Shots: The Crime & Mystery Ezine

THE PROTECTION BUSINESS: David Morrell talks to Ali Karim

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Ali: You have an excellent and eclectic short story collection called ‘Black Evening’ and I believe you have another planned (‘Nightscape’). Can you tell us why the short story format has become an almost extinct species, when in our time-constrained world, mystery and horror short stories should be the way forward?
David : Basically, the problem is one of marketing. Prior to TV, there was a huge magazine market for short stories, but as people became addicted to TV and now computers, magazines stopped buying stories in quantity. These days, the only magazine markets I can think of are genre based-ELLERY QUEEN’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE, ALFRED HITCHOCK’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE. Is MIKE SHANE’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE still in business? There are a few science-fiction magazines, too. But for the most part, the market for selling short fiction involves book anthologies, of which (to my surprise) there are quite a few each year. Indeed, hardly a month goes by that I don’t get asked to submit a story for a new one. But I can’t possibly oblige. Writing short fiction is difficult-the compression. It takes me about a month to write one, so I’m able to do only one or two a year. In any case, the market may be slightly healthier than you suggest-but only slightly. In 1999, I assembled a collection of some of my stories. It was called BLACK EVENING, and the title gives a sense of the moody tone of the pieces. In a vague way, they resemble the TWILIGHT ZONE. In fact, one of them was published in THE TWILIGHT ZONE MAGAZINE. This spring, I have a second collection NIGHTSCAPE, which includes several novellas, including two of my favourite pieces, “If I Should Die Before I Wake,” which is about the 1918 flu epidemic, and “Rio Grande Gothic,” which is set where I live in Santa Fe, New Mexico, what the locals call “The City Different.” It certainly is. “Rio Grande Gothic” is a tribute to Geoffrey Household and involves shoes that are abandoned on a road. Day after day, different shoes. And then one day, there are severed feet in the shoes. I smile as I think about the chills in that situation.
Ali: Many of your short stories have won awards such as the Stoker. What meaning to you, are the winning of awards? And which stories gave you the most pleasure to write?
David : I have been honoured with two Horror Writers Association best-novella awards. I was nominated for two others, and I’ve twice been nominated for World Fantasy Awards. Basically, it’s a nice kick in the pants to receive that kind of attention. Writing is such a lonely activity that it’s a pleasure to have something on a shelf that shows appreciation. Of course, if someone writes just to get awards, that’s a losing proposition, and it doesn’t say much for the health of that person’s ego. The creation of the stories-that’s the real payoff. As for the stories that I have the most pleasure writing, they’re all in the horror field, but never in a traditional sense.
Ali: You have dabbled with romance as a theme most thematically in ‘Burnt Sienna’ and the Hitchcockian ‘Double Image’. Can you tell us how difficult it was to weave an action tale with a romantic theme?
David : In my long career, I’ve tried not to repeat myself. Growth is important to me. Before starting a project, I always ask myself what creative satisfaction I expect. So I frequently experiment. DOUBLE IMAGE and BURNT SIENNA were an attempt, as you note, to blend action and romance. Daphne Du Maurier meets Morrell. Rebecca meets Rambo. That sort of thing. Each of those books is about an artist-in the first case, a photographer, in the second, a painter. Each of the main characters develops an obsessive relationship with a woman-in DOUBLE IMAGE, the obsession is drastically unhealthy while in BURNT SIENNA it takes the form of profound devotion. Some readers took exception to the change in my subject matter. Their attitude is typified by a man who berated me for putting a woman on the cover of one of my books. I was shocked to read on that some enraged readers were certain that I had died and that my family, apparently needing money, had hired a hack to write those books. The shock was especially great because I was sure that I had written two special books. DOUBLE IMAGE, in particular, is as gothic as can be. Moody and spooky. But some readers weren’t willing to go there with me. One of the things I loved about DOUBLE IMAGE is that in keeping with its title and its photography theme, I decided to put one plot on top of another in the form of a photographic double exposure. Very experimental. The reviewer for the WASHINGTON POST chastised me, saying that thrillers were not allowed to have that sort of experimentation. Go figure.
