Author Vince Flynn stretches out on a stuffed chair inside a Twin Cities coffee shop, sipping a hot beverage and listening to a companion rattle off the 1988 St. Thomas graduate’s accomplishments: master of the political thriller, with several New York Times best sellers and more than 5 million books sold since 1997. A consultant for the hit television series “24.” A millionaire. And there’s more to come, including potential movie deals for some of his books and an agreement to work on creating an espionage series for HBO.
The obvious question, then, for the 2006 Distinguished Alumnus Award winner, is this: Where would he be today if he had gone to archrival St. John’s in Collegeville instead of St. Thomas?
“If I had gone to St. John’s?” Flynn asks, cracking a wide smile. “I’d be in prison, probably.”
And with that, the St. Paul native is off and running during an hourlong commentary on everything from sharing a few beers with King Abdullah II of Jordan to the joy of plowing the UST quad as a student worker to why the U.S. Department of Energy put one of his most recent books, Memorial Day, under security review due to classified material that appeared in the 2004 thriller.
Then there’s the fact that Flynn has had to overcome a lifelong battle with dyslexia, never even thought about writing a novel until he was in his late 20s and ended up raising $20,000 on his own to self-publish his first novel, Term Limits.
It can be difficult to figure out where to start with the 39-year-old Flynn, as affable and disarming in person as his novels are fast-paced and outspoken about the government and terrorism in print. It seems best to begin in St. Paul, where he grew up as the fifth of seven children in an Irish-Catholic family. His mother was a wildlife artist and his father an English teacher and coach at St. Thomas Academy.
“I always grew up thinking I was going to go to the College of St. Thomas,” Flynn says. “Five of my seven siblings went to St. Thomas. My dad went to St. Thomas, my uncle went to St. Thomas. The way I grew up, it was always referred to as ‘The College.’”
Despite a brief flirtation with St. John’s – legendary Johnnies football coach John Gagliardi recruited Flynn to play football for him in Collegeville – Flynn knew in his heart he couldn’t say no to St. Thomas.
“St. Thomas was always the No. 1 choice,” he says. “There was something about going where your father went, the tradition.”
Flynn, who found out in the second grade that he suffered from dyslexia, was never a star student.
“Eventually I got to a point where I could get by,” he says. “Thankfully in college the teachers didn’t do that routine of, ‘Open the textbook and read this aloud.’ When I had to do that, I’d stutter and stammer and make an idiot out of myself.”
Flynn was no idiot, however, majoring in economics at St. Thomas and graduating in four years. His favorite memories of college life include playing football for Mark Dienhart, working on the grounds crew and bartending at Tiffany’s, Plum’s and O’Gara’s.
“I think I took only two English classes while I was at St. Thomas, and I got a C minus in both of them,” he says. “I was not a good writer.”
It was after he’d finished college and began a sales job with Kraft General Foods that Flynn finally found his way into writing. Determined not to let his dyslexia keep him away from the written word any longer, Flynn forced himself into a daily reading-and-writing regimen.
“I started reading everything I could get my hands on,” he says. “I read fiction, nonfiction, anything, but I especially loved espionage.”
A few years later, Flynn wrote Term Limits, the first of his seven novels, and began shopping it to literary agents and publishers. He was rejected at every turn but didn’t give up, remembering that Tom Clancy and John Grisham – two of the hottest authors of the 1990s – were both roundly rejected by the industry before finally breaking through.
“In the back of my mind, I always thought, because of my sales background, that I was a candidate to self-publish,” he says. “I wanted to make a big splash in a small pond and then go national.”
After convincing a group of local investors to pony up $20,000, Flynn self-published Term Limits in 1997 and began pitching the book to Twin Cities retailers.
A UST classmate and one of his investors, Teresa McFarland ’88, was the public relations director for the Mall of America at the time, and the ensuing local media blitz helped get Flynn’s first novel flying off the shelves, selling out all 2,000 copies of the initial printing in less than three weeks. The ensuing buzz about it caught the interest of Pocket Books, which signed Flynn and published Term Limits in hardcover in 1998. The book cracked the New York Times best seller list and Flynn was on his way.
