by ZJ Czupor
A Storyteller’s Story of Tenacity and Tragedy
Through grit, determination, and tenacity this author overcame dyslexia. He was rejected by the U.S. Marines Corps. He self-published his first book. He was often panned by critics, never won a literary award but earned the loyalty of millions of readers. He was once asked by President George W. Bush where he got his information for the President thought the details in his thriller novels were too close to national secrets.
He was born in St. Paul, Minnesota to an Irish-Catholic family, the fifth of seven children. His mother was a successful wildlife artist and his father a high school English teacher and coach. By the time he reached fourth grade he was diagnosed as dyslexic and struggled with reading and writing all his life.
It wasn’t until he turned nineteen and entered his sophomore year at the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota) that he read his first book for pleasure. He read Trinity (Doubleday, 1976) by Leon Uris (1924-2003) which he says, “opened my eyes to a world that I had run from my whole life.”
He said, “I started reading…Hemingway, Ludlum, Clancy, Tolkien, Vidal. I read fiction, nonfiction, anything, but I especially loved espionage.”
After graduating with a degree in economics, he first worked in sales and marketing for Kraft General Foods selling brands like “Jell-O” and “Stove Top Stuffing.”
A couple of years later, he was chosen from a pool of one-hundred candidates to enter the United States Marine Corps as an aviator. However, the week before he was to attend Officers Candidate School, the Marines disqualified him for medical reasons. Because of a car accident he was in at the age of five, and from subsequent football injuries, he was prone to concussions and convulsive seizures.
Disappointed in the rejection, he took a job in real estate in the Twin Cities and started thinking about writing a book and worked on it in his spare time. Two years later, he took a huge gamble and quit his job. He secured a literary agent based on his idea for a thriller novel. He moved to Denver for six months to write full time while bartending at night. He also spent time in our nation’s capital making contacts in the military, the Secret Service, FBI, and CIA.
Five years and more than sixty rejection letters later, he took another gamble. He decided to self-publish that first novel, a feat, not that common as it is today. He raised $15,000 from five friendly investors to cover the cost of printing 2,300 copies and for marketing expenses. Back in the Twin Cities, and still working as a bartender, he called on every bookstore selling his novel out of the trunk of his car. He sold out hard covers in three weeks and had to reprint more.
That first novel was called Term Limits (1996) about a former Navy SEAL, Scott Coleman, who holds a grudge against corrupt politicians and takes justice into his own hands. The book went to number one in the Twin Cities and a week later he landed a new agent and a two-book deal with Pocket Books, a Simon & Schuster imprint. He signed a contract for $500,000 with Pocket Books to publish the hardcover edition. His mass market paperback spent several weeks on the New York Timesbestseller list.
Later, when he ran into a few of the New York agents and editors at Simon & Schuster, who had initially rejected him, he said, “I always smile when I see them.”
This bestselling author is Vince Flynn (1966-2013). He said he was consoled by how New York publishers missed both John Grisham and Tom Clancy (1947-2013), two of the biggest selling authors of the 1990s. Grisham started with a small press in Mississippi while Clancy was published by the Naval Institute Press in Annapolis, Maryland.
In 2005, he told the Associated Press, “If Clancy could do it, why can’t I?”
His second novel, American Assassin (1999), introduced his protagonist Mitch Rapp, a CIA counterterrorism operative, who does whatever he needs to keep the nation safe. Fourteen more novels followed featuring Mitch Rapp and his private war against terrorism, and they regularly landed at No. 1 on the New York Times list.
Bestselling author Dan Brown called Flynn “The king of high-concept political intrigue.”
Flynn’s novels sold more than 15 million copies in the U.S. alone, and millions in the international market. He averaged writing about one book per year. He said he “never read a single book about how to write a thriller. I relied on my instincts and my own sense of pacing and storytelling.”
While readers and critics praised him for his accurate depictions of weapons and espionage techniques, most critics panned his writing as having implausible, over the top plots about Islamic terrorism.
Nevertheless, former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were fans of his books. Foreign leaders and intelligence professionals worldwide also admired his stories. In fact, President Bush summoned him twice for private audiences because Flynn said, “He wanted to know where I got my information.” They eventually became good friends.
The Pentagon also requested a security review of his seventh Mitch Rapp novel, Memorial Day, (Atria Books, 2004) before it could be published because the Department of Energy was concerned his book contained classified material about nuclear security. A security review was mentioned in internal memos by the FBI and Secret Service.
Flynn never worked for the federal government but his ability to imagine future scenarios with terrorists in his novels helped him to “connect the dots and fill in the blanks.” That ability resulted in invitations from national security officials to discuss future scenerios. He never divulged those conversations.
In the fifth season of the TV series “24” he was invited to spend a week with series writers and creators. He said in that week, “we broke out the storyboards for the first third of the season and the overall plot. I then got on a plane and went home, and they got busy writing the individual episodes.”
His friends said his success never went to his head. “He was just ‘Vinny from St. Paul. ‘” He loved to banter, drink red wine, support his alma maters, his country and most of all loved his wife, Lysa, and their three children. Flynn also generously volunteered his time to raise money for his former high school, and he mailed hundreds of his books overseas to service men and women.
His advice to writers is to (1) know your audience; (2) focus on pacing; (3) get the details right; (4) get the research right; and (5) write a great page turner.
In November 2010, he was diagnosed with stage three prostate cancer. He died three years later at the age of 47.
And that’s your Mystery Minute.
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Authors Note: Bestselling author Kyle Mills took over the Mitch Rapp enterprise after Flynn died with the blessing of Simon & Schuster and Flynn’s estate. His latest Flynn novel is Total Power (Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 2020) about ISIS taking down the entire U.S. power grid. Mills is the author of 20 thrillers including several stand-alone political thrillers and has authored three of Robert Ludlum’s (1927-2001) “Covert One” series of novels.
Flynn’s second novel and his first in the Mitch Rapp series, American Assassin (1999), was made into a major motion picture in 2017 starring Dylan O’Brien and Michael Keaton. The film was ten years in development due to contractual issues with signing on directors and cast members, and approved screenplays. The film grossed more than $67 million worldwide against a budget of $33 million but received mixed reviews from critics.