It’s difficult to read Don Bentley’s debut novel, featuring Matt Drake — a former ranger pulled back into a mission for The Defense Intelligence Agency. He’s returned to the place that brought about his PTSD, got men killed, and crippled his friend Frodo who now helps him out. Mr. Bentley flew Apache helicopters in Afghanistan as was awarded The Bronze Star and Air Medal. It was an honor to talk to him about his novel.
Scott Montgomery: Which came first, Matt Drake or the plot?
Don Bentley: Great question. Matt definitely came first. I wrote three books that didn’t sell before writing Without Sanction, and I like to say that each book brought me closer to Matt. I’m a huge fan of Nelson DeMille and what he does with his witty, first person protagonists, especially his John Corey series. I remember reading Plum Island the first time and telling my wife that I would read a book about John Corey going to the grocery store, just so that I could listen to him talk. I decided to give something similar a try while writing my third book, and while that book didn’t sell, it did give me Matt. Looking back, I think that was a pretty good bargain! In the military thriller/espionage genre, plot is what keeps your readers turning the page, but characters are what bring them back for the next book. Hopefully, Matt resonates enough with readers to keep them coming back for the next book.
SM: You show a relationship between Matt’s mission and a crisis in the White House. What did you want to explore with that?
DB: Thank you for noticing! The technology that connects warfighters to civilian decision makers has improved exponentially since September 11th. Even so, there’s still a dissonance between what the men and women on the ground are seeing and thinking and what is going on in a crowded situation room thousands of miles removed from danger. In the best of circumstances, decision makers give warfighters their marching orders and then stay out of the way while the professionals do their jobs. Often times this isn’t the case. Sometimes this is because the decision makers truly are privy to details that warfighters aren’t. But in the worst of scenarios, politicians make short-sighted, politically motivated decisions that result in devastating consequences for warfighters operating in harm’s way. This is what happens in Without Sanction.
SM: Frodo is a great character. How did you go about constructing him?
DB: When I started writing Without Sanction, I knew that Frodo was going to be an integral part of Matt’s story. Frodo needed to be from Matt’s world, but still wholly different from Matt. One of the things I cherished about my time in the Army was the opportunity to serve with people from every creed, color, and religion. It didn’t matter where we grew up or whether we went to church on Sunday. What mattered was that we all wore the same green uniform and swore the same oath to defend the constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. I wanted the relationship between Matt and Frodo to reflect this dynamic. Frodo and Matt are two very different people, who if not for the military, would have never crossed paths. But through love of country and a desire to serve, they become brothers in arms.
SM: As somebody who was in combat situations abroad, what did you want to convey about that experience?
DB: That’s a hard question. I don’t know that I set out to convey anything about combat as much as I wanted to give the American public a glimpse of the men and women who are fighting on their behalf. I am not Matt Drake, but I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know some people who could be. Three of my close friends are veterans of the Army’s storied 75th Ranger Regiment, just like Matt. Rangers are famous for a great many things, including their strict adherence to the Ranger Creed. Non-Rangers might mistake the six stanzas comprising the Ranger Creed for just another organizational mission statement or HR-generated set of values, but nothing could be further from the truth. To a Ranger, these simple, yet powerful words form a code which still governs their lives long after they leave the military. Less than one percent of Americans serve in the military. This means that most American’s don’t have a veteran as a close friend or family member. I would love to help bridge that gap.
SM: How do you deal with the challenge of writing about events and regions that are changing with the news on a daily basis?
DB: It’s not easy. I took much longer than I should have to lock down Without Sanction, and in an earlier version of the book, ISIS played a more substantial role. While I certainly celebrated the destruction of the Caliphate, it caused me no small amount of rewrites! That said, I don’t try to “beat the headlines” or base my story on something that could change tomorrow. My novels are character driven, so if I have to change a few details here or there, it shouldn’t adversely affect the novel.
SM: This being your first book, did you draw from any influences?
DB: Absolutely. There are so many excellent writers in this genre, and I feel lucky just to be able to share shelf space with them. People like Tom Clancy, Brad Thor, and Vince Flynn built the modern version of this genre, while authors like Brad Taylor and Mark Greaney have brought even more readers into the fold. I’m also thankful for writers like Alistair MacLean and Jack Higgins who were their predecessors. The Eagle Has Landed is still one of my all-time favorites, and I grew up wanting to be Clint Eastwood’s character in the movie version of Where Eagles Dare. Still, of all the great authors I mentioned, Nelson DeMille and Daniel Silva have been particularly impactful. Nelson DeMille’s witty, first person protagonists gave me the courage to find Matt’s distinct voice. In the same vein, I think that Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon series has some of the best story telling the genre has to offer. I tend to re-read Daniel’s books when I’m editing or just need inspiration. He’s a true craftsman, and my life’s ambition is to be counted as a friend of Gabriel Allon!