Today I have an INTERVIEW with the fabulous David Morrell, author of First Blood, and many other titles, that have given him the legacy of being the master of the action thriller. With many decades of books under his belt, he is an amazing author still to this day, writing, mentoring, and inspiring many other authors. Currently, he just published Murder as a Fine Art. Very happy to feature him today and I hope you join us for this exclusive interview…..
Hi David, welcome to Oh, for the Hook of Book! I am thrilled and honored to have you stop by to discuss your writing and books with me! As one of the best loved thriller writers and trailblazers in the business, I can’t wait to delve into your thoughts. So how are you?
David: Great. I’m halfway through my tour for Murder as a Fine Art and glad for a chance to sit down and take a breath.
Erin: In that case, by all means let’s sit down and get started…….
Q: You’ve had quite the career, David! I love your story of how you caught the writing bug by watching the TV show Route 66 in the 1960s. How do you think this changed your life?
A: I was seventeen and going nowhere. My high-school principal once told me that I wouldn’t amount to anything because I watched so much television. How ironic that television showed me the way. Stirling Silliphant’s scripts for Route 66 were a combination of action and ideas that absolutely inspired me. I sent him a hand-written letter that basically said, “I want to be you.” He actually responded and encouraged me. I never looked back. Years later, we were able to work together when he was the executive producer of the miniseries based on my novel, The Brotherhood of the Rose.
Q: How did your writing career first get started then?
A: To the surprise of many, I decided to finish high school. Then I went to college so that I could read the best of what had been written. By then, I realized that not many people earn a living as a writer and that I ought to get a day job. I went to Penn State for an M.A. and Ph.D. in American literature—again to the surprise of many—with the intent of becoming a professor. All along, I kept writing, and finally, twelve years after I first watched Route 66, at the age of 29, I published my first novel, First Blood.
Q: You mention having some fabulous mentors, such as Philip Young who wrote the first critical study about Ernest Hemingway. How did they work with you or effect you in order to make such a profound difference in your life? What did they teach you?
A: Philip Young is important because his book about Hemingway is what made me decide to go to Penn State and study with him. Eventually I became his graduate assistant. But another Philip—Philip Klass, whose pen name is William Tenn—made the difference in terms of my fiction writing. For three years, from 1967 until 1970—he taught me the basics, not only about writing but about being a professional. I explain his theories in my writing book, The Successful Novelist. Klass had a couple of mantras. One was that everyone has a dominant emotion. He believed rightly that mine was fear, the result of a rough childhood. He encouraged me to use my dominant emotion to write a book that only I could write because of the forces that made me what I am. He described this as “self-psychoanalysis,” and it had a powerful influence on me.
Erin Comments: Writing a novel myself, I like this advice. It’s an ever bigger step than “write what you know.” Emotions are very powerful.
Q: Your debut novel, First Blood, which introduced the character of Rambo and was adapted into a hit film, has made you a household name. How did you first come up with the idea for First Blood, and then, its series?
A: At Penn State, I earned my tuition by teaching composition classes. In 1967, several of my students were veterans newly returned from Vietnam. They described the problems they had adjusting to peacetime. Nightmares, sweats, difficulty sleeping, reaction to loud noises, problems relating to people. The phrase “post traumatic stress disorder” didn’t exist then, but that’s what they had. At the same time, the United States was experiencing massive protests against the war, coupled with hundreds of race riots (which in an indirect way were related to the war because a disproportionate number of Blacks were drafted). There seemed a risk that the country would fall apart.
One day, I had the idea of a Medal of Honor winner returning from Vietnam to the U.S. The war, it turns out, had radicalized him because his experiences had taught him that he had a talent for killing and he hated himself because of that. Wanting to be left alone, he inadvertently finds himself in a version of the Vietnam War in the mountains outside a small American town. It’s an anti-war novel that led to a series of films, the second and third installments of which had a reverse theme. I had nothing to do with the later films, but I think that the first movie is very well made.
Erin Comments: Amazing.
Q: Were you surprised by its reception with readers? I’m sure that having such success with a novel completely changed your world. Can you put it into words?
