Entry Number Five in the ongoing Writers and Bloggers Interview series features perhaps one of the most interesting and willful people you’ll ever meet. Stan Mitchell, author, blogger, former Marine, newspaper tycoon (seriously!), and all-around force of nature, comes across as quietly self-assured, but definitely someone whom you’d better think twice about getting in his way. Stan’s got his goals, and, by God, he’s going to meet them.
I’ve had the chance to interact with Stan for a few months now, and he’s a real down-to-earth and humble guy. And he’s dead serious about wanting to become a better writer, even with two novels under his belt. That’s an admirable quality to find in a writer, I must say.
Our interview took on a range of topics, from his four years as a Marine, a hair-raising combat experience, the newspaper he publishes, his writing (naturally), and his mancrush on Jesus’ favorite quarterback. Now, without further ado, I give you Stan Mitchell…
Bio: I write tough-as-nails, fast-moving fiction, and I’m the author of Sold Out and Little Man, and the Dixon County War. Readers have (thankfully!) compared my works to Stephen Hunter, Lee Child, and Tom Clancy. Besides writing fiction, I also maintain a moderate, political blog called Fix the Divide.
And here’s some basic information about me, which I managed to squeeze into Twitter: I’m a writer, entrepreneur, & former 0311 USMC SGT who earned a Combat Action Ribbon in 97. I’m also a nice guy who’s addicted to Shaolin Kung Fu & weight lifting! (My Combat Action Ribbon was earned when my Platoon took part in Operation Silver Wake, the evacuation of U.S. citizens from Tirana, Albania.)
First off, I want to thank you for your service to our country. You served four years in the US Marine Corps. I’m curious, how has your experiences in the Marines, and as a former Marine, helped shaped your writing?
Well, the Marine Corps allowed me to experience much of what I had read about in books! I learned about M-16s, ambushes, recon patrols, helo insertions, and even emotions that go along with life and death situations. And since I write what I call “action fiction,” that is key.
It also allowed me to meet some of the best bad asses our country ever created: Force Recon Marines, Navy Seals, and even a few Snipers, who never really say much…
So, getting to know how some of the most professional, elite warriors really talk and carry themselves was worth more than I could ever put a price on.
Finally, those four years — the substantial majority of which was the epitome of pure hell (Ooh-rah! Get some!) — also put me in lots of locations where there was nothing. No internet. No way to call home. No distractions. And so I read tons of books during those four years, which probably did more for my writing career than my degree from college.
What books did you read while you were in the Suck? (Hey, I read “Jarhead.” I know what “The Suck” means…)
Mostly books by Stephen Hunter and Tom Clancy. (And there there are quite a few authors similar to Clancy who write about war that I also read.)
You mentioned earning a Combat Action Ribbon. How did you earn that? What’s the story behind that?
It was earned when my Platoon took part in Operation Silver Wake, the evacuation of U.S. citizens from Tirana, Albania. Basically, the government of Albania — a small country near Bosnia — nearly collapsed. Much of its police force and military called it quits after not getting paid and the people over-ran several military bases and armed themselves. None of this would have mattered — after all, who even knows where Albania is? — except that we had about a thousand Americans there, as well as an Embassy to protect.
So, with the Albanian military and police force essentially gone, these Americans were unprotected and in great danger.
Our platoon flew in and helped secure the Embassy and the State Dept Compound. We took some fire going in. We took some fire while we were there. And like all combat situations, the pure holy-shit moments were interspersed among hours of complete boredom and misery — it was freezing and raining, so we spent much of time standing in muddy fighting positions.
I was 19 and I thought it was a huge deal. We put ourselves in harm’s way and left thinking we’d be hailed heroes. Turns out few knew what we had even done. So much for winning medals and impressing all the chicks!
When did you first discover you had a knack for writing? Did you want to be a writer from an early age, or was this something you learned about yourself much later in life?
I started writing when I was about eight or nine, and it began as a form of escape. I was a small kid and was bullied a fair amount, so I read all the time to help me escape. And I soon transitioned from just reading to actually writing. Partly because I wasn’t happy reading the stories that were out there – I’m a notoriously picky reader still to this day — and partly because in these stories I changed from a little boy to a young man who was tall, strong, and desirable. And brave. Always brave…
You’ve written and self-published 2 books so far – Sold Out and Little Man and the Dixon County War. One’s a conspiracy thriller, the other a thriller set in the old West. What inspired you to write both?
Well, like most writers, these are the final products of about thirty starts and stops over the past twenty-plus years.
“Sold Out” was inspired by Stephen Hunter’s book Point of Impact — still one of my all-time favorite books of all time. “Sold Out” is a Marine Sniper/CIA Thriller that is in many ways similar to Hunter’s book. I loved how fun Stephen Hunter’s book was and I wanted to write something similar: Just pure pace and action and setback-after-setback.
But “Sold Out” was super difficult and took me twelve years to write. (The plot is ridiculously complicated and covers multiple states.) I probably would have never finished it had I not finally just let it go and thought, “I need to just write a simple book and get an easy win.”
So, I wrote “Little Man, and the Dixon County War,” which is a thriller set in a Western time period — think Django Unchained. Then, once I had finished “Little Man” and began feeding off its positive reviews and sales, I picked up the book that had taunted me and mocked me for more than a decade.
