C. G. Cooper: Welcome to Books in 30 with me C. G. Cooper also known as Carlos Cooper. Here at Books in 30, we discuss great books with great authors. So, welcome to our listeners and a big Books in 30 welcome to today's guest, Andrew Watts. Andrew, welcome. How you doing?
Andrew Watts: Thank you. Good to be here.
C. G. Cooper: Well, this is this is all about you and all about books so let me read a quick intro of who you are. Andrew graduated from The United States Naval Academy in 2003, I won't give him too much of a hard time about that. He served as a naval officer and helicopter pilot until 2013. During that time, he flew counter narcotic missions in the eastern Pacific and counter piracy missions off the Horn of Africa. He was a flight instructor in Pensacola, Florida, and helped to run ship and flight operations while embarked on a nuclear aircraft carrier deployed in the Middle East. Today, he lives with his family in Ohio. And we will talk a little bit more about where to find him at the end. One thing I want to talk about really quickly. You gave me a couple little tidbits on things that are interesting about you and the one that I really want to hear about is that you flew your helicopter 50 feet over Captain Phillips while he was being held hostage by Somali pirates. Tell us about that....
Andrew Watts: Yeah that's right. So in 2009, it was actually the height of piracy in modern history. So there were a lot of piracy attacks in the Gulf of Aden off the Horn of Africa and our ship, the USS Halliburton, was tasked to do piracy operations there.
I had just landed my helicopter one night and I'm looking up at the TV screen above our maintenance shop in the hangar and it starts talking about a U.S. flagged vessel [that] was pirated. And you know there were several people that were taken hostage initially. I'm looking at it and all of a sudden our ships start shaking and I can see the wake start to get bigger and a big stream of white water behind us which meant we were going real fast. I'm thinking hey you know that's really close to where we are.
Then, for the next 72 hours we go around the Horn of Africa and get to the spot where the Maersk Alabama was pirated. By that time Captain Phillips, which was played by Tom Hanks in the movie, had gone into the lifeboat and kind of sacrificed himself for his crew. Four Somali pirates went in with him and took him hostage hoping to kind of get out of there. But the USS Bainbridge came, Arleigh Burke-class destroyer and our ship arrived. Then we just started flying helicopter missions for the next four days, pretty much around the clock.
During the second night when I was there, I was flying on goggles about 500 feet. And they told me to just get the heck away for a little while. They gave me like a 10 mile radius to not go inside. And from 35,000 feet members of SEAL Team 6 Halo jumped in the middle of night into the black water and in probably about 100 miles off of Africa and arrived on scene. The first thing they did, they called me to fly over them as they were coming back to the boat to make sure everything was alright and I could see that they brought their own little boat because you know if you're a SEAL Team 6 and you drop from 35,000 feet on oxygen, you bring your own boat.
C. G. Cooper: Right.
Andrew Watts: And so they go to my ship in their little inflatable boat, you know. They go to my ship and the first thing they do is go to our air crewmen and ask for their gun oil. So they're lubing up all their all their guns getting ready and then they go off to the Bainbridge. At that point, the SEAL team commander was in charge and he was like the on scene commander. They might have had an FBI hostage negotiator with them. And they did a lot of really interesting things over the next few days. We were just constantly flying our reconnaissance missions.
We had intelligence that other pirate “motherships” (what they call them) were trying to find out where they were. But I think we were playing a lot of games with them. Our crypto guys were playing a lot of games with them to make it very challenging for them. And yes, so four days later, the SEAL Team Six guys you know took care of business and saved Captain Phillips. Thankfully, it ended the way it did because I think at one point, they had AK 47 going off right after I landed. We thought he [Captain Phillips] was dead for a little while. But you know that wasn't the case. It was pretty crazy while watching ourselves on round the clock 24 hour news coverage and going off doing missions coming back and seeing ourselves on TV.
C. G. Cooper: I'll bet. It's got to feel surreal at some point, right?
Andrew Watts: Yeah, definitely.
C. G. Cooper: I mean, you're the one flying the bird right over them, I mean, I can't even imagine. And you're sitting there going “Is this going to part of history?” And it has. I mean it's a movie now. You know, it's something that people talk about. It's something that people write about. You and I have taken our experiences from the military and inserted them straight into our books which is a cool thing to do. And I know the listeners would love to hear that story because I'm sure there's a lot more that you saw that maybe you can't say, but hopefully we get to get tidbits of that when you're doing your writing with your books.
Andrew Watts: Yeah, that is one of the challenges of writing about military fiction, because I do have to be careful. Especially for me with anti-submarine warfare. I've forgotten a lot of the classified information, but I do have to be careful about how detailed I can be. And I think a lot of readers probably don't want it to be too detailed.
