Stephen Coonts takes readers to 'Cuba'
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By Jamie Allen
ATLANTA (CNN) -- Stephen Coonts, author of a string of best-selling military techno-thrillers, doesn't hesitate when asked what his favorite book is.
"'The Odyssey,' by Homer," Coonts says in his slow West Virginian drawl. "I don't think it's been done any better. It's what story-telling ought to be and it was written to entertain people in that day and age.
"I think there's a lesson there for all story-tellers. It's the same human themes and values from Day One. They're still exactly the same. You just play with them in different settings, change them around to entertain the audience today."
Coonts has been busy playing with familiar themes within his genre, and the result is his latest novel, "Cuba" (St. Martin's Press). The tale stars Jake Grafton, Coonts' hero in six other novels, including his mega-hit first book "Flight of the Intruder."
"This is page-turning fiction that you take to the beach and read for diversion."
"Cuba" depicts what might happen when the inevitable day arrives that Cuban leader Fidel Castro dies and the United States pushes for a smooth transition to democracy for the island. Of course, by Coonts' account, the series of events in this power struggle is a diplomatic nightmare involving biological weapons, missiles left over from the Bay of Pigs and the chance for all-out war.
Coonts says the subject matter was hard to pass up as a novel plot.
"I had already done a two-chapter subplot on the second Cuban revolution in the book 'Under Siege' in 1990," Coonts admits. "So I had already killed Castro once. And I thought, 'Well, maybe the fans will forgive me.'
"I think every good story deserves to be told twice," Coonts says.
But Coonts says as he wrote the book he knew the novel would be much different from his two-chapter foray into Cuban territory.
"When I got into it I realized that it needed Jake Grafton to give it an American center of focus that wouldn't be there without a strong American hero," Coonts says.
Life in Cuba
While Coonts leaves Grafton to save the day, he also focuses on Cuban life. The author says he dove into research on Cuba, even visiting Little Havana in Miami, strolling down Calle Ocho and taking in the ambience.
He says he wanted to visit Cuba to research, but his wife put a halt to that plan.
"She said, 'You know they just might have read 'Under Siege' down there,'" Coonts says. "'I don't want any phone calls from the State Department that you're locked in some jail cell down there.'"
Still, Coonts' book, which was published last week, has been praised for detailing Cuban life by focusing on a family of Cuban brothers, including a priest who wishes to take over a post-Castro Cuba, and a young Cuban baseball player who risks life for the freedom of American shores.
"It's just people from various walks of life in Cuba and what might happen to them" should the second Cuban revolution bring potentially hazardous results, Coonts says.
'Nothing like that ever existed'
Coonts, as many fans know, lived an interesting life before he became a paid writer. He was born in a small West Virginia town of Buckhannon and attended West Virginia University. Upon graduation in 1968, he was commissioned in the U.S. Navy and served in the final years of the Vietnam War.
Even back then, writing a book was on his mind.
"When I was in Vietnam, I thought there would be a market for a book about what it was like to fly jet airplanes in combat off aircraft carriers," he says. "Nothing like that ever existed."
Coonts, however, put off the project after the war, instead building a resume that included stints as a military flight instructor, a taxi driver and a police officer, before studying and practicing law.
In the mid-'80s, following a divorce with his first wife, Coonts says he began working on the novel he always wanted to write. "Flight of the Intruder" was published in September 1986 by the Naval Institute Press. It had been rejected by 34 publishers prior to that, Coonts says.
The book spent 28 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and was made into a 1990 movie starring Danny Glover, Willem Dafoe and Rosanna Arquette.
'This is not literary fiction'
But after over a decade writing military techno-thrillers with the likes of Tom Clancy, Coonts says the times might be changing.
"Tom Clancy and I have been accused of founding this genre, the so-called military techno-thriller," he says. "But I think the military aspect of it is losing its allure to a great percentage of American readers. I think people have had too much of Kosovo and too much of Somalia and too much of these fly-by shootings that our government passes off as war. They're looking for something else to read, something else that's interesting, which is fine with me. I am too."
Coonts realizes his work contradicts that statement. He says "Cuba," and his other books, aren't meant to change the world -- he's just writing to entertain people.
"That's all it's meant to be," Coonts says. "This is not a literary fiction. This is page-turning fiction that you take to the beach and read for diversion. If I do that, I've done my job."
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