Drury Professor Publishes a Thriller and Talks about it July 6 at the Library Center
June 19, 2017 — Most days, you’ll find author Clif Petty working as Clifton D. Petty, Ph.D., teaching management in the Breech School of Business Administration at Drury University. But his English studies and his knack for spinning a suspenseful tale have produced a page-turning, debut novel available on Amazon.
The story: A college student is framed for the murder of his roommate on a university campus, and the investigation eventually pulls in two brothers with military backgrounds who gradually uncover a plot by a secret organization to cultivate and unleash a bioweapon, starting with a meeting of high-powered technology and finance leaders.
BestThrillers says “This truly original terrorism thriller set in Idaho hits all the right notes. Highly recommended.”
Self-Publishing Review says this: “… the slowly building tension pulls readers onward like the countdown clock of a bomb…”
Petty will be at the Library Center room A at 6 p.m. Thursday, July 6, to talk about his book, which will be available for purchase and signing.
Petty shared about the process of writing his debut novel.
“Before the Sun Goes Down” is full of suspense and cliffhangers – a far cry from what one expects from a professor of management with a vast background in business. What inspired you to write this story?
I think the seed was sown on a trip to visit my nephew Justin. He works for the Nature Conservancy and lives in the Wood River Valley area of Idaho. The Wood River Valley contains the three towns of Ketchum, Sun Valley, and Hailey. The short version of this story is that I fell in love with Idaho – the mountains, the rivers, and the towns – pretty much everything. I wanted to move there for a bit, but the impracticality of that settled over me pretty fast. So I did what I could. I subscribed to the local newspaper (The Idaho Mountain Express). I signed on to receive emails from a Ketchum real estate agent. But it wasn’t like being there.
Then I was mowing my lawn one day and I begin daydreaming a suspense story about two brothers. I almost always daydream stories while I mow, but this one began to stick. Over the next few rounds of mowing the story unfolded in exciting ways. I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point in my imagination the love for Idaho and this developing story crossed paths. I began to ponder the possibility of setting this story in Idaho. That’s when I began to do research and to write. I knew about the Allen Conference (perhaps the one clear connection to my work as a management professor) and thought that this meeting of high-powered technology and finance leaders would work well as the terrorist target in a suspense novel.
Many would-be writers don't take the leap because they have busy jobs and lives. What was your writing process, and how long did this project take
I read Stephen King’s “On Writing” before I started. I have read many other books on writing, but this one helped me more than any of the others. So King’s book was a nice boost. Once the story started to take shape I made a plan to begin writing in the early summer.
So I began “Before the Sun Goes Down” in the summer, just after the end of the spring semester. I was not teaching, so I had about six weeks to launch my story. During this time I tried to write five days a week, although for one reason or another it didn’t always work out that way. I set a word target of 2,000 words per day. If I reached the 2,000 mark and felt good about how the writing was going then I would continue writing. On the more productive days I was able to write 3,500 to 5,000 words. I found that writing something every day – even if only 100 words – was better than skipping one day because I didn’t think I could hit my target.
I had the story rolling pretty well when the next academic year began, so I could write more effectively in smaller spaces of time. I knew the characters much better and I had some sense of the pace and trajectory of the story. So in a few hours I could nudge things along pretty effectively. But there were stretches that I simply couldn’t get in the writing time. After writing so regularly it was painful to not write for long stretches. But life is like that sometimes. I had to play it by ear and write when I could carve out the time.
Writing “Before the Sun Goes Down” required about 18 months from start to finish.
What about Idaho made this a good setting for the book?
Two things stand out. The first is geography. Idaho contains more wilderness and rugged backcountry than any state except Alaska. At the same time, Sun Valley lies in the heart of Idaho. Sun Valley is an enclave of the wealthy and the well connected. The Allen Conference, which meets every summer in Sun Valley, has been called the “billionaire’s summer camp.” In a sense the Allen Conference brings Silicon Valley, California to Sun Valley, Idaho. The juxtaposition of these elements – wilderness and wealth, wild country and high technology – was pretty attractive to me.
