With 30 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, four active duty and 26 in the Reserve, Anderson "Andy" Harp was frustrated with the military thrillers he read after he retired as a colonel in 2002.
Too many plots went against his experience. Too many details clashed against his expertise.
"I thought I could take a shot at creating something," Harp, 63, said in the book-lined study of his Columbus home.
As a Marine, he was trained to methodically pursue a goal. The process matters. There is a right way.
So he designed his own writing boot camp. From 2004-09, with only one exception, he attended summer sessions in the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. That led to his Master of Fine Arts degree from Queens University in Charlotte, N.C.
In between, he pounded out his debut novel, "A Northern Thunder," a 288-page hardcover book published by Bancroft Press of Baltimore in October 2007. About 5,000 copies were printed.
"The first book, I thought it was good, but I didn't think it was great," Harp said. "So I purchased the book back, and it shouldn't be for sale anywhere."
He donated those 450 remaining copies to Books for Heroes, a charity that gave them to U.S. military libraries in the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan.
Publishers Weekly criticized Harp's secondary characters in "A Northern Thunder" as not "nearly as convincing as his descriptions of satellite technology, submersible suits and the like." But the influential magazine gushed about the protagonist, Will Parker, "a small-town Georgia lawyer and Desert Storm Marine vet recruited for a dangerous mission, has resilience, foresight and fortitude to spare, and North Korea's repressive regime and rugged terrain make for deadly opponents."
Harp kept plugging away at his newfound craft. He brought back Will Parker, this time sent to the Middle East, and he added depth to the secondary characters, especially the antagonist.
Yousef al-Qadi is a jihadist from a wealthy yet broken Saudi family. His mother, who died young, is the daughter of an oil magnate's gardener, so he is half royalty and half pauper.
The result: Harp's new novel, "Retribution," debuted Tuesday.
The 519-page paperback is published by Pinnacle Books, an imprint of New York-based Kensington Publishing Corp.
Harp's protagonist and antagonist seek retribution for different reasons. Will Parker's parents were killed when Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland due to a terrorist's bomb. Yousef al-Qadi lost a niece on a plane accidentally shot down by a U.S. Navy destroyer.
Harp wanted to explore "what motivates these radicals to be so bloodthirsty." He also had his own retribution to achieve in his writing.
"I wanted to bring it to a new level of craftsmanship," he said.
The news release about "Retribution" from Meryl L. Moss Media Relations of Westport, Conn., describes the plot this way:
"The remote and impenetrable Pakistani mountains have offered refuge to the worst enemies of civilization since the time of Alexander. Now, the world faces a new challenge. Reared from birth to harbor a seething hatred, a lone man is about to unleash a firestorm that will rage for centuries. And the window of opportunity to stop him is shutting much faster than Washington, D.C., can hope to deal with.
"A top operator, Will Parker is embedded within the terrorists' ranks to stop this catastrophic disaster. But with a nuclear core on its way to the U.S., Parker will go to any length to stop a devastating threat to the homeland, more lethal that anything the USA -- and the world -- has ever faced."
Harp initially self-published "Retribution." Pinnacle editor Gary Goldstein found it on Amazon in January 2013. Goldstein contacted the budding author and offered him a two-book contract, Harp recalled, shaking his head in disbelief.
"The general process is that you write something and you send it to an agent and the agent falls in love with you and sends it to a publishing house," he said, then added with a chuckle, "This is a different business model. I didn't have an agent."
Reached by phone at his New York office, Goldstein explained what wowed him about Harp's "Retribution."
"He was writing about stuff he absolutely knew about," said Goldstein, executive editor at Kensington. "It came out on every page."
Harp's last two jobs in the Marine Reserves were at the Pentagon in Washington and then as the officer in charge of the Crisis Action Team for the Marine Corps Pacific and Central Command at Camp Smith, Hawaii, which was the operation center for the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
Goldstein is known in the publishing world for signing Dan Brown, author of the best-seller "The Da Vinci Code," when he worked for Pocket Books.
