August 29, 2016

The Games of Spies: an interview with Jeffrey Wilson and Brian Andrews, authors of "Tier One"

In a world violated by terror, the old lines have blurred. Meet the next generation of covert ops.

John Dempsey’s life—as an elite Tier One Navy SEAL named Jack Kemper—is over. A devastating terrorist action catapults him from a world of moral certainty and decisive orders into the shadowy realm of espionage, where ambiguity is the only rule. His new mission: hunt down those responsible for the greatest tragedy in the history of the US Special Ops and bring them to justice.

But how does a man torn between duty and revenge walk the line and preserve his soul?

As Dempsey struggles with the games of spies, the case propels him across the globe in a desperate effort to prevent a new, horrifying attack on American soil.

Once, John Dempsey followed orders blindly. Now he sees behind the curtain, and the security of the civilized world rests on one question: Can a Tier One Navy SEAL adapt and become the world’s most lethal spy?

Q: By definition, Tier One and Special Operations Task Forces, like the one you were deployed with as a SEAL, are covert. Missions, even identities, are rooted in deception. In a line of work where the only truth you can believe is your own, how—and who—do you learn to trust?

Jeffrey Wilson: Without exception you trust your team. The bonds of brotherhood that are formed in war are deep and lasting, and are not unique to the Special Warfare community. It has been often said that in combat you no longer fight for ideology, or cause, or even country. You fight for the man beside you. You fight for that brotherhood. In covert operations there is a suspicion of those “outside” of your own brotherhood. We try to bring that forward in the book.

Q: Some veterans return from combat, never to speak of it outside the family they fought with. Not you. Your deployments inform your storytelling. Just how real is your fiction? Is re-living the danger through your characters a thrill, or is it therapy?

Brian Andrews: It would be disingenuous to say that our military experience doesn’t inform our storytelling, but the mechanics of that influence are not what you might think. It’s not the tactics, the weapons, or the nitty-gritty details that we resurrect for our readers—it’s the emotions, stakes, and the human toll. These are things that matter in conflict and combat. These are the things that drive human decisions, in both fiction and real life. For me, the act of storytelling is cathartic and exciting because it poses questions that matter to the widest possible audience within the context of a thrilling adventure. So when you read TIER ONE, keep the following in mind: What message are these guys really trying to communicate? How many layers deep in TIER ONE do I have dig until I hit the bedrock of truth?

Q: In TIER ONE, Senior Chief Jack Kemper, already estranged from his ex-wife and teenage son, "dies" to protect his family, as he creates a new covert ops team to take down the enemy. How does the death of his identity mirror his reinvention from SEAL to secret agent? What's harder for him to lose— the people he loves or the job that defines him?

Andrews: One of the most fascinating epiphanies as writer is recognizing that characters, like people, have differing degrees of self-awareness. If you were to ask Jack Kemper what matters most in his life, his answer would be family, but as readers, we might disagree. As readers, we see that Kemper’s actions speak louder than his words. As the story unfolds, we learn that his wife has already left him because when forced to choose between duty and family, he always chooses duty. But through the process of reinvention, he finally gains a level of self-awareness he’d not had before. The tragic irony of his character, is that only “in death,” does he actually desire to place family above country, and only in death, is that opportunity truly lost to him.

Q: In the book, both sides use honor as justification to avenge the deaths of their loved ones. Infidel or jihadist—if one's a villain, does that make the other a hero? Or do we have more in common than we'd like to believe?

Wilson: That is absolutely correct! We work hard in the TIER ONE series to show just that, and I believe it is imperative to make the villains as realistic, complex, and motivated as the heroes if you want a story to resonate as true. To the Jihadists, it our Ember Team that are the villains and they are as passionate about their cause as John Dempsey is about his own. To not do this is to lower the stakes in your story.

Q: "Radical Islam" is a term used by some to describe ISIS and al Qaeda. Others believe it confers a religious legitimacy on terrorists that they don't deserve. Aren't the suicide bombers in the book—and in real life—motivated as much by politics, retaliation, and altruism as they are by religion?

Andrews: Yes, I believe so, but don’t discount the power of indoctrination, peer pressure, and the desire for elevated station in the afterlife as contributing factors. The decision to become a suicide bomber is not one that is made on a whim, rather it is a gradual process of psychological corruption. Even the most benevolent mind can be usurped, when exposed to a lifetime of religious dogma and manipulation.

