By Mary Ann Grossmann
October 3, 2015
Vince Flynn (AP)
How do you step into the shoes of a best-selling author like the late Vince Flynn?
"With mixed fear and trepidation," admits Kyle Mills, who took on the job of writing "The Survivor," the thriller Flynn was working on when he died in 2013. It is the 15th in Flynn's series featuring CIA counterterrorist operative Mitch Rapp, one of the most iconic characters in contemporary popular fiction.
Mills has received positive feedback for "The Survivor," which is good because all of Flynn's Rapp novels were New York Times best-sellers with more than 20 million copies sold worldwide. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were fans and Bush invited Flynn to the White House several times. King Abdullah II of Jordan hosted Flynn in his palace and requested each new Rapp book.
Taking over a series is not a new challenge for Mills, of Jackson Hole, Wyo. Besides writing 12 thrillers of his own, Mills completed two books in the late Robert Ludlum's Covert-One series.
Even though Mills wrote almost all of "The Survivor," Flynn's name dominates the book's cover, and that's the way Mills wants it.
"With Vince's book, my goal was to write so seamlessly, no one would be able to tell my writing from Vince's," Mills said. "I approached it as 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it.' "
Mills and Flynn, who lived in the St. Paul area all his life, had careers so similar it's as though Mills was meant to take over the series. He remembers meeting Flynn once, briefly, but he can't recall when or where.
"I've been a Vince Flynn fan from the beginning," Mills said in a phone conversation. "I'm about a month older than he was and we started our careers at the same time. We both published our first books in 1997 and got positive reactions. And he gave me a terrific quote for the jacket of one of my books. Vince's career path is mine on steroids to some extent -- more fans, bigger advances, more marketing, but nothing I'm not familiar with."
Lysa Flynn, Flynn's widow, said she never talked with her husband about someone taking over his book because he was sure he was going to beat his prostate cancer.
"There was no Plan B," she recalled.
Since Flynn kept his professional writing separate from his family time, Lysa didn't know much about how his team in New York decided to continue the series or how much of his original manuscript they had seen.
"I certainly have mixed feelings about knowing someone else is writing Vince's books. I had to get used to that idea," she said. "But I'm comforted by knowing Vince was comfortable with someone writing a book with him because he was talking with (author) Brian Haig about doing a series together.
And I remember him talking about Kyle and how much he liked his writing."
TAKING THE JOB
Mills isn't sure who decided he should write "The Survivor" and two future Rapp books. The decision involved negotiations between his agent; Flynn's longtime agent, Sloan Harris; and Flynn's estate, represented by Lysa.
"I was asked for ideas about where I'd go with the book," Mills recalled. "I re-read Vince's most recent book, 'The Last Man,' and he'd left enough clues that it was obvious where the new one needed to go. We had long discussions about our philosophy for the series and we were largely on the same page. I wouldn't do anything crazy anyway."
Before Mills started writing "The Survivor," he re-read all the Rapp books, which begin in 2010 with "American Assassin." Along the way, he took some 150 pages of notes.
"Vince left one short chapter of 'The Survivor,' about 2 1/2 pages, which was probably intended to be chapter one," Mills said. "I assumed he would have left a bunch of research and an outline because that's what I would do. But Vince didn't work that way. He hated outlines."
Mills finally wrote a prelude and made Flynn's pages chapter one. (It is poignant that the last sentence in that chapter -- "He's a survivor" -- might be the last words Flynn ever wrote.)
All the familiar characters return in "The Survivor," including beleaguered CIA chief Irene Kennedy. Rapp and Kennedy are dealing with the release of classified documents sent from beyond the grave by Rick Rickman, a former CIA golden boy who stole the information before Rapp killed him. Now, the agency is threatened by videos of Rickman revealing secrets that could endanger CIA agents around the globe and bring down the entire agency. It's a race between Pakistan and the Americans to find out where the videos are being released, and Rapp has to use the skills of his whole team to stop an old adversary.
There is one death, which won't be revealed here, that might surprise readers. But Mills is confident Flynn felt it was time for this character to leave the world honorably.
Kyle Mills (Atria Books)
IMMERSED IN FOREIGN CULTURES
Mills' father, who was in the FBI, was legal attache to the United Kingdom and director of Interpol so the family moved often. Mills grew up in Washington, D.C., Virginia, Maryland and Wyoming, as well as England and other foreign countries.
"I was a Bureau kid, similar to being an Army brat," he said, adding that he absorbed a lot of information about the FBI, CIA, Special Forces and other organizations.
In an eerie coincidence, Mitch Rapp joined the CIA after the love of his life died in the Pan Am 103 airplane crash over Lockerbie, Scotland, and Mills' father was the FBI's lead man in the investigation of that terrorist attack.
Mills was a student at James Madison University in Virginia when Tom Clancy visited the family in London while he was researching his second book. They invited him for supper, and Clancy and Mills' dad became good friends.
While Mills was in college, he "avoided English classes like the plague," concentrating on business and economics. He also became enamored of rock climbing, an obsession he still has.
"I was working for a little bank in Jackson Hole, spending my days making business loans and my afternoons and weekends climbing," he recalled. "For some reason, it finally occurred to me that I'd never actually tried to be creative. Maybe I could make something from nothing."
