It’s not often I highlight an author with such an imposing bio – so today is a special treat. J.T. Sawyer is a survival expert who not only writes thrillers based on a post-apocalyptic world but also includes information on his website that might help you endure a real-life disaster. Keep reading because after the interview, I’ve included an exciting excerpt from Book One of the First Wave series.
You’re about to meet a most fascinating man . . . J.T. Sawyer.
I’m intrigued by the premise of your First Wave series – a man emerges from a wilderness, off-the-grid trip only to find the world infected by a biogenetic virus. It’s even more relevant since the Ebola threat headlines our news almost daily. How do you feel about the eerie connection of your story to current events? Is there anything you would change about the plot if you were writing it today?
First, thanks for having me on your blog, Deb! I had been mulling over the idea for this story for several years and published the first book in January of this past year so the timing with the current Ebola outbreak is indeed bizarre. Over the years, I’ve had numerous ER doctors and even a few epidemiologists in my survival courses and have been able to pick their brains about the threats humans have faced with pandemics. The insightful book, The Great Influenza, by John Barry was also helpful in understanding the global ramifications in the 1918 virus that swept the globe. All of this figured prominently into the plot of my books as well as too many late nights watching zombie flicks as a teenager eons ago.
As a survivalist guide and teacher, I’m sure you’ve encountered some interesting situations. Tell us about one incident that left its mark on you – an experience you’d rather not repeat. (We all have a tale to tell. I suspect yours is much more intriguing than most!).
Well, I’ve had close encounters with bears, a puma, scorpions, and even flash floods but the most harrowing event in recent years was the time I poked my head into a small prehistoric cave to look around. Due to the excitement of exploring, I wasn’t paying much attention as I crawled through the narrow entrance only to hear the loud rattle of a snake off to my right. Slowly turning my headlamp, I saw an immense Diamondback Rattlesnake coiled on a ledge beside the entrance, about sixteen inches from my head. My exposed neck felt like it had a bulls-eye painted on it. Despite the desert heat, I’m pretty sure I have must have had a frost-bitten expression.
My future was in the scaly hands of, what I prayed was a seasoned old-timer who was more interested in packrats than a woefully unaware traveler. His agitated rattling continued and I spent ten (or maybe it was sixty?) minutes performing a Tai-Chi like extraction from the interior. His rattling only slowed once my shaken form was back outside in the sunlight. I collapsed on the nearby ledge, gulping in the fresh air.
My hiking partner, who was coming up the trail, asked why I was so pale and suggested that maybe I was low on water. I remember feebly sputtering out the words, “Me, not thirsty.” My friend and I still joke about that day since I ignored my own advice about not sticking your head or hands where you can’t see!
OMG . . . I’m still shuddering, part laughter, part terror. So glad it was you and not me!
Zombie apocalypse aside, what do you consider the most probable instigating factor for a SHTF event . . . an EMP/terrorist attack, a solar flare similar to the Carrington event, invading forces from a foreign entity, civil war or other? And why?
My formal academic background is as an anthropologist and it seems like humans throughout history have mostly had their numbers reduced through either disease or warfare. Yes, a meteor could pulverize our planet or something else environmentally catastrophic could occur but I would venture to say that it would be something of human construct.
I think there would be more concern with the hysteria and panic-buying of supplies associated with the potential threat of something (pandemic, rumor of an EMP, etc…) than an actual widespread disaster. The fact is, we, in western society are used to a certain level of comfort and so I see the threat of that lifestyle being disrupted of greater concern, short-term at least, than an actual catastrophe. For instance, there are many, many other threats to worry about besides Ebola but if a few more people get infected in the U.S. that could create this wave of panic-buying goods (and creating ripple-effects in the supply chain) along with people staying at home from work/school. So, my point is not to downplay the current concern with Ebola, but the human social dynamic has, historically, always been more of a chaotic variable than the actual disaster itself.
I was very pleased to see a page on your website www.jtsawyer.com listing items for a “bug-out” bag and offering suggestions on disaster preparedness. You also mentioned you’ve trained both military and community groups in survival techniques. Which do you enjoy the most – government or private sector – and why?
I always give priority to the military when they contact us. The men and women in our armed forces are some of the finest warriors I’ve ever worked with and they are highly motivated to learn the skills we teach so they can add another tool to their arsenal for getting back home. That being said, those courses are physically intense and we are often out in grueling weather for weeks on end. I only do a handful of those each year and the rest of our schedule is devoted to offering fieldcourses in practical skills to the general public. I like the balance of teaching both.
Okay, I have to ask this . . . indulge me. When you chose your pen name, did it have anything to do with Tom Sawyer? I noticed the “T” and “Sawyer” and wondered if there was a connection. If not, how did you choose your name?
I am a fan of the show LOST and enjoyed the complex character of Sawyer (and his snarky attitude) the most. The “T” is from my first name, Tony, and my wife suggested the “J” to round things out. Though, I have to say, I am a sucker for the adventures of Tom Sawyer and anything penned by Twain.
