Fighter Sweep has the privilege of interviewing author and former Commanding Officer of VFA-105, Kevin Miller. Kevin accumulated 3,600 total hours and 1,000 carrier landings in the A-7E and F/A-18. Since retiring after twenty years in the cockpit and leading a squadron into battle, Kevin has dedicated his time and energy to writing naval aviation thrillers. He has published two full-length novels, Raven One and Declared Hostile. Kevin’s books have reached as high as #2 in the military thriller genre, and Raven One peaked at #29 in all of Amazon.
FS: Thanks for spending some time with us today, Kevin. Thanks for sharing your stories and experience.
FS: Kevin, how did you come to writing? Is it something that you’ve done your whole life or did you come to it late?
Writing as a creative outlet came to me late. While I knew I possessed a talent for writing, it was the professional and administrative writing we all do in the course of a military and professional career. However, letters home and even a diary I kept on one deployment allowed me to describe my experiences at sea. It was a talent that just needed a spark to develop.
FS: When did you start writing Raven One, and why?
After my retirement in 2005 my friend CAPT Dave Wooten told me to consider writing a book. I waved him off but he pressed me on it. All of us have sea stories, and I had some writing ability, so why not? My immediate goal was to write something that would answer the question “what is it like?” to fly off a ship, and to convey that to the public. If nothing else, the kids could have it for posterity.
In the summer of 2005 I began, not knowing the title or how the novel would end. My strategy was to write vignettes; what it is like to land a jet on a ship, what a cat shot is like, what CAS is like, a liberty port visit, a BFM engagement, and so on. Having spent most of my deployed time in the Eastern Med and Arabian Gulf and with Iraqi Freedom going full speed, the natural setting for this novel would be an Arabian Gulf deployment set during Iraqi Freedom.
FS: How did your writing journey begin?
Fits and starts. I’d crank out 5-10,000 words in a flurry of activity then ignore the manuscript for months. It gnawed at me, and I would dust it off and continue. My long layoffs allowed me to go back and read the text with a fresh perspective. It allowed me to clean up and rephrase descriptions and dialogue.
FS: Why Raven One?
The Ravens were available! It was fun to dream up fictional squadron names and callsigns, and there are many birds of prey like Eagle and Hawk, etc. that squadrons adopt. Attack Squadron 93, the Ravens, were decommissioned in the 1980’s, so I used that callsign for my fictional VFA-64. Raven One of course refers to the squadron commanding officer.
FS: How did you get it published?
When I finished Raven One in the summer of 2009 I knew I “had something.” My friend and shipmate Ward Carroll had cracked the code with his well-written and enjoyable “Punk” series so I contacted him for the gouge. Armed with his advice, I set out contacting New York literary agents, looking for agents in the military techno-thriller genre who would take on a new writer like me. Over the next two years I was oh-for-twenty. Half the agents asked for a chapter of my manuscript and some read the whole thing. Maybe half of them gave me feedback, which boiled down to “this is not for me, but you have some talent and keep trying.” Some gave me specific suggestions, which required me to trash entire chapters and write new ones. I made the fixes and resubmitted, but once you are rejected by a specific agent – you are rejected. Authors can take heart – Margaret Mitchell was rejected 29 times for Gone With the Wind.
I then met fellow aviator and prolific author CAPT George Galdorisi. George is a great guy and took me under his wing, always encouraging me to keep trying. In 2013 he put me in touch with fellow sailor and independent author in the Navy Thriller genre, Retired Chief Jeff Edwards, and my life changed.
About 10 years ago this thing called Kindle came on the market. Jeff likens it to the Gutenberg Press, and Kindle revolutionized reading and publishing. For only a few dollars one can read a book and have a whole library on a device. And at the same time, print-on-demand allows one book to be produced for one customer that Amazon then ships to the customer’s door. Not only that, as an independent I keep my rights, receive an increased royalty share, and am free to write the book I want, not the one New York directs or changes. Jeff read my manuscript that I had cut and sanded and polished for years – and said it needed an editor. So I found one, Linda Wasserman of Pelican Press Pensacola, who had zero background in military genre fiction. Linda was perfect for me and after months and months of scrutinizing each paragraph and sentence we submitted it to Jeff’s label, Stealth Books. Jeff’s motto for Stealth is “Smart Books for Smart Readers.” We published Raven One in June of 2014.
