Don Bentley: Bestselling author closes a chapter with ‘Tom Clancy: Weapons Grade’ (“1on1 with Jon Evans” podcast)
WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - With his eighth book, Tom Clancy: Weapons Grade, making its’ debut at #8 on the New York Times best seller list and in USA Today’s top-20, Don Bentley is closing a chapter in his writing career.
His fourth book featuring Jack Ryan, Jr. will be his last for the foreseeable future, as Bentley picks up the mantle from Kyle Mills to craft adventures for Vince Flynn’s legendary character, Mitch Rapp.
In Weapons Grade, Bentley’s second Clancy-world release of 2023, Ryan, Jr. witnesses what at first appears to be an unfortunate car crash on a dark highway in rural Texas. Things go sideways in a hurry, putting the Campus operative knee-deep in a world of small-town politics and coverups. Circumstances lead to the discovery of an effort to steal a high-tech supersonic air asset that Jack’s father, President Jack Ryan, wants to use to keep Iran from completing work on a nuclear weapon. Bentley says it’s not the novel he originally set out to write.
“When I got done with Flashpoint, I told my editor Tom (Colgan), ‘I think I just want to write a little story about a small town in Texas’,” Bentley recalls. “My son goes to Texas A&M, and I spend a lot of time driving through these small towns, and each small town has a Pizza Hut, a Dairy Queen and a brand new credit union. I’m like, ‘Why do they have that brand new credit union? What’s going on there?’ So, that’s the book I sat down to write. Then as I was writing it, current events crept in. I started thinking about Iran, and at the same time, a huge aviation geek and there’s this incredible startup company called Hermeus trying to make a hypersonic jet airplane. They are doing some really great work. I just ended up pulling that all in.”
With eight books published since 2020, and three releases in 2023, Bentley has become a recognizable name on bookstore shelves. He developed the desire to write as a child growing up in Ohio, starting his first book while in high school and finishing it after enlisting in the U.S. Army. A second followed, then a third. None, he says, were good enough to sell.
“There was quite a bit of soul searching there,” Bentley said about pursuing his dream after leaving the military and becoming an FBI Special Agent. “I was working full time and I thought, ‘Am I wasting my time here?’ I had the great fortune of meeting another fantastic writer, Nick Petrie, who does The Drifter series, and we met at a Writers Conference. It was supposed to be about a five-minute conversation and an hour and a half later, I’ve got my head in his lap, and I’m like, ‘I’m never gonna be a writer!’ He said something that was very pivotal to me. He said, ‘You’re me two years ago. I wrote three books that didn’t (sell), so go home and write a better book! And I did, and that was the one that sold. So, if you discount those three books, and the 17 years that took me to write them, I’m pretty much an overnight success.”
In fact, Bentley did not start writing full-time until after the release of Without Sanction, his much-heralded debut with his original character Matt Drake, in 2020. When Colgan presented the opportunity to write Jack Ryan, Jr. novels, Bentley sought out the counsel of fellow author Mark Greaney, who crafted the best-selling Gray Man series after writing with Clancy.
“I had my series at the time, I still had a day job, and I was asking Mark, ‘How did you know when to go full-time or what it was like?’,” Bentley said. “And one of the things that Mark said is that when you get an opportunity to write for a Legacy series, like the Clancy series, or the Bourne series, or now I get to write for the Vince Flynn series, it’s kind of like the publishing industry putting their stamp on you and saying, ‘This person can write’. He said, ‘You know, I’m not guaranteeing you a life of riches. What I’m saying is, you will probably have the work if you’re willing to bet on yourself’.” So that’s kind of where it finally came to me. I held on as long as I could, trying to do a day job and writing. Then when it got to the point where I couldn’t do both, I took a gamble and bet on myself.”
Bentley’s career has flourished. The former Army Apache helicopter pilot released the fourth thriller in the Drake series, Forgotten War, in April of 2023, and has plans for a fifth story in 2024. Most of his recent focus, though, has been on taking over the Rapp series from Mills, whose final story for Vince Flynn fans, Code Red, debuted at #1 this week on the NYT fiction chart. Bentley cites Flynn, who lost his battle with cancer in 2013 at the age of 47, as his favorite author, which is one of the reasons why the idea of writing for Rapp is a bit more intimidating.
“For the last four or five months, I really haven’t read anything but Vince Flynn books, just trying to soak myself in that character,” Bentley says. “And there were so many writers who came before me in the Clancy books, the fans were much more accepting of it. They knew, ‘Yep, it can be done. You can do that.’ With the Clancy books, there are two books a year. There’s also another fantastic writer, Mark Cameron, who would write the Jack Ryan, Sr. books, and so I didn’t feel like I was carrying the entire franchise myself. With the Flynn books, there’s only one book (a year) and there’s only been one writer, Kyle (Mills), since Vince died and so the reaction from the fans has been much more intense. When they announced it, you know, everybody was supportive. But all the messages I got were some variant of, ‘Glad to have you aboard, but this is my favorite series in the world. Do not screw this up!’ I understand, because I felt the same way. But it’s certainly a little more daunting to get behind the keyboard and write this series.”
In Weapons Grade, Bentley finds the mark once again in putting Ryan, Jr. and his Campus team members in high-stakes situations, ultimately building to an intense aerial conclusion. His backstory for Pieter, one of the mercenaries involved in the plot to steal the Corvair, brings a depth to the character that I think readers will notice. Fans of the series will enjoy the ride. I hope my interview with Don Bentley is as enlightening for you as it was for me.
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