A conversation with Mike Maden about Tom Clancy Line of Sight

In the new Tom Clancy novel Line of Sight, Jack Ryan Jr. finds that the scars of war can last a lifetime in the latest entry in Tom Clancy’s #1 New York Times bestselling series.

Twenty-six years ago, Dr. Cathy Ryan restored the eyesight of a young Bosnian girl who had been injured during an attack in the Bosnian War. Today, her son, Jack Ryan Jr. has agreed to track down the young woman and deliver a letter from his mother. What he finds shocks them both.

The helpless child has grown into a remarkable woman. Aida Curic is a self-possessed beauty with a big heart and an even bigger secret who runs a controversial refugee agency near Sarajevo. Jack finds himself deeply drawn to both her and her country, but soon finds himself in the crosshairs of the seething ethnic tensions and ancient blood feuds of the Balkans, the region of Europe where empires go to die. If Jack can’t navigate the world of secret service agencies, special operators and local mafias to save Aida, Sarajevo will prove the be the fuse that lights the next world war.

What follows is a conversation with the author Mike Maden where he discusses his inspirations for the new novel.

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Since Tom Clancy’s death in October 2013, the Jack Ryan and Jack Ryan, Jr., series has been continued by some incredibly talented co-authors and collaborators: Mark Greaney, Grant Blackwood, Marc Cameron, and you (with last summer’s Tom Clancy Point of Contact). How has your experience been stepping into the enormous shoes left behind by Tom Clancy and taking up the mantle from Mark and Grant? 

The day I got the call from Tom Colgan, the series editor, telling me I got the gig was one of the greatest days in my writing life because I’d been a fan of Tom Clancy since I read The Hunt for Red October in grad school, one of my all-time favorite novels. But thirty seconds after the phone call ended, it suddenly became one of the most terrifying days as well.

You can’t read in the techno-thriller genre without encountering Tom Clancy because he invented the genre, and the idea that I was now part of the Clancy “canon” along with Mark and Grant was genuinely thrilling but also deeply humbling. It was a little like being asked to add another few lines to the St. Crispin’s Day speech in Henry V. What could possibly go wrong?

It didn’t help that I’d read Mark and Grant before, because those guys can shoot the lights out when they put pen to paper, and Marc Cameron is a terrific writer as well. So not only did I have to reach for that very, very high bar that the four of them had set for me as a writer, but I also had an enormous responsibility to the readers and fans of the series to deliver the goods. That’s a responsibility I take very seriously because I’m a reader and fan myself.  One of life’s true pleasures is reading a great novel, but few things are more disappointing than a story that fails to live up to its possibility. If my readers are going to lay down their hard-earned cash on the barrelhead to read my work, I’m going to do my very best to earn my wage. I owe them at least that. But I also want to live up to the supreme honor of being invited into The Campus. “To whom much is given” is one of my life’s credos.

Luckily for me, the Clancy fans are a generous lot and Point of Contact was very well received by them. I hope I’ve returned the favor by producing an even better story in Line of Sight.

With a Ph.D in international relations, you’re somewhat of an expert on the topics of politics, war, and technology. What parts of your background and education helped you the most as you wrote Line of Sight? 

Unfortunately, studying international relations means studying the history of war and conflict, and the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s were just one episode in the long and bloody history of the region.  The vicious wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia after the death of Tito in 1980 didn’t happen in the far away jungles of Vietnam or the mountain caves of Afghanistan but in the very heart of “civilized” Europe. It’s the largest and bloodiest armed conflict on the continent since World War II, resulting, by some estimates, in over 100,000 killed. How and why it happened is interesting to me as a student of history, but as an American citizen, it terrifies me. The Yugoslav wars provide a very powerful lesson: you cannot practice divisive “identity politics” and inclusive democracy at the same time.

Line of Sight deals heavily with the legacy of the Bosnian War (1992 – 1995). What is it about this region that inspired the setting of the novel? 

I chose to set the bulk of the story in Bosnia and Herzegovina (one of several states that composed the former Yugoslavia) because in many ways Bosnia represents the canary in the coal mine of Western civilization.