After Mills failed at building furniture, his wife suggested he write a novel. Eight months later, he finished "Rising Phoenix" (1998), first in his series featuring maverick FBI Special Agent Mark Beamon.
Because Mills has lived in foreign countries, he enjoys immersing himself in other cultures and that helped him write "The Survivor," in which characters from several nations offer differing views of the U.S.
"I always find political stuff interesting," he said. "I like the complexity of the world, something my books have embraced but Vince kept away from. My characters have always been more flawed; his were black and white. His greatest gift was creating characters you really hated and wanted them to get theirs."
WHAT'S NEXT FOR MITCH?
Mills knows his next two Rapp books will have to be somewhat different from what Flynn might have written.
"Thrillers have to be written about what's going on at the time. That's what drives the plot. There was no ISIS when Vince was writing, no Iran deal," he said, pointing out that the U.S. no longer has ground troops fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq that gave Flynn's books such immediacy.
Mills is sure there are better times ahead for Rapp, who has been through the loss of his wife, a house that burned and many killings. Mills thinks it's time for Rapp to move on. Flynn probably felt the same way.
"I was talking to a guy who said, 'You gave Mitch his humanity back,' " Mills recalled. "Rapp has gone through different periods. I thought, poor guy, his life is dark. He's trying to pull it together in 'The Survivor,' realizing he's drinking and smoking too much, with no women around. He's trying to find something that's not running around the world killing people. I want him to have a tiny bit of happiness."
Mary Ann Grossmann can be reached at 651-228-5574.
CELEBRATING FLYNN'S LEGACY
Vince Flynn, who lived in the St. Paul area his entire life, was 47 when he died of prostate cancer. At his funeral at the St. Paul Cathedral the pews were filled with people paying tribute to a man much admired and loved as warm, caring and generous. Despite hobnobbing with presidents and interviewing top U.S. security officials, Flynn stayed humble and grounded in Minnesota and his family.
He never expected to be a writer when he was growing up in Apple Valley with six siblings and struggling with dyslexia. After graduating from St. Thomas Academy and the University of St. Thomas he sold Jell-O and cereals to grocery stores and wholesalers. As long as he could remember he wanted to be a jet pilot, but that dream crashed when he was 27 and the Marines turned him down because he'd had a couple concussions when he was a kid.
"That was the most sobering day of my life," he recalled in a 1997 Pioneer Press interview. "Besides flying, my other passion was writing an espionage novel." He did that while bartending at O'Gara's on Snelling Avenue.
Flynn's debut novel, "Term Limits," was a techno-thriller he self-published and sold out of the trunk of his car. He was soon signed by Atria, a division of Simon & Schuster, and Mitch Rapp was born in 2010 in "American Assassin."
The national launch of "The Survivor," Flynn's last book, will take place Tuesday at St. Thomas Academy.
The launch will feature discussions by Flynn's only editor, Emily Bestler, senior vice president and editor-in-chief of Emily Bestler Books, and Flynn's agent, Sloan Harris, as well as media personalities Joe Soucheray, Dan Barreiro and Tom Barnard, Flynn's brother Tim and his childhood friend Tom Tracy. Moderator will be Flynn's friend WCCO-TV anchor Frank Vascellaro.
In the audience will be his widow, Lysa, to whom he was married for 13 years, and their children: Dane, 20, is a sophomore at the University of St. Thomas majoring in sports writing; and daughter Ingrid, who will be 15 this month, and a freshman at Visitation, where Ana is an eighth grader.
The event was suggested by David Brown, Atria Books deputy director of publicity, in cooperation with Lysa. Brown traveled with Vince Flynn off and on through eight book tours.
"Vince was very special to me and we thought relaunching Mitch Rapp should be a big special event and not just a regular book signing," Brown said. "The most appropriate place was the building named after him at St. Thomas."
St. Thomas headmaster Matthew Mohs and the board of directors were happy to oblige.
"Obviously as a school we are not typically in the business of hosting book-release events," Mohs said, "but Vince was such an important part of our community. The way David Brown pitched the idea was as a celebration of Vince's life and legacy. We know Vince's books touched a number of people and we recognize our school had a strong influence on him. It's a nice way to be involved in a tribute to a man who deserved it."
IF YOU GO
What: Kyle Mills reads at national release celebration for Vince Flynn's "The Survivor"
When/where: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Vincent J. Flynn Hall, St. Thomas Academy, 949 Mendota Heights Road, Mendota Heights. (He also will read at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Barnes & Noble, 3225 W. 69th St., Edina.)
Cost: $150-$50 (proceeds benefit St. Thomas Academy)
More information: cadets.com/vinceflynn
KYLE MILLS' BOOKS
"Rising Phoenix," "Storming Heaven," "Free Fall," "Burn Factor," "Sphere of Influence," "Smoke Screen," "Fade," "The Second Horseman," "Darkness Falls," "Lords of Corruption," "The Immortalists."
VINCE FLYNN'S MITCH RAPP NOVELS:
"American Assassin," "Kill Shot," "Transfer of Power," "The Third Option," "Separation of Power," "Executive Power," "Memorial Day," "Consent to Kill," "Act of Treason," Protect and Defend," "Extreme Measures," "Pursuit of Honor," "The Last Man."