the director of the FBI, Irene Rivers, is a tough-as-nails fireball of a woman whose code name is Wolverine. Venice Alexander is a world-class computer hacker who takes no guff from anyone. In this series, it just seemed right to build my primary protagonist from a similar mold.
What is the significance to her being a member of the House Of Representatives as opposed to a senator or a governor or some other federal, state, or local politician?
Victoria has no time for career politicians, and that’s what senators are — what they are designed to be, even in the original construct of the Constitution. As a member of The House Of Representatives, she sees herself as the voice of her community; not of her party or of her entire state, but of her local community. She went to Washington to help her neighbors, not to pad her resume for a future job as a lobbyist.
Crimson Phoenix sounds like it’s a post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller. Is that how you see it?
Now you’re getting into scary territory because I don’t know what the heck we should call it. Back in the day, I guess it would be “post-apocalyptic,” but I think that genre designation has been co-opted by zombies and musclemen with ridiculous superpowers. This is most definitely not that. And, frankly, there’s not a lot of science in it, either.
It is most definitely a thriller, first and foremost. That’s how it’s paced, and how the events play out. In my mind, this is a story of survival. Of rebuilding against impossible odds. Of making the kinds of choices that once seemed so wrong, but now seem self-evident.
Crimson Phoenix is not your first novel. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on this story but not on anything else you’ve written?
I was a child of the ’60s and ’70s — the son of a military officer. The early part of my career involved building weapons systems designed to keep the Soviet Union at bay. I mentioned earlier On The Beach and Alas, Babylon. And there were others, too, that painted a tableau of hopelessness that I never bought into. My mom used to say that if the Big One ever came, she wanted to die in the first blast, and I would get angry with her. I’ve always believed that life is about surviving everything and anything that gets thrown at you. As I answer this question, I begin to think that this is the book that I had to write.
For every evil and for every act of violence, there are at least equal elements of kindness. The difficulty is to decide when the kindest approach is to wreak violence on others.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or video games; did any of them have a big influence on Crimson Phoenix?
You’ve got to remember that for a long time, I had an insider’s view, first as an engineer involved in the design of weapons systems, and later as a part of the emergency response organizations tasked with dealing with the aftermath. Those experiences have affected pretty much every aspect of my life. Certainly, they have influenced all of my books.
Truth be told, I don’t watch a lot of post-apocalyptic TV shows or movies. I don’t like what they’ve become with all the monsters and superheroes. I much prefer the drama of a Fail Safe over anything with zombies.
You’ve kind of already answered this, but I’ll ask anyway: What do you think makes Crimson Phoenix different from things like The Walking Dead and the Terminator movies or such games as Fallout 4 and The Division?
No robots, no zombies. The monsters in Crimson Phoenix are all human, and they could be any one of us in heartbeat if we were pushed hard enough. I’ve always believed in that I call the Concentric Circle Theory — and it’s a central theme to the series. My wife and son define the center of my circle, as your family would define the center of yours. That is the unit that I will do anything to protect, even if that means killing or dying. The rings expand to include close relatives and close friends, and then expand even more to include colleagues and acquaintances. When the earth is on its axis and everyone is safe, we all get along fine.
Now, introduce mortal danger. Every ring but that center one becomes expendable.
Thus, in Crimson Phoenix, even as society rebuilds itself, it is always as fragile as one additional crisis. This is the dynamic Victoria must manage, even as she protects her own center circle.
As you said earlier, Crimson Phoenix is the first book in a series you are calling A Victoria Emerson Thriller. Is this series going to be ongoing or do you already have an idea of how many installments you plan to write?
I know for sure that there will be one more book, Blue Fire, because it’s under contract. I think the rest depends on how well the reading public embraces such a wide departure from the stories I normally tell. If allowed, I could see the series having very long legs.
Earlier I asked if Crimson Phoenix had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games. I know it’s early, but has there been any interest yet in adapting this novel, or this series, into a movie, show, or game?
No interest so far, but we are still early in the process. I’ve been in this game too long to even try to understand the intentions of Hollywood. If they make me an offer — irrespective of form — I will consider it and decide.
Finally, if someone enjoys Crimson Phoenix, they’ll probably go back and read either your Jonathan Grave series, which starts with No Mercy, or the Nick Of Time books, the first one of which is Time To Run. Which would you suggest they pick and why that one and not the other one?
As far as the Jonathan Grave series is concerned, I work hard to make sure that each new book works as a stand-alone novel. Truth be told, it’s not really a series in the sense of the Victoria Emerson series, where Blue Fire will pick up where Crimson Phoenix left off and develop the story further. The Grave books are really stand-alones that feature recurring characters.
At the same time, Nick of Time is really a single volume in print. My publisher initially released it parts as a serial eBook. Once all the parts had been released, they combined them all into a single story for the print version.
That said, I like to think that every book has its merits. I’m proud of all of them. I’m not sure it’s possible for me to choose one over the others.