Home > Interviews

The Protection Business

Written by Ali Karim

 

Photograph © 2001Jennifer Esperanza Michael Connelly said ‘If you're reading Morrell, you're sitting on the edge of your seat’. Well with David Morrell having over 22 million books in print, means that there are an awful lot of people sitting uncomfortably around the globe.

A warning. If you are going to pick up a paperback copy of David Morrell’s latest ‘The Protector’ - invest in a comfortable chair as in the words of former CWA Chairman and King of British Noir, Russell James : -

‘There isn't a chapter in this book without a twist or a thrill. At times it reads like a Saturday morning cinema serial on speed, but the book is littered with security trade craft, is compulsively written, and is, in all seriousness, as exciting a thriller as it is possible to write. Morrell is a world leader in the thrill-a-minute business, and The Protector shows you why.’

I spent many years of my life in the company of the books of David Morrell. During my teenage years I read his horror short stories and was traumatised by his novel ‘The Totem’ as well as ‘Testament’. Later I tore through his espionage thrillers, most read within in a day or two, and as I grew older I read his mature work and marvelled at his way of weaving action into a thought-provoking plot. With characters that were duplicitous and enemies legion and murderous, his books for me always retained a sense of purpose and perspective. No matter how grim the circumstances, there was always purpose in the world of David Morrell.

Despite the trappings of commercial and critical success, he survived a troubled and traumatic childhood; and later he and his wife Donna faced a personal tragedy with dignity and grace, which is outlined in his book ‘Fireflies: A Father’s Tale of Love and Loss ’. With a complex body of work that traverses the Horror, Espionage and Thriller genres spanning over thirty years, he continues to be a giant in the literary world. His latest book ‘The Protector’ can only be described as dazzling. If you’ve never read Morrell, it’s time to flick off the safety-catch, invest in a comfortable chair and enter the world of the troubled rogue male.

I had the pleasure of meeting David and Donna Morrell during Bouchercon 2003 in Las Vegas, where he talked modestly about his work, and his troubled life. David kindly agreed to be interviewed for his British readers by Shots Ezine.

Photograph © 2003 Ali Karim Like the late, great Robert Bloch, who is best remembered by the majority of casual readers as the creator of Norman Bates; David Morrell will forever be linked to his iconic creation - John Rambo. I would however suggest, that you really should explore his other works, because in my opinion, David Morrell is the father of the contemporary action thriller. I’m not alone in this assertion as Morrell’s latest thriller THE PROTECTOR won the 2003 Thriller award at the Love is Murder Convention in Chicago this February; while the influential Writers Write Website cited THE PROTECTOR as one of the top thrillers in 2003.

So what are you waiting for - it’s in the bookstores now!

 

