Author A.J. “Tony” Tata: Riding the Swell

by Anne Rose |

 Brigadier General Anthony J. Tata, U.S. Army (Retired) is the national bestselling author of the critically acclaimed novel “Foreign and Domestic,” and the four book series featuring action hero Jake Mahegan. Tony Tata, who divides his time between Wilmington and Cary, channels a military career in his books: he commanded combat in the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions and the 10th Mountain Division. His last tour was in Afghanistan in 2007 where he earned the Combat Action Badge and Bronze Star Medal. Tata is a frequent foreign policy guest commentator on Fox News, CNN, and CBS News. He made a career transition from the army to education leadership where he has served as the Chief Operations Officer of Washington, DC Public Schools and as the Superintendent of the 16th largest school district in the nation in Wake County/Raleigh, NC. He most recently served as Secretary of Transportation for the State of North Carolina.



Cape Fear Living Magazine: Your novels are set in North Carolina, what’s your connection?


A.J. “Tony” TATA: I’m a surfer, and I just love North Carolina. Now I’m working on Wilmington Riverfront projects. I grew up in Virginia Beach and spent my childhood on the Outer Banks, surfing and going to the beach. I spent ten years of my army career at Fort Bragg and the last five years in Wake County as Superintendent and Secretary of Transportation. I’ve experienced a lot of the state. It’s just beautiful – in my opinion the best state in the country –you can’t beat this Cape Fear region.


CFL: Does that North Carolina connection resonate with readers?


TATA: I get emails all the time, “Love the reference to the Outer Banks.” In my books, you’ve got Sharon Harris Lake, Raleigh, Ridge Road in Raleigh, and there’s Apex. People who buy “Three Minutes to Midnight” and live in Raleigh, or the region, are going to understand exactly where they are in the book: Cary … New Hill … a bit of Morehead City. The next book, “Besieged,” happens right here, in Wilmington. My Nielsen BookScan results nationwide do show I’m East-Coast centric. I have a readership focus in North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina – with a heavy dose in LA and Chicago, Miami and Dallas.


CFL: You are publishing at a fast and furious pace. What should readers look for?


TATA: My first book, “Foreign and Domestic,” was released in mass market paperback last March by Kensington Publishing Corp., and became a national best-seller. It popped off the shelf. It spent two weeks on the best seller list at Barnes & Noble and Hudson Booksellers. Kensington is releasing “Three Minutes to Midnight” in hardcover this May. I have a third book, “Besieged,” which is on my desk right now, ready for my publisher. In the last twelve months, I will have had three books published.


CFL: Did you take a breather between “Three Minutes to Midnight” and the book that you are ready to turn in?


TATA: I turned in “Three Minutes” and kept going. I’m on a six-month turn-around timeline and the book after “Besieged” is due in July – I’ve got about 10,000 words of it written. I’ll have three things going on at once in April: writing book four in the series, editing “Besieged,” and releasing “Three Minutes to Midnight” with a book tour starting here, going to Raleigh and then to Virginia Beach – that’s where I’m from so I always go back. That’s where my passion for writing was born. I have a lot of friends there, too, and it’s always good to have a lot of people come to your book signings! My family is there – my dad is reading “Three Minutes to Midnight” right now, and he says it’s the best one yet. Which is high praise coming from Dad, he was a football coach, first and foremost, so if Dad says it’s good, it’s good.


CFL: Walk us through a bit of “Three Minutes.”


TATA: “Three Minutes to Midnight” is the second book in the Jake Mahegan series – Mahegan is a Native American from the Outer Banks, a former Delta Force operator, who is now on some tenuous contract with the Joint Special Operations Command and lives in various places in North Carolina, and is assigned missions, sort of “if he should choose to accept them.” It’s a completely stand-alone book, with the same series protagonist, but there’s no sequencing.


CFL: So “Three Minutes” is part of a series – how do they fit together?


TATA: My 4-book contract very specifically described the protagonist – a 6’ 4” Native American, 240 pounds. But you can read “Three Minutes to Midnight” and there’s really no reference to “Foreign and Domestic.” There might be one line that sort of catches you up on Mahegan’s background or something, or some oblique reference to a woman he met, or something, but there’s no continuous thread. It’s not a continuous story, in that sense, for the characters. There’s not a single character, except for Mahegan, from one book to another.