FS: Tell us a little about your characters. Did you pluck them from real people or are they composites?
The short answer is composites. While a squadron is full of personalities, in a sense we are a homogeneous group of over-achieving perfectionists…which itself can lead to flaws.
There are examples of squared-away, good hearted men and women who lead and serve. There are other examples of short-tempered agenda-driven leaders and aviators. Sound familiar? Career experiences shape my stories, but the goods and others of my imperfect characters come from my imagination, and at times the dialogue between them – that I wrote! – surprised me.
In Raven One my hero (Flip) is the Operations Officer, an O-4 who without question is a squadron leader but not the squadron commander. He has a great CO (Cajun) whom he loves and at the same time a “homicidal maniac” XO (Saint) who rides him hard and takes delight in humiliating him. (Friends have asked me who I modeled Saint after, and many readers from earlier eras of naval aviation ask me the same question. My honest answer is that I never served with anyone as “bad” as Saint, but several readers are adamant that they had an XO just like him.)
At the same time I also knew I wanted Flip to be married with children, and his wife, Mary, puts pressure on him to resign. Most all of us have had deep and sometimes difficult conversations with our wives (spouses) about the way of life we led and our futures in uniform. So, the spouse-keeping-the-home-fires-burning angle was one I wanted to touch on in the novel.
The social issues that affect today’s military, some taken from my career experience, are areas of interest to me, and a novel is a way to explore them and convey the human reality of today’s military service to the public.
FS: You’ve made some interesting choices with your characters that reflect the modern fighting force. What drew you to the characters particular and diverse points of view?
To me, the modern fighting force is characterized by the inclusion of women. While I went to flight school with and served with women throughout my career, I only deployed with women once, my last cruise. Today it is the norm. My female characters like Olive and Annie are strong officers, humble and even-tempered, although Olive has a dark vulnerability about her. Psycho is a boy-crazy party girl, Wonder Woman is naïve, and Macho has a feminist agenda and she is going to make the guys pay. They are all solid aviators and officers, and each have traits I observed in the women, officer and enlisted, I served with. Same with the men; Flip is too proud, Saint revels in his meanness, Trench is a bed-hopping snake. Through these characters, the novels touch on themes of morality, in warfare and among people, how we treat each other.
My characters reflect the modern military; male and female and from all racial and ethnic groups, and from them, all types of personalities. Those of us who serve or have served know: none of that matters to the airplane or machine, or to each other – with the exception of the male/female dynamic. The potential for conflict and tension that brings is undeniable, and today’s military – drawn from our society – spends time and effort dealing with it. I am connected with men and women on active duty. It is an issue.
Our modern military is also an all-volunteer profession characterized by precision and adherence to ROE. It needs highly educated and trained people, and readers see the level of preparation and oftentimes restraint that is a part of the American way of war.
FS: Your stories are compelling. They have a degree of accuracy that hasn’t been seen since Flight of the Intruder. As I was reading Raven One I could feel and smell the ship again just like it was yesterday. Was it a challenge to create a thrilling, action driven story from your real-life experiences, or are the stories just waiting to come out?
For me, more on the challenge side. No, my career did not have anything near the level of combat action found in my novels…but all of us have stories and know of stories that have happened to others. I’ve never ejected from an aircraft but can describe it through the accounts of my friends and in other publications. I’ve witnessed death, right in front of me real time, and more than once. It is a challenge to take those raw emotions and put them on paper. The act of writing exposes one to risk; it is a challenge to get it right. Regarding the level of accuracy, my works are heavy on the techno-detail, and because I did not fly this century, I spent time with those that returned from combat deployments to get the jargon and procedures down. Again, I want the reader to know what it is like out there today.
FS: You seem to have a nice rhythm going. Two novels, and a memoir of sorts, in only three years. What are your goals and aspirations as a writer? Fighter pilots are competitive people. Do those competitive juices got flowing when you think about where you want to be as a writer?
