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An Interview With Thomas Young About The Mullah’s Storm

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The Mullah’s Storm was a pleasant surprise. As you can probably tell from the wording of a few of my questions I had some hesitation and trepidation about this book, particularly its portrayal of Muslims and those who believe in Islam. I was afraid it would be another novel or screed or simplification suggesting all Muslims are terrorists, which is simply not the case.

But I kept reading on and was happy to find the presentation of Muslims in the book was, despite the fact the most prominent Muslim in the story was a terrorist, much more thorough. So I can save my canned speech about how it’s not fair to judge a religion based on its extremists because every religion has those.

Instead, I can simply tell you that this is a good fascinating novel. It will get your blood pumping. The timing of its release this week seems somewhat appropriate coming not only amid the controversy over the New York City mosque but also at a time when the president is announcing the official end to the seven-year combat mission in Iraq and starting to talk about when the U.S. will withdraw from Aghanistan.

I’ll let the author explain the plot and premise of the book and take it from there.

Can you set the stage for the reader by describing the plot and the main character, Major Michael Parson?

In the opening chapter of The Mullah’s Storm, an Air Force transport plane takes off from Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, carrying an important Taliban mullah bound for prison and interrogation. Shortly after departure, the aircraft gets shot down. This happens in the midst of a strong winter storm, which makes an immediate rescue impossible.

Right after the crash, Taliban insurgents attack the aircraft and crew. They know who’s on board, and they want to free their spiritual leader. The crew manages to repel the first attack, but they realize another one is coming. The crew knows it’s just a matter of time before they get overrun. So the injured aircraft commander tells navigator Michael Parson to take the prisoner and the woman Army interpreter, Sergeant Gold, and flee. Their orders are to evade through the mountains — do whatever it takes to keep the detainee in custody.

This goes against all of Parson’s training and instincts. He wants to stay with his crew and protect his buddies. In almost any other combat situation, that’s what you’d do. But in this case, the importance of the prisoner takes priority over all other considerations. Reluctantly, Parson sets out on this journey of survival through the Hindu Kush. As he’s leaving, he hears gunfire in the distance. He knows that’s his friends getting killed.

Now Parson and Gold must evade capture in hostile territory while holding onto a prisoner who wants very much for them to get caught.

You have said the story stems partly from the fear/nightmare all war pilots have, namely what if I crash land in enemy territory? If I tell you that I was stressing on behalf of your characters while reading this would that please you, a mission accomplished type of thing?

Oh, yes. We’ve all had that dream about being chased and not being able to move fast enough. The fight-or-flight instinct strikes a chord on a primal level for all of us. Whether you’ve served in the military or not, anyone can relate to a good survival story.

I’m reading this at the same time as the controversy over the mosque in New York City and much — to my mind — media hysteria and public confusion about what Islam is and what Muslims believe. Writing a novel, do you feel like you need to be concerned with what readers may think Islam is? Like you,  I was a reporter and I wonder if it’d be hard to take off that journalist hat when writing fiction.

I try to come up with a faithful portrayal of Islam as I see it: a largely peaceful religion hijacked by a relatively small number of radicals. (The Klan lit crosses at their rallies, but did they represent all Christians?) Then I try to show how my characters relate to that reality.

I understand the anger that results from terrorism. My wife works in the Pentagon, so you can imagine how I feel about the people who flew an airplane into it. But from the beginning of the war on terror, no less a conservative than President Bush made it clear we are not at war with Islam. We’re at war with a wacko death cult called al-Qaeda and its perversion of Islam. Let’s not forget that Muslims are helping us fight this war. Native Arabic and Pashto speakers have signed on as interpreters with the military and the intelligence agencies. Muslim countries have given us basing rights and overflight clearances.

The biggest challenge in writing The Mullah’s Storm was to portray Parson’s attitude and how it changes. Parson is angry, hurt, and not always thinking clearly. For a time, he blames all Muslims for his plight and for the loss of his crew. Sergeant Gold, through her knowledge and perspective, helps bring him to a more nuanced viewpoint.

Related question: I just finished leading a class in a discussion of the book Three Cups of Tea which paints a much more positive picture of Afghanistan. Have you read it? Would you encourage those who read your book to read other books about the Middle East?

I have read Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin and found it quite interesting. And I certainly encourage people to read anything they can get their hands on about this fascinating part of the world. I’d especially recommend the novels of Khaled Hosseini: The Kite Runner, and A Thousand Splendid Suns.

Writers such as Mortenson and Hosseini know Afghanistan better than I do. From my own writing, I hope people can learn something about the experiences and motivations of American servicemen and women. Nowadays, when someone takes the oath of enlistment, they know they’re going into harm’s way. Not if, but when — while their old classmates go to the mall. What kind of person makes a choice like that?

