An interview with Author Brendan Wilson 

Brendan Wilson

Following twenty-five years of military service as a U.S. Army ranger and paratrooper, Brendan Wilson retired as a lieutenant colonel and then joined NATO where he served as a defense planner and diplomat for the next fifteen years. During the course of his forty years of work as a soldier and diplomat, he saw service in war-torn Libya, Ukraine, Kosovo, Bosnia, and Iraq. In addition, he commanded a fire base on the DMZ in the Republic of Korea.

A former coach and team captain for military martial arts competition teams in the 101st Airborne Division and the 18th Airborne Corps, he holds master ranking (8th Dan) in three different martial arts, and he won the silver medal in the 2009 U.S. Open for Taekwondo. He was one of the founding members of Aristos, a form of martial arts based on Classical Greek principles.

In retirement, Wilson turned his efforts to filmmaking. He wrote and produced two award-winning short films (“Doug’s Christmas” and “A Child Lies Here”) and served as executive producer for the award-winning web series, “Greeting! From Prison.” Moved by seeing human lives upended in war-torn areas, Wilson enrolled in law school and, as of this writing, he is in his final year. Once he qualifies as an attorney, he plans to volunteer to help refugees. Wilson lives in Sycamore, Illinois. He spends his days, writing, studying law, and practicing his martial arts.

  • Where are you from?

I was born in Hampton, Virginia. My father was in the Army and we moved a lot. I remember living in Alabama, Germany, and New York. When I was 14, we moved back to Virginia. That’s where I attended high school and college. After graduating from college, I entered the Army as a 2nd Lieutenant. Again, on the move a lot — North Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, Colorado, Korea, and Belgium. After more than two decades, I retired from the Army and took a job as a defense planner and diplomat at NATO headquarters in Belgium, where I stayed for another 15 years. Three years ago, I came back to the US and have settled in Sycamore, Illinois, a small town an hour West of Chicago. I love it here, and so I would have to say, this is my home now.

  • Why do you write? 

Although the answer to that question is probably more complicated than I could articulate, even to myself, I think I write mainly because there is a story in my mind and it wants to get out. That story is a vague image inside me, and only takes form when I put into words.

  • What do you write about? 

During my professional career as an Army officer and later as a diplomat, I wrote mostly professional articles about tactics, defense policy, counter terrorism, and NATO. Along with that, I wrote about a dozen articles about martial arts philosophy and history. Beginning about ten years ago, I began to write for films. I wrote the background stories for Doug’s Christmas and A Child Lies Here, both of which because award-winning short films. In parallel, I wrote the draft of The Achilles Battle Fleet. Not quite sure how that got started or even if I intended it to be a novel when I first began writing it. In 2018, when it was clear I would be retiring, I set the goal of getting the novel published and I also took up the study of law, something I had started many years before. The Achilles Battle Fleet is military sci-fi, but it has a strong martial arts theme.

  • Do you have a specific writing style?

I do try to make sure the text is readable and interesting. I think I read once that a very accomplished author said great literature is whatever gets the reader to keep reading. Whatever message I want to communicate I need to engage the reader.

  • What are obstacles that come in the way of writing? 

The Greek philosopher, Epictetus, a former slave, wrote that if you want to be a writer, write. I think the biggest obstacle is laziness. I just need to get in and do the writing.  I wrote The Achilles Battle Fleet over about seven years, and then another few years re-writing and editing. Most of that time, I was very busy with my job at NATO. My work day started at 6 a.m. and ended often late in the evening. I also travelled a lot. Some of the book was written on my cell phone while on a train, bus or plane. Some of it was written while I was in Baghdad, in a bunker.

  • What do you think makes a good story?

