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Former Navy SEAL Sniper And Author Jack Carr On Military Life, Guns, And Thriller Novels


Before Jack Carr became a best-selling author and thriller novelist, he spent 20 years as a Navy SEAL sniper, leading sniper teams in Iraq and Afghanistan, commanding Special Operations Task Units, and a platoon commander in the southern Philippines.

Carr’s special forces background, outdoorsman hobbies, and forthcoming third novel made him both a quintessential attendee and much-anticipated star at this year’s SHOT Show, the nation’s largest annual gun industry convention held annually in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Carr began writing his first novel, “The Terminal List,” before he was officially out of the military, and began writing his second novel, “True Believer” before the first was even published. We sat down with Carr at SHOT Show, where he talked about everything from spy novels and his military career to writing and his next novel due this spring, “Savage Son.”

The Federalist: You’ve been coming to SHOT Show long before you became an author. How has it changed?

Jack Carr: I have been coming to the show since 2003 or 2004.  The military section was very small back then. Now when you walk into the exhibition hall, it’s essentially the whole show. At my first show, even though it was after 9/11, the “tactical” side was still a very small portion. Everything else was hunting, fishing, or outdoors. By 2006, the tactical world dominated the Show.

TF: The civilian market wants to be in the military market now, and you combine that with the 18 years of war, it’s totally taken over the industry. Everyone wants the tactical and the desert tan.

JC: It’s saturated, for sure. In 2001, a tactical nylon company was well positioned. Today, it’s an incredibly competitive market – it seems everyone and their brother has a tactical nylon company. I really like the downstairs area at SHOT. It’s a really cool place to look for new and innovative gear. They are hungry down there.

TF: What’s the last thing you hunted?

JC: Mountain lion in Utah. I’ve wanted to do that my entire life, see how it all works. They have to take a significant number of mountain lions out of these areas. It was shocking how many, especially for an animal you never see because it’s so stealthy.

TF: How long were you in the military?

JC: Twenty years. I was enlisted for the first six and a half years, and then I became an officer. I was deployed on September 11th. We thought we were going directly to Afghanistan but instead we took over ship-boarding operations to enforce the UN oil embargo against Iraq for Team 3 while they hit Afghanistan.

After that deployment I went to OCS, Officer Candidate School, where it’s basically the same as boot camp but you get yelled at by Marines instead of Navy people while folding underwear and T-shirts, ironing things, totally ridiculous. Then I went back to the SEAL Teams as an officer and ended up in Afghanistan right away.

TF: What was it like moving up through the ranks, and then bam, you’re low-man-on-the-totem-pole again?

JC: Before September 11th, having some experience was different than after September 11th. So everyone was pretty much a new guy after September 11th, it didn’t matter where you ranked. They just threw you into the mix.

TF: So when you decided to get out of the military, how did you decide you wanted to write thriller spy novels?

JC: When I was a little kid, I wanted to be a SEAL and I wanted to write fiction. I grew up in the ‘80s, and my mom was a librarian, so I grew up surrounded by books and with a love of reading.  As soon as I got to fifth grade, I was reading the same things my parents were. Up on their shelves, I remember Robert Ludlum, Ian Fleming, Ken Follett that I wanted to read.

In the early ‘80s, I started reading Tom Clancy, David Morrell, Nelson DeMille, J.C. Pollack — all these guys whose protagonists had these backgrounds that I wanted to have in real life one day. There was no internet, so you couldn’t just Google “Navy SEAL,” and spend the rest of your life going down all these rabbit-holes online. Most of what I learned about the military was through fiction.

TF: Your favorite spy-thriller author?

JC: David Morrell has a very special place in my heart, because, one, he created “Rambo.” And then in “The Brotherhood of the Rose,” in the early ‘80s, I already knew what SEALs were, but he had one sentence in that book where he talks about SEALs. The two protagonists are Army Special Forces, but that one sentence about SEALs confirmed to me that that’s what I wanted to do.

Now we’re friends! We were just emailing this morning on the way out here, and he took a picture at the Santa Fe Library of “The Terminal List.” It was a well-worn paperback copy, so as I was trying to leave the house, I ran and grabbed a hardback copy of both books and I looked up the address and sent them in to the Santa Fe Library.

TF: What is the most overused, cliche spy-thriller trope?

JC: The protagonist always likes their coffee black. Always. It’s as if you can’t have a tough guy that puts in some honey and cream in their coffee. So my protagonist does just that to humanize him a little bit.

Or in some books, where the person doesn’t have a background that would allow them to do certain things. Some people really love that when the protagonist is an “everyman,” where he’s thrown into a situation and just has to figure it out.  In real life, he’s going to get creamed! You fall to the level of your training.

