Exclusive Interview: Hellfire Author John Gilstrap


With a hero who’s a freelance hostage rescue specialist, written by someone who worked for an explosives and rocket motor manufacturer, John Gilstrap’s Jonathan Grave novels should always be described by some guy with a distinct deep voice who says, “In a world…” In the following email interview, Gilstrap discusses Mr. Graves latest assignment, Hellfire (paperback, Kindle, audiobook).

John Gilstrap Hellfire Jonathan Grave

Photo Credit: Amy Cesal


For people who haven’t read any of the Jonathan Grave novels, who is he, what does he do, where does he work…?

Jonathan Grave is a freelance hostage rescue specialist. Having served nearly two decades as a member of the U.S. Army’s elite Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, commonly known as Delta Force, or the Unit, Jonathan and his team of civilian operators focus exclusively on the task of rescuing victims, unfettered by rules of evidence or the need for warrants. They’re good enough at what they do that the FBI often reaches out to Jonathan and his team to perform the kind of tasks that governments cannot sanction, but nonetheless need to be performed.

Jonathan lives and works out of a converted firehouse in Fisherman’s Cove, a fictional town located along the Potomac River in Virginia’s Northern Neck. The son of a career criminal who left him with extraordinary wealth, Jonathan sold the Fisherman’s Cove mansion he grew up in to St. Katherine’s Catholic Church (St. Kate’s) for $1.00, on the condition that the house and the land be forever used as Resurrection House, a residential school for the children of incarcerated parents, funded by a foundation that Jonathan created.

And then for people who are well aware of Mr. Grave’s credentials, what is Hellfire about and how does it connect, narratively and chronologically, to the previous book, Total Mayhem?

In the opening moments of Hellfire, the car bringing Ryder and Geoff Kendall from a foster home to Resurrection House is attacked on the road. Father Tim, the assistant pastor of St. Kate’s, is killed in the assault, as is a social worker recently hired by Resurrection House. Jonathan takes the attack personally — these kids were entrusted to his care. As the story develops, and we discover why the kids were taken, the stakes grow impossibly high not just for Jonathan and his team, but also for thousands of potential victims.

I take care to write the Grave series in a way that each book can stand on its own. That said, Hellfire takes place shortly after the events of Total Mayhem.

Like the other Jonathan Grave novels, Hellfire is a thriller. But are there any other genres that either describe this story better or are at work in it as well?

This is a tricky question for me. Back when the world was normal, and crowds could sit together, I taught a number of writing seminars, and the question of genre routinely came up. After 25 years, 21 books, over 2 million words in print, I confess that the concept of genre still confuses me. To me, every thriller has some elements of mystery, and many have elements of romance. I honestly don’t think about any of that when I’m writing. I concentrate on writing a compelling story about interesting characters doing exciting things in interesting ways. I leave it to the marketing mavens to determine the genre.

Are there any writers, or maybe specific stories, that had a big influence on Hellfire but not on any of the previous Jonathan Grave novels? Or, for that matter, anything else you’ve written?

Back in 2006, I wrote a nonfiction book called Six Minutes To Freedom, which tells the true story of the capture and torture of Kurt Muse at the hands of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega — and of his ultimate rescue by Delta Force. At the time, I was told that Six Minutes was the first book for which Unit operators were permitted to cooperate. I learned a great deal about U.S. Special Forces operations, and I met a number of great people who introduced me to more great people.

Most of the stories that influence the Grave series are unwritten, passed along by people who trust me enough to talk to me.

What about movies, TV shows, and other non-literary influences; did any of those have a big influence on Hellfire?

Back before I wrote for a living, I was a safety engineer for a company that manufactured explosives and rocket motors. We had development programs for some exotic materials which may or may not still be classified. Over the years, I’ve spent more hours than I care to count wrapped in Level A protective gear, breathing air from a tank. Those years most definitely inform some of the events in Hellfire.

We’ve talked a bit about how Hellfire is the latest in your series of Jonathan Grave novels. I get the sense that these books aren’t a saga like a trilogy but are instead an ongoing series of connected but still stand-alone novels. Is that correct?

You nailed it exactly. The core team moves from book to book, but the stories are mostly self-contained, with some rewards for those who read the books in order. Book time and real time are entirely different entities in my mind.

Given that, do you think people need to read any or all of the previous books to follow what’s happening in Hellfire?

Absolutely not. Hellfire is a stand-alone.

But if they have read them all, and in order, what do you think they’ll get out of Hellfire that they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise?

Interesting question. There’s only one thing that comes to mind. Readers for whom Hellfire is their first venture into Jonathan’s world will know why Venice Alexander, the team’s technical genius, is in mourning, but those who’ve been along for the whole ride may hurt a little more on her behalf.

You’ve published a Jonathan Grave novel every year since 2009. Does that mean you’re hard at work at one for 2021?

I am indeed! Stealth Attack will hit the stands next July. (And I’m woefully behind the power curve in writing it!)

Now, in 2013, along with that year’s novel, High Treason, you also published the prequel novella Soft Targets, while your website has a Johnathan Grave prequel short story people can read for free called “Discipline.” Are there any plans to write more of these prequel stories?

Jonathan and his team and his backstory are all very real in my head, and they’re all very interesting — at least to me. I would love to produce more stories on the background of what makes him the man he is — both the good parts and the bad. I’ve dropped hints in a number of the books, but I’ve never really delved into them. We know, for example, that when he was a little boy, the firefighters at Station 14 adopted him as a mascot of sorts, teaching him how to play poker and allowing him to polish equipment, but I’ve never had the chance to reveal why those times were so important to him. We know that his mother died when he was young, but I’ve never had the chance to reveal how, why or of what. I don’t think any of those story lines could sustain a whole book, but I’d love to put them out as short stories or novellas.

I’m just really busy. Okay, and maybe a little lazy.

It also says on your website that you previously sold the movie rights to your first two published novels, Nathan’s Run and At All Costs. Has there been any interest in turning the Jonathan Grave novels into a movie? Or maybe a TV show?

There has been exactly zero interest shown in producing the Grave series or any of its books as a movie or television show, and I confess I’m a little surprised. The dream along those lines would be a Netflix-type long form series, one book per season.

If that did happen, who would you want them to cast as Mr. Grave and the other main characters?

I get this question a lot, and it’s one that I cannot answer honestly. Jonathan, Boxers, Venice, and Father Dom are all real people in my life. So is Gail Bonneville. As I write them, I see real faces, so I’m the last person who should have a vote on casting.

John Gilstrap Hellfire Jonathan Grave

Finally, if someone enjoys Hellfire, they’ll probably go back and read the rest of the Jonathan Grave novels, if they haven’t already. But once they have, which of your other novels would you suggest they read and why that one?

After 25 years in print, my first novel, Nathan’s Run, still brings in a lot of fan mail. The story centers on 12-year-old Nathan Bailey, who is all alone against impossible odds for survival. The book is dear to my heart for a number of reasons — not the least of which that it launched my career. Something about the characters resonates with readers. Tough men have confessed to me that they couldn’t hold back tears as they read it. I consider that a rave review.



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