Harp's "Retribution" has all the elements readers want in a thriller, Goldstein said: "Authenticity and lots of really good action. Some scenes there in Afghanistan where these boys were pinned down by some terrorists, it was so harrowing, I couldn't stop reading. It moved like lightning."
Through membership in International Thriller Writers, Harp created a USO Tour, dubbed Operation Thriller and comprising ITW members. He participated in the 2010 tour to Iraq and the 2012 tour to other U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf. He befriended fellow thriller writers such as best-selling authors David Morrell, who wrote "First Blood" and created the John Rambo character, and Kathy Reichs, whose fictional forensic anthropologist Temperance "Bones" Brennan inspired the Fox TV series "Bones."
They are among the notable names giving Harp and "Retribution" rave reviews.
"I seldom come across a thriller as authentic and well-written as 'Retribution,'" Morrell wrote. " a global plot that's exciting, timely and believable."
Reichs added: "Retribution' is a fast-paced, suspenseful thriller. Top gun!"
Harp is grateful for the prominent praise, but he emphasized the hard work.
"I've just enjoyed the writing process," he said. "It's not been a just-add-water type of process.
"It took at least five years to get to this point. It's gone through multiple edits."
As his regular job, Harp is an attorney who represents injured railroad workers, so he doesn't have long stretches of time to write at home.
"I don't get up at 5 a.m. and write three hours a day," he said. "I know there are some people who think that's the way to do it. I would do it in spurts, when I could grab the time, a whole weekend. If I'm on an airplane, I get three hours of peace and quiet, and it's amazing how much I can get done."
He wrote "A Northern Thunder" with a pencil on a legal pad. But he had to write "Retribution" on a computer to more easily share his work with editors.
Asked what he likes about writing, Harp said, "I enjoy building a plot where you'd be surprised at the end. I enjoy the movement of the work, trying to perfect my rhythm and pace, putting something at the end of the chapters that can tease the mystery on. So it's the challenge of plot and structure and now the deeper challenge of character."
For his protagonist, Harp knew he needed "a name that has the right pace to it, the right sound to it. I played with a lot of names, but Will Parker just clicked."
Parker isn't modeled after anyone in particular, Harp said, "but there are some similarities with my path. He's a runner, and I went to (American University) on a track scholarship. He has self-reliance, almost a survivalist type of mental ability, and a little bit of a rebel."
Harp needed that mindset to persevere through the tough times while writing "Retribution."
"Probably the biggest challenge is when you're at Page 400 and you know where you want to go, but you've got to get there," he said with a smile. "You know there are certain movements you want to make, but you've got to work out the pacing, the transitions. You want the characters to head this way, but generally the plotlines are not just one single line; you have a converging force."
He insists he would have finished "Retribution" even if he didn't have to meet editor's deadline.
"I just enjoyed it so much," he said. "If it never got published, I still would have written it."
While he finalizes his publicity schedule for "Retribution," Harp is working on the yet-to-be-titled sequel to "Retribution." He already submitted a 25-page outline that includes some dialogue.
Harp laughed and said, "Whether what you're writing compares to the outline, those are two different worlds."
And so is writing compared to his military and legal careers.
Harp was born in Helena, Ark., along the Mississippi River. Former state Sen. Seth Harp is his brother.
Andy met his wife, Jane, while in law school at Mercer University in Macon. He worked as assistant district attorney in Cordele, then moved to Jane's hometown of Columbus in 1982.
They have four adult children: Anderson Jr., Elizabeth, William and Hamilton.
"I never thought I'd be paid as a writer," Harp said.
Anderson is his given name, but he is known as Andy in Columbus. He went by Andy as the author of "A Northern Thunder." Now, he goes by "Anderson" in the book business.
"Kensington said we see this as a different work and we want to re-brand you, so to speak," Harp said. "This is like going from the minor leagues to the major leagues."
And his editor is confident Harp will succeed. Goldstein declared, "He's got the chops."
HOW TO GET THE BOOK
Anderson Harp's novel "Retribution," a 519-page paperback, is available online through the publisher, www.kensingtonbooks.com, as well as Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, IndieBound, Bookish.com, Target and Walmart.