2005 profile: Through his fictional hero, CIA maverick Mitch Rapp, writer Vince Flynn has become a heavyweight in the political-thriller arena.
Vince Flynn looked up from his latte at a south Minneapolis coffee shop and said, “Look at the guy up there working on that telephone pole across the street. Something’s not right.”
If you happen to know that Flynn just turned out his seventh bestselling political thriller, you’d assume he was thinking, wiretap. Undercover stakeout. Or perhaps Taliban assassin bent on ethnically cleansing Linden Hills.
But no. The guy whose serious mug glowers threateningly from the back jacket of “Consent to Kill” was simply worried about the worker.
“He’s not wearing the right gloves,” Flynn said. “He could get electrocuted.”
Flynn’s fictional hero and alter ego, CIA counterterrorism agent Mitch Rapp, wouldn’t have time to fret about such things; he’d be too busy saving the nation from nuclear disaster and diabolical subterfuge. But the author himself can afford to let his concerns spill over onto strangers. Having amassed total book-contract money into seven figures over the past decade, he’s in the clover.
“Consent to Kill” has been out a month and is already in its fourth hardcover printing, with 380,000 copies in circulation, a more than 40 percent increase over 2004’s “Memorial Day” printing.
Debuting at fourth on the New York Times bestseller list and second on the Wall Street Journal’s list, the newest Mitch Rapp adventure is also the closest that any of Flynn’s books have come to getting optioned by a major film studio. (This could stick a welcome pin in his oft-voiced argument that the reason none of his books has been made into a movie is that liberal Hollywood is afraid to portray fundamentalist Muslims as terrorists.)
Flynn keeps his name in the public’s scope on talk radio and television programs, including Fox News’ Hannity & Colmes, where he is asked at least as many questions about his views on real-life counterterrorism efforts as he is about his fiction.
His books are passed around Army barracks and Pentagon offices. And scores of civilians who consider him a top read — especially since Tom Clancy abused his own popularity with a turgidly technical 874-pager — line up at his signings. At Costco in St. Louis Park on a recent Saturday, multiple copies of Flynn’s latest (being sold at Costco’s price of $15, or $11 below retail) could be seen in many carts.
Larry Stodghill of St. Louis Park said he can relate to the characters: “I’m a real pro-military guy and personally very concerned about national security.”
Joe Swanholm of Plymouth said he likes Flynn’s books because “they’re not too complicated, but it’s nonstop action that keeps me up all night.”
Wanda Bowen of Wayzata said that unlike some other successful thriller writers she’s read, “his books get better each time instead of more of the same.”
Greg Nash of Chanhassen, who politely handed a publisher’s representative a list of typos he had noticed in a Flynn book, said he was impressed with the author’s research.
In the latest book, Rapp is the one being pursued, after a Mideast potentate puts out a contract on his life. Flynn’s solutions may be simplistic, but his plots can be eerily topical, almost “ripped from the headlines” — or from secret top-level memos. In his last novel, “Memorial Day,” Mitch Rapp saves both New York and Washington, D.C., from nuclear blasts by Middle-Eastern terrorists. In 2001, his “Separation of Power” involved Saddam Hussein having nuclear weapons.
Flynn isn’t clairvoyant. He just has friends in high, handy places — like the CIA and the FBI.
Rob Richer, who retired last week as a CIA associate deputy director of operations (read: in charge of covert overseas agents), is a Flynn inside source who has become a friend.
“Don’t ask me about Valerie Plame,” Flynn said. “He won’t talk about her.”
Richer will talk about Flynn, however: “He brings clarity to the issue of the war on terrorism,” Richer said by phone. “To the public, it can seem like we’re a government afraid to take risks. He gets at the heart of what we really do.”
Flynn said he got his foot in some heavily padlocked government doors by doing enough legwork to learn all the right acronyms and talk the lingo when he cold-called potential sources of ideas and information. Since then, military fans from troops in Iraq to Pentagon brass have told him they like the way Mitch Rapp breaks the rules and hurdles bureaucracy to get the right things done.