Yes we are…everyone stakes a claim someplace! My strength, bordering on flaw, is my attention to detail and research. My two novels are big, qualifying as “epics,” and Declared Hostile is the size of two novels written by any number of current “New York” published authors you see in grocery stores or airport bookstores that churn them out. With my recent success I could throttle back on my levels of detail and research and put out smaller but less well-constructed books and people would buy them, but the reviews would suffer, and as an anal-retentive fighter pilot I wouldn’t be satisfied. I’m fortunate that I can write the books I want at my pace, and yes, I want to write the best carrier-aviation novels I can that are unforgettable, entertaining, thought provoking, and as “perfect” as possible. If, “at the end of a line-period” I am recognized as having broken out of the pack, I’ll step up to “accept my patch” with humble thanks. And hey, if your readers have a novel in them, go for it, plenty of room, and like we did as aviators, we must push ourselves to get better.
FS: Best selling author. Did you ever think…?
Ah, no! That said, I knew that if I or anyone put in the effort a book would result. Publishing a book was a different matter. It was not a “dream” of mine per se, but once I started writing Raven One my goal was to write a quality novel a New York publishing house would publish. During the time Raven One was written, the publishing world changed.
FS: How has Raven One “done” on Amazon?
The reviews are gratifying. Raven One and my subsequent works resonate with readers who appreciate or are fascinated by the authentic and human stories of men and women in squadrons, the realism of how they talk and interact and the detailed descriptions of what it is like to sit in a tactical cockpit. Raven One peaked at #29 sales ranking in all of Kindle, and it has been a genre best seller for most of the months it has been on sale. Last month I promoted it free for two days on Kindle, and it broke into the top 100 of Kindle Free as over 2,500 readers took advantage.
FS: That’s fantastic. How about your other works, Declared Hostile and High Desert Reflections?
Declared Hostile is the sequel to Raven One and deals with the war on drugs, such as it is, and how the United States could fight it. It has lots of action and is a better “book” than Raven One, and my sense is that readers are troubled by what it says about our society. It has terrific reviews and like Raven One readers seem to appreciate that my characters, even my heroes, are at times flawed and uncertain. Declared Hostile has sub-plots that touch on sensitive geopolitical and personal discussions in the Pentagon and in the “enemy” high command, in this case Venezuela. It is bouncing around the Kindle top 100 in its genre.
The idea for High Desert Reflections came to me on an airline flight from Salt Lake City to Reno as I looked out the window at the Fallon Range Complex and the flood of memories from flying there. It is a short story – takes an hour to read – but if you’ve flown at Fallon or Nellis you’ll be right back in the cockpit crossing ridgelines and turning at the merge. All three are available to those who want an immersion into the life of a carrier based fighter pilot, and a recent reviewer observed that my books are a way for civilians to better understand and therefore support our military personnel.
FS: Who drives you as a writer? Is there someone who you are inspired by, someone who you hope to emulate in style and success?
Captain Edward L. Beach is one…have you heard of him? He was a WWII submarine skipper and best known for Run Silent, Run Deep. His lead character Richardson was an unforgettable submarine officer, and I refer to my character “Flip” as “Wilson” when writing in the third person, saving “Flip” for dialogue. Herman Wouk is another; The Caine Mutiny, War and Remembrance? Both explain what shipboard life is like in a level of detail that doesn’t bog down the story. Both write of human flaws and uncertainty in their characters, and there is drama in dialogue and on the sea, and (Wouk gets the nod here) they touch on the geopolitical reasons the characters are there in the first place.
Historical fiction is on my long-range scale, and to me, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels is the gold standard. The novels of Pat Conroy and James Webb are also influences.
FS: What can you tell us about future projects?
The South China Sea is in the news, and the Pol-Mil situation there involving dashed lines, fisheries, man-made islands and disputed territorial claims is where Flip is going next. Expect trouble, and to be frank this is a big project for me with many moving parts…talk about taking on a challenge. It will be a modern air-sea fight and look for it next year. After that will be a historical fiction book about the Battle of Midway, a fascinating battle that I’ve lectured about over the years. I hope it can do for Midway what The Killer Angels did for Gettysburg.
My new imprint is Braveship Books; Jeff took his Stealth stable of writers over there and our works are being evaluated by movie producers and gamers. I saw recently that annual video game revenue is greater than movies and music combined. Who knew?
FS: How can we get your books, Kevin?
Amazon is the one-stop shop, and the digital versions are exclusive to Amazon. Raven One and Declared Hostile are available via Kindle, trade paperback through CreateSpace, and last month produced by Tantor Media as audiobooks at Audible or Tantor. High Desert is on Kindle only. Again, Amazon has all versions of all three.
FS: Do you blog?
Yep, just started one at my new website, kevinmillerauthor.com