You’ve spent many years testing survival skills under extreme geographical and weather conditions. But when you’re not trying to keep yourself or your clients alive, where do you like to hang out for fun? Mountains? Desert? Beach? And what attracts you to the area?
I can’t get enough of the Southwest. Where I live in Flagstaff, I can be in the mountains, canyons, or desert within an hour. Plus there are endless prehistoric ruins and caves peppering the landscape. I am in heaven. I originally grew up in Michigan and love the North Woods in the Fall but ever since I started teaching survival courses in the desert back in 1988, I’ve found where I belong. I believe we all have our physical birthplace and then the other setting or environment that we were born to. I found the latter many years ago and the love affair is still going on. My wife jokingly refers to the Grand Canyon as “Tony’s mistress,” and I reckon that’s the case at times.
Ahhh…I completely understand. I was hooked by the lure of the Southwest years ago. Hoping to migrate back there in the next year or so. :)
Could you share some of your future projects? Will there be more installments to the First Wave series or are you working on another novel with a different story line?
I have a fourth book that I am working on the First Wave series that will be out in late winter. It will focus on the hero Travis Combs once more and the broader picture of the pandemic. It will be a longer book and reunite him with some of the characters in the story.
Besides that, I have just finished the first book in a new post-apocalyptic series about a female Secret Service Agent who finds herself in over her head when the world unravels from a deadly virus. I’ve also got two non-fiction narrative books nearly done that assemble many personal stories from life-on-the-trail over the last twenty years. My teaching season just ended so I will be immersing myself back into navigating through the keyboard jungle for the next six months until I head out again.
Last question . . . if you had a magic rock which could transport you to any time in history, where would you go and why?
Since I was about eight years old, I have digested everything I could find on the Apaches and the Southwest. I would sure like to go back in time to the 1870s or so and get a glimpse into the indigenous people and their traditional lifeways before it was largely curtailed. There were a lot of interesting players here during that period. Most people are familiar with Geronimo but he was really a lesser figure in the broader picture. Apaches like Victorio, his sister Lozen, Cochise, and others, not to mention the US Chief of Scouts, Al Sieber, were all pivotal figures in the unfolding of Arizona’s early history.
Thanks for letting me pick your brain today, and a big note of gratitude for sharing your expertise on survival and preparedness skills.
Thank you, Deb. I sure appreciate your interest and wonderful questions.
WOW! Did I not tell you JT Sawyer is a fascinating man? His First Wave series is also intriguing and to prove it, I’ve included an excerpt. It’s a series you’ll not want to miss. Make sure you add it to your Christmas wish list! And if you can’t wait, just click on the Amazon link below. :)
Travis Combs Thrillers
Genre: Post-Apocalyptic Fiction, zombies
Publisher: JT Sawyer
Number of pages: 192
Word Count: 57666
Cover Artist: Melody Simmons
Special Forces veteran Travis Combs just wanted to forget his weary years of leading combat missions while taking an extended rafting trip through the Grand Canyon.
As he and his group complete a 22-day trip on the Colorado River, they find the world has unraveled from a deadly pandemic.
Now, he has to show his small band how to live off the land and cross the rugged Arizona desert, while evading blood-drinking zombies, gangs of cartel bikers, and a rogue government agency.
Available at Amazon
August 26, Ten Days before the Pandemic
Doctor Robert James Pearson lowered the silver-rimmed glasses on his nose as he gazed at the clear vial before him. His technicians in the research lab next to his office had gone home for the day. The only noise came from the hallway outside, where he could hear the comforting footfalls of security personnel doing their evening sweeps in the high-security facility on the outskirts of Albuquerque, New Mexico. He stroked his thin gray goatee while marveling at the precious substance in the vial.
After thirty-eight months of toil in his lab, his research for the Department of Biodefense was complete. The viral load he and the other scientists had perfected in the modified avian flu strain had passed the initial series of animal testing and the antidote was ready to use, if necessary. They had painstakingly taken the original 1918 virus and magnified its replication capabilities. This super virus dramatically increases the onset of necrotizing bronchiolitis while instigating diffuse alveolar damage. The subject will typically perish from internal hemorrhaging within twenty-four hours of exposure, he had proudly stated in a recent briefing to his funders.
The Biodefense officials had assured him that his research in neurophysiology and virology was critical to arriving at an antidote before terrorists could complete their own strain of the new virus. Now, over three years later, he could wrap up this voluminous project and resume his work at Stanford. Pearson was part of a six-man group of researchers who conferred through daily videoconferences, comparing research data. They were the brilliant minds behind the resulting antidote that could potentially save millions of lives.
As he pondered the accolades he would receive from his contemporaries in the scientific community, the landline phone on his desk rang, jolting him back to the present. Very few calls ever came in on this phone, and he picked up the receiver, squinting his eyes and tensing his lower lip.
The trembling voice on the other end was his colleague, Doctor Emory from Chicago. “Are you alone?”
“Yes. It’s a little too quiet in here, to be honest,” Pearson said. “Only the security guards and maintenance staff are around at this hour.”