The entire Balkan region embraces a number of bitter ironies, and multiethnic Bosnia holds lessons for us all. For example, the 1984 Winter Olympics were held in Sarajevo, Bosnia. On the one hand, the Games represent the ultimate symbol of international unity and cooperation to build a better, more peaceful world. And yet, less than a decade later, the fabled city was cut off and under bloody siege by Serbian forces, and neither the United Nations nor NATO did anything to either prevent it or stop it in a timely manner, which says as much about NATO and the UN as it does about the combatants.

To this day, many Muslim Bosnians (“Bosniaks”) believe that the Bosnian war was a NATO war against Muslims—it’s the only way they can explain the failure to act. On the other hand, Serbs in the region claim that NATO was waging war against Christians in order to protect Muslims as evidenced—in their minds—by the NATO bombing of Serbian forces and even Serbia’s capital.

Who’s right? That completely depends upon your identity.  In Bosnia, there is a Croat truth, a Serb truth, and a Bosniak truth to every “fact” presented.  That’s kind of where we are in America today, but do we understand the long-term implications that flow from this kind of mentality? 

Another crazy example: the term “ethnic cleansing” was coined during the Bosnian War, and some of us remember the televised images of Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and Muslim Bosniaks murdering one another in displays of the worst kind of interethnic slaughter, including death camps. And yet, a DNA survey of the region several years ago discovered that Balkan people are more genetically similar than any other group in Europe. In other words, outwardly they are different in their politics and religion, but in fact, they are biologically the same people.

There are other interesting facts about the war as well that I discuss in the novel. For example, the very first use of live combat video footage from a drone occurred during the Bosnian war; in a sense, the “drone wars” we are all familiar with began there.  And while we’re at it, let’s not forget that the modern Islamic jihad against the West really began in Bosnia as well: some of Al Qaeda’s first combat operations were launched in Bosnia and thousands of mujahedeen fought there. Even the mastermind of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was a foreign jihadi fighting in Bosnia during the war; he even became a Bosnian citizen.

Tom Clancy was known for his uncanny ability to foresee where international trouble was likely to flare up next. Among his last predictions were foreseeing Chinese cyberwarfare and Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine. Do you foresee any future prospects for trouble within the Balkans? 

The nastiest wars have a habit of starting where you least expect them, and in many ways the Balkans have dropped off our radar, which, again, is ironic. The flame that lit the fuse that started the holocaust known as World War I was the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, killed by a 19-year-old Bosnian Serb nationalist. All of the same geo-strategic competitors that fought World War I in that part of the world are all still vying for position and prestige in the region, albeit under different flags and regimes. And the same ethnic tensions that plagued the region in 1914 are still at work today. To borrow a phrase from Otto von Bismarck, the area is still a powder keg and all kinds of matches have already been lit.  Line of Sight explores one of those possibilities.

This novel features one of Clancy’s most popular characters, Jack Ryan, Jr., the covert intelligence operative son of President Jack Ryan. What makes the Ryans so appealing? 

I’m the first one in line to agree that Tom Clancy’s genius was to bring current technology into stories in a powerful and entertaining way, but sometimes we forget that the reason why we read novels is to read about ourselves and especially about who we want to be and Tom Clancy created one of the most compelling and appealing characters in all thriller literature in the person of Jack Ryan, Sr.

“Senior” is brilliant, moral, brave, and unapologetically patriotic—exactly the kind of person we all want to be our president (or boss or neighbor or friend) regardless of our political inclinations.  It’s not surprising that Senior is also a great dad, and he’s passed along the best of his character traits to his son, “Junior.” We never really got to know Senior as a young man or to watch his moral and physical development, but Junior allows me as both a reader and a writer to explore that progression in his son.

There’s no doubt in my mind whatsoever that Junior is Senior’s number one fan, but he’s still his own person, and even as he’s trying to live up to the high standards of conduct and accomplishment his father set by his life example, Junior knows he must find his own way in the world.

Line of Sight focuses on another character within the Ryan-verse: Cathy Ryan, Jack Jr.’s mother and the First Lady of the United States. She is also a renowned ophthalmic surgeon in her own right, which plays heavily in this plot. What are the challenges involved in finding a new corner of the Ryan-verse that hasn’t already been covered in a previous Clancy book? 

