The imagination of novelist Jim Cobb '76 immerses readers in vivid other-worlds through the adventures of a techno-swashbuckling Navy captain and a hot-rodding crime fighter
By Beth Grubb
Jim Cobb '76 lives in parallel universes, one in the future, the other in the past.
To visit the future, Cobb flips the calendar ahead to 2006 and sits on the shoulder of Amanda Garrett, commander of a U.S. Navy stealth warship, watching as she astutely battles enemies at sea with a crew of gutsy, highly trained warriors and an assemblage of next-generation armaments.
For the past, Cobb slips a time-gear to the 1950s and rides shotgun in Kevin Pulaski's "deuce-nosed, stripped-down and gowed-up 1929 Model A" hot rod, while Pulaski takes on bad guys, injustice and stuck-up college fellas cruising in their daddies' caddies.
Whichever universe he's in, Cobb brings a growing army of fans with him. His time machine is his personal computer, solidly planted in an upstairs room of his house on a quiet street on Tacoma's south side. It is here that the imaginary adventures of his two best friends from different worlds are spun into novels, fueled by what fascinates Cobb most-action-packed battles, high-tech weapons, hot cars and the jukebox '50s.
Three years ago Cobb burst onto techno-thriller book-racks with his first novel, Choosers of the Slain, a naval tingler featuring heroine Amanda Garrett. The novel catapulted Cobb into a special niche in the genre, the ocean's surface, a space sparsely populated on bookstore shelves.
"Tom Clancy specializes in submarines and Dale Brown does aviation. I ended up with the surface Navy because no one else was doing that," Cobb says. "Carrier aviation and submarines have been the glamour services. I thought surface was somewhat neglected," he adds.
His launch into the literary world attracted critical attention and appreciative readers.
"Breathtaking a lightning-paced and well-informed tale," declared Publishers Weekly. And Murder Ink proclaimed Cobb's protagonist, "The best naval hero since Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan."
Readers on Amazon.com's reader review page were just as enthused.
"It's a book that moves swiftly, has just the right amount of technical jargon and develops a group of characters much more alive than the cardboard personae of Tom Clancy," wrote one fan. "The sea battles seem as if you're right there. I wish he would write a few more. (I'm) beginning to look forward to more of Amanda Garrett and her sea exploits," opines another.
The latter reader's wish has already come true. Cobb's second book, Sea Strike, came out last year, and a third techno-thriller, Sea Fighter, is due to be released on February 28.
Cobb's fourth book, a departure from the naval stories, was released this past fall. West on 66 is the first in a series of mysteries starring Kevin Pulaski, a hot-rodding deputy in the LA Sheriff's Department.
Out of the blue, onto the shelves
Cobb plans to deploy more books as quickly as he can write them.
Skyrocketing from obscurity to a multi-book contract spanning two genres has been a wild success ride for Cobb. But his career is young, and he still enjoys whatever attention comes his way. Talking in his home office last May, he exhibits both pride and wonder for his new job.
"My characters have more interesting lives than I do," he shrugs. "But I love to talk about my job. I love to BS about everything from military conflict to the great American hot rod."
Junior authors on the middle rungs of the publishing establishment are pretty much left to do their own promotion, Cobb says. It was very carefully explained to him that in the techno-thriller ranks, he is, perhaps, a lieutenant (j.g.) and Tom Clancy is a fleet admiral.
That's A-OK with Cobb. He's thrilled to be in the outfit. He acknowledges a debt to luck for his rise from literary boot camp, as well as "sheer, dumb, blind persistence."
Although he has always dabbled in writing, his career as a novelist was a long time coming. The idea for Choosers came to him while he was a student at the University of Puget Sound in the early '70s (where his creative writing instructor, Dr. Esther Wagner, told him he would one day be a published writer). Cobb was inspired by a Rudyard Kipling poem, "The Destroyer."
The strength of twice three thousand horse
That serve the one command;
The hand that heaves the headlong force,
The hate that backs the hand;
The doom-bolt in the darkness freed,
The mine that splits the main;
The white-hot wake, the 'wildering speed-
The Choosers of the Slain!
"That grew into a short story, and as I added justification for the short story, it grew into a novel," Cobb remembers.