But [I have] one humorous story from Captain Phillips situation. I remember my air crewman who was manning a 50 caliber machine gun on the back of our helicopter as we were flying real close to him. On the flight right before us, one of the pirates got out on top of lifeboat and was pointing that AK 47 at the aircrew, as they were hovering like ten feet over him, to kind of harass them and get him to stop heading towards the coast of Africa.
So my air crewmen, as we were briefing and getting ready for flight, he's looking at me and he's like “hey, you know, what should I do if he points the gun at me? Should I fire back at him?” And I'm like, “No dude. You know we're on Fox News right now.” Like if you do that, you create this horrible situation and you're going to kill everybody. I've seen you shoot. You're probably going to hit the hostage. No. I told him, “Absolutely not, you've got to take the bullet. Sorry buddy, that's the way it is.” And he's like, “Well, what if they shoot at you?” And I said, “Well, that's different.”
C. G. Cooper: (laughing) “I can fly away too.” That's awesome man. It's great to hear a little bit about you and hopefully listeners will take a closer look at who you are and what you've been writing.
But right now, let's get to the books. What do you think?
Andrew Watts: Sure. Absolutely.
C. G. Cooper: What are you reading right now or what's a book that you've maybe recently finished that kind of blew you away?
Andrew Watts: The Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews. They're making a movie about it, actually. They might have already made it. But it's coming out in spring time starring Jennifer Lawrence. Jason Mathews, the author, spent a thirty-year career in the CIA as an operations officer. You know, we read a lot of these thriller books and espionage books and everything and they're by regular people. They kind of have great imaginations and great abilities to write a lot of times, but they haven't really been there and done that. This author has. And it really shows, the book was spectacular. It was really cool to get an inside view of how all that stuff works, whether he's trying to evade surveillance on the street or hunting moles inside his own agency or turning people. A lot of it had to do with inside modern-day Russia. He actually uses Vladimir Putin as one of his characters. But that was kind of neat. But yeah, the book blew me away.
I’ve got three small kids and writing full time now so I don't have as much time to read. It normally takes me about a month to finish a book, but I finished this one in five days and then I immediately went to the next and finished that one in five days. And the third one comes out right around when the movie [is released] next year. But it was awesome. I can't recommend that [The Red Sparrow] enough.
C. G. Cooper: Sweet. You’re probably a Vince Flynn fan like I am. He's one of the reasons I've started writing and I feel a void now that he's not with us. So I've be looking for a great thriller writer to kind of pick that up so I can't wait to take a look at that one. That was the first time I'd heard of that [book] when you mentioned it before we started chatting. Was there like one moment in that book when you were like, “Holy crap, this is awesome!”? One of those water cooler moments that you just wanted to go tell somebody what had happened.
Andrew Watts: Yeah, one of the unique premises that he has is the heroine of the book is this Russian ballerina and they, the Russian intelligence unit, takes her after she hurts her ankle or something and she can't be a ballerina. She can't go on to the famous ballet scene in Russia. And they recruit her to be basically like this provocative spy that is trained in seduction. And I think they call it like honey traps or something. And so she is trained in luring people in with her body and through sexual means and everything to recruit potential assets. And just like the premise behind that and how interesting it was. I think a lot of it was true because they really do some of this stuff and then you know she goes on to become one of the first female operations officers in The SVR [the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service], like a modern day KGB and hearing how she was trained. Everything that she went through.
Then they talk about the training and all the operations on the street like evading difference Russians, how the CIA officer evaded the Russians as they were trying to find him and communicating with her, the ballerina SVR agent. There was a bunch of really cool scenes.
One of them: they were talking about how this young American CIA agent in Moscow was talking to her parents on Skype. Her cover was that she worked for the State Department. Her parents knew that she really worked for the CIA because she had applied and got accepted. And she obviously new she worked for the CIA, but they had to pretend (both her parents and her) that she was just a State Department employee. They can only ask a few things about what she was doing even though she was risking her life every day. You could read the stuff [this book] and you knew that this is really what's happening. Because the Russians, the SVR people, they're watching everything on her screen. They are watching her parents and watching her have this conversation on Skype just to see if this person who is supposed to be in the State Department said or did anything that might imply that maybe she wasn't who she said she is and then that was going to impact her job by having them pour more surveillance on her the next day.
And I'm reading this stuff and regular people that haven't experienced that world probably would not think of all this. Yeah, it was really cool to read how that stuff really works. And it's amazing to think that people are risking their lives every day for our country doing that kind of thing around the world.
