Sean Parnell Talks About Writing His New Book, Being a Single Dad, and His Embarrassing Tattoo
Sean Parnell is a New York Times bestselling author, combat veteran and Purple Heart recipient. I recently got to chat with him about his new book, All Out War, among many other things.
Lisa: First, let’s talk about what it was like writing a novel versus your first book that was about your own experience. I did a novel just because I wanted to do it and my favorite thing is writing dialogue. It’s easy because I feel like I know the characters, and I’m not even writing. Like they’re just talking to each other, and I don’t have to actually think. I’m just transcribing
Sean: Oh my gosh, I wish I had that problem. I struggle with dialogue. I mean, I’m kind of an introvert, so I don’t really like talking to people that I don’t know.
Lisa: Oh no, I’m the same way in real life. I like writing the characters though
Sean: I just feel like I’m not good at it, and I struggle with it. It’s painstaking for me to paint dialogue in any way. But what I do like is, I love plotting out the story. I love creating a compelling story. I love the dynamics that create a dramatic story. All that’s super fun to me, but in the process, dialogue is definitely my least favorite part.
Lisa: That’s so unexpected.
Sean: But, I will say, dialogue is the most important part. If your dialogue’s not believable, it doesn’t matter how good the story is, you know?
Lisa: If you haven’t seen it, there’s an article that Elmore Leonard wrote many years ago. I can’t remember if it’s an article he wrote, or someone just interviewed him, but it was 10 or so writing tips.
Sean: Oh, I read it.
Lisa: I try to stick to those. The one that I always seem to remember is, don’t tell the reader how something is being said. Your dialogue should say the feeling. Just write “said,” you don’t have to say “exclaimed” and that sort of thing.
Sean: Yeah. I was just talking about this the other day.
Lisa: He just has such a clean way of writing.
Sean: It’s so funny, I was just talking about this article, and I was talking about Elmore Leonard-isms the other day, and how he does say not to put too much of the author in a book and that an author can reveal himself in a book in a number of different ways. But, right, instead of saying he said and she said, they’ll say things like exclaimed or whispered. The thing is that Lee Child, one of the things he does all the time is says, “I said. He said. I said. He said.” If you listen to a Lee Child audiobook pretty soon you’ll just start fucking hearing, “I said. She said. I said.” It’s like, oh my God, it’s so annoying. And so I sort of like it if there’s a scene and characters are whispering, I like to say that they’re whispering, because I want the reader to know that they’re whispering, you know?
Sean: That might be me in the book, but I want them to know and feel that they’re trying to be secretive. On the flip side of that is that Elmore Leonard is also anti-exclamation point. I totally disagree with that. If I put, “Eric Steele yelled,” in the dialogue as Eric Steele saying something with a period, you know what I mean? It doesn’t work. How are you supposed to know if he’s yelling? If you’re saying that he yelled, then you should use an exclamation point because that’s proper, right? But not to Elmore Leonard.
Lisa: Well, he was writing Westerns, so he was writing a lot of strong and silent types. Well, except for Get Shorty, one of my favorites.
Sean: He knows a whole lot more about storytelling than me, but I disagree with the great Elmore Leonard on his exclamation point philosophy.
Lisa: I think it was like two per book or something ridiculous.
Sean: That’s exactly right. Yeah, no more than three per book. Yeah.
Lisa: I definitely have broken that rule, but the said thing makes me more thoughtful, as far as communicating. I think it’s more about emotion, not like on the whispering You don’t want to say, “He said happily.” I mean, you want to convey in what he said that he’s happy, or whatever. It just make me more thoughtful, and not over-write, you know what I mean?
Sean: Yeah, I think that consciously when a reader reads that stuff, an author should try to stay out of their own story and let the reader experience the story on their own. So yeah, when you put feelings in there, like emotive things like what you’re saying, really that’s the author’s emotions in there, and on a conscious level that can take the reader out of the story. If you do that enough, it takes the reader out of the story a lot, and so sort of like a death by a thousand cuts type thing with the story. And so yeah, I think there is wisdom to that for sure. I just am not sure, I mean, telling stories is hard as hell, you know? God. Then to have 10 more rules on top of how difficult it is just is so unbelievable.