Dan Barreiro, who often asks Flynn to be a guest on his KFAN drive-time radio show, said he’s fond of him because “he can talk knowledgeably about both his books and the issues raised in them, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He knows he’s not writing the great American novel. He knows his audience and himself.”
When critics call his characters preposterous or one-dimensional, as they often do, Flynn doesn’t take it personally.
“I write commercial fiction, which doesn’t tend to get reviewed well,” he said. “And I don’t need the publicity like some of those books do.”
As for a recurring criticism that his female characters are shallowly drawn, he said, “Come on, now. Rapp’s boss is a woman. A strong woman — she’s director of the CIA!”
After Flynn appears on the KFAN show, “we get e-mails from people calling him a crackpot right-winger. But he’s not anywhere near that cliche,” Barreiro said.
“I’m a registered Republican, not a Kool-Aid drinker,” Flynn said. “I think Bill Clinton is a genius. I also think Muslim fundamentalists are the biggest threat around, not just to our safety but to concepts like feminism. And Hollywood hasn’t made a film with Muslim terrorists since 9/11. They change them into being Irish or belonging to some other group.”
Flynn’s success has brought him into the path of other notables.
Mary Matalin and James Carville recently threw him a book party. And earlier this year, King Abdullah of Jordan invited him to accompany officials on a trip to Amman, where he was treated to a tour and a royal dinner.
“Turns out he’s a fan,” Flynn said.
Flynn, 39, looks like a bigger, corn-fed Minnesota version of “JAG” star David James Elliott. He grew up in St. Paul, in an Irish-Catholic household of seven kids. As a student, he struggled with dyslexia, and still has a little trouble with spelling.
“The last thing I ever thought I’d be then was a writer,” he said.
He credits his post-college sales experience for the unusual persistence he applied to his first book, but also his father, a high-school teacher and football coach: “He’d never let us quit anything midway. If we started baseball, we had to finish out the season.”
As a young man, he wanted to be a pilot in the Marines. After trying for a slot in 1990, he was medically disqualified because of two past head injuries that caused seizures, one after a car accident and the other while playing youth hockey.
“When the Gulf War started, my recruiter said if they started to lose a lot of pilots, they’d call me,” he said. “I wasn’t quite sure how to feel about that.”
Flynn first became interested in writing after he began a journal in 1989, following the mugging murder of a friend in Washington, D.C.
He got more than 60 rejection letters for his first novel, “Term Limits,” before finally publishing it himself in 1997, with a group of investors kicking in 20 percent of the cost (they eventually got about a 500 percent return). It sold well, he was picked up by Simon & Schuster’s thriving, politically conservative Atria imprint, and now has three titles left to go on a four-book contract.
Flynn touched down on home turf briefly in the midst of a 16-city book tour to spend time with his wife and three children. Their house is a spacious remodeled Cape Cod abutting a golf course in Edina.
“We’re really connected to Minnesota,” Flynn said. “We may get a winter place somewhere south when we’re older, but I can’t see leaving here.”
Lysa Flynn, a petite, delicate-featured blonde in workout clothes, was making tacos for the kids’ lunch on an immense kitchen island. “I never read my husband’s kind of books till I met him,” she said.
Lysa grew up on a farm near Detroit Lakes, Minn., and has worked as a model for the Eleanor Moore agency. She and Vince were married in 2000.
KARE-TV anchor Frank Vascellaro set the pair up on a blind date, Vince said. “It was a Vikings preseason game. I couldn’t tell you who won.”
Flynn took a phone call in the other room and came back looking upbeat.
“It might happen this time,” he said. “It” is the long-awaited film deal. Hollywood action-film producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, whose credits include the new Jennifer Aniston vehicle “Derailed,” “Doom” and “Four Brothers,” is very close to a “Consent to Kill” movie deal with a major studio and A-list star, Flynn said.
He then tromped down to the basement family room to greet his 3-year-old, Ana, who was watching Miss Piggy on TV.
“Daddy, bring me some chocolate milk?”
“What’s the magic word?” he said, faux gruff.
And with that, the creator of Mitch Rapp, terrorist annihilator, was off to complete his next urgent mission.