C. G. Cooper: And you don't even know that they're there. That’s the amazing part, right? I mean, we’re surrounded. You grew up in Vienna, Virginia, which is right outside D.C., and you and I both know, my family live there too, there have been a lot of spies that lived in Vienna Virginia.
Andrew Watts: Yup.
C. G. Cooper: Sometimes I think about that. You're growing up and you're a kid and you play with the kid next door. You think the father is doing something or the mother is doing something but what if they're a spy.
Andrew Watts: Yeah, I used to ride my bike through this little creek and park in Vienna and I found out, a few years later, that it was a dead drop site for one of the CIA moles. I mean it's crazy. Yeah.
C. G. Cooper: Yeah. It's history playing out, right in our backyard. Well let's go on to favorite book. Obviously, you love this book The Red Sparrow by Jason Mathews, but is there another one that just stands out as something that's been very pivotal in your reading and writing life?
Sure. I think one of the authors that influenced me, that really got me into the genre was Nelson DeMille and one of my favorite books by him. It was the book The Charm School, which actually is another kind of… a Cold War kind of book. But it is about Russians and espionage and everything and it takes place probably in the late 80s.
The premise is that there is a camp deep in the heart of Russia in the middle of the pine forest. It is a camp where they train KGB sleeper agents to think and talk and behave just like Americans before they send them over here. But the instructors are actually American prisoners of war that were taken from Vietnam that were thought to be MIA or KIA officially but they were actually secretly taken through Vietnam into the Soviet Union and made to stay there for the rest of their lives. They'd been there for decades and were forced to instruct the KGB sleeper agents or be killed. So really cool book. And then the CIA uncovers this and I won't spoil the ending, but it's a really really interesting book.
C. G. Cooper: That's fascinating. I know my readers of my books would love both of those premises. I mean, I’ve already got it underlined and circled that I need to go on Audible after we're done and go find those things because I just got my new credits for the month. Yes. So thank you for that. I appreciate it. Well great. Now we know about you and what you like to read. Now, you gave me a snippet here. Tell me what this is from.
Andrew Watts: Yes, so this is one of my books. This is the second book that I wrote it's called The War Stage. And it's from my The War Planners series. The premise of The War Planners series is basically China is going to invade the United States and each book tells a different part of that story. And I plan to be writing this series for a few years until it's finished, but this takes place in Dubai. The scene is in the Burj Al Arab Hotel. So it's that big white sail-looking hotel that you see on TV a lot in Dubai. It’s right on the coast there and it's a very unique tall building and at the top of that hotel (they call a six star hotel) is what's called the Skyview Bar and you can see out all over the Persian Gulf or the Arabian Gulf, if you will, and all of Dubai from that hotel on a clear day. Although if it's hazy you might not see very far.
C. G. Cooper: Right. It tends to be, is what I've heard, a little bit hazy. Well, do you want to read this or you want me to read it?
Andrew Watts: Sure, I'll read it. OK. Here’s the excerpt:
“She leaned over to whisper in his ear, her low cut dress hung open in front of them. She said, ‘Whether you think that I am crazy or not, know this: your world is about to be turned upside down. Be safe. I hope that we can meet again some time long from now in a different place.’ She kissed him on the lips, slid her thumb down his cheek. He didn't kiss back. “Now don't move, or Pakwar will shoot you right in the chest.’
A woman across the restaurant let out a yelp of an alarm and Chase's eyes reflectively glanced in that direction. Lena didn't turn. She said, ‘Sounds like my time is about up.’ Chase couldn't see what the woman in the restaurant had yelled about, but others were starting to raise their voices as well. Lena turned and walked away leaving Chase at the table.
He gritted his teeth and stared at Pakwar who smiled back at him. He was clearly holding a weapon daring him to move. Another yell from across the restaurant. Now people stood looking out the windows. Lena made her way through the crowd ducking in between people and starting to run. The restaurant came alive as people started getting up from their tables and heading over to the large panoramic windows. When Lena passed Pakwar, he walked backwards to trail her, careful to keep his eyes on Chase. A moment later, they were gone. Someone else screamed. Chase was frazzled by Lena's departure. It took a second for him to realize that something drastically out of the ordinary was going on outside the building. The patrons of the Skyview Bar began jockeying for space to look out the windows.