Lisa: Another rule is he doesn’t like to overly describe what someone looks like.
Sean: He doesn’t, I know. That drives me crazy. In fact, the number one criticism that I’ve gotten for Man of War and for All Out War is from women who say, “Tell me what Eric Steele looks like.” I’m like, “Well, I gave you a sentence. You know he has jade eyes. You know …” I try to explain in the story, but there’s certainly not a paragraph that describes it, and that’s an Elmore Leonard-ism. But most of my women readers can’t stand that. They want to know exactly what a character looks like from the moment that they’re introduced, which I think is interesting.
Lisa: I don’t know if I’m that way or not. I would probably just imagine someone, whether it’s a person I know or an actor, in that role. But then it sucks when they make a movie, and then you read the book, and you picture the actor and it’s not right, you know?
Sean: I do know. Yeah, I know. If the casting isn’t done properly, oh, it’s just brutal.
Lisa: To switch gears, there’s this sort of a phenomenon on YouTube and in women’s media on morning routines. Since this is for BRIGHT, I start with this question. What’s your morning routine?
Sean: First of all, I love the question. I think it’s … I remember you sent it to me last night and I’m like, “Holy shit, this is like … there’s a lot to this.” It really depends on whether or not I have the kids. If I don’t have the kids, I’m up at 5:30 in the morning and I’m writing first thing. At about 7:30, I go to the gym and I stay in the gym from eight to nine. And then I come home and I cook breakfast. And my breakfast is always the same. I am a creature of habit. I always eat scrambled eggs with mild shredded cheddar cheese. I eat the same thing every freaking day and three eggs every day. I feel like it’s a product of me being in the military where it’s just like I just have a rigorous battle rhythm that I adhere to. I also drink the same four cups of coffee with the same sugar-free hazelnut creamer. When you asked that question and I’m forced to answer it, it reminds me of how much of a slave to my routine I am.
And that’s when I don’t have the kids. When I have the kids and it’s during the school year, it’s like I run my house like you would run a basic training for 10. My kids are little, we have fun with it. They wake up, basically at 6:50 on the dot. It takes them about an hour to get ready. The first thing they do when they wake up, before they come downstairs, they’re gonna brush their teeth, make their bed, have their school clothes on, have to comb their hair before they even come downstairs.
And so once all three of them do that, and once I’ve sort of done a spot check to make sure that all those things have been done, they come downstairs for breakfast. Typically what I do for breakfast for them is I precooked like French toast or pancakes. That’s just a matter of something I can mass cook them real quick. Then I make sure that they pack their backpacks and pack their own lunches every day. And then I inspect all those things I had, they all stand and make a little line.
I feel like my kids like the structure, you know, they just love it. Then we get in my truck and I get them to school probably about 10 after eight every day they have time to get to homeroom by 8:25. I know it sounds a little crazy to be that compulsive that like, but I swear to God, every one of my morning goes right. After I drop the kids off at school, then I go to the gym, go home and do my eggs. It’s my regular day, just pushed back two hours.
Lisa: Have you seen that Black Rifle ad, with the jumpmaster dad getting his kids off to school? You’re that dad.
Sean: No, I haven’t.
Lisa: I got to send you that video. I’ll link it.
Sean: Oh, my God, you have to. You have to. But I swear, again, it’s the same every day, and I feel like my kids like the structure. They just love it. I’m like, “Okay, guys. All right. Time for …” What you call in the military a pre-combat inspection, a PCI. What you do is you line up your platoon and you walk down your line and you spot check. “Okay, show me your night vision goggles. Okay, show me your water. Do you have a full camelback or not?” You just spot check every soldier. Well, I do that with my own little troops, and that’s like, “Okay. Show me your backpack. Show me where your homework is. Do you have your homework folder? Do you have your little reading assignment done?” And they just pull it out and they show it to me, they laugh, they have a good time.
Lisa: I noticed that you didn’t say anything about your phone, or email, or news. Is that by design, or just not a big part of your life? You don’t think of it as something that you check in the morning?