A: I wrote my Masters thesis on Hemingway’s style. When I wrote First Blood, I kept remembering the way Hemingway wrote about action in novels like To Have and Have Not and For Whom the Bell Tolls. He always made it fresh. He never resorted to tired, pulp phrases like “A shot rang out.” I began wondering if it was possible to write an action book that wouldn’t feel like a genre book. In 1972, there’d never been a non-genre book that had that much action. First Blood changed the way action could be written. Its techniques—and the timeliness of the subject—led to very positive reviews in just about every major magazine and newspaper. First novels seldom get that kind of attention. Then came a big paperback sale, and the movie sale (although the movie didn’t get made for ten years). It was all very bewildering. Fortunately I was a professor. Teaching the great books every day put everything in perspective for me.
Q: Over the course of the years you’ve written many more novels in the thriller genres and even co-founded International Thriller Writers organization. Are all your books in the same genre? How are they similar, or are any different (besides Murder as a Fine Art that we’ll get to in a minute)?
A: This is my 41st year as a published author. That’s an eternity in the publishing world, where many successful careers end after 15 or at most 20 years. What can happen is that an author finds something that works and repeats it until the author and the author’s readers get tired. In contrast, I thought of my career as a way to grow and evolve, a way to find new methods of showing what a thriller can be. In fact, I also wrote a western, and I have a large following in the horror community. My work doesn’t have anything supernatural in it, but it often has an eerie tone, which earned me three Stoker awards from the Horror Writers Association.
In the 1980s, I wrote a series of influential espionage novels that began with The Brotherhood of the Rose. They were the first to combine the authentic espionage tradecraft of the British tradition with the action of the American tradition. I’m always looking for new ways to tell an exciting story, to the point that my friend Steve Berry keeps kidding me about how often I re-invented myself.
Erin Comments: But that is the way to keep yourself fresh and able to sell books!
Q: What do you love the best about writing thrillers?
A: I was destined to write thrillers. My father died in combat just after I was born. My mother couldn’t hold a job and take care of me at the same time, so she put me in an orphanage. Later she remarried, but my stepfather disliked children. He and my mother fought so much that I lived in fear. I often slept under my bed. In the dark, I made up stories to distract myself. They were adventure stories in which I was the hero. It’s no wonder that I became a thriller writer. I feel fulfilled every time I sit down to write.
Erin Comments: I am very sorry to hear this, but I’m glad that you took your experiences and used them to motivate your writing. I’m guessing you like to write Captain America comics (I know you’ve done some in recent years) since he was such a hero!
Q: You might have already mentioned research. I know you’ve been able to allow yourself some extensive outside training in your research…raceways, survival training, getting a pilot’s license….what have been some of your most memorable adventures? What do you feel you gain by immersing yourself into these types of training situations?
A: Too many thriller writers take their details from movies and TV shows, which almost always are in error. In a movie, someone will shoot the gas tank of a vehicle, and the fuel tank explodes. In life, that doesn’t happen. Or a character will shoot a tire, and the tire will explode. That doesn’t happen either. Early in my career, I realized that to respect what I was writing about, I needed to have hands-on experience. I interviewed the kind of people I wrote about.
I trained in various activities, such as spending a week at the Bill Scott Raceway in West Virginia to learn how to handle cars the way the Secret Service does. For a wilderness survival sequence, I once lived in Wyoming’s Wind River mountains, receiving training from the National Outdoor Leadership School. I once broke my collarbone in a knife-fighting class.
For the airplane sequences in The Shimmer (about the mysterious Marfa Lights of west Texas), I took flight lessons until I earned my private pilot’s license. The research is a way of respecting my material and doing my best to make it believable.
Erin Comments: And very exciting as well! I love how you bring true details and action to your novels.
Q: I tend to try to be humorous, but the question comes to mind—do you feel you would have been some kind of FBI, Fighter Pilot, or some other risky profession if you hadn’t gotten your break as an author? (Even your picture makes me think you might be undercover –*smiling*)
A: There’s no question that I lead two different lives. Mostly, I sit at a desk and write. But every year or two, I head off for training of various types, and often it’s dangerous. I look like a mild-mannered professor, but someone who looks like that can be an effective, unsuspected operative. I’m reminded of training I received at the G. Gordon Liddy Academy of Corporate Security. For three weeks, he brought in ex-government agents who taught a version of what CIA recruits receive at the Farm. It was invaluable experience, and in our street exercises, following people etc., I was amazed by how invisible a trained operative can be.
