A tiny yellow 1946 J-3 Piper Cub lies dead ahead on a grassy airstrip on a farm not far from Stephen Coonts's home in central Maryland. It is a two-seater, hardly big enough to accommodate a couple of jockeys, let alone two middle-aged six-footers. "It's just a little popper," Coonts says as he begins preparing for takeoff, "but it's a whole lot of fun."
Coonts g s through a familiar routine. He takes off the tarp, checks the oil and gas, then gives the propeller a couple of sharp tugs and the engine catches. We are soon soaring at an altitude of 800 feet, skimming over farmland and suburbia at 80 mph. It's a far different world in the air from the one Coonts knew as a pilot of Navy A-6 bomber jets, or Intruders, during the Vietnam War in the early 1970s. Coonts's knowledge of airplanes and aviation is at the heart of his seven techno-thrillers, all starring A-6 pilot Jake Grafton and marked by stunningly vivid scenes of combat in the air.
Coonts left warfare behind when he retired from the Navy in 1977 after an eight-year career. But his love for flying continued. His 1992 nonfiction book from Pocket, Cannibal Queen: An Aerial Odyssey Across America, is a charming account of a three-month flight to all 48 continental states in a 1942 biplane. "Cockpits are our mountaintops, our seats above the clouds where we can see into forever," Coonts writes in Cannibal Queen. "The machines lift us into a pristine wilderness on journeys that strengthen, refresh and renew."
Coonts's enthusiasm at being in the air is palpable on this day in mid-July. As we head toward Chesapeake Bay for an interview over lunch at a waterfront restaurant, he points out the sights and landmarks with boyish exuberance. To the left lies Baltimore, to the right is Washington, D.C. Coonts points toward the haze on the horizon to the south. "That's the Washington Monument," he shouts above the chug-chug of the engine.
After a smooth landing at an airstrip on Kent Island on the other side of the Bay, it's time for crabcakes and steamed shrimp at an informal restaurant nearby. Coonts has said many times that he didn't model Jake Grafton on himself, but there are striking similarities. Both are 53 years old and about six feet tall. Both are plainspoken and direct. One can imagine that Coonts, in his career as a Navy officer, was much like his description of Grafton in Cuba, his new thriller from St. Martin's: "Grafton always put his brain in gear before he opened his mouth, never lost his cool, and he never lost sight of the goals he wanted to accomplish."
Coonts says that in his first novel, Flight of the Intruder (Naval Institute Press, 1986), he wanted Grafton to be "Everyman who ever went to Vietnam. He will always do the right thing despite the circumstances. He's not wise, he's not witty, he's not heroic." Compared to the cartoonish her s of many techno-thrillers, Grafton seems almost an underachiever. After spending time with Coonts, one begins to understand why. For one thing, he has seen warfare first-hand and isn't interested in glorifying it. And he may love flying, but his feet are firmly on the ground.
Coonts's 1998 thriller, Fortunes of War (St. Martin's), about a right-wing coup in Japan, was the only one of his novels not to feature Grafton, and it was, coincidentally or not, his only one that didn't land on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list (it did make the paperback list). For someone who had been a mainstay on the bestseller lists since his debut in 1986, it was a bit of a comedown -- but for Coonts, it was a worthwhile trade-off.
"One of the things I wanted to do in Fortunes of War," Coonts says, "was to get away from Jake Grafton, because he was so limiting. To use him, he's got to have a military role. He's got to have some flying in the book. And if he's the hero, he has to be involved in the resolution of the major conflict. So that makes it a Navy action adventure, and you're already boxed in."
Cuba demonstrates Coonts's growth as a writer since Flight of the Intruder. He has always been strong at building characters and incorporating a mass of technical information into the story; Cuba is also more intricately plotted, depicting the last days of the republic under Fidel Castro and the ensuing power struggle, with Grafton leading the U.S. military effort to mediate.
Grafton, now a rear admiral in charge of a carrier group near Guantanamo Bay, occupies a decidedly minor role in Cuba. He's in only one flying sequence, and mainly coordinates the U.S. efforts from the carrier United States. Coonts says he isn't trying to usher Grafton out the door -- merely trying to give readers something different every time. And, he believes, even though his success as a writer was built primarily on the six novels featuring Grafton, the reading public has changed in the interim.
"As a writer, I'm torn between poles, Coonts says. "I've got the fans who write me letters and e-mail by the bucketful, and they say they want to read about Jake Grafton, and Toad, and Rita, and Callie [all recurring characters]. That's a very common refrain.
"The problem is that if you just make it a military-action adventure, it becomes very hard to sell to the general public. I also get a lot of mail from women who say they like reading a book with no political ax to grind, which treats women as real people and not as Clive Cussler fluff or James Bond sex objects. And the other problem with shoot-'em-ups is that the characters just become targets."
"The techno-thriller is kind of stale now," comments Charles Spicer, Coonts's editor at St. Martin's. "In both Fortunes of War and Cuba, Steve tried to give a story that's very different -- the focus was on suspense, international intrigue, military action."