Sean: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I do think of it, almost all the time. But when I’m in the zone for work, news … our news cycle can be incredibly distracting for creative writing. Like I’ll see something on Fox … I watch Fox all the time, but I’ll see something that pisses me off, and it’ll distract me. So if I’m writing first thing in the morning, I don’t do anything. I don’t watch the news, I don’t want to hear anything about the news. I just want to be able to immerse myself in the story and get myself in the heads of my characters so that I can write effectively. If I watch the news before that, it just destroys my ability … it destroys my creative headspace.
Lisa: For sure.
Sean: On the flip side, when I’ve got my kids in the morning, it’s just an issue of pragmatism. I don’t have time to just put on the news and sit there. It’s like, I’ve got three little kids, and it’s like herding cats in the morning. And if I don’t have a strict routine for them, we’re not going to get out the door on time. And so typically I won’t put on the news during the weekdays until after I’m already home from the gym, and that could be like 9:30, 10 o’clock, and then I’ll catch up on the news and the news cycle.
Lisa: I get it. For me, I don’t want anyone, whether it’s someone I know or a stranger on Twitter, to control my emotions and how I’m going to feel that day, you know?
Sean: Yeah, that’s really interesting. You don’t want to give someone that control over you.
Sean: Whether it’s a negative emotion, or something that distracts you on the news. I totally get that. And so, that distraction sort of runs counter to the creative headspace you need to be in to write a good book, write a good fiction story.
Lisa: Do you just try to write for a certain amount of time, or do you set benchmarks for yourself?
Sean: I think as a creative writer, you have to set benchmarks. That’s just the way of writing on deadlines. On a process model base, I’ve got a lot of buddies that do creative writing, screenplay writing, and one of my buddies has been writing the same screenplay, it’s a short film, 40 pages long, for four goddamn years. And because he’s not getting advances or getting paid to do it, he just never puts it out there. So this is why I always tell him perfectionism is the enemy. You’ve got to turn that story in and then move on to the next one, because that’s how you improve. I’ll give you an example. I’m writing the third Steele book, and I mean, obviously the second one’s coming out September 3, so I’m doing these interviews and stuff and trying to gear up for the launch.
But I wanted to have 25,000 words by August 31st, and right now I have like 17000, so I’m on track. But I’ve got to turn in Steele Three in January, and so if I didn’t have these benchmarks I’d be a little bit under one third of the way done by 31 August. That gives me five months to do the rest. So I do have loose goals. My goal is to have almost the entire book done so I can just start going into the structural editing process for the last two weeks before I have to turn it in.
Lisa: Yeah, there are some days when it’s like a struggle to do 1,000 words, and other days when 5,000 just fly right out of you.
Sean: Yes, that’s exactly right. That’s why I just say, “By this date I want to have this many words,” because that gives you the flexibility to have both a deadline and the creative space in your mind to write when the feeling’s right, you know what I mean?
Sean: So yeah, and so right now I’m on track for that. But, God, man, you never know. I mean, the last week could be hell on earth and I might not get anything. But I’m doing pretty good with Steele Three. I think I’m going to hit my benchmark.
Sean: Yeah. That’s good, exactly.
Lisa: I’ll be sure to keep us moving alone so you can get close to your benchmark. What book, movie or TV show did you last recommend to a friend? And you don’t have to say any of mine.
Sean: I’ve been just watching Stranger Things, season three. I love, I love that show. The last movie that I recommended was Detective Pikachu I took my kids to go see it. There were at least two twists in that movie that I did not see coming. The last book that I recommended was Stephen King’s Needful Things. Have you ever read that book?
Lisa: No. I don’t like scary stuff.
Sean: Oh. It’s not scary, but it’s just that guy is fucked up. But it’s such a good book. It’s such a good book. I’m not like a horror fan, like I don’t think I could do the It thing. But Needful Things is not really like horror. I can’t even describe it. You just got to read it. It’s really, really good. I really liked it. And so, I just finished it.
Lisa: I’m glad you’re not one of the you’re not one of those right-wingers who can’t separate art from the person.
Sean: Yeah, that’s the truth. But I feel like left-wingers can’t do that.