Special forces, special sources
As Flynn’s next novels – all centered around the character Mitch Rapp, a top-notch CIA operative bent on stopping terrorists by whatever means necessary – gained notoriety, he no longer had to work by himself to connect the dots with his politically themed plots. All of a sudden, government agents and politicians were calling him with story ideas and insider tidbits.
“It’s almost gotten out of control, to the point where I’m turning down stuff that with Term Limits, I would have been on a plane in a heartbeat to sit down with some of these people,” Flynn says. “There’s something going on here. I think there are certain people in Washington who like the way I think, that I’m kind of outside the box and maybe giving them some ideas on how to operate a little differently in the war on terror. And I think it’s very refreshing for them to read something where they aren’t always being portrayed as a bunch of Keystone Cops.”
Asked if the ultra-aggressive, play-by-his-own-set-of-rules Rapp is someone who can be found in the real-life espionage industry, Flynn doesn’t hesitate.
“Absolutely,” he says. “Most of them are in Special Forces or were at one time. They’re bad (guys). They feel no pain. They thrive on this stuff. When I was in Amman, Jordan, riding around with some of these guys … one of them is married and has some teenage boys. He’s former Special Forces … and he wants back into Afghanistan. He’s going to take a job with a private security firm so he can go back to Afghanistan and kill people. Guys like him, they go beyond Mitch Rapp. These are guys who are natural-born killers, guys who want to go hunt. This is what they were trained to do.”
Don’t say the ‘C’ word
Flynn’s growing celebrity has everyone from King Abdullah II of Jordan to President George W. Bush reading his books and asking him for time to chat. While in Jordan, Flynn hung out with King Abdullah – “The most down-to-earth person you’ll ever meet,” Flynn says – drinking beers and having the king cook him dinner at the royal palace. When Bush was in the Twin Cities this past winter to give a speech at 3M, he asked Flynn to ride in his limousine so the two could talk about Flynn’s work.
“As much as the media loves to portray him as a bumbling idiot, he isn’t,” Flynn says of Bush. “You sit down with the guy and you are immediately impressed with how smart the guy is. He and (Minnesota Gov. Tim) Pawlenty got into it during the ride about education and economics, and I was just left in the dust trying to figure out what they were talking about. They were quoting all these studies and distinguished educators … normally I can keep up with those kinds of conversations, but I was lost right away with those two.”
So how is a former bartender from Plum’s able to meet with international political leaders and other celebrities and not be intimidated?
“If I’ve learned anything in the last decade, it’s that people really aren’t all that different,” Flynn says. As for how he doesn’t get caught up gawking at the amazing, whirlwind journey that has been his life the past eight years, he simply says: “I try not to think about it.”
Things have never been better for Flynn, but at the same time he says he worries about his and his family’s security – he and his wife, Lysa, have three children – as his books become more popular around the world.
“I write some pretty controversial stuff. There are some real crackpots out there who feel that if you disagree with their really bizarre, strict view of Islam, you need to die,” he says. “I mean, if they want to kill a cartoonist. …”
A dream job
Still, Flynn says he couldn’t be happier with doing what he calls his “dream job.” And lest he ever gets too big for his britches, he has plenty of family and friends in the Twin Cities to bring him back to earth.
“My brother, Timmy, graduated from St. Thomas in 1992 and is a sergeant with the St. Paul Police Department. He gets an invite in the mail to St. Thomas Day,” Flynn says. “He calls me up and says, ‘Dude, what is this (baloney)?’ I say, ‘What are you talking about?’ He says, ‘I’m the public servant over here saving people’s lives and making a difference. You think they’re giving me the award?’”
Flynn finishes that story with a laugh, then answers one final question: Will he encourage his son and two daughters to attend St. Thomas?
“Absolutely,” he says. “Put it this way. If Dane, our 10-year-old, grows up and tells me he wants to go to St. John’s, he better have a really good reason.”