CFL: Who is this guy around whom you’ve built the series?


TATA: So the idea for Jake Mahegan is, he’s kind of like the errant knight –that’s the vision I have for him – he sort of comes out of the woods and saves the less fortunate. It’s like the regular guy is getting the shaft and somebody’s there to save him against the big bad machine. Given my background – I focus on these sorts of “terror threats to the nation” and I think I’m pretty creative in thinking of ways for the bad guys to do stuff to the country and then I build that into a plausible scenario and find a way to get Mahegan into the mix and discover it. He’s got this self-driven mission to make things right.


CFL: Which of your own books is your favorite?


TATA: It may be the one I’m turning in, “Besieged,” but “Foreign and Domestic” is really close to my heart because it’s set in the Outer Banks and it’s the first in the Mahegan series. As I look at each book, and I get to know Jake better, I enjoy fleshing out his character with every story, putting him in different situations, and sort of developing his sense of humor a little more with each new book. He’s sort of an all-business guy and in “Foreign and Domestic,” he’s just leaving the army, he’s really struggling with two things in his life, and it’s this conflict between violence and love. He’s trying to migrate toward peace and love and have happiness, and yet he keeps getting pulled back into this trade at which he is so good, which is combat and defending the homeland and protecting people, particularly women. He’s got a short trigger, a fly wheel in his mind that sometimes snaps loose, and that makes him unpredictable. You never know when he’s going to slam somebody up against the wall … all while you’re cheering for him.


CFL: If a reader starts at the beginning of the series, will that get them hooked?


TATA: I have received great feedback and response on “Foreign and Domestic” – and locals will love that it occurred in Derek County, the Outer Banks, and Roanoke Island, so I’d say “yes.” There are a lot of different plot elements, but essentially Mahegan uncovered a ghost prisoner (an undocumented detainee) early in the war – did you ever hear of the CIA Torture Report that was done about how the CIA and others would just take a prisoner off the battlefield and not put him in the system, and put him in a container somewhere and move him so nobody knew this person was gone? I take literary license with that and in “Foreign and Domestic,” there’s this gravy train of these undocumented prisoners that are in a compound in North Carolina, and the people who are holding them don’t know that these guys are able to get out and conduct terrorist attacks. It’s kind of like a “Hogan’s Heroes” – but serious – you know, they are able to escape, get back in and do all of sorts of damage … and Jake, my hero, trips over this and has to unscrew it from the inside out.


CFL: What’s next for Jake Mahegan?


TATA: The next book “Besieged,” which I’m turning in today, happens in New Hanover County – and Brunswick County – and that will be released in February.


CFL: Sounds like the making of a movie.


TATA: Any of them could be good movies, “Three Minutes to Midnight” could be a good kind of disaster movie … if Hollywood takes note, we’ll see …


CFL: You’ve got a full resume. When someone asks, “What do you do?” what’s first on your list?


TATA: Writing. My writing has always been something that has been part of my life, ever since I was a kid. I was one of these guys who would bring home dozens of books from book fair and read, and read, and read, and then I tried writing. Probably like 20 years ago I said, instead of watching TV, and being a consumer of entertainment, I want to try to be a creator of entertainment.


CFL: Where did you learn the craft of writing?


TATA: There are lots of books out there that you can read. I read Stephen King, “On Writing,” which is the bible for writers. Books like “The First Five Pages,” [Noah Lukeman] “How to Write a Mystery,” [Larry Beinhart], all those kinds of things, and just studied. There were growing pains of course, but … “Save the Cat!” [Blake Snyder] is a great book – it’s really about screenwriting but it kind of gives you the foundation of a formula for approaching outlining. James Patterson has a great MasterClass online that I’ve done.


CFL: Are you methodical, do you have a process?


TATA: You’ve got to have that. Writers call it “butt in seat time.” For me, it’s about an hour, two hours a day. I go by word count. When I’m in the creative mode, I aim for 10,000 words a day, and maybe 5,000 on a weekend. Some days I get 2,000, some days I get 500, some days I’m not feeling creative so I go to my Excel spreadsheet where I have this outline. I have this methodology I use where I’ll put main characters down one side, put key events across the top – like “protagonist meets love interest” – and there’s a one sentence prompt in there on how I want that to happen.