After graduation Cobb worked a series of odd jobs, including radio DJ, soccer ball salesman, truck dispatcher and security guard, meanwhile writing on the side for sci fi magazines and anything he could. In 1992 he agreed to serve as caregiver to his invalid grandmother, a job that gave him plenty of time to settle down and work on the story he had been mulling over for two decades. It took him three and a half years to complete the book. Then came the arduous task of getting it published.
"I simply shotgunned the entire printing industry with book queries until I eventually got lucky," he says. "I sent it out 94 times before it finally connected with Henry Morrison, one of the top agents in the field. I hadn't even sent it to him. I had so many manuscripts and promotion packets drifting around out there. Someone handed it to him and said, 'This might be something you're interested in, Henry.' And he called me up and said he would like to represent me. I said yes, and two weeks later he sold it to Putnam."
Cobb's good fortune seemed too good to be true. "Until I actually got the first check in hand and cashed it, I had this deep feeling that it was all some incredible practical joke," Cobb says. "It was a very generous check, far more than I ever imagined."
Unconventional characters, real people
Although his newfound fortune was a little discombobulating, Cobb had no trouble picturing what to do next. His characters, who are more than paper-thin to him, led him to the next chapter. "They're living, breathing and fully dimensional," he says.
Although he'd been thinking about the story of a female officer commanding a state-of-the-art destroyer since college, the lead character hadn't really become clear to him when he started writing the book, Cobb says.
"She, like the rest of the story, kind of bubbled around in the back of my head for about 20 years, nameless and formless," he says. Then one day, the character took shape. "I was in the early stages of writing the book and, all of a sudden, in the back of my head, she turned around and said her name, Amanda Lee Garrett," says Cobb.
"I know things about her that have never been put into any of the books. I know her entire life. I know her as well or better than any living person around. She's my creation, she's my child, as it were, but she also has a very definite will and focus of her own, and she goes her own way. Frequently in my books, I'm not directing her, I'm following her around. She's a very capable woman who knows her own mind and knows how to take care of business, so all I have to do is tell her story. I'm a chronicler, not a director."
Cobb reports that his other favorite character, Kevin Pulaski, is much the same. "He shows up every once in a while, slumps down in the chair across from me and tells me a yarn. All I have to do is write it down," he says. "I have a whole group of characters following me around in the back of my head, nagging me to write their stories. "It's a bit of an annoyance because they have their own ideas, their own personalities, their own points of view that frequently run contrary to mine. It can be frustrating writing for them sometimes, because I have wonderful ideas and they simply refuse to go along with them. But usually they know better how the story should go."
The choice of a woman protagonist for Chooser was not an obvious one, Cobb says.
"I elected to use a female officer as the lead character essentially because it hadn't been done before," Cobb says. "Back in the '70s, women were going to sea for the first time on naval support ships and the first women were entering Annapolis. Since I was interested in the cutting edge of technology and in where the surface Navy forces were going, I decided to use a female character."
Others didn't see it that way. "I was told, I don't know how many times," he relates wearily, " 'This is a great book, it's a terrific story, but it is too far out of genre. Nobody is gonna want to read a techno-thriller about a female military officer. Change her to a man, and I'll take the book.' But I hung in there with my original concept, and eventually, Henry Morrison and my editor at Putnam believed in the book as much as I did."
Cobb holds no grudges against those who passed on his vision, though.
"You have to remember, publishing is a business," he says. "For a publisher to produce a product that bombs and ends up gathering dust in the warehouse-that is a major hit to their profit margin. They have to be careful. You can't blame them for that. It's a matter of survival to them. So they're cautious. They are suspicious of something new. They like to go with the tried and true and what they can trust.
"But every so often you get an outfit with some good editors who say it's time to open the window and let some fresh air in. I was there at the right time with the right product. Amanda showed up just at the time frame when the introduction of U.S. military women onto the front lines became controversial. They were looking around for something new in the genre, and there I was."
Today, women in leadership roles in the armed forces is "yesterday's newspaper," Cobb says.
"We've had female officers commanding Coast Guard cutters for a long time. We've got a number of women in the service who are commanding naval vessels who are in combat right now. There were more than 16 women aviators involved in operations against Iraq. You have female aviators from many of the NATO powers in operation over Kosovo right now. Women in the Navy are commanding major service combatants. Eventually, you're gonna see a woman commanding a carrier."