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Ali: David Morrell, welcome to Shots Ezine.
David: Thanks for asking me.
Ali: A novelist once told me that the most interesting writers are those wrestling with some personal trauma that splintered their youth. I read in your memoir (Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing) about the troubling way you were left at an orphanage at the age of four. As your own work features many trouble people involved in situations that they don’t fully understand; could you tell us about your early youth and upbringing and what that brought to your work
David: To paraphrase Graham Greene, “an unhappy childhood is a gold mine for a novelist.” My father was an RAF bombardier who was shot down over France during WWII. He had met my mother when he was sent to Canada to train airmen there. When I was very young, no one bothered to explain why I didn’t have a father. I couldn’t understand why my friends had men in their homes while I did not. Then my mother, unable to hold a job and take care of me simultaneously, put me in an orphanage. Later, she put me on a Mennonite farm. Eventually she remarried, but my stepfather didn’t like children or staying at home. There were countless arguments that left me terrified about my safety. I used to put a pillow under my covers to make it look as if I was in bed. Then I crawled UNDER the bed and slept there. My major themes come from that time: sons searching for fathers, fear, the need for control of one’s emotions, the perception that the world is a hostile environment. We lived in small apartments over bars, where the drunks fought in the alleys. On one occasion, there were shots. Not a pleasant time.
Ali: Do you feel that knowing or believing that your father was a decorated British fighter pilot (shot and killed over France in WW2) somehow steered your writing toward the military-side of thriller fiction, where sometimes truth and fabrication become blurred? In fact ‘Blood Oath’ seems to pay a form of homage to your father. Would you care to comment?
David : When I was old enough to understand that I had had a father and that he had been killed in WWII, I developed a profound fear of anything that suggested violence. I couldn’t watch movies or TV shows that had any action in them. I was morbidly certain that, in the middle to a TV weather report, an announcer would appear and announce that war had been declared. This fear remained in me for quite some time. Later, when I was a teenager, my emotions reversed themselves, and I became fascinated with the military and with action stories.
Ali: You were brought up by your mother, after she collected you from the orphanage. Was she a reader and did she encourage you academically? How sure are you that she really was your biological mother?
David : Neither my mother nor my stepfather liked to read. There were perhaps one or two books in the house. They couldn’t understand my fascination with novels. I’m surprised that my mother paid most of my college tuition for my B.A. in English literature. She couldn’t figure out how reading novels was ever going to help me earn a living. Yes, I believe she was my biological mother. What I sometimes say, though, is that I have the uncertainty of wondering if I was adopted.
Ali: You have said that in your teenage years, you got into serious trouble, but aged seventeen you found direction from the TV Show Route 66 scripted by the great screenwriter Stirling Silliphant. Would you care to explain in what way?
David : In my early teenage years, I ran with street gangs and committed crimes such as shoplifting. Most of the kids I hung around with went to prison. But somehow my life took another turn, perhaps because I knew that I wanted something better and was willing to work to get it. Then on the first Friday in October of 1960, the classic TV show ROUTE 66 premiered. Its premise was that two young man in a Corvette convertible drove across the United States in search of America and themselves. Very Jack Kerouac ON THE ROAD. Each episode was filmed on location. The scripts by Stirling Silliphant were an amazing blend of action and hip philosophy that knocked me out and changed my life. I had never been so captivated by stories. Out of the blue, I had the idea that I would be a writer like Silliphant. I wrote letters to him. He encouraged me. I owe everything to him. Incidentally, it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I realized that both main characters were orphans and that one of them, a street kid from Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, was a parallel to my own life. Silliphant was eventually the executive producer of the miniseries of my novel THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE ROSE.
Ali: Born a Canadian you moved to the US to study under Phillip Young. What attracted you to seek out the Hemmingway Scholar?
