Q. Tell us about The Unbeaten Man.
The Unbeaten Man features a Bowdoin College microbiologist who creates a microbe that can clean up any oil spill no matter the size, which should be a great thing. But bad guys figure out a way to weaponize it, and they force him to deploy it against Russia and Saudi Arabia to destroy their oil reserves and cripple their countries and throw the world in chaos. That’s the big plot. What’s underlying that is that the main character, Michael McKeon, had a very tortured and difficult childhood. He grew up in Westbrook, which is actually my hometown, and lost his sister and his parents to drugs and violence. Left on his own, he found his way to the Mission Possible Teen Center, which is a real place in Westbrook, now called My Place Teen Center, where his mentor was a Bowdoin College professor who introduced him to math and science and got him moving on a good path. Now, years later, he’s a professor at Bowdoin. The bad guys force him to do their bidding by kidnapping his wife and adopted daughter. Having lost one family, he can’t even bear the thought of losing another. So in the true genre of thriller heroes, he will do whatever it takes.
Q. What inspired The Unbeaten Man?
This is sort of an esoteric start, but I was actually reading Thomas Friedman’s book, Hot, Flat and Crowded. He talks a lot about oil politics and that when oil prices are high, oil nations like Saudi Arabia and Russia rattle the sabre a little more, and when oil prices are low, that shifts the balance of power. He mentions some of the attacks that have been attempted on oil facilities, particularly in Saudi Arabia and particularly at the oil facility that’s featured in my book, which is called Abqaiq, which is one of the most vital pieces of the Saudi oil infrastructure. It is a constant target for attacks, so it has one of the most secure facilities in the world and no attack has ever been successful. That jumped into my brain, and I started to think, what if instead of attacking the facility, somebody could actually attack the oil? What if you could put something in the oil that would destroy it and then would go back out to all of the other oil reserves and all of the other facilities? I started doing a little research and came across some work that had been done in the oil sands up in Canada, where they were working with microbes that could break oil down and release natural gas, destroy the oil but actually get natural gas out of the ground. It wasn’t a big jump from there to say, well, if you could do that, what if you could just destroy it, and that was the plot of the book.
Q. How long did it take to write the book?
About eighteen months to research and write. There was a lot of research involved because
there’s science in the books, and I’m not a scientist. I worked with four different professors to
make sure I got the science right and made any changes that they felt needed to be made.
Q. How has The Unbeaten Man been received?
Fantastic. It’s actually kind of been overwhelming on a couple of levels. One level is with other authors. This has opened me up to this group of authors not just in Maine but literally around the entire world, this group of international thriller writers who have been so welcoming and supportive. You would think there was competition, my book is selling and maybe their book isn’t selling, but there is none of that. They have been incredibly supportive, connected me into other markets, giving me reviews. Just to start off with, there were reviews on the back of the book by Steve Berry and Doug Preston and Gail Lynds. These are three New York Times bestselling authors, people at the top of their profession. They gave me glowing reviews. The International Thriller Writers Organization has featured me a couple of times, so that has been fantastic. The reception from the public has also been a blast. I was out at the Maine Mall Borders and sold out of the book, and other book stores have reported to me that they’ve sold out of it multiple times. The only kind of metric that I’ve seen anywhere so far is at Longfellow Books here in Portland. At the end of 2015, they published their top 100 best sellers, and my book was #47 despite the fact that it had only been out for three weeks. It’s just been so much fun talking about the book and having people enjoy the book. When you create something, you put a lot of yourself out there, and whether it’s a painting or a sculpture or a book, it’s a pretty great feeling when somebody picks up a thing that you created and says that they like it.
Q. Kind of a cliched question, we know, but have you always wanted to be a writer?
I’ve always been interested in writing. I grew up in a very literary family. I’m the middle of three generations of published authors. My father, Ed Rielly, is an English professor at St. Joseph’s College. He has written and published more than twenty book. I grew up surrounded by books, and I always loved them. I started writing as a little kid, stories for myself or for friends, and then I kind of gave it up as I got into high school. I was too focused on other stuff. Then in law school, I got the itch again to start writing and took an advanced fiction writing class at Notre Dame. I was only a couple of years older than the kids in the class, but in those couple of years, I had graduated from college, worked for a year, gotten married, gone to law school and just had a baby. So we were from different worlds. While they were writing these kind of Jack Kerouac/Rage Against the Machine all night long pieces, I was writing short stories about my son’s clown mobile, which led for kind of awkward critiques. I wrote my first novel during law school. It was horrible and I’ve never shared it with anybody. It sits in a box of shame in my house.
