From storyteller to bestseller
John Gilstrap has created stories for most of his life. As a child, he invented stories for neighborhood friends to inhabit while playing together. As an adult, he writes for hundreds of thousands of readers worldwide.
Gilstrap, 64, is a New York Times bestselling author from Fairfax, Va., whose background in volunteer fire service and Master of Science degree in safety engineering help him craft realistic thrillers.
“I’ve been shot at, I’ve been threatened with knives, I’ve fallen through floors, I’ve been scared,” Gilstrap said in an interview with the Beacon.
“Having that kind of exposure to the breadth of human emotions — the laughter and sadness and having to be in a very sad situation, having to be the one who is strong…I think that informs my fiction a lot.”
Gilstrap has published more than 20 novels, most recently Stealth Attack, released in June. The 13th book in Gilstrap’s Jonathan Grave series, the novel follows Grave, a freelance hostage rescue specialist and former Delta Force operator who puts himself in harm’s way to return hostages to their families. After a friend’s son and his girlfriend are kidnapped, Grave travels to El Paso, Texas, entering the worlds of cartels and human trafficking.
In addition to Stealth Attack, Gilstrap released Crimson Phoenix in February of this year. This is the first novel in a new series about a West Virginia member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Victoria Emerson, who, while a nuclear war threatens, must decide between leaving her three teenage sons behind to enter a secure bunker or stay with them to prepare for the aftermath of the war.
Because his father was in the U.S. Navy, Gilstrap lived in several place before the family settled in the D.C. area in the early 1960s, when he was 7.
“I was kind of a free-range child,” he said. “I spent a lot of time in my head, making up stories. That’s what I would do even when I played with my buddies. When I was growing up, I was always sort of the storyteller.”
He graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1979 with a degree in American history, planning to be a journalist. Once out of college, Gilstrap got a position as the managing editor at a trade journal serving the construction industry, but he wasn’t satisfied. “It was a terrible job,” he said.
In 1980, Gilstrap also started volunteering at the Burke Volunteer Fire Department in Fairfax and later in Prince William County. In his 15 years as a volunteer firefighter, he experienced tragedies and blessings first-hand. In one day, for instance, he unsuccessfully gave CPR to a patient in the morning and delivered a baby in the evening.
“It was just an adrenaline rush,” he said of his volunteer work. “It wasn’t a career choice so much as it was an outlet. You’re 22, 23 years old, and you walk into the worst moment of people’s lives. It was my responsibility to bring order to the chaos, and it was really intoxicating,” Gilstrap said.
Volunteer firefighting led him to a career in safety engineering. In the 1980s, Gilstrap went back to school, earning his MS in safety engineering from the University of Southern California. For the next decade and a half, Gilstrap worked as a safety engineer with a specialty in explosive safety and hazardous waste.
Even though he worked in a different field, Gilstrap never stopped writing, he said. “All the time, the writing was going on in the background.”
Gilstrap published his first book, Nathan’s Run, in 1996. In a stroke of beginner’s luck, his literary agent managed to sell the hardcover rights and movie rights for more than $1 million.
“It was a hell of a first start,” he said. “I told myself, I can probably do this, so it just made sense to do the thing that I really love doing and go down that route.”
When his second book was also a success, Gilstrap quit his day job for a few years, then returned to the working world, writing all the time. He’s been a full-time writer since 2015.
In addition to Nathan’s Run, the Jonathan Grave series and the new Victoria Emerson series, Gilstrap has written several stand-alone thrillers, including Even Steven, At All Costs and The Copper Bracelet.
He co-wrote one nonfiction book, Six Minutes to Freedom, published in 2006 with Kurt Muse, about how the U.S. Army’s elite Delta Force rescued Muse from a Panama prison.
In addition to books, Gilstrap has written several screenplays. He has worked on movies based on some of his own work, such as Six Minutes to Freedom, At All Costs and Nathan’s Run. He has also worked on adaptations from Nelson DeMille’s Word of Honor and Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon.
Gilstrap received the International Thriller Writers’ Award for his book Against All Enemies in 2016. He won the ALA Alex Award for Nathan’s Run in 1997 and for At All Costs in 1999. Gilstrap is also a two-time International Thriller Writers’ Award finalist for Threat Warning in 2012 and No Mercy in 2010.
Those accolades aren’t the best part of Gilstrap’s career as a writer, though; it’s the company he keeps, what he calls “the community of writers,” he said. For example, the late Dino DeLaurentiis flew Gilstrap, along with other writers and celebrities, to Capri for the movie producer’s 80th birthday party. “That was pretty cool,” Gilstrap admitted.
“I’ve won some awards,” Gilstrap said. But when “you walk into a room and you see [that] all of my favorite writers are also my very good friends, and to realize that you’re part of this — that’s the ‘I made it’ moment.”
For the past two years, Gilstrap has kept up a breakneck pace, writing two books a year. This year, Gilstrap is working on a screenplay with a few friends.
The next book in the Victoria Emerson series, Blue Fire, is scheduled to be published in 2022, and he has a third book in mind for a possible trilogy. He is also working on the next book in the Jonathan Grave series, Lethal Prey, which will be published next July.
Gilstrap periodically teaches creative writing seminars to pass on what he’s learned. He also maintains a YouTube Channel, titled “A Writer’s View of Writing and Publishing,” where he posts videos teaching and encouraging would-be writers how to write and get published.
“Don’t listen to the people who say, ‘You can’t do this,’” he tells his viewers. “Listen to yourself more than you listen to others when it comes to who you want to be and what you want to do.”