On his website, T.S. O’Neil reprints a review that describes his “action-packed crime novels” Tampa Star and Starfish Prime as artful blends of “Fifties detective noir with modern-day high-tech suspense.” I agree, but when I speed-read the opening chapters of Tampa Star, I was reminded as well of Elmore Leonard—that is, I was hearing the unique voices, not of a writer, but of unforgettable characters. I was thus pleased to discover, as you will see, that O’Neil lists Leonard as one of the writers who have most influenced him.
|Author T.S. O'Neil
Pollock: So what do I call you? T.S.?
O’Neil: Please call me Tim.
Pollock: Okay, Tim, let me start with a compliment. I was carried away by the unique narrative power in Tampa Star—the first book of the Blackfox Chroncles. It didn’t feel like reading so much as leaning back in a patio chair with a Corona or a Dos Equis in hand while listening to hilarious war stories told. In appropriate social circumstances, are you a natural raconteur?
O’Neil: First of all, I don’t know what that means. Just kidding—and I sincerely appreciate the compliment. I’m an introvert with extroverted tendencies that are normally fueled by alcohol. They had guys in Ranger School they called “Spotlight Rangers” who were candidates who only performed while in the spotlight; otherwise they hung back and marshaled their resources. I guess you could call me a spotlight raconteur. In social situations, I try a few trial balloons to see if anyone gets my humor and take it from there. As for the humor in both books, I think that the military is full of frustrated comedians. If you think about it, they are often deployed to austere locations among a group of like-minded individuals and are often stymied by circumstances. Their frustrations are caused or fueled by the stupidity of the officers or NCOs above them, and because they are thrust into a truly shitty situation. Relief comes either from laughter or craziness. I have to say, though, that of all the services, I think the Marines are the funniest and usually the most politically incorrect as the ratio of men to women is the highest of all the services.
Pollock: To capture that conversational style, have you ever thought of just talking your story into a microphone, then transcribing and editing later?
O’Neil: No, but I may give it a try.
Pollock: Do you keep a file of choice and colorful anecdotes from your years in the military?
O’Neil: No, I wish I had, but there are lots of stories out there. The anecdotes about snipers and Explosive Ordinance Disposal are the funniest as they are darkest. Sayings like: “Never start a fight with a man who can end it from another ZIP code,” referring to a sniper with a 50-caliber sniper rifle. Or, referring to an EOD technician failing to defuse a bomb: “If you see me running, try to keep up.” are just a couple of offhand
So all of these amateur comedians in uniform have a lot of material to work with, based mostly on the stupefying ridiculousness of the huge bureaucracy that is the U.S. military. They are given lots of material, but little freedom to use it; hence the frustration. I try and imagine what would accurately be said in humor to mask the occurrence of a bad event.
Someone once said that war is interminable boredom punctuated by moments of terror. An active imagination is what keeps you in good spirits and helps you fill the void or salve your fear. I bet King Leonidas was an especially funny guy to be able to crack wise when confronted by hundreds of thousands of Persian soldiers. His “Come and get them!” [in reply to the Persian ultimatum to lay down his weapons] is, if not the first badass line in history, maybe the best known.
Pollock: Your impressive military and law enforcement background obviously makes you a natural for the techno-thriller genre. Who are your favorite thriller writers?
O’Neil: I really can’t agree on the impressiveness of my military background. As a careerist, I was an abject failure as I was always in the wrong place at the wrong time. Meaning wherever I happened to be, peace was breaking out like mad. I was supposed to jump into Omar Torrijos Airport with the Rangers during Operation Just Cause, but instead I went on to the MP Officer Advance Course. The invasion took place in December of ’89; as I drove home to Connecticut for Christmas break, members of my former unit parachuted into glory. Later, as I sat in Panama enjoying the new era of peace and prosperity, Operation Desert Storm took place. My luck finally caught up with me and I spent part of a tour in Iraq. Other than a couple of nights of rocket fire, the period in Iraq was relatively peaceful. Additionally, I’m a freedom-loving individual and although servicemen defend freedom, they have very little of it inside their ranks. And as you probably noticed by know, I pretty much say what’s on my mind, which is not particularly career-enhancing. The bottom-line is that I was just a guy wanting to see the world on the cheap, but… what was your question again? Oh, yes, favorite thriller writers.