A good story is about the people, the characters. The purpose of the action is to show how the characters react, what decisions they make, and what happens to their personalities as the plot unfolds. In The Achilles Battle Fleet, I put the characters in situations very like those faced by most people. Under stress, they have to make a decision, for which there is no perfect solution. Every potential course of action has risks and even certain negative consequences. It’s unavoidable. The key is to show that conflict, to let the characters own their decisions and to watch how those difficult decision impact their own personalities and values.

For example, Mei Ling Lee, the main protagonist, comes to the story as an accomplished martial artists and competitor. In the battles that she fights, she is forced to use her martial arts prowess. Under the pressures of the fighting, she comes to understand her own power. She sees in herself a love of the combat, and she is not sure what that says about her. Is she a good person? Does she feel remorse? And is she fully in control? But there is no time to contemplate; she has to move on to the next challenge. That’s life, and that is a similar dilemma that most readers will relate to in everyday life, whether in their jobs, their family life or their other aspirations.  

  • Do you have anything specific you’d like to tell the readers?

Yes. My former boss, General Wesley Clark, who was the NATO commander in the late 1990s, was kind enough to write the forward for my novel. He wrote, “Readers will take from Brendan’s novel an understanding that individuals make a difference, that character counts, and with courage and competence, history is made.” The Achilles Battle Fleet is more than an adventure story. I believe readers will both enjoy it, and maybe it will even give them some perspective on their own adventure. Life is fantastic.

Describe yourself in five words

I do have five words, but they require some explanation because they are not in English. I was one of the founders of a style of martial arts called Aristos. It is based on the philosophy of classical Greece. The five words represent the philosophy of Aristos. They don’t so much describe me as they describe an aspiration I have:

Arete: Excellence. You become what you diligently practice. It transforms you.

Agon: the source of the English word, agony. It means struggle. Life is a struggle. One should embrace that reality and act accordingly.

Xenia: The guest-host relationship. It is a developed idea of courtesy. Both the guest and the host have mutual, interlocking obligations to each other. It is not the type of courtesy that means submission or subservience.

Techne: Art or technique. In martial arts it is the mechanism of coordinated movement that generates power, focus and balance.

Arche: The Greek word from which we get the English word archeology. It means foundation.

So, what do those five words mean to me? That I can shape my life and myself by my own efforts and that I am responsible for the outcome. If I want to be a writer, I will need to invest the time, effort and risk that are inherent in that effort. If I choose to be a couch potato, I know how to do that too. Either way, it’s my call and my responsibility. That life is a struggle and is not fair. I shouldn’t expect it to be. I must not fret when things don’t go my way. Life is necessarily a struggle. That my relations with others are governed by my own code of duty. I have a responsibility to others to act in such a way that they are not harmed, and I should expect that level of care from others, especially those with whom I choose to share my life. And that I have a duty to assist those in need, as I have been helped by others. That skill is important, and that I need to develop, through hard work and perseverance, the techniques in my profession and in my private life.

What fact about yourself would really surprise people? 

I think most people see me as a reasonably polite person of mild temperament. And I do think that is mostly correct. But I think most people are surprised if they learn that I was an Army Ranger, that I serve in places like Iraq, Libya, Ukraine, Bosnia and Korea. Or that I am an 8th degree black belt who won the silver medal in taekwondo competition at the US Open. People can be more than one thing.

How do you work through self-doubts and fear? 

I think the most important thing to do is put aside the fear of failure. Ultimate success requires pushing the limits of what we are capable of, and that effort, guarantees some failure. The next most important thing is to ignore those who would like you to stop trying. They’re always out there, and sometimes they be loved ones who mean well. But they are wrong. My life is my adventure.  When I was 22 years old, I wanted to go to the US Army Ranger School, well-meaning friends and colleagues shook their heads and said things like, “you have no idea what you’re doing, you’ll never make it through.”  I’m glad I ignored them.

What scares you the most? 

Of the things that are under my own control, I most fear that I won’t live up to my own potential. Life is a precious and temporary adventure; it deserves my best effort.

What makes you happiest? 