David : I was in my fourth year of undergraduate study at a small college in Ontario, Canada. The school had a library the size of a living room. I had a fascination with Hemingway and wanted to read some scholarship about Hemingway. To my amazement, that small library actually had a book about him. The author of that critical text, Philip Young, wrote so vividly that I had the sense of him standing before me, talking to me. As with my exposure to Silliphant’s work, I was so knocked out by Young’s prose that I knew I had to study with him. (I don’t do things half-way.) So I wrote to Young and told him that I was moving to the United States, to Penn State, to study with him. He told me not to come-that professors got sick or fed up or died and that it was a mistake for a student to latch onto one professor. I replied with a letter that said if he hadn’t gotten sick or fed up or if he hadn’t died, I was coming. Little did I know that he had heart disease and was literally telling me that he thought he could die at any time. In any case, Penn State accepted me for graduate work. I met Young, became friends, became his graduate assistant, and eventually helped him run his household. Like Silliphant, Young was someone I related to as if he were my father. Later I had the privilege of co-editing a book of his posthumous essays: AMERICAN FICTION, AMERICAN MYTH.
Ali: You were married at this stage and had a young child, so how did your wife take this sudden uprooting?
David : The day I discovered Young’s Hemingway book, I went home and asked my wife, who was a high-school history teacher and who was pregnant with our first child, if she would mind quitting her job and moving to the United States. God bless her, she said, “Yes.” There is no way that I could have had my career without her help. She treated everything as an adventure
Ali: You then were tutored by Philip Klass (who used the name William Tenn in his published SF). Can you tell us about your undergraduate period?
David : Yes, my next artistic father figure was Philip Klass/William Tenn, the first novelist I met. He’d been part of what’s called the Golden Age of science-fiction writing and now was a professor of writing at Penn State. He graciously accepted me as a student, giving me one-on-one instruction. All the basics of what I learned about writing came from him. He was a brilliant, energetic teacher who sometimes lectured to me alone for 90 minutes at a time.
Ali: At what time did you realise that writing would be your life?
David : There’s no question that ROUTE 66, that Friday night in October of 1960, was the defining moment in terms of how I wanted to lead the rest of my life.
Ali: As a Professor of Literature at Iowa, what were your experiences in academia like? Did you tutor any students who became prominent in the fiction field?
David : I have a Ph.D. in American literature and taught academic courses: the American Novel of the 19th Century, the American Novel of the 20th Century, American Realism, Hemingway and Faulkner, Hawthorne and Melville, that sort of thing. The University of Iowa has the famous Writers Workshop, but I had nothing to do with it. In fact, they hated the sort of books I wrote and hated even more that I earned money as a novelist. That was the official line. But in secret, students snuck to my office and asked me technical questions about craft or asked me to read contracts they’d been offered (to see if the contracts were reasonable). Sometimes they showed me their manuscripts. The most productive association of that sort was with Jon Jackson who later published a series of police novels about Detroit. My most gifted student was T. C. Boyle. He writes humorous literary novels and short stories that critics love. His latest is DROP CITY. I taught him nothing about writing - he was a genius. But he did ask me to direct an individual reading course that he needed in order to graduate. We had a lot of interesting discussions, and I’m thrilled by his distinguished career.
Ali: Some of your work has parallels with the golden age of the British thrillers as exemplified by Ian Fleming, Adam Hall, Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean, Geoffrey Household et. al (in fact you dedicated one of your books to the author of ‘Rogue Male’). Would you care to tell us about why this period of thriller writing appeals to you?
David : It’s important to remember that I had a ton of literary training and that I’m fascinated by the history of literature. I believe that if you’re going to write a certain type of fiction-mysteries or thrillers or science fiction or horror-you should be an expert in the history of your specialty. Philip Klass was the person who told me about Geoffrey Household. He saw some similarities between my work and Household’s. So I read everything Household wrote. ROGUE MALE, WATCHER IN THE SHADOWS, THE COURTESY OF DEATH, DANCE OF THE DWARFS. Wow. I’d been so immersed in classic American literature, Melville and Faulkner, etc., that I’d started writing like them. A big mistake because I didn’t have their talent and I was never meant to write super-complex novels. When I found Household, I said, “You mean I’m allowed to write like that.” Then I began researching other great British thriller writers, all the way back to Wilkie