Lisa: Oh, for sure.
Sean: Stephen King probably would never be my friend because I’m a conservative, you know what I mean? But I can separate it. He’s a fucking idiot when it comes to politics, but I can separate that from his writing.
Lisa: Granted, a lot of it is on comment sections and things, but I hate when people on our side are just like, “I haven’t watched anything in 30 years, and all I watch is Gunsmoke reruns.” And it’s like, you’re missing a big world.
Sean: Yeah, I know.
Lisa: My go-to example is Dallas Buyers Club. It’s the most libertarian movie because no one saw Atlas Shrugged.
Sean: Yeah, I don’t doubt it. I don’t doubt it at all. So I feel being able to separate this stuff is really important, because you’d be shutting yourself off to a whole facet of our culture that is really quite brilliant, you know what I mean? Like most of the people that you meet out in Hollywood, I feel like as a conservative going out there I’m like, “Oh, they could not be any more different than I am.” We’re very, very different people. But there are some truly creative people out there that just impress me, you know?
Sean: There are people out there with Netflix and Amazon Prime now, creating original content that I feel like some of the mainstream movie production studios aren’t doing. And so there’s a lot of really cool shit going on out there, and you’re right, they’re not all left-wing crazy movies. They’re just not anymore.
Lisa: Well, a lot of people just want to tell good stories. I mean, they might be left-wingers, but at the end of the day they just want to tell good stories, and that’s why they’re there.
Sean: That’s exactly right. Like the guy that has Outlaw Platoon right now, he’s a liberal, right? But he was in the Israeli Defense Force. He was in, I think, the Yom Kippur war. He was sending me pictures of himself there. He’s a soldier, so he’s liberal, but he’s not super liberal, and he understands service and sacrifice and stuff. So you know what I mean? I can work with him, you know?
Sean: And so, it’s really not that big of a deal. The priority is telling good stories. The priority is telling inspiring stories. The priority is capturing legacies, and doing special things. And you can’t let bullshit politics get in the way of that. At the end of the day really we have far more in common in this country, even though I probably don’t have much in common with the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezes of the world, but classical liberals and conservatives nowadays … I mean, Christ almighty. You read some of the things that JFK was saying, and I consider him a classical liberal, it’s hard to disagree with many of the things that he says, you know? And so, I’m from western Pennsylvania and there are a lot of Blue Dog Democrats here. There are a lot of pro-gun, pro-life Democrats that I can work with, you know?
Sean: Like Jim Webb. I mean, in the 2016 he was a liberal presidential candidate, right? With everything he said on stage I’m like, “I could vote for this guy. He’s a Democrat.” So, can’t let the politics get in the way of things that matter.
Lisa: They axed him fast. So, our next canned question, what was the last photo you took on your phone? And you have to send it to me, so I can put it in the article.
Sean: That is a very dangerous game, for God’s sakes, you know what I mean? It’s a tattoo.
Lisa: Well, I mean, this is a woman audience. You’ve got to hook them somehow.
Sean: Is that not cool? Is that cool for a woman audience?
Lisa: Yeah. Girls like tattoos.
Sean: Okay. So yeah, that’s cool. I’ll send it to you. I’m designing a tattoo sleeve on my right arm and I’m putting together the phases of it. I’m at the second phase of that tattoo sleeve on my right arm, which is kind of cool. The first session I did was six hours long. This session was I think four hours long. I still have two more sessions to go. There’s still a lot of detail that has to be layered in and highlights in color. What I like about this tattoo is that it’s portraitism. So, it is different. A lot of tattoo artists will just do black outline. For mine, we’ll do the outline first and then I’ll have the color put in. I like American traditionalism. So it’s sort of like color by numbers, almost like a painting. You have to sort of layer it in, do large portions of the tattoo. But he’ll go back in and add detail after the fact. And that’s what this photo is. It’s the second of four phases. It’s a kind of cool picture I feel like you’d be able to share. It’s kind of neat, right?
Lisa: Yeah. I was obsessed with this tattoo show that was like a competition show. Have you ever heard of it?
Sean: Ink Master?