There was a blaze of reddish orange on the horizon that Chase had thought was a remnant of the setting sun, but that didn't quite fit. It seemed to be in the wrong place. He looked back out the window and finally saw it in the direction of the port of Jebel Ali. It wasn't a fiery sunset after all. It was fire. A giant blazing fire with plumes of thick black smoke spiraling up into the sky. There came several flashes in the same vicinity with more smoke plumes following them shortly after. Chase knew that pattern of light and smoke from his time in battlefields and various war zones. The restaurant crowd let out shocked gasps as Chase realized what he was witnessing. Multiple conversations in different languages were all saying the same thing. ‘Dubai is being attacked.’ But it wasn't Dubai. It was the port, Jebel Ali. That's where the U.S. Navy ships were and where the aircraft carrier Truman had just sailed into port.”
C. G. Cooper: Nice, I like it. Now, I want to know what happens next. Thanks a lot, man (both laughing). So that is from your second book. And tell us why you picked that little snippet.
Andrew Watts: Mainly, because I was trying to think of something that was a pivotal scene in one of my books. And also, you know, something interesting that might relate to the people that were probably listening to this podcast.
C. G. Cooper: Very cool. And I appreciate that. So that's Book 2, The War Stage, is that right?
Andrew Watts: That's correct.
C. G. Cooper: OK cool. Well, let's move on to some fun stuff, not like it hasn’t been fun. Everybody loves the mean reviews, authors and listeners alike. I know I hate reading my own. When I'm perusing Amazon and all of a sudden, I accidentally look down and right. I'm not sure if if you have the same problem there, Andrew but…
Andrew Watts: Yup, everybody does.
C. G. Cooper: Yeah. This seems to be turning into everyone’s favorite part of the show. So do you want to go ahead and read a couple of your mean reviews?
Andrew Watts: Sure, sounds good. Alright. So Mean Review #1:
“I'm struggling with this book. It is perhaps the driest book I've ever read. I see now why I got it for 99 cents. It drags and has the most improbable plots. I doubt I'll finish it. I don't recommend it. I'm surprised it was published.”
C. G. Cooper: Yeah I think we've all had this. Is this one of the ones that just kind of punched you in the gut and left you like lying on the floor?
Andrew Watts: Well, I read the last part about the surprise that was published. It's kind of like, “well, you know, technically I (my own company) published it.” So nothing you can do about that. But, the second one is even better. So I'll read that.
C. G. Cooper: Alright, go for it.
Andrew Watts: “I bit twice but won't a third time…”
(so this must have been about my second book)
“I bit twice but won't a third time. Too much superfluous boring writing and too much stretched fiction to the point of bovine manure. I feel like I spent too much for too little. I don't care how things end and I feel like I was taken advantage of for not knowing this was a comic book series.”
C. G. Cooper: Did you laugh at this one or did you…?
Andrew Watts: I did. That one I kind of was like, “you know what, that's good stuff right there. I'm not even gonna get mad at that.”
C. G. Cooper: I like the ones that are actually well-written. Those are fun to me and then there are the mean ones that, you know, they sound mean but they're actually telling would-be readers exactly whether they should or should not read the book. Like some of my 1-star reviews, actually help sell more books because it tells exactly which readers should be going after that book. Do you find that too?
Andrew Watts: Yeah. You know, I've had some negative reviews that were like, “The plot was good. The characters were well developed. But he said there was a safety on this gun and there's no safety on that gun.” And I’m like, alright, 1 star.
C. G. Cooper: Like, thanks a lot. I like the ones too that somehow…and I get it, say we're on Amazon and somehow something got messed up and it didn't get to their Kindle or whatever. Then, you know, we get a 1 star review but it was actually Amazon's fault. Yeah, those are kind of funny too. Again, you can't do anything about it but whatever.
Well, we're going to go real quick into something that we just started calling our “lightning round”. Just a couple of quick questions. You tell me exactly what comes off the top of your head. It's all about you and reading and writing and stuff like that. So, are you ready for a couple of questions?
Andrew Watts: Sure.
C. G. Cooper: Alright, cool. What's your favorite thing about being an author?
Andrew Watts: I like creating something new and kind of growing it. So the series that I'm writing right now, it's like I'm a gardener you know and I get to watch it grow and develop into something really cool that hopefully entertains a lot of people.
C. G. Cooper: Awesome. What about, what is the best reading advice you ever received?
Andrew Watts: Hmm…
C. G. Cooper: I know for me it was just picking up. I think it was in third grade. Somebody told me, I think it was my teacher. It wasn't forcing a book in my hand. It was: come find something that you think you will enjoy. And at that age, you know, you're picking up something that looks cool from the cover. We still do that. But was there ever a time where a teacher somehow ushered you into the right aisle and said, “Hey, maybe you should start reading stuff like this?”