“There isn’t much time. You need to leave now,” the other man said hurriedly. “Take your notes, laptop, and the vaccine with you. Somehow, the virus has been unleashed in Europe. Soon it will be on our doorstep.”
Pearson interrupted his friend’s hurried exclamations. “What are you talking about? How do you know?” said Pearson, clutching the phone and thrusting his shoulders forward over the edge of the wooden desk.
“That new agency we met with last week…and that woman…they came to my office looking for me a few hours ago. They killed my assistants and took everything.” He paused, his breath racing over the phone. “I escaped, but the others…they’re coming for us all. Get out of there now. You have to disappear. Go to your fallback location.”
“Wait, what…what do you mean….why would they….” Pearson paused, and his eyebrows scrunched together as he heard the sound of muffled gunfire coming from the hallway. His eyes darted to the brown door leading into his small office. He tried to dismiss the noise as a janitor’s cart tipping over, or another sound—anything other than what he had heard. Then the rhythmic pattern of gunfire shuttered through the hallway again as he heard people shriek and collapse to the floor.
Pearson’s face looked frostbitten as his world constricted. He placed the phone down and grabbed the vials of vaccine from the desk, along with his laptop, and thrust them into a compact metallic briefcase. He could hear the password keypad being activated for the exterior lab wall across from his office, and the sound of a woman’s voice issuing commands. The familiar swishing sound of the first set of air-locked lab doors opening followed next. With a white-knuckled grip on the briefcase, he pried open his office door to see three armed men and a woman with a black vest enter the lab. The first series of doors closed behind them.
Pearson swung open the office door and bolted in the opposite direction, heading for the stairs. His tan blazer fluttered like a cape as he ran down the stairs to the emergency exit. He entered the security code, and the pressure-sealed door opened to a dimly lit parking lot. After the door slammed, he stopped and turned around, then activated the biohazard alarm for the building. He didn’t wait to see if his actions were successful in sealing the intruders inside as he sprinted for his black Volvo. As Pearson sped towards the security gate, he could see the door ajar on the checkpoint booth. The security guard, a portly man he had greeted each morning for years, was lying face down atop a blood-sprayed console.
As he raced away, he kept waiting for the roar of police sirens heading to the facility, but there was only the expanse of the lonesome desert road enveloping his car. On the seat beside him was the silver briefcase containing the vials of vaccine.
His constant furtive glances in the rearview mirror matched his racing thoughts. If the virus could be contained in Europe then there might still be hope of preventing it from turning into a catastrophic pandemic. But how long had it been? If quarantine was unsuccessful, then widespread fatalities would commence within two weeks. He reflected on the recent meeting that Emory had mentioned. That icy-eyed woman with the neck scar said her employer would be overseeing vaccine distribution in the event of a bio attack. How was she involved? What was she doing at the lab?
Twelve miles later, the remote two-lane highway ended at a T-section as the last glimmer of sunlight streaked across Pearson’s pale cheeks. The faint lights of vehicles driving on the interstate could be seen in the distance. A hundred yards down the road, a green sign indicated Albuquerque to the east and Flagstaff to the west. Reluctantly, he edged towards the west entrance ramp. This would be the safest direction for now, and perhaps offer a chance to salvage humanity’s future.
Travis Combs was brushing flecks of sand from the side of his face as he sat up on his thin bedroll by the shoreline of the Colorado River. He turned and looked over to his left, where the rest of the passengers were still sprawled out asleep. To his right, the rafts were tethered to a row of cottonwood trees alongside the camp kitchen and coolers. Even with the sun having risen an hour ago, the inner walls of the Grand Canyon were painted in an orange-and-red hue, silhouetted against an indigo sky.
The morning silence was penetrated by the voice of a canyon wren, whose melodic song floated down the cliffs. The last few days had been quiet, with very few rafters on the river. The warm night had hardly required entry into his sleeping bag, and Travis had slept in faded khaki shorts and a cotton t-shirt that was nearly threadbare in the shoulders. His faint black beard was well groomed—one luxury he afforded himself on this trip.
As he stood, he caught the movement of three bighorn sheep making their way up an incline a few hundred yards away across the river. The clamoring of their small hooves on the rocks echoed off the canyon walls. All my years of rappelling cliffs and traversing mountains around the globe and I could never walk with that kind of grace, he thought.
Travis rolled his shoulders around in an effort to loosen them up. At thirty-four, too many airborne jumps and arduous missions in third-world settings had taken their toll on his otherwise fit body. He had achieved the rank of staff sergeant in the 5th Special Forces before serving the last three years as a SERE instructor, teaching others the skills of survival and evasion. Now, with his discharge a few months behind him, it was time to unwind and live without a schedule, and with no one to command.
About the Author:
JT Sawyer is the pen name for the author who makes his living teaching survival courses for the military special operations community, Department of Homeland Security, US Marshals, FAA, and other federal agencies throughout the US.
He has over 25 years of experience testing long-term survival skills in the desert, mountains, and forest.