One of the questions I ask every writer is whether their new novel was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games. But in the following email interview with journalist turned author Al Pessin about his international military spy thriller Sandblast (paperback, Kindle), he becomes the first interviewee to say while his book does have some non-literary influences, they actually influenced him to not do something.
To begin, what is Sandblast about?
Sandblast is the story of an American soldier of Afghan descent, Faraz Abdallah, who is sent into Afghanistan under cover. His assignment is to join the Taliban and find the new global terrorism mastermind. Faraz’s boss at the Pentagon is Bridget Davenport, a West Point grad with two combat zone tours who left the army to get her Ph.D. and now runs Central Asia Operations at the Defense Intelligence Agency. When Faraz is forced to become a terrorist, Bridget has to fight the top brass and the president to keep them from pulling the plug.
Where did you get the idea for Sandblast, and how did that idea change as you wrote it?
I first got the idea for Sandblast more than ten years ago, when I was a reporter covering the Pentagon. That was during the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Crossing the Pentagon courtyard one day, I came upon a citizenship ceremony for members of the military. I had not been aware that it is possible to serve in the U.S. military and not be a citizen. (You must be a permanent resident. Citizenship is required to become an officer.) It was a very moving event, with military members in dress uniforms and many of their family members in traditional clothes — silk dresses from China and Thailand, colorful outfits from Africa, Barong Tagalog shirts from the Philippines. I got to thinking what special capabilities these foreign-born soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and coast guardsmen bring, like the Navajo code talkers did in World War Two. That thought, and the then-frustrating hunt for Bin Laden, got me started on Sandblast.
It sounds like Sandblast is a thriller. Is that how you see it?
Sandblast is certainly a thriller — an international military spy thriller, to be specific. I also call it a thinking-person’s thriller because although there is plenty of action, there is a lot more to the story than the bang-bang. Not to sound corny, but as a journalist I tried to reveal truth through facts. Now, as a novelist, I try to reveal truth through fiction. Sandblast touches on themes of ethnicity in America, the role of women in national security, the type of wars we are now fighting, questions of who our enemies are and why they fight us, and the ambiguity of outcomes in warfare, especially in today’s wars. There is also a young, patriotic hero, who is both strong and vulnerable, and a tough, smart woman who has his back, while also struggling with issues of her own. And my villains are three-dimensional. We know their stories, their values, and their motivations, even if we disagree with them and despise their methods.
Are there any writers or specific stories that you see as having a big influence on Sandblast? And I mean on this novel in particular, not your writing style as a whole?
I would not say there is any specific story or writer. In general, Tom Clancy books really impressed me several decades ago, as did James Clavell’s. I try to get the military stuff right, like Clancy did (but without quite so much technical detail), and the diverse array of characters right like Clavell did in his epic sagas.
How about movies, TV shows, or video games; did any of them have a big impact on either what you wrote in Sandblast or how you wrote it?
Yes, but more from a negative point of view. So, without naming names, I try not to have my characters get up from near death experiences, run two miles, and kill several bad guys single-handedly. Actions and events have consequences, and I try to reflect those consequences as the story goes on. I think if a hero gets injured, he or she is more heroic for carrying on with limited capacity than they would be if we pretended they can carry on at full capacity.
And then there’s the obvious question: As you said, you’ve been a journalist for decades, with stints as a foreign correspondent and as a member of the Pentagon press corps. How do you think Sandblast was influenced by your work as a journalist?
Sandblast very specifically grew out of my work as a journalist. In addition to what I mentioned above, my familiarity with the settings in the book — the Pentagon, the White House, military bases, Afghanistan — all came from my experience, as did my understanding of the troops Faraz is based on and the women in national security Bridget is based on.
How often, when writing Sandblast, did you remember that this was a novel, and you could get a little creative with how you write?
That is one of the challenges of transitioning from journalist to fiction writer. It’s a great freedom, but also a burden. It’s actually easier to have a set of facts and write a story. With all avenues open, there is an intimidating array of options for the characters and the storyline. For me, one of the hardest parts about being an author is making those decisions — outlining the plot, where anything can happen as long as I make it make sense.
And how often did you find yourself having to choose between what was realistic and what would make for a good story?
I think what’s realistic most often makes for a good story, at least in a book like this that’s set in the real world. Whenever I venture into the unrealistic, I have to check myself. I ask, “How can I make this more realistic and make it better in the process?” If I can’t figure it out, I go back a step in the story and try a different pathway.
Having said that, there is one instance that comes to mind. I had an Afghan friend read Sandblast and provide me with a cultural critique. He sent back several bullet points of moments where I had gotten Afghan culture slightly wrong, and I was grateful to have the chance to fix them. One thing he said was that a young girl would not have served the men their dinner in one scene, even though I had her covered head-to-toe except her eyes. But I wanted her there. I wanted Faraz to see her eyes and wonder about her. So, I wrote that there were no more young men in the village because of the war. There was no one else to serve, except the girl.
Now, you have said elsewhere that Sandblast is the first book in a series of three. But do they comprise a trilogy, an ongoing thing…?
The story I wanted to tell in Sandblast is complete in that book. But there is more to tell. As I said, today’s wars have ambiguous outcomes and tend to continue. So, it’s important that whatever success Faraz and Bridget have, and whatever price they and others pay, that’s not the end of the story. So, Sandblast is the first of the Task Force Epsilon Thrillers. The first sequel, also starring Faraz and Bridget, will be Blowback, scheduled for spring 2021. The action shifts to Iraq and Syria.
There will be at least one more, as yet untitled, which I plan to set mainly in Israel and the Palestinian territories. (I was a correspondent in Jerusalem for four years in the ’90s.)
Earlier I asked if Sandblast had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games. Has there been any interest in adapting Sandblast into a movie, show, or game?
So far, I’m not aware of any interest. But it seems a bit early for that. I think Sandblast lends itself very well to all three genres you mention. It’s written episodically, so I’ve often thought of it as a limited series on TV. I think you could get two seasons out of Sandblast alone, and then move into Blowback. Sandblast would also make for a good movie, with Blowback potentially as a sequel. The idea of a video game works really well, too, with a hero on his own in enemy territory and challenges back home that Bridget needs to deal with to keep his mission on track. I like that idea!
If Sandblast was going to be made into a movie or TV show, who would you want them to cast as Faraz, Bridget, and the other main characters?
The interesting thing about making Sandblast into a movie or TV show is that you would need a young man who could play ethnic-Afghan for Faraz. I have seen some men who may fit that description, but they are not major stars. For Bridget, there are many actresses who could play the type of role Jessica Chastain played in Zero Dark Thirty. I’d hate to pick a favorite.
Finally, if someone enjoys Sandblast, what similar kind of thriller of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?
That’s a tough one. There are lots of secret agent and military novels out there. I honestly don’t have a specific one to recommend.