To start a series, I’d have to commit to living with someone else for the foreseeable future. Have him talking in my head nonstop. Spend more waking hours with him than I do with my wife or kids. In other words, someone who I find interesting and compelling and funny and just and true.
Fifteen novels in, I finally found that character. I’m excited for you to meet Evan Smoak, aka, Orphan X. Evan is the culmination of decades of writing and research. It took a lotta years for me to find my way to him. And fair enough. He’s a hard guy to find. He was yanked out of a foster home at the age of 12, raised in a covert black program buried so deep within the U.S. government that virtually no one knows it exists. Only one person, Jack Johns, his handler and surrogate father, even knows who he is. He was given the highest level of training as an assassin and operator.
And I didn’t want this to feel like bullsh*t Hollywood training, you know, where he’s catching flies with chopsticks and balancing on a finger at the edge of a Tibetan cliff. So once I had a handle on who Evan was, I spent months doing research. Off I went to Vegas to visit one of my consultants, a world-renowed sniper and armorer, who got me onto every gun I write about, from Benelli combat shotguns to custom 1911 pistols. I trained—badly—in mixed martial arts, familiarizing my face with the training mat. I talked to guys who led operations that you’ve seen on CNN, who have gone into hostile territory, under deep cover, or played offense in some of the most dangerous theaters in the world. All in an effort to show the process by which a skinny, scared kid from an East Baltimore boy’s home could plausibly transform into Orphan X, a legendary figure in the shadow service.
Evan was always different from the other Orphans. Much of that is due to Jack who raised him not just to be a top-tier operator but also to keep his sense of humanity intact. As Jack tells him, “The hard part isn’t making you a killer. The hard part is keeping you human.”
Evan’s moral compass was never shattered. And at a certain point, the moral ambiguities became too much and he fled the Orphan Program. When we meet him he’s re-established himself under a new identity in a safe house—more like a safe penthouse—on the Wilshire Corridor in L.A. He has a virtually limitless bank account, a particular skill set, and nothing to do.
And while he has to spend the rest of his life off the grid, while he has to bear the cross of being forever an outsider looking in, he’s got the expertise to do one thing. To work pro-bono from the shadows, helping the desperate with nowhere else to turn.
I think that’s the heart of what I connected with when I found this character. There’s a conflict deep within Evan. Because everybody, no matter how tough, no matter what training they’ve received, has a need for human contact, for family. And one thing we never get to see? Is James Bond go home. Or Jason Bourne have an awkward moment with a single mom in the elevator of his condo. What would that really be like?
As bad-ass as Evan is, he exists in the real world. Here’s a guy who spends his existence protecting people living ordinary lives that he himself could never have. There’s a longing there — and a tragic shading. What if the code you live by is also a curse that keeps you from having what you most want?