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Monday, September 2, 2013

Interview With Peter Nealen

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I had originally intended to share this interview on SOFREP's Hot Extract blog. But recently Hot Extract has been downsized and will now be exclusively for videogame reviews. The 2FB still covers books and movies, though, and so I offer this interview with former Recon Marine Peter Nealen, who has authored two paramilitary adventure novels, Task Force Desperate and Hunting In the Shadows, both of which I've reviewed right here. So let's get to it.

HANK: Both your novels, particularly HITS, occur with what seems like a very complex political backdrop. Tell a little about that. Obviously you learned a lot from being in Iraq, but then extrapolated from there into your near-future scenario.
PETE: The series as a whole actually got its start when I wrote down a backstory for a science fiction story (which I might get back to one of these years) in between missions in Iraq in ’07.  The background was based on a growing sense that all of the optimism about the 21st Century back in the late ‘90s, before 9/11, was tragically wrong, and the 21st is going to be far, far worse than the bloodletting of the 20th.  A good chunk of the chaos revolved around a global war with Islamism.
HANK: Wouldn't have guessed that. What was going to be science fiction about the story as originally conceived?
PETE: The original story I was working on was completely separate.  The roots of the American Praetorians series began as a way to map how we got from here to the future interstellar war I was gearing up to write about.  Maybe I'll get back to that someday.
 
Over time, I started thinking that I could tell stories set in that background.  My first attempt at getting into it was going to be an Anabasis-style tale about a Marine Special Operations Team trying to escape from Afghanistan with some Polish GROM guys when everything goes completely to hell.  It was ambitious as hell, and never really went anywhere.
After that, I started on a short about first Marines, then PMC guys defending the US Embassy in Baghdad as Iraq falls apart.  We might see elements of this later…
Finally, in 2011, I got the idea to start sort of a “history repeating itself” story, starting with Bin Laden being convinced the US was a paper tiger after we pulled out of Somalia following the Battle of the Black Sea in October of ’93.  So I went back to East Africa to kick things off.  I did as much research as I could, including picking the brain of an officer I was working with at the time, who had done six months at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti.  How accurate some of the details are, I still don’t know for absolute certain, because getting solid information out of Somalia these days is difficult.  Even those who have worked in intel there warn that a lot of what comes out of all sides is nothing but lies and propaganda.
When it came to Hunting in the Shadows, I drew on a lot of my own experience from being in Iraq, but since it takes place in areas I never got to, I still had to do a lot of research.  I never got to work with the Kurds, so I had to read up on the relationships between the Kurds and their neighbors.  I had to read up on Iranian operations, as well as drawing on some of the whispered information about things like EFPs (Explosively Formed Penetrators) coming from Iran for IEDs while I was there.  I’ve also been keeping some tabs on the place since I started writing for SOFREP, so I’ve been watching its disintegration into sectarian and tribal vendettas for a while now.
The Syrian angle actually came to me partway through writing Hunting.  What’s going on there is largely a contest between Salafi Sunnis and militant Shia, largely centered around AQI on the one side and Iran on the other.  While a great deal of the scenarios in my books are in fact “What if?” scenarios (TFD was “What if the Muslim Brotherhood really solidified their hold on Egypt, and started directly supporting Islamist groups on the Horn in order to seize the strategic position of the Horn of Africa?”), they are based on immediate happenings.  There has already been spillover from the Syrian Civil War into Iraq.  So I posited, “What if Assad fell, and the Salafis took over Syria?  What would Iran do?  What would a weakened, divided Iraqi government do?”  Then I threw my hardass PMC shooters into the mix and let them go at it.
HANK: It makes for a potent mixture, I'd say. While I'm not as up-to-date on the political minutia over there as you veterans of the occupation, it all rang true to me. How about your characters--based on real dudes? Amalgams?
PETE: Some are based on real guys.  Some are amalgams.  Most I won’t name; they’ll probably recognize themselves if they read the book, and that’s enough.  “Larry” is actually somewhat based on one of my favorite authors, Larry Correia.  During an early draft of TFD, I had a character show up who at least physically resembled Larry and shared his love of STI 2011 pistols, so I contacted him and asked him if it was all right with him.  He gave me his thumbs-up, and so now there is “Hardass, former SOF, Contractor Larry.”
HANK: Dontcha' love how some characters just show up? "Hey, where did you come from? Who's writing this thing, anyway?" You met Larry Correia in person, didn't you?

 PETE: Yes, briefly.  He was signing books at the STI booth at SHOT Show in 2011, and I happened to be there as a rep for Force Recon Company, I MEF.  I got him to sign Monster Hunter International and Monster Hunter Vendetta for my wife.  Great guy.
HANK:  I like that. And it just so happens I've recently finished his Monster Hunter International on Audible Audio. It was a fun read and got me to chuckle quite a few times. Sounds like there's at least a physical resemblance between him and his protagonist. And I loved that he was a gun nut. Where else do you find a firearms enthusiast character who's not evil and stupid?