Ali: I have young children and when I first read ‘Fireflies’ about the tragedy surrounding your son Mathew, it moved me to tears. Like your fiction work, it showed how inner strength can, sometimes help when facing adversity. This was a difficult book for me, but showed me that courage and dignity is the only way to face the ultimate adversity. Why did you feel that you needed to write about this deeply personal tragedy in such an open and public way? And what has been the reaction from your readers?
David : I didn’t really have a choice about writing FIREFLIES. When a doctor told Matt that in all likelihood he was going to die from his disease, Matt burst into tears and said, “But no one will remember me.” So I wrote the book to try to make sure he was remembered. I never believed that the cancer would kill him. When it did, I had a break down. I just couldn’t believe what had happened in the quick span of six months. I saved my sanity by throwing myself into FIREFLIES. I’m still amazed that it took me only three months. A white hot three months. I kept thinking of myself as the Ancient Mariner, stopping anybody who’d listen to my dismaying tale. The book has evidently been of help to other people in grief, describing difficult emotions, showing others that they’re not alone. That the creator of Rambo bared his soul so completely helped some men express their grief instead of hiding it. FIREFLIES was never published in the UK. The American editions are out of print. You have to go to something like or to find it.
Ali: I felt after your tragedy, your work seemed to have mellowed, with some of the latent anger and impatience (with the world) in your earlier work being replaced by a more reflective voice. Would you feel that, that this is a fair observation?
David : There’s no question that my son’s death in 1987 had a major impact on my writing. For one thing, it seriously reduced my energy level. Before 1987, I was an adrenaline junkie. I had two major professions-writing and being a literature professor at the University of Iowa. I worked seven days a week. I got up at 5 in the morning and went to bed after midnight, making sure that my family got proper attention as much as my work did. Coincidentally, I resigned my professorship in 1986, just before Matt started showing symptoms of his cancer. The workload had taken its toll, and I needed a rest. Eventually, given Matt’s illness, I would have had to resign anyhow. But then he died, and I spent about a year flat on my back, suffering a half-dozen panic attacks a day. With the exception of the three months I devoted to FIREFLIES, I wrote nothing. In the publishing world, if you’re not delivering a book a year, your publisher isn’t happy. So my career was basically in jeopardy as my emotions convalesced. My next novel THE FIFTH PROFESSION was published in 1990, three years after THE LEAGUE OF NIGHT AND FOG, which was published in 1987, the year Matt died. With a time span that severe, it’s a wonder readers remembered who I was. Since then, I’ve tried to do a book a year, but my energy level never recovered (although I exercise 90 minutes a day), and often there have been two years between books. Maybe I’m more committed now to living than to writing. In any case, my books did become somewhat more reflective and more experimental (DOUBLE IMAGE), and there was at least one major theme change-in the pre-1987 books, often my characters were metaphoric sons in search of a metaphoric father, but now they are often the reverse, which is why, as I explained earlier, the BROTHERHOOD series can’t continue.
Ali: In your later work with ‘The Fifth Profession’ right up to ‘The Protector’ you tackle the area of ‘Executive Security’, which is always very topical. Can you tell us how much research that entailed?
David : In 1986, I spent three weeks at the G. Gordon Liddy Academy of Corporate Security and Private Investigation. The course was offered only three times-once in Miami, once outside New York City, and once in Los Angeles. Basically, Gordon hired ex operators from the CIA, the FBI, the DEA, the U.S. Marshals, and the Mossad. He also hired a medical examiner from Miami, an intrusion-detector specialist (later the technical advisor for the Robert Redford movie SNEAKERS), a polygraph expert, a lock-pick expert, an undercover expert (he worked for a covert branch of the U.S. military), and so on. We attended classes seven days a week, night and day. The undercover specialist became the basis for Buchanan in ASSUMED IDENTITY, for example. The ex U.S. Marshal was one of the protective agents who had been in charge of guarding John Hinckley Jr. after he shot President Reagan. My interest in protective agents evolved from those sessions. Since then, I’ve had numerous opportunities to work with other specialists of this type. THE FIFTH PROFESSION and THE PROTECTOR are the two novels I wrote on the subject. Later Gordon Liddy did an essay about protectors for FORTUNE magazine and advised executives to read THE FIFTH PROFESSION to learn what personal security experts are about. The book I’m currently writing is a sequel to THE PROTECTOR, by the way. These days, with a lot of people feeling vulnerable and helpless because of terrorism, my mind doesn’t stray far from the subject of security.