Cobb takes a matter-of-fact approach to his lead character. "One thing I do not do with the Amanda stories," he says. "They are not 'I, too, can be an insert-traditional-masculine-profession.' I believe women in the U.S. have gone beyond that. Sure, there's resistance, but we're getting beyond the point where women have to prove they're capable of doing these jobs. Let's get past this and move on."
Great stuff for gearheads
Cobb's office is a museum to his personality. It is filled with military magazines and reference books, paintings of ships, naval paraphernalia and dozens of 1/8th-size model cars (neatly displayed according to make and model). A few poodle-skirted Barbie dolls are thrown in for ambiance. A Route 66 rug lies on the floor. When a blaring car horn sounds, Cobb reaches down, picks up a '55 Thunderbird model and holds it to his ear--a sight that has to be seen to be fully appreciated.
"Hello?" he asks. After answering the call, he says, "Beautiful car. Lousy telephone."
Portraits of Cobb's male relatives gaze down at him in their military uniforms. He grew up listening to their war stories. From an early age he wanted to be an officer in the Navy, but for health reasons was unable to join up.
"I came up with the next best thing," he says. "I became a sort of cut-rate Rudyard Kipling." In researching his books, he relies on personal experience, the Internet, magazines about the military establishment and a network of military professionals who love to talk shop.
"We're fortunate to live in the U.S.," he replies, "because, essentially, there are very few true military secrets. Most of our advanced research and development is conducted in a very open forum, if you just know where to look. Our armed forces are very open in discussing what they are involved with."
It is his personal contacts, Cobb's real-life heroes, who add much of the realism in Cobb's work.
"I have numerous friends in all branches of the service, and I network with them continuously, asking, 'Hey, am I getting this right?'"
He adds, "I like to bear a little tribute to these individuals because in American society they are a very underrated group as a whole. My personal belief is they are key members of our society with a very critical role to play."
Cobb seeks out opportunities to see and touch real military vessels up close. He's been on a number of tiger (guest) cruises aboard "just about every class of U.S. naval warship in existence, including aircraft carriers," he says. He's also been aboard ships at port, climbed down a Minuteman ballistic missile silo, flown a C-141 simulator and sat about 10 feet from a dozen one-megaton thermo-nuclear warheads while shooting the breeze with submariners in a Trident missile sub.
The high-tech weaponry and vehicles that Cobb employs in his books are a combination of existing cutting-edge technology, ideas that are still on military drawing boards and Cobb's very-educated guess as to what might exist a decade hence. A great example is Amanda Garrett's ship of the future, the Cunningham, itself a major character in Cobb's first two books. It was designed by Cobb to be America's first stealth warship, invisible to enemy ships and planes, loaded with deadly fire-power and equipped with more fancy gadgets than Martha Stewart's test kitchen. Even the shape of the ship was Cobb's idea--or so he thought. Here's how he describes the Cunningham's look in Choosers of the Slain:
The blocky, angular superstructure and cluttered upper-works that had been the hallmark of American naval architecture for three-quarters of a century were gone. Instead, just aft of the midships line, there was a single, low, slope-sided deckhouse, like the flattened sail of a nuclear submarine. Inset in the curve of its upper forward facing was the transparent strip of the bridge windscreen, and belted around it were the rectangular planar antennae of the destroyer's SPY 2-A Augmented Aegis system.
Gone, too, were the tripod masts. Supplanting them was a freestanding mast array, a towering finlike structure similar to the vertically mounted swept wing of a jet airliner. Fared into the aft end of the deckhouse, its conformal radiating and receptor panels and "smart skin" segments replaced the old open-girder Christmas tree with its tangle of radar dishes and bedspring aerials.
The overall impression was that of uncluttered, Art Deco sleekness, like something off the cover of a 1940s science-fiction magazine.
"One of my proudest moments as a writer was the day I got my copy of the latest Naval Institute Proceedings, and there on the cover was my ship, Cobb says. "I had managed to project something very close to an actual Navy design."
It's getting so a writer's imagination can't keep ahead of the Pentagon, these days.