Collins’s THE WOMAN IN WHITE. He invented what’s called “the novel of sensation.” Then there was Erskine Childers’ THE RIDDLE OF THE SANDS and John Buchan’s THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS and so on. British thriller writers were a revelation to me. Eric Ambler’s A COFFIN FOR DIMITRIOS. Frederick Forsyth’s THE DOGS OF WAR. I could go on and on. They presented exciting stories in a believable fashion, often emphasizing the outdoors and plenty of espionage tradecraft. They made me believe what was happening on the page. I eventually exchanged some letters with Household, who alas refused to give me a publicity blurb for my first novel FIRST BLOOD because it was too bloody. That’s a big difference between me and the classic British thriller writers. I love their use of fact, of information. But when it comes to action and violence, I’m not at all understated.
Ali: Do you think many of the golden-age British Thrillers have stood the test of time? And if so which books do you feel still have relevance in today’s world?
David : All the titles I mentioned are classics. By definition, they’ve stood the test of time. Of course, I forgot Graham Greene’s thrillers. These are great books that fulfil the requirements of teaching and delighting (to invoke the Latin poet Horace). By contrast, the American thriller tended away from espionage and toward detective stories and crime dramas. When I taught at the University of Iowa, I designed a course (one of the first of its type) called the Tough-Guy Novel. In these days of political correctness, a course with that title wouldn’t be possible. Basically, it included the hard-boiled fiction of BLACK MASK MAGAZINE, of Hammett and Chandler, of James M. Cain and Horace McCoy and even Mickey Spillane. If Geoffrey Household showed me my subject-novels of intrigue that mixed city and wilderness settings, James M. Cain showed me my style-prose stripped to its essentials and a structure that Cain likened to algebra (or what Hemingway called “the sequence of motion and fact”).
Ali: What is your take in the way violence is portrayed within the contemporary thriller as opposed to the golden age?
David : Violence in the Golden Age was understated and implied. These days, it’s all on the page. When FIRST BLOOD was published in 1972, TIME magazine accused me of having invented a new kind of fiction, what they called “carnography,” the meat novel, a parallel with pornography. Well, not many of us get credited for creating anything new, so I’ll accept the award. Prior to FIRST BLOOD, there had been few novels that contained so much action. Hammett’s RED HARVEST is one of the those few. In a way, FIRST BLOOD is the father of modern action stories. Because of my Hemingway background (I did my Master’s thesis on his style), I have always tried to make the violence in my books relate to the themes I work with. Fear. The obsession with keeping control of oneself in an insane world. Sometimes the only way to make the point is by showing some of the insanity. We live in a terrible time when the unthinkable can occur at any moment. Some writers avoid the unthinkable and present an idealized world. My own imagination leads me to imagine stories in which characters are forced to live by their wits and their animal instincts in order to survive-but at what a terrible psychological cost.
Ali: When I read Testament, the opening casted a cloud over the proceedings, and really shocked me. Can you tell us why many of your books such as ‘Testament’ and ’Desperate Measures’ start with people in very downbeat situations?
David : TESTAMENT has the most shocking opening of any of my books. It’s possibly in the top ten of any shocking opening. In fact, the whole book is shocking, so much so that I vowed never to write another like it. Neighbours shunned me. Parents refused to allow their children to play with mine. People whispered behind my back. On the other hand, Dean Koontz wrote me a letter a couple of years ago in which he graciously talked about the influence TESTAMENT had on him and especially on his novel INTENSITY. By comparison, DESPERATE MEASURES begins happily-just another scene in which a man is in a bathtub with the shower curtain closed for neatness, about to blow his brains out. My characters are damaged goods. They operate on the edge of sanity, trying to find a way to get through each day, often maintaining control by taking pride in their craft. There’s a very existential tone in my work.
Ali: Identity is another theme that features in much of your work from ‘Assumed Identity’ as well as the thriller ‘Long Lost’ and many others. Does the mystery of your own past, in terms of identity still haunt you and is that why you keep writing about it?
David : Yes, Identity is a big deal in my books. How does one define oneself? Most of my characters define themselves in terms of what they do. They have professions that involve life and death matters, and to survive, they need to pay attention to the rules of their profession all day, every day. There is no leisure for these characters. They are one hundred percent committed to every second-otherwise, they will be killed. I dramatize an intensity of perception that is most uncommon. My characters also identify themselves in terms of a firmly set code of ethics, whichis based upon the military virtues of loyalty, honour, courage, and sacrifice.