Well, you’re certainly a favorite author as of late. I loved The Running Boy and thought Duel of Assassins was particularly well done. But having said that, I have some pretty esoteric tastes when it comes to thrillers. Laurence Shames is a favorite, because he has quirky characters and writes in the Florida Glare genre. I can forgive him for being a bit of a liberal because I like his writing. Elmore Leonard, may he rest in peace, is a personal favorite. His writing and success taught me to believe that you can and should try to write the way people speak. People are funny and they say lots of humorous things, even in tense situations. He famously said, “Try to write what people want to read and leave the rest out.” Leonard labored in relative obscurity for most of his career and finally found some level of acclaim after Hollywood discovered him by basing movies on Get Shorty, 3:10 to Yuma and Jackie Brown.
Another great author I admire is Norman Mailer, but for different reasons. He managed to write a really twisted thriller called Tough Guys Don’t Dance and also wrote the script for the movie of the same name. The protagonist, played by Ryan O’Neal, is watching his world crumble all around him—his wife leaves him, he can’t stop drinking and lastly, there are two heads in a bag in the basement and he is left trying to figure out how they got there. I used to watch the movie when my life was at a low point and it would allow me to think, well, at least I don’t have it as bad as that guy. I believe the movie bombed, but the script closely followed the book and I liked that.
Pollock: You’re quoted as saying you “write about heroes with a few chinks in their armor.” In fact, your father-and-son duo, ex-Green Beret Char Blackfox and his Recon Marine son, Michael Blackfox, seem to function best just a half-step ahead of the law. Can you tell us a little about how you fleshed them out?
O’Neil: Inspiration for the character of Char Blackfox, the main protagonist in Tampa Star and Starfish Prime, came from various places. I was looking for someone memorable and at the time I attended a Battlefield Walk on the Loxahatchee River in South Florida. In 1838, the Seminoles fought two pitched battles against the U.S. Army. By all accounts, the first battle was a rout of the federal troops, as the indigenous people occupied the high ground—including having talented sharpshooters among the branches of ancient cypress trees. The Seminole were also experienced warriors with access to comparable weaponry as their foes, who were the usual mix of conscripts and seasoned veterans. More importantly, the federal troops were exhausted after having spent months on the trail in a forced march from Georgia. So, after hearing about the fierce Seminole warriors, I decided to make them the inspiration for Char Blackfox.
However, the incident that caused Char’s leg injury was based on a real event that happened to an old buddy of mine, a Korean American platoon sergeant I served with while assigned to a Military Police Company in the Republic of Korea. In Tampa Star, Char was wounded by a dead enemy soldier in Vietnam. This actually happened to the platoon sergeant in almost exactly the same fashion while he was serving in the 101st Airborne deployed to Vietnam. The platoon sergeant nearly lost a leg because he shot and killed the enemy soldier, who was trying to infiltrate the company’s defensive perimeter. My buddy then pulled the rifle away from the dead man while his lifeless but still flexed finger still enveloped the trigger. The platoon sergeant was shot in the leg and had to be reclassified as an MP because he was no longer fit enough to serve in the infantry.
So—Char Blackfox is a composite character based on a lot of old soldiers and Marines I knew when I was first finding my footing in the military. His son Michael was introduced as a way to bring the novel into present time. I wanted them to play off each other—the old guy versus the young buck. I thought the unique father-son Semper Fi bond was a rich area to mine.
Pollock: Among your many 5-star Amazon reviews there’s one 3-star that faults your heroes for stereotypical macho behavior and attitudes toward women. So—are you planning to send the Blackfox boys to politically correct reeducation camps and neuter them into Low-T metrosexuals?
O'Neil: I think General James N. Mattis, former Commandant of the Marine Corps, said it best: “When you men get home and face an anti-war protester, look him in the eyes and shake his hand. Then, wink at his girlfriend, because she knows she's dating a pussy.”
If that particular reviewer wants to live in that politically correct world, she should go find that war protestor, as I heard he’s looking for a girlfriend. To quote someone else, “Life is hard and it’s harder if you’re stupid.” I believe that’s from The Friends of Eddie Coyle, but I digress. The most important thing to me is that I write realistically—if that makes some people, especially those on the left of the political spectrum queasy, that’s a bonus.
