Brad Parks Takes the Stage
As an actor, Tommy Jump never gets onstage without learning his lines. But that’s a way of working that would be completely foreign to Tommy’s creator, Brad Parks. Parks’s riveting new thriller THE LAST ACT was born from the author’s willingness to jump into a project and see what happens—even if, as he freely admits, he has to embrace failure along the way.
“About midway through 2017, I was writing a completely different novel, and it just wasn’t working,” he says. “Suddenly I had to flush 60,000 words, which was brutal. This was not, ‘Let me salvage this idea.’ The idea was just no damn good.”
Some writers might push on in denial. Others might curl up beneath their desks and wallow. Parks did neither. Instead, he did what he does best: he got back to work.
“I had to fall back on an idea that had been kicking around for a while,” he says. “Then it was trying to find the pieces to fit that idea.”
When the pieces did come together, the result was THE LAST ACT, which has Parks’s signature blend of high-stakes suspense and emotional resonance. It’s the story of Tommy Jump, a stage actor struggling to land his next role. “He is obviously not a prototypical thriller character,” says Parks. “I love that.”
When Tommy finds out that his fiancée, Amanda—an up-and-coming painter—is pregnant, he suddenly feels the pressure of needing to find a new gig. “He and Amanda both are striving, struggling artists,” Parks says. “There is a part of it, people who are putting themselves on the line to live this kind of dream life, that is something I as a writer very much identify with.”
Then an old friend comes into Tommy’s life with the offer of a lifetime: help the FBI by pretending to be a convicted felon, going into prison, and befriending a former bank executive who helped launder money from a drug cartel. Tommy’s mission: find out from the inmate where the documents are hidden that could help the government bring down this cartel. With a baby on the way and a potential $200,000 payday on the line, Tommy says yes.
It’s a perfect setup for a thriller, but one of the most shocking elements of the novel is that it’s built on truth. “The largest money launderers of the 21st century are all banks,” Parks says. “It’s unbelievable.”
However, there is one element that Parks did have to invent: the idea of a bank executive going to prison for this crime. “In reality none of these guys end up in jail,” he says. “They all get these deferred prosecution agreements. Which is basically the federal government going, ‘Now, you cut this out. If you don’t stop this, I’m really going to punish you.’”
That kind of kid-glove treatment is not something that’s going to be doled out in a Brad Parks novel … even for the good guys.
“When I think about a character,” he says, “I think: what is really the most important thing to that character? And now I’m going to take it away from them. I take it away from them and then I more or less make them spend the rest of the book trying to get it back. I call it the Anti-Hippocratic Oath. ‘Do lots of harm.’”
Parks heightens Tommy’s sense of risk at every turn, but writing with only a vague idea of where the story was headed sometimes created headaches. At one point, when he’d put his characters into a seemingly impossible situation, “I’m like, what the hell am I going to do?” Luckily, Parks had faced enough obstacles as a writer that he knew there was nothing a good long run couldn’t solve.
“I called it the three-run problem, because the first two times I’m thinking about this I didn’t come up with anything,” he says. Luckily, the third run was the charm. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God!’ I was literally running along the streets, jumping up and down, cackling.”
Parks also had to hit the pavement to do some research, particularly when it came to life in a minimum-security prison. As he explains, “I actually went into FCI Morgantown,” where much of the novel is set. “That is a real prison, and I went in there and really got the nickel-and-dime tour.”
As for why he didn’t set the story in the hard-edged world of a maximum security prison, the reason is simple. “I kind of wanted to avoid the brutality of humdrum prison existence,” he says. “I didn’t want the novel to be about that. I really did want it to be this cat-and-mouse game and this chase.”
As a result, when Tommy tries to extract information from jailed bank executive Mitchell Dupree, he’s forced to use his skills as an actor a lot more than his muscle. “That guy who can break your jaw by looking at you and also speaks ten languages is loads of fun,” Parks admits. “I read those books, but whenever I’ve tried to write that character I somehow can’t connect. Because they’re not somebody I run into in the grocery store. I’m more drawn toward that Everyman character.”
If there’s a reason those characters resonate with Parks, it may be in part because he doesn’t see himself as some kind of writing superhero. He’s just a guy who does the work, day by day, as hard as he can.
“There’s no stopwatch on you as a writer,” he says. “You get to keep grinding at it and keep grinding at it until you get something that you like. That’s kind of what I do. Listen to that little editor on your shoulder, going, ‘Okay, this scene sucks. You’ve gotta change it. This is boring.’ And I’m going, ‘Okay, fine. Yeah, you’re right.’”
That critical eye is what helps Parks continue to challenge himself.
“It’s a constant process of self-evaluation for me,” he says. “Because what I’m hoping is that every time I put out a novel what I hear from people on Facebook is, ‘This was your best one yet.’ That’s the goal every single time.”