Ali: Naturally the figure of John Rambo features heavily when anyone reviews your work. Can you tell us how ‘First Blood’ came about?
David : Wow, that’s a long story. I wrote about it at length in the introduction of the paperback to FIRST BLOOD. Basically, at Penn State in 1968, I had students who had been in Vietnam and who told me about the psychological baggage and trauma it had created in them. One night, I was watching the TV news. I saw two back-to-back stories-a firefight in Vietnam followed by American soldiers patrolling the streets of an American inner-city destroyed by riots. It seemed to me that these were both the same story, and I decided to write a novel in which an embittered American soldier brought the war home.
Ali: Rambo : First Blood part two was an interesting beast, partly based on the James Cameron script (after his work of ‘Planet of Blood’ and Piranaha : Flying Killers). Can you tell us how you worked on this book and why you chose to deviate somewhat from what eventually appeared on screen?
David : RAMBO II initially had a wonderful script by James Cameron. It got changed and adulterated, as so often happens in the movies. I own the literary copyright to the character. The producers wanted a novelization of the script and discovered that no on else could legally do it. Usually, a novelizer is a worker for hire, who can’t deviate from the script. My deal with the producers was that I’d do it only if I could be creative with what they gave me. I combined Cameron’s script with the final (fairly thin) script. Then I added my own material. It broke all the rules about novelizing.
Ali: Your novel ‘Rambo:III’ was a far more complex vehicle thematically than the film. Did you meet with Sylvester Stallone during the work on both novel and film?
David : RAMBO III had a fabulous first script in which Rambo became involved with a middle-aged French female doctor and helped her get her patients out of the Afghan war zone. He also had an interesting relationship with a 12-year-old Afghan girl whose life he saved. All that disappeared, leaving only the rescue of his father figure and military instructor Col. Trautman. Stripped down, the plot is a mess with a third act that’s basically the same as the second act. Rambo tries to rescue Trautman and fails. Rambo tries again and succeeds. Given such an ill-conceived structure, I returned to the elements of the first script and then added a ton of my own material. I should add that I agreed to do both novelizations because of a parental regard for the character and because I saw an opportunity to experiment with a fictional form that was totally unfamiliar to me: the novelization. I met Sylvester Stallone several times along the way. We’re not close, although on occasion we talk on the phone. He’s not as huge as he appears on the screen. He talks with a slight impediment because of damage that was caused by forceps during his birth. He’s smart and very amusing, especially when it comes to making fun of himself.
Ali: Looking back over Rambo’s adventures both in print and celluloid, what are your feelings about your creation today?
David : No one sets out to create an icon. When I wrote FIRST BLOOD more than thirty years ago, it never crossed my mind that I was creating a phenomenon. The novel and the film started trends that persist to this day. Unfortunately, in movies, the result has been a barrage of special effects explosions and not much else. My own goal has always been to emphasize characterization as much as action. In the U.S., many Vietnam veterans saw Rambo in terms of themselves-what they had suffered in Vietnam and what they felt when they came home to a nation that by and large didn’t welcome them. I’ve had many veterans thank me for the character as depicted in the first film.
Ali: I know that many people have acclaimed ‘Last Reveille’ as one of your most fragrant of works (in terms of characterisation). Can you tell us what this historical novel means to you and why you wanted to tell the story behind the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa?
David : LAST REVEILLE was written because of my fascination with the films of Sam Peckinpah, in particular THE WILD BUNCH, which is set in the same time period-the Mexican revolution of the early 20th century. I was fascinated by the history. The Mexican bandit Pancho Villa crossed the U.S. border and attacked a small town called Columbus. This was in 1916. American had not yet entered WWI. The attack forced the U.S. to think about its defenses or lack of them. The U.S. began building its military and used Villa’s raid as an excuse to invade Mexico, hunting him. Imagine. A full-scale military invasion as a result of a bandit’s raid. U.S. forces fought battles against Mexican soldiers and basically practiced for their entry into WWI. It’s an epic background. I told the story through the eyes of a young recruit who realizes that he hasn’t been properly trained and who seeks advice from a cavalry scout who is old enough to have been in America’s wars all the way back to the Civil War. The scout is a walking textbook of military history. But he knows he’s too old to go to the war in Europe. John Wayne showed interest in portraying him, but then his cancer came back. For reasons unclear to me, LAST REVEILLE wasn’t published in the UK.
