(Stars and Stripes)

Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. For author Don Bentley, finding his truth led him to novel-writing success — and to Tom Clancy.

In this episode of Military Matters, co-host Rod Rodriguez speaks with Bentley, a former Army aviator and FBI agent, about how his experiences have shaped his thrillers. Bentley is the author of four novels featuring his original character, Matt Drake, as well as writing novels based on Clancy’s Jack Ryan character and, starting next year, Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp series.

Bentley said he wrote and published three novels before finding success with his fourth, 2020’s “Without Sanction,” the first in the Drake series. Pulling from his own experiences in the military and the FBI, Bentley focused the story on an agent in the Defense Intelligence Agency.

“The protagonist, Matt Drake, is the DIA case officer who has just lost an asset in Syria, and the asset and his asset’s family were murdered,” Bentley said. “And his best friend is a Delta Force guy who was horribly blown up in an IED when he was with Matt trying to recover that asset. And he feels that guilt in that, you know, where do I go from here? How do I actually atone for the fact that I’m still alive and these guys are dead and my best friend is a cripple now? And so, you know, that was really scary. It was really scary to write.”

Sometimes fiction and fact can blend together after the fact. In last year’s “Hostile Intent,” Bentley wrote about his Drake character in Europe in the midst of a hypothetical Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“As a thriller writer, you never want real events to catch up to what you're actually doing,” Bentley said. “And my book came out like a month after Russia actually invaded Ukraine. And it was funny 'cause people were asking me about it, and they're like, what did you get wrong? What did you get right? And I was like, you know, I think I got some of the tactics right and stuff that the Russians used and how they were gonna go about it. What I completely missed that I think most of the world missed was the tenacity and ferocity of the Ukrainian people and how they would resist.”

Bentley also explained how Clancy’s editor, Tom Colgan, initially approached him about writing books in the Jack Ryan series.

“He bought my first book, ‘Without Sanction,’ in a two-book deal,” Bentley said. “And so when I turned in my second book to him that was called ‘The Outside Man,’ you have what's called the editorial call, which means he's read the version of the book you send him, and then you schedule a call where you can talk about what his impressions are and what he wants you to change, or where he thinks the book could be better. And so at the end of that conversation, it was kind of almost like Columbo-esque, where he is like, ‘I got one more question for you. Would you be interested in writing in the Clancy universe?’ And I'm like, what, what did he just say?”

You can find Military Matters on Twitter @stripesmmpod.

Follow Jack Murphy on Twitter @jackmurphyrgr and Rod Rodriguez @rodpodrod.

A transcript of the episode can be found here.

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Brian McElhiney is a digital editor and occasional reporter for Stars and Stripes. He has worked as a music reporter and editor for publications in New Hampshire, Vermont, New York and Oregon. One of his earliest journalistic inspirations came from reading Stars and Stripes as a kid growing up in Okinawa, Japan.

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