Tony Tata: Writing thrillers by moonlight


by Liza Roberts

photograph by Robert Willett

After his workday, in a study filled with memor- arablia from a 28-year career in the U.S. Army, N.C. Secretary of Transportation Tony Tata writes thriller novels.

He writes about special forces officers, combat missions, terrorist threats, CIA operations, justice, and family dynamics.

As a recipient of the Army’s Combat Action Badge and Bronze Star, Tata, a West Point graduate and married father of two, doesn’t need to look far for inspiration. Decades of memories from his years as commander of combat units in the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions and the 10th Mountain Division, and from combat missions in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Macedonia, Bosnia, Panama, and the Philippines give his novels an unusual level of detail and ring of truth.

His latest novel, Foreign and Domestic, was released at the end of last month. Writing under the name A.J. Tata, he is best known for his Threat Series, including Rogue Threat, Hidden Threat, and Sudden Threat. An e-book prequel to the series, Mortal Threat, came out in January.

So if his day job currently revolves around roads, bridges, ports, town hall meetings, and politics, Tata’s moonlighting efforts reside somewhere else altogether. With the galleys of Foreign and Domestic in a neat pile on the desk, Tata is happy to visit that place. To explain how he got the idea for his latest novel while visiting his in-laws, who own a restaurant on the small Puerto Rican island of Vieques. How he heard there was a bomb-clearing effort underway on the island, remembered there was a bombing range in Dare County, and “that sparked it.”

He’s eager to explain how he spent weeks on Dare County’s Roanoke Island, where his hero begins his quest, to get a textured feel for the place.

“The research, for me, is one of my favorite parts of this,” he says. “Research will take you to places you didn’t expect.” With this latest book, it led him to create a thriller that veers away from the purely plot-driven, military genre.

It led him to create a multi-dimensional protagonist, Jake Mahegan. A complicated man, he’s a dishonored former Delta Force member with a personal vendetta. When an opportunity to foil a legitimate terrorist plot dovetails with a chance to vanquish his own demons, Mahegan seizes it.

“My hero is a reluctant hero,” Tata says, a man suffering from post-traumatic stress and “dark reflections.” He’s imperfect, but essentially moral. “He has a code that he lives by,” Tata says, “a set of principles.”

The book is “absolutely fantastic,” says Brad Thor, author of New York Times #1 bestseller Act of War. Richard North Patterson, who wrote In the Name of Honor, also a New York Times bestseller, says Tata “writes with a gripping and gritty authority rooted in his matchless real-life experience.”

That’s all close at hand when Tata sits down to write. From his desk, he can see the knife he earned in Army Ranger school, a Maori weapon given to him by soldiers in New Zealand, a mace from a battalion in the Ukraine, and a piece of shrapnel from an exploded cache of rockets in Afghanistan. There’s a rack of challenge coins from unit commanders of military divisions he’s encountered around the world, and a cigar humidor from his troops.

It all helps get him in the mindset he needs to write 1,000 words a night and 5,000 words on a weekend. At that pace, “in 90 days, I have a rough draft.” His military background can’t hurt. “It requires the rigor of sticking to a schedule and driving toward a goal.”

It also requires him to live for a while in his imagination. He had more time for that in 2012, when he had a few months off between his job as Superintendent of the Wake County Public School System and his post in the McCrory administration. That time let him finish the book, he says, and allowed him to enjoy something he has done all his life. He credits the writing process with helping him handle the stress of combat and its effects on the psyche. “I kind of escape into my own world,” he says. “As I’m writing, the characters tell me what they’re going to do. It’s a little bit like acting. Mahegan is a character. The plot is the stage on which he acts.”

Tony Tata will read from Foreign and Domestic at 3 p.m. March 8 at Quail Ridge Books & Music, 3522 Wade Ave.; at 12:00 p.m. March 9 at the John Locke Foundation, 200 West Morgan St.; and at 5:30 p.m. March 10 at the North Carolina Museum of History, 5 East Edenton St.