Lisa: Yes! [Note: This is the only one.] I loved everybody’s different styles, and the musician who hosts it”
Sean: The Red Hot Chili Peppers guy?
Sean: He was the guitar player for Chili Peppers, yeah. Dave Navarro.
Lisa: Yeah, Dave Navarro. It was just really cool, and especially just how the women feel, and they’re trying to make their way in the whole industry, and just the old-timers versus the new people that want to do crazy colors. I just thought it was so interesting. I only have one tattoo, and it’s not that great. But just from an art perspective, I thought that the show was really cool.
Sean: That’s how I feel too. I’m super into tattoos, I love tattoos, and this tattoo on the arm that I’m working on now has been a concept that I have had in my mind for years and I’m finally just getting around to executing it, because finding someone that can do portraiture in the form of a tattoo is really fucking hard.
Lisa: Yeah, all the worst tattoo memes that go around, it’s always someone’s face that turned out bad.
Sean: Oh, my God. Oh, my God. There are so many on Instagram and look at portrait tattoo fails, it’s the funniest shit ever. It is really hard to find somebody that knows how to do that stuff. And so I found a guy here locally that’s amazing at it, he’s so good at it, and so I sort of gave him my concept of this design, and he’s kicking ass and taking names. Like I said, the second phase is done, and I’m super happy with it. I can’t wait to see what it looks like when all the detail’s done, because this guy’s just so good. That’s a cool kind of a twist that you’re going to get that picture.
Lisa: A long time ago I wanted a tattoo of my dog after he died. He was a chocolate lab, like a mini one, the size of a beagle. But there’s no one who could do him justice, especially his eyes, and so I just never ended up getting a second one. And I know it’s really corny.
Sean: You just have to find the right person.
Lisa: I don’t know if people would consider that white trash or something, having my dog on the back of my neck.
Sean: Well, you have to find the right person. I feel like there are people out there that can do it, but I have to tell you, it took me years to find somebody that I felt comfortable enough to do a portrait-type style, right? It’s just really fucking hard. I mean, God, you’re right. You hear those horror stories about faces that don’t look right. Not only do you have to find the right person, but you have to go through their catalog and it’s just hard. I get it.
Lisa: It’s funny because there is never enough thought in the first tattoo. My first, or only rather, I was in high school and I went to Panama City, Florida.
Sean: Same. I was 17.
Lisa: I think most people’s first, they don’t think about it at all.
Sean: I got an ankle tattoo when I was 17 years old, and I wish I didn’t get it. Ugh, I’m a dude with an ankle tattoo.
Lisa: Is it like an anklet, it goes all the way around? [Laughs]
Sean: Yes. Man, why you got to laugh at that?
Lisa: I’m laughing with you.
Sean: Yeah, right. Yeah, right.
Lisa: Well, okay. Here, this will make you feel better. When I was in high school, here’s how cool I am. I got the Republican elephant on my shoulder.
Sean: That is so much cooler than my tattoo.
Lisa: No. To be a high schooler, a high school girl, to get a Republican elephant while all your friends are getting cute daisies and stuff?
Sean: Tramp stamps? Like the whole … please tell me you didn’t get the Republican elephant on your lower back. Oh, my God.
Lisa: No, it’s on my right shoulder.
Sean: Yeah. Yeah, that’s so much better tramp stamps. That was like the big thing when we were in high school, was all these girls getting tattoos on their lower backs.
Lisa: Yeah. Well, I went with two girls, and one of them got a daisy on her hip. The other girl,because it was the 90s, she got the whole sun-moon-stars thing — a tramp stamp. And mine I got on my shoulder, because they said any place that there’s not a lot of muscle, or that’s not going to change shape, it’ll hold it.
Sean: Yes. Right.
Lisa: And so I’m like, “Yeah, just put it there.” I actually probably put slightly more thought into it, even though I was on spring break.
Sean: Who cares? I mean, you’re still a GOP … I mean, you’re still conservative. It means something. It hasn’t gone out of style yet, so it’s kind of cool.
Lisa: Yeah. I mean, I always say worst case I’ll just get an X through it, or like the No Smoking type of symbol, if something ever changed. But, I’m pretty much married to it now.