Q: In TIER ONE, the bureaucrats and the boots on the ground are equally driven, equally flawed. Ideologues set the agenda, and the few who seek compromise seem to be played for fools. So you think the suspicion and stereotypes too entrenched to be overcome?

Wilson: God, I hope not. In TIER ONE we created an entity in Ember that could operate outside of the bureaucracy for the greater good of America. In this truly diverse and highly “joint operations” environment, those stereotypes must be overcome for the unit to reach its potential and achieve its goals. Of course, someone—in the case of our fictitious Ember that is Jarvis—has to serve as the bridge between the bureaucracy and our team of driven operators. By being that self-sacrificing buffer he allows Ember and Dempsey’s Special Activities to operate with a purity of purpose. I hope very much there are teams like our fictitious one out there somewhere.

Q: At the end of the book, it's revealed that a high ranking U.S. official betrayed his country in an effort to manipulate public opinion, trading the lives of the SEALS for a hard line foreign policy with Iran. “(He) thought he was an American patriot, but in reality he was an American jihadist." What's the difference? 

Wilson: When your dedication to a cause allows you to step over the line to put your agenda above the safety and well-being of American citizens or warfighters then you are no longer a patriot, in my view. You can’t pursue a greater good for your country by sacrificing its citizens, most especially those most committed to her defense. That blind zeal that makes your cause more important than the lives it affects is the difference between patriotism and Jihad.

Q: In TIER ONE, the wife of a SEAL declares her son's Bar Mitzvah "an acronym-free" celebration. "No one but you guys know what a ‘SCIF’ is," she says. What is a SCIF, and what is it about the acronyms, the "invisible tether," and other rituals that brand a Team identity and forge an unbreakable bond?

Wilson: Well, a SCIF is a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility. It is essentially a secure building, or area within a building, where highly classified information can be reviewed and discussed. Only those with adequate security clearance (SCI level clearance) would be permitted to even enter a SCIF and no cell phones or other electronics would be permitted.

Q: The Iranian ambassador to the UN is one of the more complex characters in the book. His wife believes "he wanted to be the voice of a rational, peaceful Islam," yet the reader can't help but question his motives. You've said that you create "characters (who) face the same moral crises that we all face...." What is it about this terrorist that makes him relatable? 

Andrews: As one of only a handful of POV characters in the book, we get to see the world through his eyes. He’s a brother, a husband, and a father. He’s professionally accomplished and respected. Like all people, his motivations are driven by his wants and needs which are under constant pressure from the people in his life whose opinions matter most. In the case of Modiri, his brother and wife fill the metaphorical roles of the devil whispering in one ear, angel in the other. Ultimately, his moral compass is swayed by grief, fear, and insecurity— forces which I think everyone can relate to—and he chooses the path of vengeance.

Q: You dedicate the book "To the heroes of Extortion 17, who gave the ultimate sacrifice for freedom on August 6th, 2011." Tell us about the mission that caused the single greatest loss of American life in the Afghan war, and the 38 souls who died. 

Wilson: The loss of Extortion 17 was the greatest single day loss of life in SEAL Team history. I can't give any specifics about what happened that day because the details of the mission are still classified and even if I could that day is difficult to talk about on a personal level—I lost a number of friends that day and also suffer along with other friends who were not aboard but share the loss. What that day, and the loss we suffered because of it, means for the Naval Special Warfare Community is broader—and simpler. Like those brave men—the SEALs, the NSW support personnel, the aircrew, the Afghani partners—it is imperative that each of us remain committed to never give up the fight—whatever that fight may be today. This is part of the culture of Special Warfare. I have no doubt that each of these men, given the knowledge of what may happen that day—that they were perhaps being targeted—would have still, without hesitation, kitted up and boarded that helicopter. There were brothers in need and enemies at the gate.  

Brian Andrews and Jeffrey Wilson are the co-author team behind the TIER ONE covert ops series and the Nick Foley thriller series, penned under the pseudonym Alex Ryan.


Midwest born and raised, Brian Andrews is a US Navy Veteran who served as an officer aboard a 688 class fast attack nuclear submarine in the Pacific. He graduated summa cum laude from Vanderbilt University with a degree in psychology. He is a Park Leadership Fellow and holds a Masters degree from the Johnson School at Cornell University.


Jeffrey Wilson has at one time worked as an actor, a firefighter, a paramedic, a jet pilot, a diving instructor, a Naval Officer, and a Vascular and Trauma Surgeon. He also served two tours in Iraq as a combat surgeon with both the Marines and with a Joint Special Operations Task Force as part of his service with an East Coast based SEAL team.

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