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Tom Kratman
conducted by Toni Weisskopf
 
May 2005

Tom Kratman's first novel was a novel about how the slide down the slippery slope to a second American Revolution could easily happen in a nearer future than I, for one, like to acknowledge. Tom's credentials include being an infantry lieutenant colonel in the Army and a lawyer both, a mean combination. His second novel is a collaboration with John Ringo in John's Posleen War universe, Watch on the Rhine.

And Tom is probably the only one of our writers who credits a prophet for his start in writing: "This is going to sound really weird...but would you believe: Mohammed? Seriously, when I was deployed to Saudi Arabia a few months prior to Gulf War One there was damned little to do besides physical training (which we used to do to excess to induce an endorphin euphoria and then try to convince ourselves it was from the near beer) and reading. One of the books I read--damned if I can remember the title--observed that if you want to have an impact on the world then you must write; that all the really great world events were tied in some way to the publication of a book or books, i.e. the Bible, the Koran, Machiavelli's The Prince, Das Kapital...you get the idea."

Tom was a "Barfly," contributing to the Baen's Bar at the website before he got published. I wondered how that influenced his course as a writer. "There are a couple of different ways the Bar influenced me. First off, it's great fun. We have some wonderful arguments there. We also have some amazingly stupid arguments there but that is largely a matter of personalities. To some extent the Bar's given me an open forum in which to refine and develop my own political, personal and social philosophies by matching them against opposed ones.

"If you're a writer, for Baen anyway, the Bar's also a resource. People say you can find anything on line. That's true, but only if you're a member of the Bar. I doubt I made it clear enough, but when people read about the Tiger IIIA and B tank in Watch on the Rhine. I hope they realize that the design team is pure Baen's Bar: Charlie Prael, Ric Locke (aka Reinhard Schluessel), John Miller, Big Foot Neil...well, you get the idea. They're also a tank crew and they die really, really well in the book. (Hah! Anybody can give out a red shirt. I give out red tanks.)

"Third, the Bar's a great place for testing out your plots and your writing. The folks aren't shy and they'll tell you if something sucks, or if they don't understand something so you can make it more clear. They're also pretty good about continuity issues. This has worked for me posting on my own conference and in Ringo's Tavern. I don't know if the Slush forum helps quite as well. Frankly, I kind of doubt it. But at least you're likely to get some kind of objective feedback in Slush, which is a helluva lot more than you'll get while you're still trying to break in from outside.

Last, the Bar is, ultimately, the reason I--and John Ringo, I think--got published at all. That is a long story I tell only when drunk and, since I don't drink anymore of late..."

When I asked Tom how he enjoyed the perks of being a science fiction writer, he cried, "Perks? Perks? Jim didn't say anything about any perks. I want mine!"

One of my favorite of Tom's characters is the priest in A State of Disobedience. His favorite is the one I see as the villain of the piece: "Would you believe Wilhelmina Rottemeyer? She's so deliciously shallow and vile. Besides, lesbians are kinky. And I was very fond of Anna Brasche from Watch on the Rhine, so much so that I nearly cried and couldn't write for weeks after I killed her. "

"Actually, though, my favorite is probably Maria Fuentes from The Amazon's Right Breast. Which Jim hates. But he'll probably print it anyway if I finalize it. For which I have to finish A Desert Called Peace....for which I have to finish Yellow Eyes...for which...well, you get the idea."

It sounds like Tom has a lot of anvils in the fire. How does he find time to write? "Well, I'm still serving full time in the Army so I have to be a pretty much a catch as catch can writer. When I have no other duties I tend to write, plot, or research about 16 hours a day. I research everything."

Tom has been in the military on and off for 31 years. Currently he is the Director for Rule of Law at the Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute at the Army War College; which just goes to show what a really fine sense of humor God has. "My nickname on the Bar is not 'Ghengiz' for nothing, you know. Hey, Genghis kept the peace. And writing, while holding down this job, is ... difficult. Most of it involves reading, research and writing--plus some teaching--and this leaves damned little creative spark at the end of the day. That said, I retire in about 7 months and then: whoopee! Back to 16-hour writing days"

I wondered how his experiences in the military had shaped his career as a writer. "Well, obviously it has given me a lot of technical, tactical, operational and strategic information I don't have to dig for or struggle to understand. Maybe more importantly it has given me an unusual degree of experience in people, who are both deeper and more shallow than one would guess. The thing about the military that people who haven't been in have the hardest time understanding, I think, is that it's uproariously funny from when you step out, underclothed, into the freezing cold to do PT in the morning to when you lay your weary butt down to sleep at night. It's a laugh a minute. Of course, abject physical misery tends to make things seem funnier than they really are."

Science fictional influences on Tom started early. "Mom taught me to read when I was between two and three. I can't hope to remember that far back; it all jumbles together. Some of the early reads that captured my imagination though were Star Watchman by Ben Bova and Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers." Some of Tom's favorite non-SF authors include: "Colleen McCullough. Paul Johnson. Sam Huntington. Allan Nevins. I'll read anything they have written (except McCullough's Thornbirds)." It's clear that Tom's critical skills are put to use while at work and while reading for pleasure, too. "I used to really like Clancy but he lost me when Jack Ryan failed to shoot the man who machine gunned his wife and little girl. See, unlike some writers who have characters who went to Boston College I did graduate from BC. And I grew up in South Boston. I mean really. I know East Coast American Irish and it just wasn't credible to me, was altogether too goody two shoes for me, that Ryan wouldn't pull the trigger. I would have."

When asked to play casting director for his favorite character, Tom immediately volunteers to expand his resume to include acting himself. When that option has been vetoed he refuses to name names, just sets out criteria: "Okay, okay: If it's a woman's part does the author get droit du seigneur? If it's a male part, is the actor a commie? These are key questions!"

Attempting to head out of the gutter, I ask Tom, what invention or scientific leap in understanding would he'd most like to see in his lifetime. But I am unable to deter Tom from his central concerns: "Have you not seen the pictures of Yolanda [his wife] on my website? I wanna be 18 again!" Ah, but would she want you to be a callow 18 or the richly matured man you are today?

Asked to cast his mind back in time farther than his own youth, Tom does admit that if he could go back to one incident in all of history to watch as a spectator it would be the battle of Thermopylae between the Greeks and the Persians, because "That's were we came from."

Both Watch on the Rhine and A State of Disobedience take on controversial subjects with a grand disregard for what is "politically correct." I wondered why Tom seemed so drawn to this sort of theme. "Well, someone has to be. And, who knows, it might just do some good. Besides, I'm just naturally cynical and ornery. Ask anyone."

For more information and early looks at Tom's works in progress, please go to: www.tomkratman.com.

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