When Sandy Berthelsen received her friend’s first publishable manuscript to review, Berthelsen hesitated. She had known her friend, Vienna resident John Gilstrap, for over 25 years, and he had given her his manuscript knowing that Berthelsen was an avid reader.
Afraid she wouldn’t like the manuscript, Berthelsen put off reading the book for a couple of days. She prayed she would like the manuscript, a thriller, at least a little bit. But once she started reading it, she couldn’t put the thriller down. She told Gilstrap so when he called her to ask what she thought about the book.
"I told him I wasted a prayer," Berthelsen said.
That manuscript, titled "Nathan’s Run," was the first in a series of successful novels and screenplays by Fairfax County-bred author Gilstrap. A former safety engineer and volunteer firefighter, the 46-year-old remained a closet fiction writer throughout his life until he published "Nathan’s Run" in 1996.
"There’s something about bringing a scene to life, and then reading it and liking it. It’s a real rush," Gilstrap said.
Specializing in thrillers, Gilstrap’s writing career has come a long way since his first two-page story in third grade about Lancelot and Guinevere. Gilstrap originally thought he was going to be a journalist. He grew up in Burke and enjoyed his creative writing assignments at Robinson High School. He graduated from Robinson in 1975 and majored in history at the College of William and Mary.
But his first job out of college, working at a trade journal for the construction industry, proved to be so dull that Gilstrap questioned a career in journalism. Plus, he preferred fiction and didn’t like journalism’s necessary adherence to facts.
"Writing was the only thing I was ever really good at," Gilstrap said.
To escape the boredom of his day job, Gilstrap became involved with the Burke Volunteer Fire Department. He volunteered there for 15 years, before going back to school and getting a master’s in safety engineering.
Yet throughout that time, Gilstrap continued writing. He enjoyed writing thrillers, because that’s what he liked reading. He used two of his favorite thrillers as guides, "Day of the Jackal" by Frederick Forsyth and "Red Dragon" by Thomas Harris.
"It’s very textured, and it’s very creepy. The workmanship that Thomas Harris does is very, very good," Gilstrap said.
Even as Gilstrap finished graduate school and became a consultant, he labored over three novels before finally mastering his craft with his fourth novel, "Nathan’s Run."
"It’s been a lot of repetition. For me, I’m still a 15- to 20-draft writer," Gilstrap said.
Gilstrap was surprised but pleased with his novel’s success. Right after "Nathan’s Run" came out, Warner Bros. bought the novel’s movie rights. The thriller was also translated and published in over 20 countries. Gilstrap’s second novel, "At All Costs," was written in 1998. A third novel, "Even Steven," was published in 2000. Gilstrap is now busy finishing his current project, with his next project fully outlined and the following project showing the beginnings of an outline.
"He’s probably got the sharpest mind of anyone I’ve ever met," Berthelsen said. "He’s interested in everything. He’s absolutely obsessive about learning things."
Gilstrap has also ventured into screenwriting, authoring screenplay adaptations of "Nathan’s Run," Thomas Harris’ "Red Dragon," Nelson DeMille’s "Word of Honor" and Norman Maclean’s "Young Men and Fire."
"I am thrilled for him. I couldn’t be any happier," Berthelsen said.