Larry Bond's Novels are Like War Games, and His War Games Are Like Novels

Larry Bond's first writing partner was Tom Clancy, and now he's established himself as a major writer of techno thrillers.

By , Contributor

Cover detail from Exit Plan by Larry Bond

Larry Bond has had a unique and remarkable career. Originally from Minnesota, he enrolled in the Navy and received a commission in Officers Candidate School. He served for six years in the Navy, and then worked as an intelligence analyst.

It was about this time that a Maryland insurance agent got in touch with him about a novel he was writing about submarines. The insurance agent was Tom Clancy, and the novel was The Hunt for Red October. And the rest is history. Bond later co-wrote Red Storm Rising with Clancy.

Bond has gone on to write a series of best-selling military novels such as Red Phoenix, about the invasion of the south by a decaying North Korean government, and Exit Plan, about a SEAL team that exfiltrates two nuclear scientists from Iran.

Such literary successes might be enough for other people, but Bond is equally gifted at creating military games. His computer game Harpoon was first published in 1980, and was followed by several other equally successful games. It is used at the Naval Academy and elsewhere.

IN 2004 Bond was inducted into the International Hall of Fame by the Game Manufacturers Association.

Naturally, Bond’s remarkable and diverse career made us eager to talk to him.

Larry, your writing career is linked to that of Tom Clancy, whom you met before he was famous. Can you tell us a little about your first meeting with him?

It’s a straightforward story. I had written a war game called Harpoon. That was my hobby, war gaming. It was the first modern naval war game.

I was playing WWII war games, but there weren’t any modern ones, so I spent a lot of time explaining what a convergence zone for sonar is, and how intercepts were done. Tom was interested in that kind of thing, and used some of what I was doing as sources when he was writing the novel.

Actually, though, his main source came from his work. He was working as an insurance agent in rural Maryland, and was living close to a nuclear power station. The operators at the plant would come to his office to get their life insurance, and so forth. His clients were submariners—where else do you learn to run a nuclear power plant?—and they would tell him sea stories. It wasn’t exactly the same for him as riding on a nuclear submarine, but he got to hear all these stories, and he got to see how they talked and acted and what they thought about things. He poured all that into the novel, which is why the characterization is so good.

I was providing technical stuff, explaining how things worked. He wrote me a letter and I answered. (I always answer my mail.) We became good friends, and I’m godfather to one of his kids. So now I have a long history with the family.

And then you went on to co-write Red Storm Rising, a terrific thriller, with him. What was it like to co-write with someone as prolific as Tom?

I was interested in the rather esoteric issue of whether NATO could get sufficient assets over to Europe if the Soviet Union attacked. Could they flood the Atlantic with submarines? That was then, not now. And Tom said, “You can make a book out of that.”  That was his genius—to see the story in that. I was his apprentice, basically, while he wrote the story. We plotted it out together. He can crank out ten pages a day. He’s a very prolific person. So he could see the story in it.

I got to see Tom Clancy write—to see how to put a story together, how to fix it when it isn’t working right, to polish it, and to get the story out the door. If you’re going to learn, learn from the best.

That would be my thought.

I learned how to research, what’s important about research, and what isn’t. Some guys do research and focus on numbers entirely. I don’t know why you would do that kind of research.

After the phenomenal success of The Hunt for Red October, he didn’t have to go hunting for an agent. Agents were clamoring to represent him, and so we interviewed a couple, and we were in the process of writing Red Storm Rising together at that point, so I got to have the same agent, one of the top agents in the world. Tom really wrote Red Storm Rising. I did a lot of the background, the technical issues, and so forth.

I said, “This is fun. I can do this. Telling stories is great.” I sent in a submission, and they put my first submission up for bids. I almost fell off my chair when they told me that! I’ve been pedaling like crazy ever since. It was dumb luck, heavy on the dumb. I’ve tried to capitalize on the tremendous opportunities that I was given.

You have been a navy guy, a technical guy, but sometime back there you must have had some interest in literature.

I grew up reading science fiction. Loved it and read everything I could get my hands on. I was in a creative writing club in the seventh grade because I wanted to write science fiction. I had a lot of fun writing, but I couldn’t put a story together. I would write problems that were too hard for my heroes to solve, so I couldn’t get them out of it. I would write myself into a corner. So then I joined a computer club, which was my major in college.

Is it fair to say that writing about high-tech stuff—military gear and so forth—brings together your interest in writing and your interest in technology?

When I joined the navy, they put me on the destroyer for four years, and I did very interesting stuff. And then I had shore duty, where I did a lot of writing—it was all highly non-fiction technical writing, but it was writing at the Center for Naval Analysis. The Navy would give us problems, like “How many carriers will we need in 20 years? And show your work.” In retrospect I can see that these explanations helped me to do the writing in novels.

I’m also interested in Red Phoenix. (It seems like you and Tom have to put that word “red” in every book title!) It takes place in Korea, and although Korea is one of the world’s flash points, as Germany was 50 years ago, hardly anybody ever writes about it. How did you pick Korea as a setting?

