Today’s guest is thriller novelist Tony Vanderwarker to talk about his debut novel, Sleeping Dogs.
He has quite a bit to share, including a conversation with John Grisham, and a shout out to some canines who can’t, well, I won’t spoil it... Let’s listen in.
Founder and former senior creative officer at one of Chicago’s largest ad agencies, Tony Vanderwarker moved in the early 90s to a Virginia farm overlooking the Southwest Mountains to fulfill his dream of writing fiction. There, neighbor and fellow football dad John Grisham took Tony under his wing and taught him the secrets of writing thrillers. Now author of the forthcoming memoir about this experience, Writing with a Bestseller (Skyhorse Press), Tony has also penned three novels: Sleeping Dogs — written under Grisham’s exacting eye — Ads for God and Say Something Funny.
Welcome, Tony. Please tell us about your current release.
Sleeping Dogs is about a Pentagon weapons specialist Howie Collyer who has tried for years to alert Washington to the potentially lethal presence of eleven live nuclear bombs dropped accidentally by the Air Force over US territory during the Cold War. Forced into retirement, he continues to spread the word about the unrecovered nukes on his website. Little does he know that an al-Qaeda sleeper cell has been monitoring the site and watching his every move, poised to zero in on any nuke whose location is revealed and detonate it, killing millions and devastating the eastern seaboard. But the only person with information on the whereabouts of the nukes is a former B-52 pilot whose plane went down—nukes and all---decades earlier and is now locked up and heavily sedated in the VA hospital.
When VA nurse Sharon Thorsen catches the drift of Risstup’s incoherent ramblings about lost bombs and discovers Collyer’s website, the three are off on a tense search for the missing nuke which they discover is in the Chesapeake. With an al-Qaeda suicide diver on their tail along with a Pentagon task force determined to keep their ugly secret under cover, the three find themselves in a mad scramble to evade the Pentagon and keep the suicide diver from detonating the bomb.
What inspired you to write this book?
I’d stubbed my writing toe on three comic novels. All the feedback I got was that comedy was a hard sell in the publishing business. So I started looking around for thriller plot ideas and about the same time I found a couple, John Grisham invited me to lunch and offered to mentor me in writing a thriller. After I picked myself up off the floor and said, “Yes!”, he asked me if I had any ideas. I pitched two to him and he shot them down. “Okay,” I said, “let me try another. There are eleven unrecovered nukes scattered around the U.S. as a result of mid-air mishaps and collisions of bombers during the Cold War.” “You’re kidding?” John asked. “Nope, it’s documented and the Pentagon maintains they are harmless,” I answered. And he said, “Who ever heard of a harmless nuke? What if a bad guy got a hold of one?” And we were off to the races.
What exciting story are you working on next?
I’m working on a humorous novel about an ad guy whose agency is taken over by the Mafia entitled Client From Hell. I’m also working on a thriller bringing back the main characters in Sleeping Dogs entitled, Terrible Cold. It’s a novel about terrorists trying to infect the U.S. with bubonic plague.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I felt like a writer when I left the corporate world and started writing full-time. I even built myself a writing studio on my property which overlooks the Southwest Mountains where I’ve written seven novels and three non-fiction books. Signing my first publishing contract for my non-fiction novel, Writing with the Master validated all of that work.
Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
Yes, I write from 9-12 every weekday.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I come up with ideas in my sleep, develop plots, come up with great names for characters. Sometimes I wake up and scribble them down, more often I just commit them to the sleep cycle and hope I remember. I find the semi-conscious mind much more fecund than the waking one as there are fewer inhibitions and more go-for-the-fences ideas.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a nuclear physicist but went into advertising instead.
Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
My four dogs are always at my feet when I write. Yet they refuse to give me plot ideas and are terrible spellers. But because they all lie around on the floor snoring, they did give me the title to Sleeping Dogs.
In working with Grisham, I learned a couple things not directly from John, but from the experience. There’s a T.S. Eliot quote that goes something like, “The end of the journey always ends up at the place where you started and you come to know that place for the first time.” I found that it wasn’t until that I went back and wrote Writing with the Master that I really internalized all the lessons John taught me and was able to do a major revise to Sleeping Dogs that resulted in a sale. And that was eight years after I began the novel. So the moral is: never give up the dream and never give up making your book as good as it can be.