Ali: When the Eastern-Bloc collapsed in the nineteen-eighties, were you conscious at the time that the future of the international thriller was at stake?
David : With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, the international thriller had to change. Political villains that some thrillers writers had taken for granted were no longer available. New themes and conflicts had to be explored. As usual, John Le Carre led the way, taking the thriller in all sorts of fresh directions-dealing with a pro-Palestinian view of the Mideast (in THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL, the scene in which the heroine is recruited by the Mossad is impressively accurate in its tradecraft), weapons dealers, the War on Terror, etc. All in all, the collapse of the Soviet Union has been healthy for the genre.
Ali: In ‘Long Lost’ you worked in first person; so after so much time in third, what was your thoughts in working in this form?
David : In my writing book LESSONS FROM A LIFETIME OF WRITING, I devote a chapter to the first-person viewpoint and its dangers. The tendency is to be wordy, rely too much on the sense of sight, and sound egoistic-I, I, I, I. Henry James warned that the viewpoint was effective only if the first-person narrator was deluded, a liar, or insane. In the latter case, we have the great debate about whether there are ghosts or not in THE TURN OF THE SCREW. Sometimes, the first-person is flat-out wrong as in James Dickey’s DELIVERANCE in which the first-person is trying desperately to keep a secret which he takes the trouble to write down and which we are now reading. Even so, there are times when the first person is legitimate. I had written numerous short stories in the first-person, thinking of them as versions of Robert Browning’s “dramatic monologues”-a partial way of avoiding James’s objections to the viewpoint. Since I’m always trying to find new ways to approach thrillers, I eventually decided that I would take the big leap and do an entire novel in the first person. LONG LOST is a story about a man’s desperate search for his kidnapped wife and son. The way this story is usually done, the writer cuts from the searcher, to the villain, to the victims. That multiple viewpoint makes it easy to plot the book. When you don’t know what will happen next, you cut to another viewpoint and see what happens. But in life, a man whose wife and son have been kidnapped would be trapped strictly in his viewpoint and the hell of not knowing what the kidnapper has done to his family. Each of us can see reality only from the trap of an individual viewpoint. It was this sense of terrible isolation that I wanted to explore by using the first person in LONG LOST. The hero becomes a victim of his imagination. When I finished the first draft, I was appalled to discover that, despite knowing the pitfalls of the first person, I had indeed become wordy and chatty. And yet in my first-person short stories that isn’t the case. So I decided to pretend I was writing a short story, not a novel. I began editing and re-conceiving scenes in terms of the discipline of writing a short story. I lost about 100 pages, cutting, tightening. Sometimes, whole paragraphs hardly used the word “I”. To me, the final outcome had a lot of technical interest-a full-length novel that uses the methods of short fiction.
Ali: Many of your thrillers can be viewed as horror novels, for example ‘Testament’ and perhaps even ‘Long Lost’. What is your feeling about walking the no-mans land between horror and thrillers both in your work and say, in the works of Thomas Harris, Michael Crichton or Patricia Highsmith?
David : In a way, every novel I’ve written has an element of horror, if we understand that the defining emotion of horror is fear (unlike thrillers, the defining emotion of which is excitement). Horror has little to do with the supernatural, with vampires or werewolves. Those are merely the plot containers into which fear was poured, and now those containers are sometimes very leaky. For me, the most influential horror novel in several decades is Thomas Harris’s RED DRAGON. How fresh it was in its approach to fear, and now countless movies and TV shows have borrowed from it. In my own work, I’ve written three consistently horrific novels: TESTAMENT, THE TOTEM, and LONG LOST. The latter even has my version of an evil house. And then there’s the scene in the pit. Almost all my short fiction is horror-based. Still, in BLACK EVENING and NIGHTSCAPE, you won’t find much in the way of the supernatural. The stories that do have ghosts all approach the subject from a Jamesian viewpoint of ambiguity. The shock and fear are there all the same. What I call the gooseflesh detail. Even FIRST BLOOD has one of those: the scene in the bat cave.