As a writer, I've filed away little experiences from here and there, and drawn from them later on. Some of my scenes, or portions of scenes, were tweaked, adapted or just lifted from stuff I saw happen. I think all writers must do that. So can you point to some specific scenes, sequences or snippets in your two books that came about this way?
PETE: I can’t really point to any specific scene that was drawn directly from my experiences.  A lot of details, yes.  As I try to be quick to point out, the adventures of the Praetorian shooters are way, way more exciting than anything I did overseas.  Though there is an interrogation by one of the Iraqi militiamen in Hunting in the Shadows which was pretty well lifted from a similar interrogation by one of our terps in Iraq.  Some of those guys didn’t mess around.
HANK: I guess that's fairly universal. I know my life has been pretty dull compared to the lives of my characters.

I love that your main character uses an M1A, and from a previous exchange I understand you yourself have one. So talk about why you like this MBR and how you came to like it.
PETE: I’d read up on the SOCOM 16 for a while before I decided to get one, and immediately found I liked it.  I like the action, I like the fact that while it might be heavier than an M4, it packs way more of a wallop than any 5.56 rifle, in a package only slightly larger.  In fact, I’ve seen a few raised eyebrows at the use of full powered battle rifles in CQB in my books, but I have to point out that the SOCOM 16, as well as most of the other 7.62 NATO carbines I describe, are no larger than most M4s.
I also decided on 7.62x51 as the go-to rifle cartridge after seeing firsthand the lack of effectiveness of 5.56x45, as well as many conversations in Humvees and hide sites about what we’d do if we had control over weapon choices.
HANK: Even with the wooden stock, I've always thought the M14 was a better MBR. It's comparable in weight to the M-1 Garand (which its design is partly borrowed from). Are we so much wimpier now than the grunts in WWII and Korea? 

Ahem. 

So many of us are writing about good-guy PMCs these days. Have you had any experience with actual mercs or is Praetorian Security entirely from your imagination?
PETE: I’ve had some small experience with PMCs, and know a lot of good Recon Marines who went on to contracting after getting out.  I’ve found that for the most part the media stereotypes are mistaken; most of these guys aren’t really any different from the guys who are in.  They might have some more leeway in certain things, depending on the company, and might get paid more, but they’ve got a lot less support if something goes wrong.  Most of the ones I know are pretty professional.
That said, Praetorian is in many ways a product of my imagination, and, again, many hours of BSing in the desert about, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if…”  I originally turned to the idea of a PMC instead of actual military because of the increasing restrictions being placed on deployed troops in combat zones.  I wanted these guys to have some more leeway and self-determination.  I figured I could get that with mercs.  And Praetorian is closer to an actual mercenary company than what are today called PMCs.  These guys operate by the principle of, “Whatever gets the mission done,” and don’t give much thought to the kind of legalities that would get someone operating like them shut down pretty fast in today’s environment.  It helps that the future I’ve extrapolated is seeing a breakdown in the (in my opinion, artificial) niceties of international and economic order.  In many places you can already see that breakdown starting today, if you look past the miasma of distraction on TV.
HANK: I knew a guy who'd done merc work, but this was before OIF and the explosion of contract opportunities. My character Sam DeChalk in Hell and Gone is partly based on him. 

While it's impossible to find a real life military or paramilitary unit without flaws, it's nice being a writer because we can make them as altruistic and ethical as we want. Whatever flaws they exhibit have to be approved by us and ultimately we control how much the bad apples and jerkoffs get away with.

What's next up for you?

PETE: While I’ve started some work on the next volume in the American Praetorians series, “Alone and Unafraid,” for the moment I’m kind of taking a break from the series, letting my mind rest a little.  I’m working on a presently unnamed novel (much shorter than either TFD or HITS), in the horror/adventure genre.  I’m serializing it on www.wethearmed.com right now, and hope to finish it up in the next month or two, after which I’ll hit Alone and Unafraid hard and fast.

I’ve also got a nonfiction book in the works, though it is something of a long-term project.  Following an article on SOFREP, “The Cost of Limited War,” I decided to tackle “History, Moral Philosophy, and War.”  It’s a huge project, and is probably going to take several years to complete.

HANK: Thanks, Pete, for taking the time to converse.

Folks, it's gonna be hard to find novels in which the author puts such emphasis on realism and still winds up with an entertaining read, outside of Pete's books. And these are books for thinking men, not the lowest-common-denominator drivel writers in the genre are so often accused of. If you want to feel like you're there in the sandbox with bullets coming uprange, I highly recommend them.

As alluded to above, I will no longer be writing for Hot Extract. I was already reducing my cyber footprint, and the news about HE was an omen, divine confirmation, or however you choose to look at such things. For the immediate future I'll keep blogging right here, and posting Amazon reviews now and then. I may check Facebook every once in a while, or I may stop using it altogether--not sure. While I appreciate all the authors asking for reviews (in a way I guess it validates the existence of this blog?), I simply can't commit to much anymore. The list is pretty bleeding long already. If I can't get to your book, it's not necessarily because I think I won't like it, and certainly nothing personal against the author. 

Okay, bye.

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