Sean: You could probably cover it up or get it removed now, you know?
Lisa: Yeah. But it’s like that red and blue and all of that. I mean, it looks just like the official symbol.
Sean: That’s awesome.
Lisa: All right. We talked about it a little bit, but since your first book was your actual experience, how has writing novels been different for you versus writing about things you actually experienced?
Sean: You know what, just being perfectly honest with you, it’s so much fucking harder. It is so much harder, you know, like there are so many things and so many considerations to going in and creating a novel that is action and real world-based. So in other words, they’re based in its own world, but in the world as it is today. In the first Eric Steele novel, the core component of his story’s the failed Iranian nuclear deal and what happened if the portable nuclear weapons leak out. So I try and read the foreign policy tea leaves and situate the story right in the world that we live in today. For example, something happens in All Out War that actually happened is the U.S. embassy move in Israel to Jerusalem. I see where we’re trending and try to situate a story in the world that we live in, but also like to create these characters that are based in archetypes of humanity and then just turn up the volume for each of them. It’s so much harder than nonfiction because you’ve got to create this world. It has to be realistic enough that people can suspend disbelief. You have to create characters that have internal psychologies and conflicts. They have to have a personality structure that makes them tick and they have to have external conflicts in the real world. Coming up with good character profiles, then the storyboarding, then the outline and then the hardest part, the writing. It’s just brutal.
So you juxtapose all of that with me writing Outlaw Platoon, which was just my story. Each chapter for Outlaw Platoon was in my head, right because it was my life experience. But the only thing that was on the forefront of my mind the whole time while writing was just to be like a warts-and-all, brutally honest story. My fears, my vulnerabilities, all that stuff has to be in there as well. There has to be an emotional component to the story that will resonate with the reader. But outside of that it was just chronological. Learning to write fiction is like riding a bicycle without a seat while it’s on fire. It’s just so hard.
Lisa: My first book was a memoir, also. I felt like it was so much easier because I basically just remembered everything. Remembered conversations and all of that — being a woman and it being about relationships helped. It was actually kind of therapeutic. I wonder if you went through this, because people were like, “How could you be so raw?” I told really embarrassing things about myself. And I kind of felt like I was no longer that person, so I could put it out there and now it’s gone. Like that’s not me anymore, you know?
Sean: Sure, yeah. I got a great piece of advice writing Outlaw Platoon. It has to be warts and all. There are a lot of “war” memoirs, written by generals like say during World War II, that make combat feel like a chessboard, where every time they move a unit it feels like moving a pawn on a chessboard. But the grim reality of war is that it’s blood, guts, sacrifice, tears, loss, triumph of the human spirit, everything. Combat whips all of your emotions like nothing else, and if the reader doesn’t have that experience when they’re reading your story or when they’re reading a war memoir, then it’s either a lie or it’s just fucking fiction, which makes it a lie.
Lisa: Even most women reading chick lit have trouble connecting if it doesn’t seem authentic. I don’t connect with many chick lit type of books. I like to read them, but I have not had the personal experience of two men fighting over me, so I do not always connect with that type of book. [Laughs] But one where people are vulnerable and all of that, that feel the way that a normal human being has felt at times, it’s a lot easier to connect with the reader.
Sean: Yeah, and what’s funny about that is I feel like most of the feedback that I get for Outlaw Platoon is from women who have read the book and are like, “Oh my gosh, thank you for writing this book. I understand my husband a little bit more now, because he won’t express his vulnerabilities like you did in this book.” And so they use it as like an educational component to the book that I didn’t anticipate having, truthfully. I mean, you think of war memoirs, you don’t think of women being your primary readership. But I would say 65% of the people that have read Outlaw Platoon are women, which is kind of crazy.
Lisa: They already know what you look like.
Sean: Right. Yeah, so differences between non-fiction and fiction is non-fiction is just so much harder. Writing a good story is an art form in many ways. The goal is to just get a little bit better with each story, and the hope is that I have time to do it. Because at the end of the day, if these books aren’t selling, the publisher’s not going to print them anymore. The way to get people to read your stories is to get better. So I guess what it boils down to is you’ve got to get better, and you’ve got to get better fast enough that people really like your stories and tell people to read them when they put them down. You want people to put your books down and be like, “That was awesome,” and then go tell kind of their friends. With fiction it’s just really hard to do that, you know?