Easily, time with my wife, Kay, which is inseparable from the joy of being alive.

What writing are you most proud of?

Good question! It’s hard to say one thing. No question, my Novel, The Achilles Battle Fleet has to be at the top of the list. I am also very proud of the writing I did for the short films, A Child Lies Here and Doug’s Christmas, both of which were award-winning films. But I do have a favorite poem. It’s titled The Warrior’s Dawn Prayer. I wrote in my darkest moment and I still read it every day. I had just been sent home from overseas, having spent a good deal of that time in Iraq. I was back in the states getting treatment for PTSD. While there, my employer terminated my employment. It was a low point. I was living in a hotel room, away from family. I had decided if I couldn’t work, that would to finish law school and complete my novel. I desperately wanted to keep moving and not give up. Here it is:

The Warrior’s Dawn Prayer

Help me lift my warrior’s heart from despair

One last battle with honor, dignity and righteousness

Bathe me in the blessing of combat

Strengthen my hand

Let me breath deep the joy of life

Give me the warrior’s delight in taking my place

In the long line of those who never give up.

What are you most proud of in your personal life? 

I think my journey in the martial arts has to rank high. When I was 16, I got cut from the varsity baseball team. I went that day to a local martial arts studio and took up the study of Tae Known Do. That was 47 years ago. I’ve studied, and trained others in many places. It is a great solace to me now. My wife and I train every day at a local park. I now have an 8th Dan in three martial arts styles, and I won the silver medal at the US Open at the age of 50. It’s a great journey and it’s not over.

What else do you do, other than write? 

I retired from work three years ago. Since that time, I have been finishing The Achilles Battle Fleet, attending law school and continuing training and teaching martial arts. My daily routine is to get up and share breakfast and a walk with my wife before she goes to work, then I walk to the local park, train there in martial arts, and return to the house for study, writing and the basic chores of living.

What other jobs have you had in your life? 

As a 13-year-old, I worked nights and weekends as a dishwasher at a Greek diner in New York. It was a wonderful introduction to the adult world of work. As a teenager during the summers of high school and college, I worked construction, moving furniture, and pumping gas. After college I have had two jobs. I was an Army officer for 25 years and then a defense planner and diplomat for the next 15.

 If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be? 

I’ve lived many places. I spent a total of 28 years living outside the United States, and through my work, I’ve traveled broadly throughout Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Right now, I am very happy to be living in Sycamore, Illinois. It is the perfect place for me, a small town, wonderful, friendly people, and not too far from larger areas, like Chicago, should I like to visit. In answer, if I could live anywhere, I’d be right where I am in Sycamore Illinois.

Tell us about your new book? Why did you write it?  

The novel is about a group of military people who are caught in the eruption of a galactic-level surprise attack followed by a war against an unknown enemy with a seemingly impossible technological advantage. When their rag-tag convoy of spaceships carrying civilian refugees is attacked and disabled, many of their friends and colleagues are killed, along with almost all of the convoy’s leadership. An older rear admiral, long past his prime, takes charge of the survivors and gets them working together not just to survive, but to take the attack to the enemy. The admiral’s aide, Lieutenant Mei-Ling Lee, is thrust into a key role in the preparation for the upcoming offensive. As the conflict continues, she is forced to draw upon her martial arts skill and her inner strength as she fights alongside the fleet’s marine commando unit. In the desperate war that follows, Lee struggles with a budding romance, new friendships, and startling betrayals, to become the warrior she was meant to be.

What do you hope people will take away from your writing? How will your words make them feel?

My former boss, General Wesley Clark, who was the NATO commander in the late 1990s, was kind enough to write the forward for my novel. He wrote, “Readers will take from Brendan’s novel an understanding that individuals make a difference, that character counts, and with courage and competence, history is made.” The Achilles Battle Fleet is more than an adventure story. I believe readers will both enjoy it, and maybe it will even give them some perspective on their own adventure. Life is fantastic.

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