The second factor was culture and history. Idaho has deep roots in the old West. Native cultures have thrived in the mountains and plains of Idaho for centuries, and the state is home to a number of tribes, including the Nez Perce and Shoshone-Bannock. The Nez Perce probably saved the Lewis and Clark expedition from certain disaster in the Bitterroot Mountains, and later fought bravely against the U.S. Army in the last battles of the western “Indian Wars.”
Idaho was also home to mountain men, cowboys, prospectors, and outlaws. And so Idaho has this dreamy effect on me. One minute I’m admiring a particular stream, and the next minute I’m imagining the various individuals who might have crossed that stream in the past – two Nez Perce boys honing their hunting skills, a lone trapper running low on provisions and struggling under his pack.
Was your goal to show how bioterrorism is a closer threat than we imagine?
That’s an interesting question. Based on expertise, I’m not in a great position to evaluate the threat. My knowledge is that of a writer who tries to do his homework. But what I have read does give me pause. Influenza, for example, is a constantly shuffling (mutating) deck of illness. The same plague bacteria that caused the Black Death in the Middle Ages is alive and well in prairie dogs and rock squirrels in the southwestern U.S. We know that terrorists are working hard to develop bioterror weapons, and that emerging technology makes it easier for them to run models and evaluate killer pathogens. So it doesn’t take a big leap of imagination to see that the threat is real.
The good news is that we have bright people and a network of strong agencies working to protect us from the bioterrorists. I have immense respect for the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease (USAMRIID), and the Center for Disease Control (CDC). These folks and similar agencies work on the front lines of the bioterror battlefield.
Is the Guardians secret organization patterned after a group that walks among us?
I am not aware of a group exactly like the Guardians. They bear some similarity to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. They are comfortable with guerrilla warfare and terrorist tactics. They share the same level of brutality. But the Guardians are not bound by a single religion. And I see the Guardians as much more sophisticated than either of these known groups. At their core the Guardians are bound by a desire to destroy existing power structures, and to return power to tribal people. In this sense they are similar to many militia groups in the U.S., and to various militant anarchist groups. The Guardians are technology savvy, because they believe that they must use the tools of technology in order to destroy technology-based elites. They are a new strain of anarchism, however, because their vision calls for a revival of tribal culture and government. They do not see a world of free individuals, but a world of free tribes. The Guardian leader Jim Crowfoot was in love with a woman who was killed in an errant drone attack. To him, and to the Guardians at large, this picture – of a tribal woman killed in a drone attack – is a snapshot of what the Guardians say that they are fighting against. They want to destroy the technological elite and thereby guard the tribes of the world.
I should probably point out here that the Guardians follow an accommodating doctrine of revenge and terror. I find this is true of all terrorist organizations. In particular, the Guardians are willing to stretch the definitions of “tribe” and “tribal” when it suits their immediate purposes or tactics. They may, for example, collaborate with a certain skinhead militia, or with a cyber group similar to Anonymous. As is the case with any extremist group, the Guardians also jockey with one another for prestige and power within the group.
Can you describe the depth of your research into the Idaho landscape, Native American culture, cattle behavior and prion diseases?
I guess you could say that I have been researching certain aspects of this book for decades. I read “Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee” when I was 12 years old. I was thunderstruck. I felt that there was another history of the United States that I had not known existed. So since that time I have been a student of Native American culture and history in particular, and of the history of the West in general. The history of the West is so complicated, fascinating, and challenging. I have been puzzling over it for all these years and I only feel that I have scratched the surface.
I grew up around cattle, and around people who loved cattle. So my research has pretty deep roots here as well. My grandparents maintained a small herd all the time I knew them, and my parents raised Angus cattle in their retirement. I did need to do some research on cattle illnesses. My daughter Makayla loves science and plans to be an epidemiologist, so she helped me with some of the research on cattle diseases such as Listeriosis.
The research on prions was new and fascinating. Before 1982 scientists believed that either a virus or a bacterium caused all infectious disease. But the study of Kuru, a fatal neurodegenerative disease occurring among the Fore tribe of New Guinea, revealed a new disease agent known today as a prion. All prion diseases are fatal. The most well known is “Mad Cow Disease,” or in its human form, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD). As far as I know prions have not been successfully manipulated. Thank goodness! Given its mortality rate (100%) and fearsome neurological symptoms I considered prion manipulation a good candidate for a worst-case bioterror weapon.