There are a number of books I can recommend on that topic. They include One Bullet Away, by Nathaniel Fick; My War, by Colby Buzzell; and the anthology, Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families. (Full disclosure: I was one of many contributors to Operation Homecoming.) I’d also recommend a book of poetry: Here, Bullet, by Brian Turner.

You have now written a non fiction book and a fiction book — which was harder and which was more enjoyable? Should readers read one if they are going to read the other?

Readers don’t have to read one to understand the other, but I’d certainly like for people to read both. Each presented its own set of challenges and rewards. When you write a novel, you’re creating a narrative from nothing but your own experiences and inspiration. When you write nonfiction, you’re bound to actual events, but there’s still an art to how you present your facts and information.

My nonfiction book, The Speed of Heat: An Airlift Wing at War in Iraq and Afghanistan, is an oral history of my unit’s missions in Southwest Asia. In the book, my squadron mates tell their stories in their own words. I interviewed about seventy members of the West Virginia Air National Guard, recording many hours of tapes. One of the hardest tasks was to edit their comments for brevity while remaining true to their stories. If you read The Speed of Heat, you’ll get to know some very good friends of mine, and you’ll learn a lot about the people who volunteer to serve their country.

You’ll learn a lot about the military mind by reading The Mullah’s Storm, too — but through a fast-paced fictional narrative that draws the reader into the dangers faced by the characters.

I used to work in Hagerstown, Md. for the newspaper there. I mention that because it sounds like we may have practically crossed paths since you’ve worked for the Maryland Air National Guard and the West Virginia Air National Guard. Where did you do your work for the Associated Press and how did that work affect your writing as a novelist?

We might well have crossed paths at some point. I spent ten years as a writer, editor, and producer for the Associated Press Broadcast News Center in Washington, DC. Journalism honed the mechanics of my writing; grammar, punctuation, and word choice became second nature. It also brought discipline; when the deadline’s in ten minutes, there’s no time for writers’ block. But fiction writing is a very different skill. A novelist has to understand conflict, character development, and narrative arc. It takes a different kind of focus to bring those to the page.

The high point is right now! The low point came about twenty-five years ago, when a creative writing teacher told me, “I think we’ve only made a good reader out of you.” The moral of that story is don’t listen to all your teachers.

Is this the first in a series of books featuring Parson? Can you say a little about what the second book will be about?

Parson and Gold will meet again. Parson’s next mission involves transporting a group of patients who’ve been wounded by a terrorist bombing in Kabul. When he gets airborne, he learns that jihadists have placed a bomb on board, much like the one that destroyed Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. However, this bomb is rigged to go off on descent. Parson, and his crew and passengers (including Sergeant Gold) are trapped at altitude until they find a way to deal with the problem. Through aerial refueling, they can remain aloft for an extended time–but not indefinitely, as the patients worsen, the crew grows fatigued, and the mechanical condition of the aircraft deteriorates.

Did you do research for this book and what did that involve? Or had you done enough research for your last book that you did not need to do so for this book?

I did a certain amount of fact-checking on technical details.  But most of the research came during my years of flying as a flight engineer on the C-130 Hercules and the C-5 Galaxy in the Air National Guard.  (I still fly with the West Virginia Air Guard.)  The training I received in survival school certainly informed the novel, as did the missions I flew in Afghanistan.

Final bonus question: what question do you wish interviewers would ask you? Here’s your chance to ask that question and then answer it.

You asked some excellent questions, so you covered most of the topics I like to discuss.  But if I could pose one other question, perhaps it would be this:  Who helped you along the way?

There are many people who helped me write and publish this novel–too many to name all of them here.  But I’d like to recognize two of them.  The first is John Casey, who received the National Book Award for his novel Spartina in 1989.  I met John at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference at the University of the South in 2008, and he provided tremendous encouragement.  He’s a fine gentleman and writer, and I can’t wait to read his latest novel, Compass Rose, which will be published in October.

I’d also like to mention Chief Master Sergeant Fred Williams.  The Mullah’s Storm is dedicated to Chief Williams, who was my mentor and instructor when I began flying in the military.  He was the flight engineer section supervisor at my first unit, the 135th Tactical Airlift Squadron, Maryland Air National Guard.  A consummate professional, Fred knew as much about the C-130 Hercules as the people at Lockheed.  I learned from him the value of constant study and training: the emergency procedure you reviewed last week could be the thing that saves your life tomorrow.  My main character, Major Parson, shares that value.  

Sadly, Fred lost his battle with cancer shortly after he retired.  Fred taught a lot of flight engineers during his career.  Even now, the skies are a little safer, and the nation is a little more secure because of him.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.