NEW YORK • The striped towels, deck chairs and palm fronds outside Rockefeller Center lent the Today Show set a distinctive summer vibe as Matt Lauer told viewers: "The Fourth of July weekend's almost here. That means beaches, barbecues and books."
Thriller writer Brad Thor, a regular guest, brandished a copy of his latest volume, Use Of Force.
"Didn't Foreign Agent just come out?" Lauer asked.
"That was last summer's book," Thor answered.
"Was it really already last summer?" Lauer said, a hint of disbelief in his voice.
It was. And it is a safe bet the next novel featuring Navy Seal-turnedintelligence operative Scot Harvath will arrive like clockwork next summer. Only once in the past 16 years has Thor not published a single book.
That was in 2010, when he published two.
"I was glued to my desk and got two books out that year," the writer said in a recent interview at the Manhattan restaurant Oceana. "I suddenly looked and there was my sweet dog, got older, I was like, 'Wow, this year took a toll on everybody.'" Yet, from his insatiable fans, "the complaint I'm getting is I don't write fast enough".
Thor, 47, has a knack not just for churning out books, but also for thrusting himself into controversies, major and minor. Conservative commentator Glenn Beck, a big booster, referred to Thor's novel The Last Patriot as "The Da Vinci Code for Islam". The plot, which centres on a secret involving the Prophet Muhammad, earned Thor death threats and accusations of Islamophobia.
Comments he made last summer about removing Mr Donald Trump, then a candidate for the White House, from the presidency if he won the election were interpreted in some corners as advocating harm. He prefaced the remarks as "a hypothetical I am going to ask as a thriller writer" and denies he meant any form of violence.
He pals around with former Navy Seals and intelligence operatives, even dedicating Use Of Force to former CIA operations officer Duane Clarridge, who died last year. Mr Clarridge ran secret wars for the CIA in Central America, was indicted on charges of lying to Congress in the Iran-Contra scandal and later pardoned.
Thor has sold nearly 15 million copies of his books worldwide. That would be an extraordinary number in literary circles. But in the world of mysteries, suspense novels and thrillers, it means he still has a bit of work ahead of him to make that leap to the level of ubiquity and universal name recognition (and yes, Thor is his real name) of a Dan Brown or John Grisham.
Use Of Force debuted at No. 2 on the combined print and e-book New York Times bestseller list, behind Grisham's Camino Island, but above the latest James Patterson, Murder Games.
French director Louis Leterrier, whose action films such as The Incredible Hulk (2008) and Clash Of The Titans (2010) have grossed nearly US$1.3 billion (S$1.77 billion) at the global box office, will take the helm of the film adaptation of Thor's debut novel, The Lions Of Lucerne.
The new Scot Harvath book opens with a refugee boat sinking in the Mediterranean before moving from Libya to Langley, from Malta to Paris, and includes a stop for Harvath in true terra incognita: the Burning Man counter-culture festival. Thor did not travel to the Nevada desert, joking that his wife let him go to Afghanistan, "but Burning Man might be a bridge too far".
He does like to bring up that time he shadowed a black-ops team in Afghanistan for research, a mission he described as "on the intel-gathering side, low visibility, thin-skinned vehicles". He declined to share details, except to say that it was not a direct-action mission, "not grabbing someone, putting a bag over their head".
His acknowledgements include the names of former Navy Seals, in addition to the dedication to Mr Clarridge, with whom he was friendly and who, after leaving the CIA, ran a network of spies from his home near San Diego. His organisation was a kind of private spy agency similar to one that appears in the novel, led by "a legendary spymaster with more than 30 years in the business", who had "gotten fed up with all of the bureaucratic red tape at Langley and had left to start his own company".
"I'm always talking to friends of mine who are active in the military, law enforcement and intelligence communities," Thor said. "What keeps you up at night? What are you seeing that you're concerned about?"
A self-described conservative libertarian, he has lectured at The Heritage Foundation think-tank about missile defence and used his imagination to advise the Department of Homeland Security on what is known as a red cell, gaming out ideas for unconventional attacks from the terrorist's perspective.
"What I do is 'faction', where you don't know where the facts end and the fiction begins," he said. "One of the coolest compliments I get is people saying, 'I love to read your books with my laptop open,'" to see which parts are true.
Indeed, in a genre ignored by the mandarins of literature but vacuumed up by the masses, he has the kind of fans more turned off by mistakes in firearm calibre than workmanlike similes, including "like a coiled snake, ready to strike" or legs that felt "as if they were made of lead".
"I had a lot of lovely gun owners come out of the woodwork and say, 'Okay, listen, you called this thing a clip. It's not a clip. It's called a magazine. You don't squeeze the trigger, you press the trigger,'" he recalled.
Before his book tour, he posted photos on Twitter of three different handguns on his book cover, asking which he should bring with him.
Friends would ask the writer, who is a Chicago native, when he would be on The Oprah Winfrey Show. "I think I've got one too many car chases and my body count's too high for an Oprah club pick," Thor would tell them.