Ali: I love your work in the Horror genre, both your short story work as well as your novel ‘The Totem’. Can you tell us why you think the Horror genre has gone through such a tough time of late?
David : Horror has gone through tough times of late because many horror writers emphasize the trappings of conventional horror fiction (haunted houses, vampires, etc.) rather than creating fresh visions. They’re in such awe of masters like Stephen King that they become versions of King rather than versions of themselves. Of course, not every horror writer fits this description. Peter Straub, for example, is constantly experimenting. What makes the difference, I think, is that he doesn’t see himself as a genre writer. Horror is about fear. In that regard, Thomas Harris’s RED DRAGON and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS are horror novels. That’s one reason why I identify with horror-because of my preoccupation with fear.
Ali: Why did you issue a revised text of ‘The Totem’ fifteen years later?
David : THE TOTEM, which has been cited in HORROR: THE 100 BEST NOVELS was an attempt to re-imagine the werewolf myth-to take it out of the Middle Ages and the Universal film classics and present it in a new way. When I showed the first draft to my then-editor, he absolutely didn’t understand it. The original manuscript was around 550 pages and had a lot of epic outdoor action scenes. It was an attempt to create horror in the wide-open spaces. By the time, the book was published in 1979, the manuscript was cut to 300 pages, and most of the story took place in a town. I made most of the changes myself (I didn’t have any publishing clout at the time and figured that I had to compromise to get the book in print). I did more than cut. I changed the style and many of the scenes. It’s written in unrhymed meter. You can scan it the way you would a poem. The idea was to use the rhythm of the prose to control the reader’s heartbeat. Very fancy stuff. I like the result, but I always missed the big outdoor action scenes and a number of characters that I had to eliminate. So in the 1990s, I asked the specialty publisher Donald M. Grant to print what I call the “complete and unaltered” version. That’s the version that’s currently in print in the U.S. Almost twice as long with a different first and third act but without the unrhymed meter. The Headline British version is by contract the version as it was published in 1979. They’re two different books with different styles but a sometimes-common plot.
Ali: You have published limited editions from Donald Grant, Cemetery Dance, and Subterranean Press among others. Do you feel that the small press and collectors editions have a future in these days of mass-market dominance?
David : I’ve been published by several small presses. In fact, in the U.S., my new short story collection NIGHTSCAPE is available in hardback only in a 1500 copy signed edition from Subterranean Press. There is also a Headline UK edition. Small presses are sometimes called “specialty” presses. Exactly. If I think a project is too special for a mass-market edition, I know exactly where to go to get a publisher. These types of presses are particularly valuable in a mass-market dominated culture that doesn’t take chances with risky kinds of stories. Lawrence Block has issued a number of small printings of his early work through Subterranean Press. It’s a way of keeping books alive and in print. Thank heaven these presses exist.
Ali: I can still recall reading your first two panoramic thrillers ‘The Brotherhood of the Rose’ and ‘The Fraternity of the Stone’ back-to-back when I should have been working on my PhD thesis. These are vividly realised thrillers, and I would like to know how they came about?
David : In 1982, prior to THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE ROSE, I had attempted my first international thriller, a loosely autobiographical novel called BLOOD OATH, in which a professor whose father died in WWII decides to face painful memories and visit his father’s grave in France. But when he gets there, he discovers that there isn’t any grave. Accumulating evidence makes clear that his father wasn’t killed. The hero sets out to learn what the hell happened. The autobiographical section involves a long speech that the hero gives in which he describes how traumatized he felt as a kid, growing up without a father. That novel was originally 550 pages long compared to the 300 pages of FIRST BLOOD. But I had made a mistake in thinking that a big book meant more words, which led to overdone