What’s been the most successful part of writing for you? The least successful?
I think my strength is plot and coming up with great book ideas. For me, this is the easiest part and I’ve never understood how many writers struggle to come up with them. I get most of my ideas from reading The New York Times each morning. I’ll start reading an article and then stop halfway through it and find myself imagining the people involved. The angry. The desperate. The hurt. The crooked. These great stories, right in front of me, every morning. And with just a few twists, you’ve got some great plots (or “what if’s?”) and some great insight on character motivations.
My biggest weakness is character, which coincidentally, my super-talented wife Danah is great at. So Danah helps me bore down into the character motivations, their pasts, their weaknesses, etc.
When you’ve found your inspiration for your stories for your novels, do you outline it all the way through, or just wing it and see what happens?
I do both. Earlier in my writing career, I was all about just winging it, but now I try to outline a bit more as I go along — I do NOT outline the entire thing in the beginning, as that would prove nearly impossible for me; plus, I’d hate going for possibly weeks without writing while I just outlined.
But I think it’s important for writers to know that they should just do what’s most comfortable for them. It can work both ways.
Authenticity is real important in the kind of novels you write, especially “Sold Out.” Have you gotten any feedback from former Marines, even former (or current) Marine snipers? I’d be curious if anyone has read it and said, “Yeah, he got it right.”
Absolutely! I had personally fired nearly every weapon described in “Sold Out,” and I consulted with two Marine Snipers on the scenes in which a sniper rifle is used. I then followed that up by having some other Marines beta read it — accuracy in books is as important as accuracy in gun fights!
Some writers find writing plot to be difficult, or character development difficult. Why do you find writing characters a weakness?
I wish I knew. I think some people just get others better. (My wife being the perfect example of that.; She can read people better than anyone that I know.)
I have found in recent years that it’s easier to loosely base a character on someone you know than it is to build one from scratch on just a sheet of paper. And I’ve also — thankfully — vastly improved my skills in this area, just by studying plenty of writing books.
Not only are you a former Marine and a published author, but you’re also a newspaper publisher. What prompted you to start your own newspaper? How’s being the publisher of a newspaper treating you these days?
I had worked at a small weekly newspaper after college. I loved how tenacious and tough that paper was, so when I moved to work for a daily newspaper, I always found myself missing that weekly pace to news. With a daily newspaper, you have to rush from breaking news story to breaking news story.
With a weekly, you’re not as focused on breaking news and can take the time to get the full story.
And being a publisher treats me well these days. We have a great product and incredibly talented staff. It never ceases to amaze me how much talent there is out there, just waiting to be given a chance and show off their skills.
What else are you working on these days? A follow-up to either of your novels? A new novel?
I plan to write sequels to both“Little Man” and “Sold Out.” I’ve started both and I’m trying to focus on finishing “Sold Out,” but I struggle to stay focused. Besides characters, a great weakness of mine is staying focused on my current work in progress. (For instance, I’ve worked on four different novels since finishing “Sold Out,” something I know I shouldn’t do… But as I said, my problem isn’t coming up with ideas. It’s staying excited and focused on whatever I’m working on.)
What’s the hardest part of writing for you? (For example, not enough time? Staying focused? Bouncing from ideas to ideas?)
It’s changed for me. Before I got my first novel done, the hardest part of writing was that doubt that ate at me, wondering whether I could finish one. (After all, I’d started nearly 30 and never finished one before the story fizzled out or came to a crashing dead end.)
And then after the euphoria passes of finally finishing one, you gain some confidence, which is great. And for me, I tackled the second one with great energy. But at some point, you also lose some motivation. After all, you hit your goal. You’re an author. You spent decades trying to reach that goal, and you finally crested the peak.
At that point, you have nothing to prove. Your critical “friends” no longer laugh at you and you feel proud. And I think for most, once you’ve hit this level, you’ve got to do a real gut check. You’re no longer a wannabe, but you’re also about a light year away from being as famous as whoever your favorite author is. So, you’ve got to look in the mirror and decide whether you’re willing to go after that next peak. Yeah, sure, you’ve got confidence and more skill, but it’s a bit daunting to see that next peak is just as high (if not higher).
You’re someone who takes an active interest in many other things besides writings and running a newspaper. What are some of those interests? How do some of those interests coincide with your writing?
Mostly, it’s weight lifting and Shaolin Kung Fu. And I’m not sure how they coincide (maybe, I’m training to be an action hero!), but they do get me up from the desk and help me build up my energy and focus. And maybe if I’m honest, they’ve helped toughen me up and give me confidence to reach my goals.
Alright, I gotta ask: so what’s with the whole adoration for Tim Tebow?
First, it has nothing to do with religion. For me, it’s about leadership with Tim Tebow. I started out hating him in college, but over the years he earned my respect by how hungry he is. He’s a warrior who literally outlifts his offensive lineman and tries to win sprints against even his receivers. He hates to lose and is one of the most competitive players I’ve ever seen. In my mind, I want to be that hungry, that crazy, that determined to win. Here’s a longer answer for those who really care: Why I’m a Tim Tebow nut…