Ali: I know you follow the work of Dan Simmons who works across several genres (SF, Horror and now Noir Crime-Thrillers). What has been your experience with publishers and readers when you cross genre boundaries?
David : I love Dan’s work, and he certainly crosses genres. In his case, it seems to have been successful for him from a publishing standpoint. But by and large, publishers want an author to stay in a particular cubby-hole. You need to be able to walk on water before they’ll let you stray. Readers often react that way also. As I mentioned earlier, when I experimented by combining gothic romance and action, the international-thriller fans had a fit. It’s a little disappointing. When I discover a writer I admire, such as Dan Simmons, I read everything by that author, in the order in which the material was written, to try to get a sense of the writer’s developing imagination. Readers who want writers to deliver the same thing all the time are insulting those writers by treating them as assembly lines and denying that writing is about being creative.
Ali: I particularly admired Simmons’s debut ‘The Song of Kali’ as well as his ‘Hyperion’ and ‘Hardcase’ books. What are your favourites from Simmons’s work and why?
David : It’s difficult to find one favourite among Dan’s work. THE SON OF KALI. CARRION COMFORT. The HYPERION series. DARWIN’S BLADE (it’s about a really interesting insurance investigator, and I never understood why it didn’t become a movie or a TV series). I just finished ILIUM and was greatly impressed. A WINTER’S HAUNTING is one of the great ghost stories, with one of the best viewpoint twists I’ve ever come across. The guy has more imagination than I can dream of. Great sense of story. Intelligent, exciting plots. Fine sense of language. He’s the real deal.
Ali: You have built up relationships with various Security Service/Intelligence people and organisations. Can you tell us how that community views your work?
David : Some people in the intelligence community think that I was in fact an operative and that my writing name is an alias. I’ve been privileged to meet a lot of security and espionage specialists. They trust me enough to give me informal training. They also read my manuscripts to look for errors. There aren’t any hideous mistakes such as revolvers with silencers in my books. Bullets don’t detonate fuel tanks. Tires don’t blow up from pistol shots. I’m treated with respect because I treat the specialists with respect and try to present their tradecraft and their professional ethics as accurately as I can. The elite units of the military feel the same way. They know that I value the military virtues of discipline, courage, honour, sacrifice, and loyalty.
Ali: I hear that you have been endowed with an honorary membership to the American Blade Society. Would you care to tell us about how this came about? And what you have learned about edged weapons?
David : I got interested in knives because of the Rambo movies. For the first two, the producers (guided by Sylvester Stallone) hired legendary knifemaker Jimmy Lile to design knives based upon aviator’s survival knives originally designed by Bo Randall. The Randall knives had saw teeth that could cut through an airplane fuselage. They had a hollow, waterproof handle into which essentials like matches could be stored. Jimmy put a screwdriver on each side of the guard (straight and Philips), a compass on the inside of the screw-off cap, fishing line around the handle, etc. The knives were elegantly designed. One hundred numbered handmade copies of each sold for one thousand dollars each. Another legendary knifemaker Gil Hibben did the very large knife for the third movie and charged $1750 for his numbered handmade versions. People who own these knives now ask many thousands of dollars for them. The knives attracted so much attention from the public that mass-market reproductions, many of them inferior, flooded the market at a price of around $50. What I didn’t know until recently was that the knife industry had fallen on hard times in the 1980s. Many knife manufacturers, even the most well-known and respected, were almost out of business. The Rambo-style knife created a boom in the knife industry and kept many manufacturers solvent. Last year, BLADE magazine (which has 48,000 subscribers with an average income of over $100,000, most of them attorneys, physicians, and computer technicians) gave me an industry award at the yearly BLADE show in Atlanta (the biggest such show in the world, attracting over a thousand exhibitors and more than 10,000 fans of knives). Basically, I was credited with helping to revive the knife industry. In THE PROTECTOR, my interest in knives prompted me to emphasize a famous tactical folding knife designed by another legend Ernest Emerson ( His CQC-7 is on the cover of the American edition.