Here’s the story with Red Phoenix. It was the first book I co-wrote with Pat Larkin. Pat’s strength was ground combat, so our knowledge bases combined nicely in that story. The first title was White Tiger, which was based on some of the Asian mythology. The problem was that somebody had written a book with that title, and the publishers didn’t want to have anything to do with that title. The marketing people were confused about it.

I’m surprised that more people don‘t write about Korea.

I’m surprised myself that more people don’t write about it. You need a situation in which large forces are at work, and then you need a fairly stable situation, because it just takes a while to get the book published. So for two years you’re biting your nails hoping that nothing will happen until the book is published.

The rule of the genre is that we get to knock the props out in the first chapter, and then we get to see what happens—probably, or possibly, or believably--after that. We can ask a question like “What if there’s another South Korean invasion?” or “What if the South Africans try to roll back the clock as a result of something internal?” We look for existing stuff, and the first move is to make it as improbable as possible, and then after that we try to make it at least halfway believable.

Do you think you’ll ever write a book about the Middle East?

I don’t know. You need some place that’s halfway stable. I could have used Libya, for example. Gaddafi was being your average nut job, and there was a certain political situation that had developed. It would have been fun to write about a revolt there.

But of course you don’t just write books. You also design games, most notably the military simulation game Harpoon. Can you talk about the differences between writing books and designing games?

It’s a tremendous difference, although one feeds the other. I’ve had a partner for quite some time now, and we realized that we had enough material so that we could game out the possibility of Israeli air strikes, and there’s enough intrigue for a mini-series. The game simply looks at the consequences of an Israeli strike.

This is the situation with the Iranian nuclear program. There’s not a one-to-one correlation between a book and a game. What gaming often does, and this is true for any kind of analysis, is that it lets you see what the important drivers are in a military situation, and what the consequences are. What’s really important? And that is good for understanding the general situation.

When Tom and I wrote Red Storm Rising—or when Tom wrote Red Storm Rising and I was his apprentice—in Tom’s chapter “Dance of the Vampires” backfire bombers have missiles with a one-ton warhead. If you’re a naval officer and hearing about these missiles, you’re not going to get a lot of sleep. Because they’re not going to throw just one or two of them at you, but a regiment. I can’t tell you how many man hours were spent studying this issue. Tom and I didn’t attempt to game out the answer—would it work or not? We tried one possible outcome. There were different ways to do it, and the gaming is in order to study and understand the problem, and then to write an entertaining and interesting story, based on your knowledge.

Your latest book, Exit Plan, features your hero Jerry Mitchell. Inevitably, readers will compare him to Jack Ryan. What can you tell us about Jerry?

There’s no comparison between the two characters. Jack Ryan is one of those iconic characters who starts out in one of the books that define the techno thriller. When I describe Jerry Mitchell to people, the quick one-sentence description of him to people is, “Think Horatio Hornblower, but nuclear submarines.”

Jerry Mitchell starts out as a division head, and then becomes XO, and now in Shattered Trident, the one we’re working on right now, he’s CO. Each time there’s character growth, and things are happening.

His scope is much narrower, much less than Ryan’s. I would not want to write one in which Jerry goes so far as to be Commander of Naval Operations. The challenge becomes harder the further you get from the sharp end of the spear.

We deliberately put him in a submarine, which is one of the most complex weapons systems you can imagine, but which is pretty much under the control of one guy. Things are different in a surface ship, where the captain doesn’t make a lot of individual decisions. So Jerry Mitchell has a freedom of action to do things, including being heroic, which would have been harder in a surface ship.

Although Exit Plan is beautifully plotted, with twists and turns on almost every page, it has a smaller cast of characters than some of your other books, and there’s more human interaction.

That’s what we wanted to do. That was the point. The hardware often gets all the credit and attention, but when people come up to me they say that they like something, they’re not talking about the F-16s, or whatever, but a particular character.

Then too Warner said that they wanted a small book of this type. The appeal of a huge novel somewhat faded away after Desert Storm.

When Pat and I wrote Enemy Within, the heroine is a ninja type, and the officer is having a little trouble relating to her as a fellow warrior, but he overcomes that. I was at a book fair in Richmond, and several women came up to me that said that they wanted to be like her.

That’s what you want—character growth and human interaction. That’s the goal. The challenge is to put it in for the major characters, the ones you follow throughout the book, and make them suffer and grow.

Will there be a sequel to Exit Plan?

It’s the fourth book in the series, and it’s called Shattered Trident. We have not set a publication date yet. It’s being edited. And we will have some back and forth with the editor until everybody is happy with it. It will be out sometime next year. We had planned to end the Jerry Mitchell series with this fourth book. He will be the commander of the submarine. We tie a lot of things together. And the book is really about command, and what he’s learned as he’s come up through the ranks, and now he’s got his own boat. So what kind of railroad is he going to run?

Larry, thank you for your time, and we wish you continued success in the future.

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JIm Curtis has a background in Russian studies, and is fascinated with both high culture and popular culture. He just finished a book on Dylan, and covers the book beat for The Morton Report.

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