Andrew Watts: Yeah. So when I was in fifth grade I used to read those big thick Tom Clancy novels and my teachers (I went to a Catholic school) and my teachers saw that and I think they kind of like gave me the evil eye and said something like “you shouldn't be reading those.” So naturally, I wanted to read them even more. And I think that was probably the thing that influenced me the most. Someone telling me that I shouldn't be doing something. That made me tear through all those Tom Clancy books.
C. G. Cooper: It's like when they ban books, right? Do you really think that that's going to stop us from reading it?
Andrew Watts: Exactly.
C. G. Cooper: What do they say? “No publicity is bad publicity.” Or is it the other way around?
Andrew Watts: I just make sure they spell my name right.
C. G. Cooper: Exactly exactly. Here's kind of a random one but people have been asking about this. What's the most important online software or resource that you use?
Andrew Watts: For writing?
C. G. Cooper: For anything. I mean like you pop on to your computer and you're like, “bam this is what I use every single day.”
Andrew Watts: I use Scrivener for writing a lot, but I think Amazon's software system and Amazon's Kindle, they're publishing has probably been the most impactful to me. You know, because it allows me to quickly update and get books out to millions of people within a day.
C. G. Cooper: It's amazing how we can actually do that now, right?
Andrew Watts: Yup.
C. G. Cooper: So when did you when did you start writing? When was the first book that you wrote?
Andrew Watts: So the first…this is kind of an interesting story. The first draft of my first book, I actually wrote while I was deployed. So I was on an aircraft carrier probably in the Arabian Gulf for the Arabian Sea at the time. We would go back and forth. We'd be launching F-18s into Afghanistan when you're on the Arabian Sea. Then we'd be kind of harassing Iran, not harassing but, you know, monitoring security situations in Iran and there in the Gulf.
But you know I I worked in helicopter and ship operations when I was there. I was the air operations officer for the destroyer squadron. It was embarked on the USS Enterprise and, at first, I was working 18 hour days, 20 hour days sometimes, you know, my eyes were bleeding.
But then as the deployment went on, I got to have a few hours of free time every once in a while and I just, I'd always wanted to try and write a book. I'd heard a lot about self publishing and how people could be successful at that. So I started researching it and I started playing around and doing a draft.
And so that was on the USS Enterprise in 2011/2012 that I first started writing and eventually it kind of turned into something that got hundreds of reviews and it sold pretty well.
C. G. Cooper: That's awesome, man, on an aircraft carrier of all places. Mine was in Disney World. My my wife and my kids had taken a nap and something about the place just begged me to write a story. I don't know if you had the same situation; you sat down all of a sudden these words came, just started flowing out and you had no idea where they came from.
Andrew Watts: Yeah, I think for me the thing that inspires me is reading other good books. So when I read those books like The Charm School and The Red Sparrow. My books take a little bit more of a military flavor, some of them. And Red Storm Rising, Tom Clancy. Reading books like that inspire me to make good stuff. Yeah. In a similar fashion.
C. G. Cooper: Well awesome and thank you so much for being with us today. A little bit more about Andrew and his work: He recently published a book called Glidepath. It's exclusive on Amazon and available right now in Kindle Unlimited. A quick synopsis: I'll read the bullet points:
“What is hiding in the CIA's top secret personnel file on Max Fend? The one that even his FBI investigator isn't allowed to see. The FBI wants him arrested. The CIA wants him to disappear and the owner of a Russian mercenary group wants him dead.”
What was the inspiration behind that book?
Andrew Watts: So, one of the things that this has to do with is automated flight, autonomous commercial flight. So I was reading a lot about autonomous cars and in learning how they're quickly being developed by a big tech companies like Google and Apple and whatnot. I know how my years of flying taught me a lot about autopilot and how that is pretty far along as well. And I was thinking, really this stuff is already there for commercial flight. So I kind of created a spy thriller, sort of like a Lee Child / Vince Flynn type book that delves into an autonomous flight techno-thriller mystery. So it's a lot of fun. It's totally different than the harder military stuff that I write in my War Planner series. But I just wanted to try something new and maybe create a little bit more appeal to a wider group of people.
C. G. Cooper: Awesome, that's fantastic. I actually picked up a copy right before we jumped on this recording, so thank you for that. I can't wait to jump in and tell the listeners really quick where they can find you other than Amazon.
Andrew Watts: Sure you can find out about me at my web site: http://www.AndrewWattsAuthor.com.
C. G. Cooper: Awesome. Well, Andrew, thank you again so much for joining us. Listeners, thank you guys for tuning in. This has been C.G. Cooper in Books in 30 and I will catch you on the next episode. I'm out.
BOOKS IN 30 Podcast