Pollock: Glad to hear it! One of the things that makes your books so much fun is that they’re almost P.C.-free. In fact, Char and Michael Blackfox take me back to the door-busting pulp heroes of my youth—hard-drinking, skirt-chasing private eyes like Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer or Richard Prather’s Shell Scott, and Donald Hamilton’s randy superspy, Matt Helm. Nowadays, no doubt, Ian Fleming’s “M” would be pressured to send 007 to the first available sexual harassment workshop.
O’Neil: Yeah, all of those authors and characters have been an inspiration to me, whether I knew it or not. I’m so sick of the new metrosexual action heroes and apparently so are a lot of other folks, as evidenced by the success of certain characters in film and literature. I mean Adrien Brody as the star of the last Predator film? John Wayne must be turning over in his grave.
The first James Bond played by Sean Connery was a case study in political incorrectness, and the character went downhill after he left, until Daniel Craig managed to redeem him somewhat. Another character that probably would not be such a success today is John McLane, the hero played by Bruce Willis in the Diehard series.
Michael Blackfox does get a serious love interest in Mudd’s Luck, but he’ll stay largely the same as in past books. Char can’t change as he’s a dinosaur and necessary at certain junctures to shake up the narrative. I’m in the process of bringing back other characters because after I finish ML, Michael and Char deserve a little respite.
Pollock: I like to ask techno-thriller writers how they stay current on military hardware and geopolitics. Do you have any favorite online sources you can share (without betraying too many trade secrets)?
O’Neil: My final deployment allowed me to become current on lots of new weaponry and other hardware, and I included some of it in both books. I’ve also rubbed shoulders with lots of special ops types and actually served in a unit within that command for a while, although I’ve never claimed to be a true “snake eater.” During my time in the Marines and in Special Operations, I learned enough about how certain special ops units like the SEALs, Force Recon, Army Rangers and Special Forces operate and researched a lot more to write accurately and realistically about that particular subgroup. You can pretty much Google anything. As far as approaching special ops types, you really have to be careful. If they are still on active duty, you might as well forget talking to them, and the guys who have been out for a while may not be as in the loop as they claim. I look to websites and boards from time to time. There are lots of unofficial special ops bulletin boards that you can find through various search engines, such as Level Zero Heroes, which is about a Marine Special Operations Team.
Pollock: What about experts you call on? Tom Clancy cultivated a grapevine that linked him to what he called the “Great Chain,” a network of military types, government employees and intelligence officers who fed him information. Do you have a similar brain trust of ex-military you check with?
O’Neil: I have no grapevine at the moment, but then Clancy didn’t have the benefit of serving on active duty for a decade and another thirteen years in the reserves. I think that as my books gain in popularity, I’ll have service members contact me to tell me if I got something right, but more importantly, if I got something wrong. My next book will have very little military content, so it should not be a problem.
Pollock: One of the pitfalls of writing a timely or even futuristic thriller is that the plot can be overtaken or invalidated by tomorrow’s headlines. Which means that, as far as world events, you need to stay not only current, but ahead of the curve. Is that something you think about?
O’Neil: I used to. I was writing a book about a plan to blow up the Panama Canal, and I finished it, but it was never published. I’m sure it’s kicking around here someplace. I felt part of the problem was that it was overtaken by the handover of the canal to the Republic of Panama. Now, I just write a book and hope for the best.
Pollock: Do you write from a plot outline or do you prefer to let your characters lead you?
O’Neil: I have a rough idea in my head and constantly develop it as I write. For instance, Starfish was all about building a plot around the ability to hack into an insulin meter to control a pump. I built out from there. The McGuffin had to be important enough for them to want to parachute into the jungle to get it. I selected Venezuela because it’s currently operating under a despotic dictator, I’ve been there several times before and wanted legitimate bad guys to play off the good guys—in this case, the Colombians and Americans. I selected Colombians because I was impressed by their armed forces and police and thought I would pay them homage. Short war story: In a past life I worked as a trademark investigator and I was working with their federal police, roughly the equivalent of our FBI, set to bust several counterfeit apparel factories. A truck bomb went off at one of their offices in another city while we were planning the raid and scores of their officers were killed. I offered a few words of condolences in Spanish, and their commander basically thanked me, but suggested that we get back to work as they had a job to do. I thought that was a superlative example of their professionalism.
Pollock: Do you have a set time to write each day? And an office?
