To paraphrase a creaky but durable idiom, the best way to make God laugh is to make a plan.
Delray Beach author Al Pessin had a plan for the rollout of his debut novel Sandblast, a fast-moving military thriller set in contemporary Afghanistan and in the inner sanctums of our defense and intelligence communities. It involved a launch party, reading and Q&A at Murder on the Beach March 31, followed by a book tour.
But when the silent menace of COVID-19 began its rampage through the country and forced the shutdown of all gatherings, Pessin had to get creative: Instead of an in-person event, he launched the book at same time last week with a Facebook Live stream, where he explained his inspiration for the novel and took questions from readers who tuned in.
The novel opens up with a literally explosive shocker: An Islamic terrorist plants a bomb that makes its way onto a plane that kills the U.S. Defense Secretary and everyone else onboard. It’s up to Faraz Abdallah, a green Afghan-American lieutenant in the Army, to embark on a possibly fatal mission to pose as a jihadi, infiltrate a terrorist community in Afghanistan, and potentially stop the next MTO, or major terrorist attack. Bridget Davenport, a West Point graduate and combat veteran now working as a “dot connector” in the Pentagon’s Covert Operations, supervises the mission, aware of its substantial risks, which only increase after U.S./Taliban peace talks threaten to expose Faraz’s identity.
Pessin brings to the book four decades of research and experience as a journalist, 15 of them overseas, and many of them in war zones. As he explains below, finally writing his first novel was one of his top priorities after retiring to Delray Beach five years ago. He has certainly caught the bug: Sandblast’s sequel is already written, and has a release date in 2021.
What’s the genesis of Sandblast—I understand it’s been a five-year process?
It’s been a five-year process with about five or so years before that of thinking about it. I first thought about the idea for the main character and the basic story when I was covering the Pentagon for the Voice of America, and that was from ’05 to ’11. I got this idea, and I should have spent some time on my 15-hour flights to the war zones working on it, but I just didn’t—other work to do, and mental energy, and also not really having the skills at that time to write a novel.
When I left that job and retired from journalism and moved to Florida in 2015, that was on my list of top three things to do now that I had the time and the mental energy to do it. I sat down really within the first few weeks and wrote a chapter or two and signed up for a class, and then another class, on fiction writing. That was the beginning of the process, the late summer of 2015.
Is there a good deal of reality in the book, in terms of the research you’ve accrued over these decades?
There is, I think, a lot of reality in Sandblast. I’ve said before that I tried to go from telling truth through fact as a journalist to telling truth through fiction as a novelist. I don’t want to get on too much of a high horse, but I feel like if I’m going to spend a year or so writing a novel, and people are going to take the time to read it, or listen to it, then there should be some substance to it. It’s a fictional story, there’s adventure, there’s love, I think it’s an interesting and enjoyable book to read, but it also has to have some themes and reveal some truths about the real world. So both in terms of the Pentagon scenes, the Afghanistan scenes, but also in terms of the themes and messages, I think there’s a lot of reality in Sandblast.
I wonder if your book will help start renewed conversations about this war in Afghanistan, which is America’s longest military conflict, and one that has fallen off the news cycle. Even the monumental recent peace talks with Taliban were buried in the back pages of the newspaper. Why has public interested wavered from this war?
It’s a certain amount of fatigue. It’s far away. It’s relatively few troops. A very small percentage of the American population has a family member or even a friend who is in the military at all, much less happens to be deployed to Afghanistan. That takes it out of the public consciousness, and if you’re talking about this year, it was all politics, until a few weeks ago, and now it’s all coronavirus, and there’s just very little room for any other news. And there is a lot of other news happening in the world, but there just very little room for it.
In my launch event, I mentioned that the United States has had troops in Afghanistan now for 18 and a half years. And all of the plans by all of the really smart people who put their minds on how to solve that problem have really not gotten us to where we wanted to be. And that’s why we’re going for this way out that, as I say in a piece I wrote recently for DefenseOne, is an ending, but it’s not a success and it’s not peace. It’s just an ending.
Talk about your decision to make the main character a woman, which in itself is rare in this sort of fiction, which so often features adrenalized supermen.
If you’re writing a fantasy, a superman is fine; if you’re writing a book that’s grounded in reality, I find heroes much more compelling than superheroes. If they are heroes, and they’re human, then they’re flawed, and they will have issues. They will not always succeed. They will not jump up from being shot and run five miles and catch the bad guy singlehandedly, at least not in my books.
As far as Bridget Davenport, one of the main characters, Bridget is modeled after a bunch of women that I met in those years covering the Pentagon, some in uniform, and some civilians. As you were surprised to find Bridget prominently in the book, I was surprised to find the women as prominently as I did in the Pentagon and in the U.S. military. And they really are in all kinds of specialties, and now even combat specialties. Since it is a nontraditional role for women, I think any woman who joins the military brings extra measures of commitment, because it’s not what’s expected of them. That’s just a fact. On the civilian side, as well as the military side, you have these women who are so smart, and they have studied these issues, and they understand both the big picture and the operational profile. I just wanted to create a character that is a tribute to all these smart, tough, badass women that I met on both the military and civilian side at the Pentagon.
This story involves a Afghan-American soldier infiltrating a jihadist community to stop a major terrorist attack. How plausible is this scenario in our intelligence community?
I think it’s quite plausible. As I point out in the book, it’s an extremely dangerous mission. It’s a big ask for the person doing it, a big responsibility for the people sending that person. So I don’t know if it would ever really happen. I think fiction will always push the edges of the envelope. And I think that’s where we are, as to whether that would actually happen.
You created a fictional president for this book as a supporting character. Did you think about any of our actual presidents when you were conceiving him?
He’s a kind of amalgam, but I think he has a lot of the qualities I would like to see in a president, in terms of being intellectual, thinking problems through. I do talk about the politics of the situation, because it’s early in an election cycle in Sandblast. And one of the presidents’ aides says something to him about the political implications of the decision he’s being asked to make. And when the aide says it to the president, he says, “I know it’s not your favorite subject, but you have to consider the politics of it.” And the president says, “well, you’re right, it’s not my favorite subject, but we do need to keep it in mind.” But the president I created—the president I would like us to have, in general—is someone who would be aware of the politics, but not let the politics drive the decisions.
I think that is where some thrillers will step across what’s a line for me in terms of what’s realistic, and they’ll have the president or one of the aides be so venal, and only consider the politics, and at any cost will achieve what they’re trying to achieve. That has not been my experience as a reporter. I have not observed people like that, and so I have not created characters like that.
In your journalism career, you were expelled from China for reporting honestly on Tiananmen Square, so you know how reporters can be treated and truth can be distorted from the Communist leadership. When you heard that the government may have been vastly underreporting their coronavirus numbers, does that sound like something they would do?
Honestly I would not put anything at all past the Chinese leadership. They are very much in the survival-at-all costs mode, and you could see that from what we know about the early weeks of the crisis, where that doctor spoke up and was punished for it, and then very sadly died of COVID-19. I’m sure that’s just the tip of the iceberg, and when you watch TV and they talk about the Chinese statistics, often they are careful to say, “that’s what they’re telling us, and we don’t know how much we can rely on that.” And that’s certainly true. Chinese Communist Party philosophy is that one of the most important things is for the Party to stay in power. They feel that without the Chinese Communist Party in power, China is not China, basically. And so they will do anything to keep themselves in power. That was the Tiananmen massacre, and that informs many things they do, perhaps including some aspects of how they managed the coronavirus situation.
To order Sandblast as a book or audiobook, visit Al’s website.