Ali: I read that you were recently seriously injured in a knife-training combat class. Could you tell us what happened?
David : I try to get training in whatever I’m writing about: guns, outdoor survival, and intrusion detection, whatever. Because THE PROTECTOR had a lot about knives, Ernest Emerson invited me to take part in a course he was teaching to law enforcement and the military. It was the most brutal training I’ve ever received. Two eight-hour sessions. After the first eight hours, I had bruises all over me from the practice collisions, attempting to defend against a mock blade attack. Half way through the second eight hours, I zigged when I should have zagged. I fell on my right shoulder and broke my collar bone. There was ice handy, so I applied a cold pack and continued with the course, watching from the sidelines, eventually getting my graduation certificate. Did I hurt? Damned right. But it would take more than a broken collar bone to make me walk away from a research opportunity.
Ali: Do you find that writing about these espionage themes changes the way you view the world and life in general? And how do you keep paranoia in check?
David : In THE PROTECTOR, I mention the noted self-defense and firearms instructor, Col. Jeff Cooper. He invented a colour code that matches states of awareness and that most security professionals always keep in mind. CONDITION WHITE is a state of absolute ignorance and innocence. It’s the way most people view the world, never scanning a parking lot before they cross it, never taking time to make sure that a purse is gripped so that it can’t be yanked away. That sort of thing. The careless civilian is practically begging to be assaulted. The next step up is CONDITION YELLOW, a general state of suspicion and awareness. Never enter or leave a building without scanning your environment. Be watchful for trouble. I’m in CONDITION YELLOW most of the time, and it keeps me OUT of trouble. Most bad guys can tell right away if you’re alert. A lot of security professionals often end their emails with “Stay in Condition Yellow.” CONDITION ORANGE is a severely heightened state of awareness in response to an imminent threat. This is an exhausting state that can’t be maintained indefinitely. And then there’s CONDITION RED, which is mortal combat. Basically, the world is a bad neighbourhood, and anything we can do to practice prudent caution is recommended.
Ali: Do you tend to plot extensively, or do you let the muse take you where it may?
David : Every book is different. With some, I’ve known the entire plot before I started. With others, I had only a beginning that absolutely fascinated me and forced me to jump into the plot, letting it take me where it wanted. There are no rules. For me, the story is the master and controls the teller. I have a long chapter about this in LESSONS FROM A LIFETIME OF WRITING.
Ali: Do you have a set time for writing or do you work when you can?
David : I used to work every day until my son died in 1987. After that, I tried for a greater balance by working five days a week (except when I’m on a severe deadline). I start around 8:30 in the morning. My goal is to write five readable pages. That can take three hours or eight hours. Most of the time, it’s the latter. One key to writing a novel is to be diligent, to accumulate pages even if you’re not in the mood. It’s a craft. A discipline. That’s why many people want to write novels but don’t. They can’t bear sitting alone for long periods of time, day after day after day. Maybe because I ‘m an only child who spent time in an orphanage, I actually crave the time alone. In my experience, most novelists are hermits.
Ali: Can you tell us about your thoughts vis-à-vis characterisation? Do the characters come to you, or do you have to look for them?
David : Each book always starts with a character who has a problem that interests me. In that respect, my novels are character-driven, no matter how complex the plots may be. I have to care about someone in order to spend a year or more developing that person’s attributes. It’s a little like taking a long car trip. If you don’t like the person you’re with, if you’re not interested in that person’s problems, you’re in hell.
Ali: In today’s highly competitive world of publishing, what are your thoughts in how a new(-ish) author can establish him/herself on our crowded bookshelves?