Spicer d s concede he was "a bit nervous" about taking on Fortunes of War, the first novel in a two-book contract with St. Martin's (Coonts has since has signed another two-book contract). "It definitely was different territory. But, really, Steve wasn't abandoning his market. His books still have a lot of military action. His core audience won't feel left behind."
Born in the coal-mining town of Buckhannon, W.Va., in 1946, Coonts was an avid reader as a child and entertained fantasies even then of being a writer. He enlisted in the Navy "because it was a way out of the hills. I knew I either was going to get drafted, or I could do something cool." After getting his commission and barely graduating flight school in Pensacola, Fla. -- it took him five attempts to pass his flight test -- he did two tours of duty in Vietnam as a pilot of the A-6 bomber. "We were cannon fodder -- just kids who were going to be killed, although we didn't know that," Coonts says cryptically. Vietnam clearly is a topic he d sn't like to dwell on. He wrote a sequel to Flight of the Intruder, which Pocket Books published in 1994 as The Intruders, but Coonts says he won't write another book about Vietnam. "All that was a long time ago and far, far away," he says emphatically. "I don't want to dig into those emotions again. Now I'm just a middle-aged dude who likes where I am."
He developed the idea of writing about his flying experiences while still in Vietnam, but it wasn't until the mid-1980s, when he was long out of the service and was an attorney for an oil and gas company in Colorado, that Flight of the Intruder took shape. He had written some flight scenes, "but I didn't have a plot. Then, in 1984, I was going through a divorce, and I had no money but plenty of time. I would stay in the office after everybody had gone home. From 6 to 11, I would write every evening. And I finally figured out a plot -- about a pilot who tried too hard, and got involved in the bombing of an unauthorized target."
The manuscript of Flight of the Intruder was turned down by 34 publishers before Coonts decided to try the tiny Naval Institute Press in Annapolis, Md., which had recently published Tom Clancy's first novel, The Hunt for Red October. NIP accepted the manuscript and offered him an advance of $5000. "I thought it was a hell of a deal," Coonts says.
Flight of the Intruder went on to land on the Times bestseller list, where it remained for 28 weeks; it was later adapted into a Paramount film and turned into a video game. Coonts was ready to give up practicing law, which he disliked, for a shot at writing novels. Although he intended Flight as "a serious war novel," NIP wanted to market it as a thriller and asked for extensive revisions. In retrospect, however, Coonts says he didn't mind reworking the book. "They helped me learn the craft of writing," he says. "A big New York publisher would not have had the energy to work with a novice like me."
Despite the success of Flight of the Intruder, he couldn't interest NIP in his next novel, about the theft of nuclear weapons from a Navy ship in the Mediterranean. "One of their editors took me to lunch and told me I couldn't write this book, that all I could do was guys in the cockpit and guys on aircraft carriers," Coonts says with a grin.
Coonts returned to Denver, and moped around for a few months, not writing. Then his law firm, which was downsizing, laid him off. So he decided to send the 159 pages he had written of Final Flight, unagented, to three New York publishers. All three jumped at the chance to sign him. Coonts settled on Doubleday, then went back to Annapolis to tell his former editor at NIP, whom he declines to name. How much were they paying? asked the editor. "I told him, 'One million dollars,'" Coonts says. "And that guy turned green, like he had just swallowed a rock."
Doubleday published his third novel, The Minotaur, in 1989, before Coonts decamped to Pocket Books on the advice of Robert Gottlieb, who had become his agent. "At Pocket," Coonts says, "a one-book deal became three books, but then it didn't work out so well. We could never agree on what the next book would be. But I've been real lucky with the editors I've worked for from day one -- David Gernert at Doubleday, Paul McCarthy at Pocket Books and now Charlie Spicer."
Still he remains philosophical about the publishing business. He has written two non-thrillers that he fears will never be published. One, which he refused to talk about on the record, was recently turned down by St. Martin's. Coonts says that he might have to publish it under a pseudonym. "There are always a thousand people telling you that you can't do something, or they don't want your book, or your readers won't like it," he says. "So, as a writer, you need to shut that stuff off. I don't want to know about the publishing business. I'm just a storyteller. I'm not out to change the world -- I just want to entertain for a few hours."
The interview over, it is time to walk back to the J-3 for the flight home. The next day, Coonts and his wife, Deborah, an attorney and flight instructor, plan to fly their S-35 Bonanza to their farm in West Virginia. Then they'll fly around the country, visiting relatives and friends before returning to Maryland. If Jake Grafton isn't taking to the air very often these days, the passion for flying still burns strongly in his creator. It's a love Coonts readily passes on to his readers. "You know," Coonts says, "of all the books I've done, Cannibal Queen still gets the most response -- probably half of all the mail I've ever gotten. The universal response is that after reading the book, they all want to go flying."
We clamber back into the J-3 and set off across the Chesapeake. The plane has just lifted over the water when an unmistakable sound comes from the rear seat. "Off we go, into the wild blue yonder," Stephen Coonts is singing to himself, ebulliently.
Warren, a former book editor of the Baltimore Sun, is a writer in the Washington area.