descriptions etc. By the time the editing process was over, the book’s manuscript was (drum roll) cut down to 300 pages. But the experience of writing BLOOD OATH made me eager to try another book like it. I was thinking of ways in which the white collar tradecraft and intelligence of John Le Carre (particularly in the Smiley books) could be matched with the blue collar, back-alley espionage action of someone like Robert Ludlum. I had just read THE MATARESE CIRCLE and THE BOURNE IDENTITY and was impressed by their energy. I don’t think Ludlum is an especially good prose writer, but in the best of his early work, he certainly knew how to dramatize action. So that matching of the British and the American approach was my goal. Then I learned about a male orphanage in Philadelphia that was actually a military school in which the orphans wore uniforms and practiced marching drills with unloaded guns and learned military history and read military novel and basically were conditioned to enter the military when they graduated from high school. Ninety percent of one graduating class died in Vietnam during the Tet offensive. Well, I suppose it was inevitable that it would be attracted to that kind of situation involving orphans, given that I myself had been in an orphanage. Gradually the story of Chris and Saul and their CIA foster father evolved. The latter character Eliot was modelled on a real-life CIA counter-espionage legend, James Jesus Angleton. Angleton grew orchids. I changed the orchids to roses because the rose is the ancient symbol of silence and secrecy: sub rosa, under the rose. When I finished, I wanted to do a second book like BROTHERHOOD, which became THE FRATERNITY OF THE STONE. And then, in a third book THE LEAGUE OF NIGHT AND FOG, the hero of FRATERNITY (an orphan) met the remaining brother of BROTHERHOOD. It was the end of a trilogy and a double sequel. Great fun to do.
Ali: How did your mentor Stirling Silliphant become involved in the excellent TV adaptation of ‘The Brotherhood of the Rose’?
David : I kept in touch with Stirling over the years. In 1985, over the Fourth of July weekend, we decided that I should come to LosAngeles and spend a long weekend with him and his family. BROTHERHOOD had just come out in paperback, so I brought him a copy. He read it, got excited, and went to NBC, where he was much in demand. There had never been a big action miniseries. NBC liked the project and hired me to write the script and Stirling to produce it. As so often happens, there were a number of other writers along the way, including Stirling. In the end, because of a TV writers’ strike, some of the dialogue was taken directly from the novel. One of the other writers got credit for the script.
Ali: With ‘The Night of League and Fog’, you ended up with a trilogy that has the theme of Father and Son relationships. What I found poignant and very sad was the linkage with your own absent father, and then your own personal tragedy with your son Mathew. Looking back at these three remarkable books, what are your feelings about them now?
David : When I was writing THE LEAGUE OF NIGHT AND FOG, I had planned to do a fourth book in THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE ROSE series. The plot would have developed from the deliberately dangling plot thread at the end of NIGHT AND FOG, where we learn that the attack on the village at the start of the book was not what it seemed. But my plans changed when I started the fourth book. First, Saul and Drew had such complicated histories that it took me too many pages to re-establish their characters before moving the story forward. Second, and more crucial, my fifteen-year-old son got cancer when I was writing NIGHT AND FOG. The series is about sons (orphans) searching for fathers, but after my son’s death, I became the father searching for the son, a theme I developed in a number of short stories and in a novel DESPERATE MEASURES. Basically, I could no longer identify with the characters. I did use the Fraternity of the Stone organization in a later book THE COVENANT OF THE FLAME. For the Warner Books paperback of NIGHT AND FOG, I wrote an introduction that discusses this issue in detail.
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 Amazon.com 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 abebooks.com or alibris.com 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 (emersonknives.com). 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: www.davidmorrell.net 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 Amazon.com 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 abebooks.com or alibris.com 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 (emersonknives.com). 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: www.davidmorrell.net 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

FICTION

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)

NON-FICTION

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 



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David Morrell



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