David : The publishing industry has changed in major ways since I started in the early 1970s. There are fewer publishers. Most of the remaining publishers often have movie-producer attitudes, going for high-concept plots. Fewer and fewer novelists are being given adequate promotion. It’s depressingly about profit margin. In the old days, publishers were content with a modest profit. But now that conglomerates own many publishers and have consolidated, they want HUGE profits. So do you promote an author who might sell 25,000 copies of a novel, or do you promote an author who’ll sell a half million copies? You see where this logic takes you. The advice I generally give is be a first-class version of yourself rather than a second-class version of another writer. Don’t imitate. Don’t rely on what’s already been done. Naturally, if you’re really far out, a publisher might not believe you can attract a readership. But on balance, I believe that our task is to learn from the past in order to build on the present and contribute to the future so that some other writer imitates US, not the other way around. Someone once suggested that there are only three major writers in any category. He went on to say that we should find a gap where there are only two in a category and then try to fill the third slot. Well, I suppose. But it sounds heartless and tedious. The only time I would recommend that approach is when you feel passionate about the type of fiction you want to be number three in. Passion. That’s the key. Do you really love the book you’re writing? Is it a reflection of you and not your imitation of another writer? That way, if you don’t find a publisher for the book, at least you didn’t waste your time by selling out and following a trend that’s no longer in vogue. Instead, you wrote a book that you were desperate to create. This is another topic that I emphasize in LESSONS FROM A LIFETIME OF WRITING.
Ali: is relatively new and a very concise but informative website for your readers. Can you tell us how much input you have over the site and why a web-presence is important for you?
David : Many of my author friends have websites and finally convinced me that I should have one, also. At the start, I didn’t see the point, but now that I’ve learned what a website can do, I regret not having obtained one much earlier. The opportunity for communication is amazing. I get all sorts of questions about my work, which I answer. I have about 1,000 fans signed up for a newsletter that I email to them every couple of months. People from all over the world are now able to contact me in an easy fashion. Some websites are controlled by the Internet experts who designed them. But I have control of most of mine. I’m able to add and subtract items on my own. There’s a BOOK page, where I provide my reflections about each book. There’s an FAQ page in which I answer the questions I’m commonly asked-why did I write FIRST BLOOD, how did I come up with the name Rambo, what sort of research have I done, what are my most collectible books. On the CONTACT page, there are two print-quality downloadable photographs, color and black-and-white, for MAC and PC users. Journalists find this feature useful. The site is a work-in-progress and no doubt will be expanded, but for now, I’m happy with the results.
Ali: Some people amongst our intelligentsia do not consider genre fiction to be “literary” enough when compared to ‘general fiction’? Would you care to comment?
David : This is a debate that’s gone on forever. Highbrow versus lowbrow. In 1915, the American literary critic Van Wyck Brooks discussed it at length in an essay “America’s Coming of Age.” I believe that basically all novels are part of some sort of genre. The Experimental Novel, the Academic Novel, the Social Consciousness Novel, the Feminist Novel, the Dysfunctional Family Novel. These are genres as much as the Western and the Detective Novel. The only difference is that some sell more copies than others. Since many critics and academics have a need to be superior, they praise fiction that’s elitist. My own approach is that I don’t care what sort of novel something might be as long as it’s well done. By that measure, THE MALTESE FALCON, THE SEARCHERS, A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ, AND DRACULA are every bit as respectable as THE SCARLET LETTER.
Ali: You’ve mentioned your memoir ‘LESSONS FROM A LIFETIME OF WRITING’ - so how did it come about?
David : In the 1990s, the Horror Writers Association decided to produce an anthology of essays called WRITING HORROR. Various horror writers were asked to participate. Mort Castle, the book’s editor, wanted me to do an essay on writing dialogue. I was lucky enough to find a tone that was very personable and even amusing, a lot like the one William Goldman uses in ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE. The book’s publisher was Writers Digest Books, and when an executive there read my essay, he phoned me to ask if I’d be willing to do an entire book about writing fiction. This was the first time I had thought of such a thing. All my years of having been a literature professor suddenly kicked in, and I agreed to write the book. Between projects or whenever I was stuck on a section of a novel, I wrote a new chapter for the writing book. Time seemed to speed by, and suddenly the book was finished (even though the actual time it took was about two years).
Ali: I read that you have an unpublished novel ‘The Intruder’ in your third drawer. Will you ever rework it so that we may one day see this on our bookshelves?
