Author Q&A: Thomas W. Young

  • September 8, 2011

Wendy Coakley-Thompson interviews Thomas W. Young, author of Silent Enemy

Wendy Coakley-Thompson Interviews Thomas W. Young. See the Independent‘s review of Young’s book, Silent Enemy.

Much of Silent Enemy takes place on board a C-5 Galaxy aircraft, a plane with which you are intimately familiar and have flown yourself. What characteristics of that aircraft made it the obvious choice as the primary setting for the story?

In Silent Enemy, terrorists plant a bomb on a medical flight that’s transporting patients from Afghanistan to Germany. With my characters confined aboard a doomed aircraft, the setting itself adds tension to the narrative. But the C-5 is so large that I still had room to move my characters around; the setting was not as limiting as you might imagine.

Aft of the C-5′s cockpit, the flight deck includes bunk rooms and a galley and relief crew area. There’s also an upstairs troop compartment that seats 75. The cargo compartment looks like a warehouse, and in Silent Enemy that section is turned into a flying hospital. So I had a variety of spaces to set the action; it’s not as if my characters were stuck in their seats the whole time.

The C-5 can refuel in the air. That becomes crucial in my novel because the bomb hidden on board will explode on descent. Through aerial refueling, the crew buys time to deal with the crisis. But even with multiple refuelings, they can’t stay aloft forever. As time goes by, the mechanical condition of the aircraft deteriorates, the medical condition of the patients worsens, and the crew grows more and more exhausted. Also, as word of their predicament spreads, various countries deny landing rights. So what would have been a relatively short flight from Afghanistan to Europe becomes an emergency-filled aerial odyssey more than halfway around the world.

You have to write what you know. By placing the story on a C-5, I used my experience as a flight engineer to paint a picture of what could really take place if a crew faced these problems. Not all these things have happened to me; I’m happy to tell you I’ve never had a bomb on my airplane. But I’ve trained for these situations, thought about them, tried to plan for them.

You are a man. What were you were able to tap into to create the authentic, multilayered female character that is Sergeant Major Sophia Gold?

Sergeant Major Gold is a composite of women I’ve known in the military. And here, I will confess to being wrong about something. When I first joined the military in the early 1990s, there was a lot of debate about the expanding roles of women. And I had reservations. What about sexual tensions within units? What about women’s physical strength? If I got hurt, could a woman drag me to safety?

But in the years since–in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq–the performance of women in the military has put to rest those kinds of concerns. I’ve worked with a number of military women for whom I have great respect. And I hope the character of Sergeant Major Gold does them justice.

It seems a given that Gold and her SILENT ENEMY counterpart Major Michael Parson would carry scars from previous military engagements. The way they cope with these particular scars reveals much about their characters. Was that by design on your part, or did that happen organically as the story and characters revealed themselves to you?

By design, absolutely. Like many real-world service members, Parson and Gold do indeed bear scars from repeated deployments. Yet they work through the bad memories and continue doing their jobs. I put a lot of thought into making that part of their characters. In the news media, we often see stories about veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress so debilitating they cannot continue to serve and have difficulty even with civilian life. Those stories need telling, and those vets deserve all our respect and thanks. But a lesser-known story is about people who have seen things they wish they could unsee, experienced things they’d like to forget, and still they re-enlist and go back to war zones again and again.

What would you say are some of the themes that permeate SILENT ENEMY, and how do your characters embody those themes?

Silent Enemy delves into that age-old question about the nature of good and evil, why people do awful things like putting bombs on airplanes. Sergeant Major Gold wrestles with that issue; she believes evil, at its root, is the assertion of self-interest over the needs of others. Major Parson doesn’t philosophize the way Gold does; he has his hands full with a dying airplane. But if self-interest is the raw material of evil, he embodies its opposite: self-sacrifice. He’s willing to give his life to save his passengers.

Another theme is the nature of leadership. I show Parson struggling under the burden of command, trying to make good decisions when he has no good options. In one scene, he has to decide whether to depressurize the airplane to help find the bomb, when he knows the depressurization might kill some of the patients.

He’s always making judgment calls, and a few turn out to be wrong. Parson also has to delegate authority, which goes against his instincts. Through Gold and other characters, the story shows how the person in charge might not see everything. Some of the crew members have to work independently and make decisions of their own, and Parson realizes he must let them.

You are working on another book involving Parson and Gold, the characters in SILENT ENEMY and in your debut novel THE MULLAH’S STORM. What about these characters compels you to revisit them?

Opposites attract, and that’s a big part of what makes those characters fun to write. Parson is a man of action, a flyboy, impulsive to a fault. Gold is more intellectual and spiritual. She’s a Pashto linguist and an expert on Afghan culture, someone who is extremely well read. From time to time her knowledge and perspective keep Parson out of trouble, and he knows it. Her expertise makes her the functional leader in certain situations even though Parson outranks her.

They bring very different strengths and attitudes to the problems they face together. Parson, naturally, is comfortable in the air. Gold would rather be on the ground. Each chapter of Silent Enemy has a section from Parson’s point of view and one from Gold’s point of view. Readers get to see this airborne crisis through the eyes of a pilot, and through the eyes of a ground troop who knows little of aviation but a great deal about people.

But for their shared ordeal in my first novel, The Mullah’s Storm, they might never have met. That experience formed a bond between them that in some respects is deeper than romantic love. And they are not involved that way. They’re single and about the same age, so they feel some attraction to each other. But at least so far, their circumstances have not allowed romance to develop. You’re not interested in sex when you’re tired, hungry, and fighting for your life.

You receive high praise from your colleagues. No other than Frederick Forsyth called your work “gripping and impressively authentic.” What reaction to your work have you received from readers in the military who should be able to inherently relate?

When military readers e-mail me to say the novels ring true, that’s the highest honor I could get. I often hear from veterans who compare scenes in my books with things they’ve experienced. One reader who’d flown B-29s in the Korean war wrote to say, “The equipment changes, but the pucker factor stays the same.”

From time to time, veterans will tell me a little about themselves; they’ll say where they served and what they did. Sometimes that starts an e-mail exchange as we compare notes: “Did you train on C-130s in Little Rock?” “Were you in Bosnia?” “Didn’t I see you in Panama?”

Most service members are committed professionals working hard to do extremely difficult jobs. They appreciate accurate fictional portrayals. My squadron mates in the West Virginia Air National Guard have been especially supportive.  Some even read my manuscripts and help me with research. I owe a lot to the folks in my unit; they’re like family.

Obviously the subject matter in SILENT ENEMY – America at war in Afghanistan – is very timely. What, if anything, would you like civilian readers to glean from the book about our efforts in that part of the world?

I’d like civilian readers to get to know the people who are protecting them. We’ve had all-volunteer armed forces for decades, and that has given us a highly professional military. But the all-volunteer service has also created a disconnect between the military and the rest of society. Military service tends to run in families, and people outside those families often don’t understand the sacrifices or the rewards. When I’m away from my Air National Guard unit–when I attend writers’ conferences, for example–I meet people who don’t know anyone in the military, who don’t know a major from a sergeant major.

At one of those conferences, I mentioned to a woman that I had recently re-enlisted. She was incredulous: she couldn’t understand why anyone who could get out of the military would choose to stay in.

So for civilians like her, I hope to convey something about the experience of the modern-day serviceman and servicewoman. I hope my readers will learn a bit about the motivations and mindset of folks who take that oath of enlistment knowing the increased risks–but also knowing they’re part of something bigger than themselves.

Alexandria-based journalist and award-winning commentator Wendy Coakley-Thompson covers the publishing industry and is the published author of three novels.

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