The easiest way to find a new corner in the Ryan-verse is simply to shine a spotlight onto one of the many great characters that Tom Clancy and other writers have created. Using Dr. Cathy Ryan’s expertise was a great jumping off point for this novel.  But she’s hardly the only hero in the Ryan-verse. I think I could write a whole series of novels based just on John Clark! And there are other members of The Campus equally compelling, and I can’t wait to tell more stories about them.

What new information, surveillance, and military technology do we learn about? 

Jack Junior novels are smaller in scope, and focus more on him and his immediate situation rather than the big war-fighting systems of the Senior books. But readers will learn about the incredibly destructive power of thermobaric weapons and the corrosive power of weaponized social media in this novel—and maybe a few other surprises.

The Campus is a completely below-the-radar unofficial intelligence operation sanctioned by the U.S. government but known only to a handful of top government officials. Do you believe such operations actually exist? Would we really know whether they did or not? 

The reason why Tom Clancy continues to amaze me is that he took an unflinching look at reality and had the guts to call it as he saw it. One of the themes I explored in my own series is directly connected to the issue raised by The Campus: In a world where the U.S. government is increasingly incapable of doing anything, who can be trusted to secure the safety of the American people? Tom Clancy’s answer was The Campus, founded by the most trustworthy character in American politics, President Jack Ryan, Sr.

In real life, it’s becoming terribly difficult to trust those we’ve elected to national office (regardless of party) and so it’s troubling to think that any of them would run an off-the-books organization like The Campus. But given the current state of affairs in the world—and our increasingly disorganized, unfocused, and ineffectual response to it—my hope and prayer is that trustworthy patriots (whether in the public eye or not) are still able to answer the call and thwart our enemies before they can strike.

The line between corporate and national security intelligence operations is often blurry, and The Campus is a prime example of that. What are the upsides and downsides of this kind of collaboration? Are they becoming increasingly intertwined in today’s world? 

For some time now, the national security establishment has relied upon private sector contractors to carry out its primary functions. (For years, the NSA contracted out the majority of its functions; e.g., Edward Snowden.) Part of the reason for this was cost savings, but in other cases it was in order to avoid the federal legal complications that private contractors weren’t subject to. But if it’s not legal for a government bureaucrat to do X, why is it legal for that bureaucrat to hire a corporation to carry X out? This is where the problem lies—it’s a legal distinction without a difference. If it’s wrong for a government agency to do it, it should be wrong for the government to hire it out—otherwise, change the law.

The idea of The Campus works because we trust Jack Ryan, Sr. (and all of The Campus operators) but in reality, private individuals and corporations are motivated by many things other than duty, honor and country. Once again, we’re faced with the question: whom do we trust to defend the American people?

Of course, the national security establishment has always relied on private corporations for its operations. The Pentagon isn’t a factory. Our defense industry is second to none, and many of the most important technological achievements have come from entrepreneurs, not bureaucrats. (Example: Google “Abraham Karem.”) Most cutting-edge technologies are found in the civilian sector, and governments are forced to collaborate with them to achieve their objectives. In fact, governments are finding ways to avoid the difficulties of declarations of war and prohibitions against assassinations by deploying technologies like drone warfare to neutralize enemy combatants. But do we always trust our governments to accurately and reliably identify those enemies? These questions are at the heart of techno-thrillers, which is why I love writing in the genre.

You’re also the author of your own critically acclaimed Troy Pearce series of techno-thrillers (Drone, etc.). How does writing a Clancy novel differ from writing that series? 

Every techno-thriller written today is the offspring of Tom Clancy’s brilliance; in one sense, we’re all writing Tom Clancy novels. The most important difference for me writing in the Tom Clancy series is that I have the privilege of hanging out with some of my favorite characters in the entire genre. The good news for me is that those characters have already been developed and have a history. The creative challenge is to honor and respect that history and those character constructs while imagining them in new environments making unexpected choices. I hope I’ve succeeded in doing so in Line of Sight.

Can you give us a hint as to what’s next for Jack Ryan, Jr., and the rest of The Campus? 

No, I really can’t!

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