From that first novel, I moved into a variety of things, but nothing I ever went public with. I would write children’s stories for my kids when they were little. When my kids got a little older, I wrote the first thing that I really liked and thought about sharing publicly–a young adult fantasy. It was like a science-based version of Harry Potter. I was starting to discover my voice. I liked that a lot, but never had the time to try to find an agent and get it published. Then I started thinking a little more seriously about writing and trying to get something published. I realized that I really should write what I love to read, which are thrillers, so I began working the book which became An Unbeaten Man.
MCW: Most of us have books in the drawer!
Q. Is there a sequel in the works?
The Unbeaten Man is the first in a series. Book two,picks up four months after the first book and principally involves Iran. Another book I have completed is a tongue-and-cheek guide to parenting called How to Raise the Perfect Child or at Least Lie About It. I’ve shared that book with some of the people in the publishing world and other authors, and it’s gotten a great reception but I haven’t really made a full court press to find an agent and get that out there. So these are all things that I have to try to carve out time to do.
Q. How do you think growing up in Maine influenced your storytelling?
The place makes the person and Maine certainly impacts and shapes its residents. Maine provided the setting for An Unbeaten Man and will continue to provide the setting for the Michael McKeon series. Maine also provided the setting for my young adult fantasy novel. Maine brings you out of yourself—whether gazing out over the ocean or wandering in the woods or staring down a ski slope—but also gives you the space to create. When you’re constantly jostled by people surrounding you, you’re a different person and a different writer than when you have the space to interact with your environment and think on your own.
Q. What are the burdens and benefits of having a writing parent?
I never saw any of it as a burden. I always found it very helpful to have someone review my writing and make it better. My parents have always been very helpful readers of my work. They’ve always been very loving and supportive, but I also want people to tell me what needs to be improved. I want to get better and feedback is extremely valuable.
Q. How long were you in the unpublished writer’s corner before you sold your first book?
Ugh. That depends on how you measure it. I wrote my first novel during law school 20+ years ago. It was horrible and I knew at the time it was horrible, but it was an exercise in simply getting from start to finish. I never shopped that book. It remains in a box of shame in my basement. Over the years, as I moved through children’s books to young adult fantasy and to a tongue in cheek guide to parenting, I tried sporadically to jump into the published world but with no luck. Once I wrote An Unbeaten Man, I didn’t have time to market it because I was helping Morgan work on his project that turned into Neighborhood Heroes. Then when Morgan and I were at the Book Expo of America in NYC for Morgan’s book. Down East asked to see my book and offered to publish it. So, anywhere from a couple weeks to 20+ years.
Q. What advice would you give to an aspiring writer? Pretend that you have to pay for the words you use. It makes you value them more and choose them wisely.
MCW: Argh! Do I have to pay for the 100 words I took out of one of my novels?
Q. One of our favorite questions to ask newbies here at Maine Crime Writers is to tell us about a favorite Maine place—one that a lot of people might not know about.
The chapel at Bowdoin College. Everyone knows Bowdoin’s beautiful quad and its art museum, but the chapel has always been a place of peace for me.
Q. And of course, since it is summer in Maine and food is on everyone’s mind–can you share a favorite place to eat and tell us why.
Since it’s summer, I’ll go with ice cream. Catbird Creamery in Westbrook. Fantastically inventive, delicious ice cream. Furious George will challenge your taste buds. I love anything with rhubarb. Or stick with the salted chocolate.
An Unbeaten Man is Brendan Rielly’s first thriller. Brendan is a member of ITW and Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance and studied advanced fiction writing while attending law school. Brendan is chair of Jensen Baird’s litigation department and lives with his wife and three children in Westbrook, Maine, where he is the City Council President. Brendan is the middle of three generations of Maine authors with his father and son (as a high school senior) also published.