SBD/May 12, 2011/People and Pop Culture

Catching Up With Longtime Sports Exec And New Author Rick Burton

Burton completes his first novel,
"The Darkest Mission"
Syracuse Univ. David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management RICK BURTON has taken his first step toward becoming a literary giant in the thriller genre by completing his first novel, "THE DARKEST MISSION." The book incorporates his passion for sports and history, and weaves a tale beginning in the skies over Berlinin a B-17 bomber during World War II. It follows a sadistic Nazi colonel, incorporating the dreaded East German Stasi secret police and continuing on through the intrigue of the Cold War and beyond. The book is scheduled to be released today from publisher Long Reef Press. It initially will be available through LULU.com, but eventually can be purchased at most traditional retailers. For his first interview on the novel, Burton spoke with Television Editor Paul Sanford about the creative process, literature and whether readers can expect more literary projects from him in the future.

Summer reading list: "LIFE" by KEITH RICHARDS, "UNBROKEN" by LAURA HILLENBRAND and "LOST IN SHANGRI-LA" by MITCHELL ZUCKOFF.

Summer vacation plans: I'm going to London next week speaking at an Olympic conference over there and then going to Lausanne, Switzerland, for some work with Syracuse University tied to the Olympics and then a university in Greece asked me to teach a course in sponsorship in ancient Olympia in June. If I can put it all together, I'll probably be back to Australia sometime in July.

Q: What was the inspiration for the novel?

Burton: In 1983 or so when I was working for Miller Brewing Company I was in public relations there and I got a letter from a radio operator from a B-17 and it was the 40th anniversary of their last flight. They had named their B-17 after the Miller High Life product and back in the '40s, the Miller High Life logo was a girl sitting on a crescent moon. This guy had sent in a letter saying would we be interested in helping them get together for a reunion. So it was kind of an early day sponsorship, and it was nothing more than we'd all like to get together in Milwaukee and see each other. I put it together ... and I fell in love with the B-17 and the concept of 10 guys in a plane all having to work together as a team. I had this big sports background and I thought to myself, "I'd love to create a story that has a B-17 in it." I think that's the earliest genesis of where this book comes from.

Q: So have you been sitting on this idea for 28 years or so?

Burton: It's been a long time kind of brewing, and I finally pulled all the different pieces together really across the last two years and was finally comfortable enough (to write it). The book industry and the way people read thrillers has changed ... so when you write a thriller you've got to actually keep the pace moving, and what I had to do was keep refining this. I had to make the plot and the pace go faster and faster because that's pretty much what people want to read. If you're going to read a thriller, you want to be thrilled.

Q: How long did it take to write the book?

Burton: It's probably taken me the better part of the last year to pull all the pieces together. Anytime you write a whodunit or a mystery you've got to actually almost like work backwards from your endgame, and you've got to make sure that nothing that happens in the early chapters doesn't throw off what's going to happen in the later chapters. I would say certainly in the last two years I've been able to really get the thing completely tied up.

Q: One of your main characters is an ex-NFL linebacker turned priest. Is the character based on a real NFLer?

Burton: He's not but it references it in the book that I have him play for the Green Bay Packers and I have him kind of influenced by REGGIE WHITE. I think Reggie was less of a traditional priest, and I allowed my character, who needed to be a unique character and not really based anyone, to have been influenced by Reggie in seeing that that kind of spirituality figured into modern sport.

Q: Who are some of your literary heroes?

Burton: The guy that I probably read the most of when I was a kid was ALISTAIR MACLEAN and as I came through time JOHN LE CARRE, KEN FOLLETT, ROBERT LUDLUM, and I'm undoubtedly writing in space that those guys have kind of travelled over. But that was the style I wanted to draw from.

Q: Was writing a novel on your bucket list?

Burton: I was just out of college and I went for a job interview with Miller Beer in Fulton, New York, and I got to the plant manager and the plant manager asked one of those standard, trick questions that you ask of candidates. He said, "What do you see yourself doing five years from now?" As a 21-year-old I couldn't imagine five years from now, and I said to him, "Well, I've always wanted to write the great American novel, and five years from now I'd like to do that." Of course, that is completely the wrong answer, and as it turned out I didn't get the job. ... I didn't write that great American novel five years later; I wrote it kind of 30 years later, and I don't want to be a one-trick pony. Once you try and commit yourself to the concept that you're a writer, the jump to novelist is that much harder.

Q: Are there other writing projects you would like to do?

Burton: I want to write another World War II-themed novel. But there's also a lot of interest in possibly doing a sports-themed novel, and that's where I have probably much more cache having been in the industry for the last 35 years. I think if I made it even more of a sports book than what this one is it could have a lot of appeal.

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