O’Neil: I have an office in a loft outside my bedroom; it’s a home office that I use for business purposes during the day and writing on the weekend. I have three or four computers; two laptops, a PC and a tablet scattered about and all my military memorabilia on the walls. I have not been writing every day, but I am looking for that to change, if and when we decide whether we are moving. We currently live in a three-level townhouse in a complex and life should be bliss, if not for the condo commandos that run the condo board. The kindest thing I can say about them is that any one of them could have served as a model for the Jack Clumpis character on Seinfeld, Marty Seinfeld’s rival on their condo board.
Pollock: Do you give yourself deadlines? Do you meet them?
O’Neil: I give myself a rough deadline. Right now, because I have a civilian job, so I like to keep it to one book a year.
Pollock: How much time do you allot to marketing? What are your favorite tools?
O’Neil: I don’t devote enough. Normally, I spend a few hours here and there doing marketing. I think the book giveaways on Goodreads are a great tool for getting reviews, however, since it’s owned by Amazon, they are book-ending authors by incentivizing them to hold giveaways and then selling them the books. I also participated in a review circle, where you review four books and others review your work. It’s not frowned upon as you are not doing reciprocal reviews, but I probably won’t do it again as other authors are not legitimate fans and can be very negative for silly reasons, i.e. the women who didn’t like that Starfish didn’t have strong female characters was from a review circle.
I’m also a paid member on Authors Marketing Club, but the jury is still out on whether I would renew. You and I both use Twitter and tweet about our books, but I’m not really sure how effective that is. I’ve used Fiverr to do audio and video shorts. I think the value with that site is that it’s so darned cheap for the quality of what they offer. I’ve used Kindle Direct / Amazon for countdown pricing and free giveaways and I think they have been very effective in promoting new authors.
Pollock: Do you write on more than one (fiction) project at a time? Can you juggle?
O’Neil: Not at the moment. If I ever take up writing full time, I can probably handle that.
Pollock: Do you jump around in your narrative or write straight through?
O’Neil: I normally write straight through, then my wife and I revise at night and I move on. I’m a very linear writer.
Pollock: You’ve done two volumes in the Blackfox Chronicles. How many more up your sleeve? And what’s the next one?
O’Neil: The book I just started writing is book three, the final volume of the Blackfox Chronicles. It’s called Mudd’s Luck and it finds Char and Michael sailing to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas on their way back to Tampa Bay. The title refers to the doctor who was a co-conspirator of John Wilkes Booth. Dr. Mudd was imprisoned at the fort after being sentenced to a lift term.
Pollock: Are there other genres you’d like to explore?
O’Neil: I was thinking of an apocalyptic novel along the lines of The Road but with a military protagonist, but we’ll see what happens.
Pollock: Thanks so much, Tim, for stopping by.
O’Neil: My pleasure, Dan.
TAMPA STAR: I974, Char Blackfox heads to Florida in to rebuild a life shattered by the war in Viet Nam. He’s a Seminole Indian and former Green Beret who leaves the army and moves to Tampa Bay with the vain hope of a new beginning. He gets a job, meets a beautiful woman and life seems to finally be going his way; until reality smacks him in the face. He throws in with the wrong crowd; a small time Irish-American hoodlum, a corrupt cop and an exiled Mafia Capo and his life spirals out of control. In 2004, a combat hardened Force Recon Marine is released from active duty and returns to Florida to find his estranged father; a guy no one can find but everyone is looking for.
STARFISH PRIME: Book 2 of the Blackfox Chronicles. Marine Corps Special Operations needed Michael Blackfox for one more mission. Do it and the government will go easy on his old man for a horrendous crime he committed a long time ago. Fail and he would allow an apocalyptic disaster to befall the United States. The risk is high, but the payoff is huge. Now available on Amazon.
About T.S. O’Neil: T.S. O'Neil graduated with Honors from Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts with a Degree in Criminal Justice and graduated with High Honors from the University of Phoenix with a Master's in Business Administration in Technology Management. He served as a Rifleman with the Marine Corps Reserve, an Officer in the Military Police Corps of the United States Army, and retired from the Army of the United States (AUS) as a Lieutenant Colonel in 2012. He is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. T.S. is currently employed as an IT Architect and lives in Seminole, FL with his beautiful fiancée Suzanne.