Sean: I mean, why would someone buy my books if they can go buy a Brad Thor book? Someone who’s already established. Or perhaps Lee Child, or James Patterson. The reason why it’s so hard for guys like me to get on the New York Times bestseller list in the fiction world is because people like James Patterson write six books a year, and every single one of them makes it, and there are only so many spots on the list. They go to people like Danielle Steele and Brad Thor and John Grisham and James Patterson, all these people that are legends. Newbies like me can’t make it. It’s hard. Really, really hard.
Lisa: Yes, but the thing that I think that separates you is accessibility through social media. Although I’ll say Brad Thor is actually really accessible. He’s a really cool guy.
Sean: Yeah, he really is.
Lisa: Because of social media, and I think people feel like they get to know an author, they’re a lot more accessible. I’m sure there are people that you already have that feel like they’re sort of in this really cool group of knowing Sean Parnell before he hit it big.
Sean: Yeah, maybe. I mean, I don’t know. I try to get on social media as much as humanly possible, but now that I’m writing a book a year, I swear to Christ I can barely keep up. Like the situation that I’m in now, doing all this media, I still have to fucking have those 25,000 words done by 31 August, you know?
Sean: It’s like, the whole book a year thing for an author is just so challenging to do all the things that you need to do.
Lisa: Well, not to brag, but I wrote my last three books in one year.
Sean: Well, then, go to hell. How about that? [Laughs]
Lisa: Yeah. Well, one of them was just making fun of social justice warriors, so that can write itself.
Sean: Yeah. I’m sure it does.
Lisa: When you were talking about the novels, when you have that freedom to do anything, it’s hard because, well, what do you do?
Sean: Yep. For me it was about finding my niche. Because for Man of War, which was my first fiction thriller, that book in hardcover, that’s my fourth or fifth iteration. What I mean by iteration means, I had seven or eight chapters written and it just didn’t feel right, or I didn’t start in the right place, or the character wasn’t executed properly. Scrap it, start over. Now I have a better sense of what my publisher expects and what my wheelhouse is. Man of War was probably classified as a military-ish thriller. If you’re subgenre too much it can pigeonhole you, right? So my goal is to sort of move the second book into a more action thriller type zone, and I think I’ve done it. Eric Steele gets attacked at his home while having dinner with his mother. His mother gets seriously, seriously injured. He thinks she’s dead, and he’s just out to figure out who the fuck did it and get revenge, and then he realizes along the way that he’s been drawn into a much larger conspiracy. So it has a more mainstream feel, and the next book hopefully will have even more of a mainstream feel than that. So I’m sort of just inching away from the military genre that everybody kind of expects me to write and try to get to a more mainstream thriller genre like Lee Child.
Lisa: It’s good to grow. A lot of times with publishers, if one thing does well then they just want you to do that over and over and over.
Lisa: And it’s really important to find a good publisher that’ll let you grow. Obviously they want a book to do well, but be willing to let you try new things, even if it’s in small steps. Another canned question, what career advice do you most often share?
Sean: I get a chance to talk to a lot of cadets and high school kids just by virtue of the success of Outlaw Platoon and it being assigned both in college and high school level reading classes. I tell them all the time as you try to figure out what you want to do with your life, you have to figure out what your calling is first. People that are our age and even a little bit older, often mistake their career for their calling. What I often tell them the most is your career is not your calling. Figure out why you wake up and draw breath every day and whatever that calling is, a core component of that has to be putting others before yourself. It has to be about lifting other people up because the fact of the matter is that it doesn’t matter whether you’re working in a finance office or you’re a school teacher or you’re in the military. If you’re putting others before yourself, you’re going to live a very meaningful life. When people come to your funeral, it’s not because you made $1.2 billion a year for the last 20 years. It’s going to be because you gave of yourself and did great things for other people. So much about life is realizing from a very early age that it’s not about you. If people realize that, live a humble self-effacing life, put others before themselves, they’re going to also live a very meaningful life.
