NoVA Summer Spotlight: John Gilstrap

Constantly seeking the everyday thrills in life, John Gilstrap reflects on his experiences as a New York Times’ best-selling author in thriller fiction.

Courtesy of Amy Cesal

In an area teeming with personality and character, we will be featuring 10 select influencers that are leaving their mark on the Northern Virginia region. Spotlights will be featured on a weekly basis and will range in industry from authors and performers to tech giants and unique business owners. 

John Gilstrap is a thrill seeker. 

He fought fires volunteering at fire departments in Fairfax and Prince William counties. He became an expert in explosives, hazardous materials and weapon systems as a safety engineer at various companies like Aerojet and Chemical Waste Management. And lastly, he became a New York Times’ best-selling author in thriller fiction, heralded for his Jonathan Grave series, which will receive its 11th installment, Scorpion Strike, in late June.  

Courtesy of Kensington Publishing Corp.

Born and raised in Burke, Gilstrap knew from a young age that he was a writer. “My earliest memories going back into elementary school are sitting and writing stories,” he says. Any chance he’d get, Gilstrap would write. From short stories to introspective essays, he was never at a loss for words. Eventually, he came to specialize in thriller fiction, with many of his novels incorporating his past experiences.  

From standalone murder mysteries to his well-known Jonathan Graves series that follows the turbulent life of a former Army operative, Gilstrap’s novels are about the dangers and thrills of power and the effect that it has on everyday life.  

“It’s great escapism,” Gilstrap says. “That’s sort of the universal desire for audiences, to go to exciting places and do exciting things without the real danger there.” 

Yet, being labeled as a thriller writer didn’t stop Gilstrap from making the genre his own. His characters are more than just commonplace archetypes.

“There’s a lot of respect and cooperation among my characters,” he says. “The good guys are good people, they’re not the cardboard cutouts that you see in a lot of thriller fiction and certainly a lot of thriller television and movies.”  

His settings are based in reality and resonate with charm, oftentimes being based off his own surroundings.  

“I’ve created a place called Braddock County, which for people who read the books, they certainly identify elements of Fairfax, Prince William and maybe a little bit of Fauquier County,” he says.” “I consider those to be Easter eggs in the books for people to pay attention to.”  

And his stories are crafted with gripping suspense, consistently keeping readers hooked. In fact, just recently, Gilstrap signed a contract to add three more novels to the Jonathan Graves series, bringing the total number of books in the series to 14.  

“At this day in age, that’s really something,” he says. “It’s quite an honor and it’s a thrill but it’s certainly not anything I had expected. It’s certainly some place to be.”  

His books, filled with intense, gripping narratives, have become so much more than a simple pastime for readers. For some, the worlds that Gilstrap creates offer an escape from viscous, dangerous realities.  

“For the last 15 years a lot of folks have been overseas dealing with important stuff, very heroic stuff and I get a fair amount of email when people comment and say that I helped make an awful place and awful time better,” he says. “So, that’s pretty touching, it’s pretty moving.”  

For aspiring writers and authors, Gilstrap offers this simple piece of advice. 

“Actually write,” he says. “They got to tie their butts to a chair and not just write the story but finish the story from the beginning to the end.” 

From his own perspective, he understands how hard it is to complete a full novel—his first three books were never published. Instead, they exist only in his desk drawer, symbolizing his first steps to achieving true, self-realized authorship.  

“This is a craft, nobody starts out doing this well,” he says. “But it’s a job, it’s a profession, you treat it as such.”  

Looking back, Gilstrap says he’s lucky for growing up in Northern Virginia, an environment that he credits for being the inspiration for many of his works. 

“Washington is an interesting place,” he says. “This is such a rich environment and there are so many smart people, so many of them do read.”  

Above all, he has learned to constantly look for both big and little thrills in life, being acutely aware of the minutiae amid a hustling, bustling region. After all, that’s where the best stories are. 

“The mundane here can be very special elsewhere, and that’s the blessing of what I do.” //

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