Q: You’ve had a busy year, besides finishing up Murder as a Fine Art, being an archivist and doing all things organizational to assist readers. Can you explain what’s been happening with your titles? Are they all available in e-book form now?
A: When the e-book revolution occurred in 2009, I started preparing some of my out-of-print titles in digital format. I’ve been publishing for so long that I have the e-rights to the majority of my books. I also began digitalizing short stories and essays that were published decades ago. Nearly all my work is online now (millions and millions of words), with a few exceptions, such as Extreme Denial, which I’ll release this summer when I’m finished with the release of Murder as a Fine Art.
Erin Comments: That’s exciting!
Q: Stemming from this, how do you feel that the publishing and book selling industry has changed? What do you find positive, and in comparison, negative, with all that has transpired in the last decade?
A: For most of my career, an author needed to go through the gatekeepers of an agent and an editor. I still think that this is the way to go—because the work is better for having their help. But sometimes a writer finishes something that doesn’t fit what agents or editors are looking for. It can be a beautifully written book, but it just doesn’t fit current trends. In former decades, that would have been the end, but now an author can take charge and release the book digitally. In that sense, there has never been a better time with more opportunities for authors. That’s the good news. The bad news is that some books are so poorly written that they deserve not to be published, but without gatekeepers, an awful lot of those poorly written books are flooding the e-market.
Erin Comments: Spot on. I agree.
Q: Now that you’ve tried to challenge yourself with your writing and take on a new era, how did you find it writing about Victorian England in your newest book, Murder as a Fine Art? How did you come up with the idea?
A: A 2009 film about Darwin’s nervous breakdown (Creation) had a brief bit of dialogue in which someone says, “Charles, people such as De Quincey are saying that it’s possible to be influenced by thoughts and emotions we don’t know we have.” I wondered if the reference was to Thomas De Quincey, an 1800s author whom my long-ago college professor dismissed as being a mere literary footnote. But that bit of dialogue intrigued me. It sounded like Freud, except that Freud didn’t publish his theories for a half-century after De Quincey. I felt something tugging at my mind.
After the film ended, I opened one of my college textbooks (I still have them). I started reading De Quincey and fell down a Victorian rabbit hole. He invented the word “subsconscious.” He also invented the true-crime genre in his Postscript to his sensational essay “On Murder Consider as One of the Fine Arts,” which is about the notorious Ratcliffe Highway murders. He influenced Edgar Allan Poe, who in turned influenced Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes. This guy was major, I discovered, and I couldn’t wait to write a novel in which he appeared at the start of the detective tradition.
Q: What kind of research did you put into Murder as a Fine Art? Certainly you didn’t become a serial killer, and likewise, it was probably hard to time travel in order to become a member of Scotland Yard. So how did you “get into costume” so to speak?
A: Again, I became a Method author. The first step was to read and re-read the many thousands of pages that De Quincey wrote. That wasn’t hard—his work became more brilliant with each reading. Eventually I felt as if I was channeling him. Then I accumulated a vast amount of books about Victorian culture in London in the 1850s. After that, I read and re-read novels from the period. Truly, I began to feel that I was actually there, and my goal became to make readers feel the same way. The reviewer for Entertainment Weekly was especially complimentary about the vividness of the historical details.
Erin Comments: I agree, the historical details in your novel are fabulous.
Q: Is history something you are interested in, or was it the literary works of Sherlock Holmes/Arthur Conan Doyle what most influenced you?
A: Most of my novels have a strong element of history. Back in 1977, I even wrote a historical western, Last Reveille, about “Black Jack” Pershing’s hunt for the Mexican bandit, Pancho Villa. The Brotherhood of the Rose is filled with history. And so on. But this is easily my most historical book. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes weren’t a factor for me. I admire the character, but Holmes shows up three decades after the events of Murder as a Fine Art. In fact, the chronology is interesting. De Quincey inspired Edgar Allan Poe, who in turn inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to create Holmes. And then there’s Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, one of the first detective novels (two decades before Holmes). Its climax uses De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater to solve the crime, so De Quincey can truly be found at the start of the detective tradition.
Erin Comments: That is very interesting!
Q: Do you feel this book also stretched your writing style beyond just the time period? How did the narrative and POV come into play?