CFL: That sounds very regimented and disciplined.


TATA: Yes, and yet for me, I’m more of a free writer, so I’ll start with the idea and just start the book. And just get into it. Then after two or three chapters – when I can sort of visualize the thing gelling, in my mind, based on an initial concept or idea – I’ll sit down and brainstorm in my soft notes and put different ideas down. Sometimes I’ll whiteboard it, and then I’ll put all that into an Excel spreadsheet . That begins to give the story some structure and that’ll be sort of left and right guideposts, but … sometimes I’ll go back and look, and say, oh I meant to go in that direction.


CFL: Has your process matured with each new book?


TATA: Yeah, well, my first book, “Sudden Threat,” … actually, the first book I wrote isn’t published. Like every author, I’ve got one sitting on the shelf somewhere – at least one! “Sudden Threat,” the first book published, got good reviews, and some tough reviews, but it’s four out of five stars on Amazon … and then each book got progressively better. I think if you look at the reviews, you see how you’re growing as a writer. My previous writing was more plot-centric, focused on things that happen and what those things make the character do. Now my hero is the centerpiece and he has a personal motivation that he is pursuing. It’s character driven and the plot revolves around the character.


CFL: You’ve lived a disciplined life, that serves the writer in you, doesn’t it?


TATA: You have to have the discipline to sit down and create. I’ve had people come up to me and say, “I’ve been working on this book three or four years,” and when I hear that, I’m like, “Great, you’re working on the book,” but it tells me that perhaps there’s not that regimented, hit-a-number-a-day work. You have to be self-motivating to get that in. Pick a number: my contract calls for on or about 100,000 words, which is roughly 400 pages and so I know if I’m at 10,000 words, I’m 10% of the way done.


CFL: Are you a typewriter guy?


TATA: No. Microsoft Word. I really don’t think I have any quirky writer habits – if the Excel spreadsheet is quirky, that’s the one thing I do, and I’m not super wedded to that either. I like white-boarding. I’m very visual, I’ll draw arrows and focus on the key thing – the theme of the book.


CFL: I was looking for your whiteboard …


TATA: Yeah, there was one in my previous office – I just moved into this office. I have to get them to bring it in here.


CFL: Do you have time to read?


TATA: Oh yeah – I read every night, even if I’m up till 2 in the morning going through one final read of my work. I lie down, pull out my Kindle and read for about 15 minutes. I read mostly fiction. I write for “Big Thrill Magazine,” so I read a lot of the things they ask me to review, which introduces me to new authors. I’ve always liked John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport character; I can’t remember all the plots but I remember I really like the character: former hockey play and good guy, a little bit aggressive. I like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. I like Brad Thor’s Scot Harvath. Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp.


CFL: There’s a trend there.


TATA: Yes, and I like reading those because they are all “sort of different” to “very different” from what I write.


CFL: What do you tell yourself is the most important thing to remember when you’re writing?


TATA: At the end of the day, you’ve got to know the theme of your story, and not lose sight of that. It’s about the character. We fall in love with characters, like Jack Reacher, or Clancy’s Jack Ryan. What’s that TV slogan … “Characters Welcome.” We like people, we like attitude, we like characteristics. Plot is a vessel for the character to interact. It’s entertainment. It’s all make-believe. I’m creating a story. If people feel connected to the characters for their money, that’s what it’s all about.


CFL: When terrorists aren’t attacking, what is Cape Fear life like?


TATA: (laughs) For me, Cape Fear life is great! I’m a year round surfer, I’ve got a wet suit and a surf board and if the waves are good, I’m out there at South End Surf Shop and Crystal Pier, getting a good workout in and catching the waves and talking to people in the line-up out there. It’s a good vibe. Working on the Riverfront is exciting too; we’re doing some great things here that are going to really change the dynamic of downtown. I’m glad to be on the ground floor.


CFL: On writing – how about a surfing metaphor?


TATA: I love the process. It’s time consuming, but fun. It’s better to ride with the momentum when you’ve got it, than not.


What to do in Wilmington:

Book Signing: “Three Minutes to Midnight”

Where: Ironclad Brewery, 115 N. Second Street, Wilmington

When: Tuesday, April 26, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.


Photo courtesy of Tony Tata


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