I wanted my protagonist to have a background that would allow him to do the things he does. I didn’t want him to be great at everything, because that’s not how it works in real life. You specialize in a few things, and you’re not so good at this or that, just like any other industry.

I wanted to bring my experience into the novel. My protagonist is not the greatest in surveillance. I also wanted to humanize him a bit and make him likable. It’s hard to attach yourself to a character when they are not likable. I wanted to create a character that someone wants to have a beer with, wants to hang out with, but who can also can flip the switch, like if something were to happen in here, right now, they could just take care of business.

TF: You don’t want people waiting for the protagonist to get axed because he’s annoying.

JC: Exactly.

TF: My two favorite parts of “True Believer” were the section where they were in Africa going after poachers. There’s just something about how it was written, and so different than every other thriller book.

JC: That was by design. I started writing the second one, before I even got the deal for the first one.  I thought of how John Grisham couldn’t give his first novel away.  It was called “A Time to Kill” and I think it is arguably his best work.  He persevered and continued writing. His second novel was called “The Firm,” and that’s the one that set him on the path he’s still on today. Now we get a John Grisham every year. Great lesson: Never quit.
Inspired by John Grisham’s experience, I always knew I was going to write two novels. If both of them didn’t hit, then I was going to reevaluate my choices. But I knew that if the first one goes, I can’t just have another book that is essentially taking the theme of the first book and dropping it into an international setting.

I didn’t want that to be a point for critics to say, “He’s a one-trick pony, he does the SEAL thing for awhile, he has this revenge novel, and now he just picked up and dropped it in America, picked up and dropped it in Europe, picked up and dropped it in China.” I wanted to make it different, by design and explore a different compelling theme.

TF: The second best part was your character not having a love interest.

JC: Well, both of those things were very intentional and thought out. I thought it would be disingenuous after all the trauma of the first book to just pick him up and now he’s off to the next adventure. I couldn’t have him just jump into another relationship so quickly. I thought he should wait at least until the third book.

TF: Explain the redaction battles you’ve had with the Department of Defense. It seems ridiculous.

JC: I probably shouldn’t haven’t even gone down this road. In the Pentagon they have a defense office of prepublication and security review, and it’s completely ridiculous.

It’s not supposed to take more than 30 working days and for the second book they took seven months, for a book of fiction. And then I appealed. I won 37 of 54 redactions. Somebody is just blacking stuff out. It’s not classified. Of those initial 37 redactions, one was a completely fictional airbase that does not exist — as far as I know…

TF: What’s your favorite negative mean Amazon review?

JC: There’s one where a guy said, “And then the author tried to humanize his protagonist by having him almost take a shot in combat and then look up from his rifle at the last second and not take the shot.” I was reading it and was like, ‘That’s interesting because that’s a real story.’

I had this guy in my sights and didn’t take the shot because it just didn’t seem right, and I sleep very well knowing I didn’t take that shot. That was 2004 and it was the middle of insanity in a campaign to retake the city of Najaf from Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia.  Later on, when I became a platoon commander and then a troop commander, I told that story to our snipers and to the new guys in the platoon.

We’re alive because our ancestors had a good sixth sense. Trust those instincts. Snipers are often the final decision makers as to whether someone lives or dies. That’s a lot of responsibility. You are accountable for every round that leaves your barrel. Anyway, I put that in the book.

TF: So related to that, with all this Eddie Gallagher stuff in the news, what’s your sense of how all that publicity, whether he did it or didn’t do it, what does that do to the SEAL teams?

JC: In general, it’s probably tough for the guys down range and those getting ready to deploy because it’s a distraction. It’s the leadership’s job to keep them focused on the task at hand so they can crush the mission down range.

So I think the situation detracts from the mission of preparing for war.  At the same time, it was past time that NCIS and the military legal system got called on the carpet for things they had been doing as a matter of course like putting tracking devices on the defense attorney’s computers. I would wager it’s not the first time it’s been done, it’s just the first time they got caught.

My experience supports what I’ve read about their conduct. They’re playing judge, prosecutor, and investigator. Which is why I describe the military legal system the way I do in the first novel. That was my experience. They got called out for something clearly unethical.

There’s a reason why we have civilian control of the military.  The military justice system needs to adhere to certain ethical standards, just as those who go to venture downrange need to maintain the moral and ethical high ground and adhere to the law of armed conflict even against, and I’d say especially, against an enemy who does not.

TF: Okay, last question, what’s your hunting setup?

JC: Depends on what I’m hunting.

I Rifles Inc .300 Win Mag on a Remington 700 titanium action, Talley scope rings, and a Swarovski Z6i 3-18×50 scope.

For my bow setup, right now it’s a Hoyt Carbon RX-3 built by my friend John Dudley at Nock-On.