A: In graduate school, I was trained to believe that the best novels combine form and content. That meant if I was going to set a novel in 1854 London, I needed to write an imitation Victorian novel, one that was true to the period. These days, the omniscient viewpoint is hardly ever used, but it was used all the time by people like Dickens. Every chapter of Murder as a Fine Art begins with an omniscient narrator. The technique is true to the era, and as a bonus, it allows me to explain the weirdness of Victorian culture, which I would otherwise not have been able to do. Many Victorian novels also use first-person journals, so I used that device also. It was great technical fun.
Q: Do you have in writing process, or have you thought about, any other types of new novels?
A: The response to Murder as a Fine Art has been so positive that many people asked me to write another book about De Quincey. My publisher was very happy when I said that would be my next project. I don’t normally write sequels, but De Quincey has really grabbed me. I have plenty more to say about him and 1854 London.
Erin Comments: Wonderful news (in my review yesterday, I said I had hoped you’d be writing more)!
Q: Who are your personal favorite thriller writers? Who are your favorite writers overall? And why?
A: The thriller writer who most influenced me is Geoffrey Household, whose classic 1939 novel Rogue Male is about a British big-game hunter who stalks Hitler on the eve of WWII. That book and Household’s Watcher in the Shadows showed me what thrillers can be.
Q: Do you feel all your dreams have come true? What is one thing you’d like to do you haven’t done yet?
A: Truly, I try not to have expectations. That way I don’t have disappointments. My 15-year-old son Matthew died in 1987 from a rare bone cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma. In 2009, my 14-year-old granddaughter Natalie died from the same disease. Only 200 people get it each year in the United States. My many years have taught me that the only thing of value is time. When I start a project, I always ask myself, “Why is this project worth a year or two or three of your time?” Writing fulfills me in a mysterious way. I choose projects that have something about their theme, their technique, and their research that will make me feel fuller. Murder as a Fine Art more than did that for me.
Erin Comments: I am sorry to hear that, please accept my sympathies. I agree with you, time is valuable. Each and every minute and writing, to me, is a lasting legacy.
Q: Where can readers connect with you?
A: www.davidmorrell.net. It’s a very informative website, with information about Route 66 and Rogue Male and Rambo and video interviews and free essays about writing.
Erin: Thank you so much, David, for chatting with me. You are quite an inspiration and I am proud to have had this opportunity. I appreciate it and wish you continued success and best wishes!
David: I enjoyed my visit. Thanks.
Murder as a Fine Art Review~
You can read my review of Morrell’s Murder as a Fine Art HERE!
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MURDER AS A FINE ART, Synopsis~
GASLIT LONDON IS BROUGHT TO ITS KNEES IN DAVID MORRELL’S BRILLIANT HISTORICAL THRILLER.
Thomas De Quincey, infamous for his memoir Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, is the major suspect in a series of ferocious mass murders identical to ones that terrorized London forty-three years earlier.
The blueprint for the killings seems to be De Quincey’s essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” Desperate to clear his name but crippled by opium addiction, De Quincey is aided by his devoted daughter Emily and a pair of determined Scotland Yard detectives.
In Murder as a Fine Art, David Morrell plucks De Quincey, Victorian London, and the Ratcliffe Highway murders from history. Fogbound streets become a battleground between a literary star and a brilliant murderer, whose lives are linked by secrets long buried but never forgotten.
Praise for MURDER AS A FINE ART
“Murder As a Fine Art by David Morrell is a masterpiece—I don’t use that word lightly—a fantastic historical thriller, beautifully written, intricately plotted, and populated with unforgettable characters. It brilliantly recreates the London of gaslit streets, fogs, hansom cabs, and Scotland Yard. If you liked The Alienist, you will absolutely love this book. I was spellbound from the first page to last.”
—Douglas Preston, #1 bestselling author of The Monster of Florence
Author David Morrell, Biography~
David Morrell is a Canadian novelist from Kitchener, Ontario, who has been living in the United States for a number of years. He is best known for his debut 1972 novel First Blood, which would later become a successful film franchise starring Sylvester Stallone. More recently, he has been writing the Captain America comic books limited-series The Chosen.
He’s written numerous novels and been an Edgar, Anthony, and Macavity nominee as well as a three-time recipient of the distinguished Stoker Award from the Horror Writers Association. The International Thriller Writers organization gave him its prestigious career-achievement Thriller Master Award. His work has been translated into twenty-six languages.
Link to Tour Schedule: http://hfvirtualbooktours.com/murderasafineartvirtualtour/
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