Shane Kuhn: The ASSET Interview

Jon: Shane, I’m a huge fan of the your John Lago books so I need to know, are we going to see more of him?

Shane: Absolutely. I will never abandon my soul brother John and soul sister Alice. And as long as people keep asking this question and wanting to see them again, I will keep writing books in that series. I have a concept for my next Lago novel and I think people are going to love it. It will be more outrageous than the first two books combined and I plan to work on it over the next several months.

Jon: Where did Kennedy (THE ASSET) come from? He’s quite different that John Lago…

Shane: Like all of the characters I write, Kennedy is an extension of me. And, he is probably the one character I’ve written so far that is closest to me in real life. He and I have very different personalities. I am nowhere near as buttoned up as he is and I would be the worst airport security consultant in the history of air travel. However, we are both lone wolf road warriors, busting our asses to make a dollar, and sick to death of the conspicuous disintegration of humanity. He and I both feel helpless every time we read about a terror attack and we both just want to kick the shit out of these cowards ourselves. But we can’t so we are filled with angst, trying to do whatever we can to stay sane and be a positive force in the world.

Jon: Did writing this book change the way you look at traveling?

Shane: No. Traveling made me write this book. My acute awareness of the fact that we are not safe at all when we go anywhere is a big part of my motivation to write THE ASSET. I will say that researching TSA as much as I did not only confirmed my fears, but added new ones to the growing list. So, in that way it did change the way I look at it but it has not changed anything about how I travel. I realize that there is still a much higher probability I will be killed by a distracted Pokémon Go player running a red light in his Civic tuner car than by a terrorist bomb on an airplane.  

Jon: When you do research on something like the TSA, do you ever come across info they ask you not to share or to change a bit for the book?

An Israeli airport security guard patrols with a dog in Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, March 22, 2016. After the Brussels attacks, Israel briefly announced that all Israeli flights from Europe were canceled, then reinstated the flights, Israel Airports Authority spokesman Ofer Leffler said. Pini Schiff, former director of security at Ben-Gurion Airport, said the attack in the Brussels airport was “a colossal failure” of Belgian security, and he said “the chances are very low” that such a bombing could take place in Israel’s airport. Israel's Ben-Gurion Airport is considered among the most secure in the world, an outcome stemming from several Palestinian attacks on Israeli planes and travelers in the 1970s. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

An Israeli airport security guard patrols with a dog in Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, March 22, 2016.  (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Shane: Absolutely not. I interviewed Tom Blank, one of the founding fathers of TSA, about its history, how it operates, technology it uses, and where it is headed in the future, and he was completely honest and forthcoming. People at TSA know that the organization’s shortcomings are a matter of public record based on the plethora of stories that came out recently about their 95% failure rate. My impression is that TSA brass are trying very hard to balance safety with air traveler convenience and that may not be possible. If you look at airports like Ben Gurion, their number one concern is safety. If you miss your flight due to long screening lines, it’s your fault for not giving yourself enough time. So, in some ways, I believe pressure from the public to make lines shorter is potentially a very negative influence when it comes to truly making us safe. I want to be clear that this book is not about criticizing the TSA. It’s more about how terror threats are now a part of our daily lives here in the US and we as citizens, and our government, need to accept that and act accordingly.

Jon: The first books had a thriller pacing but THE ASSET has that pacing on Red Bull and Speed. What did you change in your style to get that feeling of urgency in the book?

Shane: THE ASSET has a very present ticking clock as the days count down to the terror attack Kennedy is trying to stop. So, I worked hard to make sure readers could feel that ticking clock with the same intensity as Kennedy. Also, I wrote very lean prose so that readers could stay immersed in the story. When I am reading a thriller, I despise long descriptions wherein the writer attempts to wow you with his or her prose stylings. I skip past them every time because I want to know what happens next. So, in keeping with my own desires as a reader, I wrote The Asset in a way that I would want to read it.

Jon: Having worked on films, do you think in terms of movies when you write a novel or are they two different animals for you?

Shane: I think like a filmmaker when I write books. That mindset is deeply ingrained due to my education, training, and experience. All of my books are outlined with the 3 act structure used in American cinema and I always strive for maximum creativity with the minimum number of words. Film demands that you have a highly visual voice and that you distill your vision into a very streamlined creative execution. The cool thing is that writing novels has renewed my love of film-making because I feel I have gotten much better at visualizing what I would like to convey. So, for me, books and cinema go hand in hand and I am exploring new ways of combining them in future projects.

Jon: What got you interested in this genre? Were there specific books or movies that really got you fired up and made you want to try your hand at it?

Shane: I have always loved spy books and films. When I was younger, I plowed through every Robert Ludlum book I could get my hands on. Then I discovered John Le Carre and Tom Clancy and they really blew my mind with their knowledge and razor sharp storytelling. Additionally, I am obsessed with spy films like THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR and TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY. The common thread here is authenticity. TSA

If a writer or filmmaker can drop you into a situation that feels real, then you’re going to experience everything the character is experiencing on an emotional and intellectual level. When I wrote THE ASSET, I did everything in my power to make it as authentic as humanly possible. Unlike my John Lago books, I was dealing with very serious subject matter and I never wanted a reader to think I didn’t fully respect it. Tom Blank, the TSA expert I mentioned before, read the book and told me he thought it was realistic and scary. That was a huge compliment and made me feel like I had done my job. But, of course, I still get to read reviews where people say the plot is far-fetched!

Jon: As well received as the John Lago books were, and I’m sure this one will be, do you feel any pressure from fans or even yourself to try to do more books like this and raise the bar for yourself each time?

Shane: I am 100% committed to raising the bar with each book I publish. Just like an animal in the wild, I have to adapt and evolve to thrive and the only way to do that is never rest on laurels and always believe you can improve. My dad taught me that when I was playing sports. No matter whether I won or lost, he always asked me what I thought I could have done better. This is how I look at writing. It can always be better. So, I plan on pushing the envelope until the day I die because readers deserve it and it fuels my inspiration.

Jon: What kind of things do you do to relax?

Shane: I don’t have a lot of time to relax! I have a family, a demanding day job, and my writing. So, whenever I have any free time, I make sure I spend it with people I love. We’re a very active tribe, so we end up doing the opposite of relaxing – going skiing, paddle boarding, surfing, hiking, and whatever else gets our heart rates up! But when I actually have chill moments, I like reading, watching, movies, and listening to vinyl on the hi fi.

Jon: And, to wrap up, if you could go back and give advice to a 12 year old Shane, what would you tell him? And would he listen?

Shane Kuhn at ElChapultepecShane: Stop playing sports right now, Shane! They are going to consume your life and force you to hang out with one kind of friend – other jocks. They will rob you of time better spent writing, singing in rock bands, and learning about film. Even though you’re a good athlete, your true talent is in creative endeavors and the sooner you start cultivating that, the sooner you can get on track to have a much longer career in that world. But learn to surf and ski because those are the only two sports you will ever love and you need that to balance out your life.

–I think he would listen very intently and do his best to heed the advice because he never got that kind of advice from anyone. Back then, he was only exposed to propaganda pushing the pursuit of athletic and academic glory, and creativity was considered a dead end waste of time.