Lisa: Now, since you’ve been speaking more and on TV more, have you been getting more questions about, “How do I become a bestselling writer?” Versus questions about going into the military? Or, “How do I get on TV?” That’s what I got for awhile and I’m not on TV much anymore, but a lot of people, especially younger people, they sort of want to skip that step of life experience and just want to be a social media star or a TV star.
Sean: They do. They just want to jump right into it. Every time I do a book signing I have people that say, “Oh, my goodness. I want to be a writer,” and not understand how challenging, difficult and horrible writing really is. It really is the worst. Or just being on TV. Like honestly, I would give up all of it in a second to be independently wealthy and just be able to hang out with my kids, you know? I think that part of the reason why I tell people to realize that it’s not about you is because when you take that humble self-effacing attitude I feel like in many ways you’re more willing to work your ass of to get somewhere.
If you recognize that it’s not about you, that maybe when you come out of school you’re not meant to make $65,000 a year in your first job because you recognize it’s not about you. It’s about learning and experiencing the job, being good to other people, being a good teammate and having a good attitude. I feel like what predisposes all that is recognizing it’s not about you. So that’s why I tell that to young people, so that they come into things and come into high school or they come out of college with the right attitude. Because you’re absolutely right, a lot of people do sort of see the tip of the iceberg and not see everything underneath the water, which is like all the long hours, the sacrifice, the time away from your family and kids. People tend to focus on the successes at the top and not the trials at the bottom. I think that’s a great secret to life, is to recognize it ain’t about you.
Lisa: It reminds me of something Mike Broomhead, a radio host in Phoenix that I wrote my last book with, said — “Once you think you’re humble, you’re not.”
Sean: Well, but that’s the funny thing about equality, is that there is a thing called fake humility, and it’s totally 100% okay to be proud of the things that you’ve accomplished. It’s 100% okay to tell people that you’re proud of the things that you’ve accomplished. That doesn’t mean that you’re not humble, but there is a thing especially in the military, where fake humility is a big thing. And you see it in guys all the time who used to talk about their story in the war, or they reject other military members who wear their awards say on their suit to a public dinner and they’ll make it, “Oh, he’s just bragging.”
No. What the hell is wrong with a military guy who won his awards in combat being proud of his service, and coming back and being proud? There’s nothing wrong with that, and the people that criticize that are what I call false humility. No one looks at a football player on TV. No one looks at Tom Brady on TV for wearing a Super Bowl ring and says, “He’s an egomaniacal crazy person. He shouldn’t be wearing his Super Bowl ring.” No. He has every right to be proud of that. He’s a world champion. That’s a good thing.
Lisa: I think Mat Best has one of the best book titles ever. I don’t know when the book comes out, but it’s called, Thank You For My Service.
Sean: I think it came out [last] week, yeah. That dude is just a titan. Oh my gosh, what a prodigy on social media.
Lisa: Yeah. I’m almost positive Black Rifle is that commercial with the jumpmaster getting his kids ready for school.
Sean: You’re probably right. Oh, my God. Black Rifle commercials are freaking hysterical.
Lisa: I don’t know which came first. Did he have the coffee company and then started doing YouTube videos, or was he doing YouTube videos and then had a company?
Sean: No, he did YouTube videos, and Article 15 Clothing was his company and Black Rifle Coffee grew out of that. Evan Hafer is the CEO of Black Rifle Coffee, and he started with Article 15 Clothing, which was Mat Best’s clothing line. They sort of started it together.
Lisa: Oh, okay. Because I only knew him through YouTube and a video I saw with Derek Weida. He went through some rough times and seems to be doing better now, but he was in a couple videos with Mat and it was just hysterical.
Sean: Yeah. He’s a genius, man. He really is. He’s something else. He really is. He’s pretty amazing. I’ve never met him. I don’t know him, but I think that he’s on his path.
Lisa: Well, it was a pleasure talking to you.
Sean: Oh, likewise.
Interview edited for clarity and brevity… but not for f-bombs.