David : INTRUDER is actually only about two-thirds complete. It has a sad background. In 1979, an incident in Iowa City where I then lived made me decide to write a horror novel about spouse abuse, the point being that spouse abuse is so horrific it might as well be treated as the horror it is. But everyone in the publishing industry who read the nearly complete manuscript (my agent and several editors at various publishing houses) were shocked by the subject matter and didn’t want anything to do with it. One editor even said that the heroine DESERVED to be beaten. So I reluctantly shelved the project and went down the road that led to THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE ROSE. In 1991, the Julia Roberts spouse-abuse film SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY was released, and after that, it seemed that spouse-abuse novels and films and TV shows were everywhere. By now, it’s been done so much that INTRUDER would seem derivative, as if I’d come late to the topic. If I ever decide to finish it, I think it would probably have to be published by a small press. I’d write an introduction so that readers clearly understood where the novel stood in the literary history of the topic.
Ali: ‘The Protector’ introduces us to your character Cavanaugh, who I believed originated in your short story ‘Blue Murder’. Can you tell us about writing ‘The Protector’? (as it is due for Paperback release shortly); and are you writing a sequel to this high-octane thriller?
David : Actually the novel came first. Then PAGES, a US magazine about authors and publishing, asked me to write a short story for them. I thought it would be fun to feature the main character of the novel and to have him protect an author who’s being stalked. Basically, the story is about the publishing world and was perfect for PAGES. It’ll be reprinted in the American paperback of THE PROTECTOR. In the UK, it’ll probably be included when the sequel appears in 2005. The background for the novel is that I had written two novels that combined romance and action (DOUBLE IMAGE and BURNT SIENNA). Then I’d done a psychological horror novel (LONG LOST). I got some letters that asked me to write something along the lines of THE FIFTH PROFESSION, an earlier protective-agent novel. But since I don’t like to repeat myself, I wondered what I could add that would be fresh. That’s when I got the idea that I would challenge myself to write a novel that had more action than any other book I’d written. It would also have more tradecraft, more tricks of the trade. In fact, I included an acknowledgment page to let readers know all the research I’d done-the anti-terrorist driving course and the weapons courses, etc.
Ali: Your trademark is the extended action sequence which is particularly evident throughout the ‘The Protector’. Can you tell us how you approach the writing of these set-pieces?
David : I think a thriller should have an epical feel to it, so whenever I imagine an action sequence I always think big, often in terms of fifty pages as in the middle of DOUBLE IMAGE where two men hunt each other in a valley of ashes in a thunder storm. There are a half dozen huge action sequences in THE PROTECTOR. I love writing them. They’re the reason my books can be called thrillers. I try to imagine situations that have never been portrayed, and then I throw myself into them. At the end of each day, I’m emotionally exhausted, having risked my life vicariously.
Ali: What do you see as future trends in the Thriller genre? And who else apart from David Morrell should we be reading?
David : I can’t say I’m happy with the direction in which thrillers are going. Do we honestly need yet another hundred serial-killer books? My writing mantra is, “Build on the past to go forward.” But a lot of thrillers these days seem to go backward to what’s already been done again and again. When something fresh comes along, it’s immediately imitated to death. If you removed the author’s name from the cover, you wouldn’t be able to distinguish that particular book from a hundred others. That said, there are a number of thriller authors whose work I eagerly read. As I said earlier, I love anything Dan Simmons does-DARWIN’S BLADE and the HARDCASE series. Those are influenced, of course, by the Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake) series about the tough professional thief Parker. What Dan adds to the mix is an absolutely splendid sense of what Buffalo, New York is like. You can smell the air and feel the grit on the buildings. Ditto New York in Larry Block’s SMALL TOWN. I’m very impressed by Stephen Hunter. His action sequences are spectacular. His knowledge of weapons and tradecraft is first-rate. His characters are powerfully engaging. If I had written PALE HORSE COMING, I’d be a happy camper. I like Nelson DeMille. Michael Connelly. I thought Dennis Lehane’s MYSTIC RIVER and SHUTTER ISLAND were wonderful. It occurs to me that I’ve mentioned only American writers. In England, LeCarre is always trying new directions. Very inventive. Ian Rankin. Lee Child. The trouble with this sort of answer is that I forget to mention every author I’m fond of.