"We're progressing rapidly and things are changing so much," Cobb says. "In many ways, the technology in Choosers of the Slain is already obsolete. I would do the book considerably different if I were writing it today. That was the best projection I could make at the time."
Although Cobb tries to see beyond current technology, he doesn't like to go too far. "Everything in my books either exists, is on the drawing boards or is technologically feasible. There are no wows, no black magic," he says. "Sometimes I make wrong guesses on exactly which form it will take, but I try to keep as accurate as possible."
But not too detailed, Cobb says--he doesn't want to bog the story down. "I sometimes cut corners and over-simplify aspects of military command structures and political structures," he says. "I'm not writing a textbook, I'm writing an adventure story."
Cobb travels extensively, and the exotic locations he visits end up in his books. He's been all over the United States, as well as to China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, North Africa and Spain. But what he really loves is driving.
"I'm a great road traveler. I just love to be on the move," he says. Writing on location for his Kevin Pulaski book, he motored along Route 66. "I avoid the freeways," he says. "The two lanes through small towns--I love those." This summer he got a chance to indulge his pastime while promoting his new book. He retraced his steps along Route 66, or as he calls it, "The Mother Road," in his idea of a great ride.
"My car is a '98 Crown Victoria, but some friends of mine have assisted in making it perform a little bit better than your standard stock car. It's my own little stealth hot rod," he grins. "I like a car that gets up and moves when you twist its tail."
The future of warfare
Cobb believes Americans are militarily illiterate. "We don't understand our armed forces very well," he says. "Military technology is so complex and it's changing so rapidly that an informed citizenry needs to have access to what's going on out there." That's a service Cobb and his fellow techno-writers can perform, he says.
"Right now we're undergoing a series of major revolutions in warfare that are going to change the face of conflict in the next century," he predicts. Cobb sites revolutions in air wars, such as the bombing campaign in Kosovo. "Anti-aircraft missiles have ceased to be valid options for defense," he says. "The only effective anti-aircraft weapon in the world right now is another aircraft."
One of the revolutions he sees is the source of future soldiers. Cobb says talk of restoring the draft is ridiculous.
"The conscript soldier is as obsolete as the Cavalry saber and the flintlock musket because the complexity of ground warfare is such that a common buck private infantryman requires almost two years of continuous training before he's up to speed. A two-year draftee-you just get him trained and in some sort of shape to do his job and he's out of the service," he says. "We have to deal with the fact that we need professional, long-term military career men and women. There is no more cannon fodder. These people are professionals. You're going to have a more career-oriented, family-oriented military."
Another revolution is coming in robotics. "Possibly, the strike fighter that Boeing is in contest to build right now will be the world's last fighter plane as we understand the concept. We'll see a proliferation of robotic vehicles for air warfare, ground warfare and naval warfare. Our armed services will probably develop a crust of robotic services around their manned systems and manned personnel." He pauses thoughtfully. "Where that is gonna lead, we don't know."
The role warfare plays in politics is changing, too. "As with Kosovo, we're becoming proactive. We put out the fire before it starts, rather than come in after it," he says. "Joint operations with multiple nations are becoming the international standard. It's not one-on-one any more."
He predicts that outer space will become a theater of conflict. "Some of the Army 21 wargames that have been conducted indicate that in the near future a major conflict launched against the U.S. will almost certainly involve an orbital Pearl Harbor, with a massive attack against our satellite systems. We're going to have to address this and be ready to deal with it."
The Internet is going to change the face of conflict as well, Cobb foresees. "Third world powers and individual terrorist groups will have access via the Internet to reconnaissance satellites and will have vast intelligence-gathering capacity. The Internet is going to affect disbursement of propaganda, assessment of public reaction, espionage, sabotage-the possibilities are staggering."
Cobb warns that many critical aspects of any nation's operations, whether financial, political, military or economic, are accessible via the Internet. "We haven't even assessed all the possibilities yet," he says. "The Pentagon is concerned about it and has a number of projects studying ramifications, so it's something that's going to be dealt with."
All this makes writing books about the military a yeoman's job.
"It's a challenging time," Cobb concedes. "I'm trying to represent aspects of that in my books." And readers, we can assume, will not be left behind.