Ali: If you were starting out today, what would the experienced David Morrell advise the young David Morrell?
David : If I were starting out today, I would spend far more time at conferences. Writing is a solitary profession, and I’m a solitary person, so I enjoy being alone in a room, just me and the keyboard. But reviewers and bookstore owners, etc., tend to be much more social and (this is basic human nature) support authors they know rather than those they have never met.
Ali: If you hadn’t discovered writing, what would have happened to the little boy from the orphanage? Would he have become like a character in one of your books?
David : The little boy who attended the orphanage might have gone to jail. But I think I would have done something in the arts. At one time, I considered a career in popular music (I have serious formal musical training-harmony, counterpoint, arranging, conducting). Or in acting-I did a lot of that when I was younger. Also I had a nightclub act-singing, telling jokes, playing the piano. But I think that writing was what I was meant to do.
Ali: And in terms of personal security, do you think that the world is a safer place than it was when you were a child, or does the media whip up hysteria?
David : The world is far more dangerous than it was when I was a kid. Even on an environmental level, the world’s in terrible shape. But weapons of mass destruction are what we mostly think of when we think of global danger. The media whips up hysteria. No question about it. But there’s a lot to be hysterical about. Let’s say that, as a rule, five percent of the population is sociopathic or psychopathic. I’m probably being conservative about the figure. When the world wasn’t as populated, there were fewer of those nut cases. Now, with the population exploding, there are far more crazies (still only a percentage of the population, but their numbers are greater). They think of doing things that were once unthinkable, and because there are more of them, we hear about more outrageous incidents. It doesn’t help that we live in an extremely uncivil society. We should all be forced to take courses in etiquette.
Ali: When are we likely to see you in the UK?
David : The last time I was in the UK was in the late 1980s. My publisher (Hodder) took me to various cities, not just London but Coventry, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, and a whole lot of other wonderful places. In Scotland, we drove along Hadrian’s Wall from Edinburgh to Glasgow. What a fabulous sense of history. In London, I haunted the Royal Museum. But publishers don’t spend as much money as they used to on promotional touring (it’s expensive, after all), and there are no current plans for me to be brought to the UK, as much as I’d love to visit again.
Ali: Thank you for your time and we look forward to the paperback release of ‘The Protector’ and your second volume of short stories - ‘Nightscape’.
David : It has been a pleasure and best wishes to all my readers.

David Morrell’s Bibliography


First Blood (1972)
Testament (1975)
Last Reveille (1977)
The Totem (1979)
Blood Oath (1982)
The Hundred-Year Christmas (1983)
The Brotherhood of the Rose (1984)
The Fraternity of the Stone (1985)
Rambo (First Blood Part II) (1985)
The League of Night and Fog (1987)
Rambo III (1988)
The Fifth Profession (1990)
The Covenant of the Flame (1991)
Assumed Identity (1993)
Desperate Measures (1994)
The Totem (Complete and Unaltered) (1994)
Extreme Denial (1996)
Double Image (1998)
Black Evening (1999)
Burnt Sienna (2000)
Long Lost (2002)
The Protector (2003)
Nightscape (2004)


John Barth: an Introduction (1976)
Fireflies: A Father’s Tale of Love and Loss (1988)
American Fiction, American Myth: Essays by Philip Young (2000)
Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing: A Novelist Looks at His Craft (2002)

David Morrell is published in the UK by Hodder Headline.

Photograph © 2003 Ali Karim
David Morrell in the ‘Rogue Males’ Thriller panel at Bouchercon 34 [Las Vegas]
Photograph © 2003 Ali Karim


© 2004 Shots : The Crime and Mystery Ezine

Ali S Karim is an industrial chemist, freelance journalist and book reviewer living in England. He is Assistant Editor at Shots Ezine and also contributes to January Magazine and Deadly Pleasures Magazine and is an associate member of The Crime Writers Association (CWA) of Great Britain. He is currently working on ‘Black Operations’, a violent techno-thriller set in the world of plant viruses and out-of-work espionage agents.


Photograph © 2003 Ali Karim
David Morrell with Ali Karim of Shots Ezine
Photograph © 2003 Ali Karim

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