Interview with David Morrell, One of the Best Thriller Writers of the Last Four Decades, Talking his Delve Into the Victorian Era

Today, I’ve got a stellar interview with David Morrell, who needs no introduction. He’s been one of the top thriller writers of the last four decades, and an educator of the craft. In this interview, we talk mostly about this newest Thomas De Quincey Victorian Era trilogy, which is highly interesting, as well as how he does his research and he offers a few tips of advice for writers. You can see my review of his newest novel, Inspector of the Dead, HERE.

Hi, David! So pleased to have you back here on Oh, for the Hook of a Book! You have a long backlist of thriller titles, such as The Brotherhood of the Rose, that people love, but you’ve been making literary waves lately with your Victorian mystery series that stars Thomas De Quincey, the Opium-Eater! You’ve recently released the second novel in the series, Inspector of the Dead. How are you feeling about the success of the series?

David: De Quincey was one of the most brilliant literary personalities of the Victorian era. I’m so fascinated by him that I spent four years researching my two novels about him. It’s gratifying that readers share my fascination. My goal was to try to convince readers that they are literally on the fogbound streets of 1850s London.

Erin: I think you’ve succeeded. I certainly need to cuddle in a warm blanket when reading your books. Quite chilling in all the right ways!

It’s quite up and down with the cold here in Ohio still, so I’ll put on a pot of tea as I like to do. I know you probably rarely slow down (you’re a busy guy), so let’s relax for a few minutes and talk books and writing.

David: Great. Talking about books and writing is what I most like to do.

Erin: Ah, me too! Then let’s get started. I’ll begin with a broad question. You’ve had a lengthy publishing career. How has your craft grown or changed over time? What would you tell the 1972 version of yourself?

David: I’ve seen a lot of changes in the publishing world (back then, there weren’t any book signings or authors’ tours, and of course there weren’t any e-books), and a lot of changes in myself. For me, that’s the key. To change. My 1972 self felt the same way. From the start, I wanted to keep exploring.

Erin: Of course, you’ve published great thrillers like First Blood (which launched the Rambo craze), The Shimmer, and Creepers just to name only a few. Many have had some sort of historical, military, or government element to them. But going as far back as the Victorian Era in London is something new for you. Where did you discover your interest in the Opium-Eater and why did you decide to use him in the construction of these new mysteries?

David: I watched a 2009 film called Creation, which depicted Charles Darwin’s nervous breakdown after his favorite daughter died. He suffered from headaches, heart palpitations, insomnia, and stomach problems, to name a few ailments. Doctors of that era—focusing solely on his body and not his emotions—couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him.  At the turning point of the film, a character says to Darwin, “You know, Charles, there are people such as Thomas De Quincey who believe that we can be controlled by thoughts and emotions we don’t know we have.” This sounds like Freud, but the film takes place in the 1850s, and Darwin didn’t publish until near the turn of the century. Curious about De Quincey, I looked into his background and was amazed to learn that he invented the word “subconscious” and anticipated Freud’s psychoanalytic theories by almost 70 years. I suddenly had the idea to put De Quincey in a Victorian mystery/thriller, where he would be at the start of the detective tradition and use psychoanalytic theories to solve murders at a time when no one knew anything about what De Quincey called the caverns and abysses of the mind.

Erin: That is so COMPLETELY fascinating!! I can see what hooked you. On your website you said, “His (Thomas De Quincey) blood-soaked essays and stories influenced Edgar Allan Poe, who in turn inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes.”  He sounds like an interesting man on many levels. How did you complete your research (books, online, travel) in order to create a firm foundation of knowledge in order to write your books? Was it easy or difficult to turn up information?

David: I love research. For several years, all I read were histories, biographies, and cultural studies about 1850s London. I wasn’t satisfied until I knew how much a woman’s clothes weighed (37 pounds) and how the streets were constructed. De Quincey wrote thousands of pages that I re-read and re-read until I felt like I was channeling him. His recent biographers are Robert Morrison and Grevel Lindop. After I underlined almost every page in their books, I contacted them and asked them to read my manuscripts. They gave me notes. Robert and I often exchange emails every day, and Grevel invited me to visit him in England, where he took me on a guided tour of Manchester (where De Quincey was born) and Grasmere in the Lake District (where De Quincey lived in Dove Cottage after Wordsworth moved out).  All of the research was a fascinating adventure.

02_Inspector of the Dead Cover

Erin: That sounds so amazing! I know you to be someone to fully immerse in research and that really shows through in your novels. I know that you published an e-book called The Opium Eaterthat also includes a story based on true facts of De Quincey’s life and includes photographs. That’s a cool idea! I’ll include the link for those interested: http://davidmorrell.net/stories/the-opium-eater/

I’m sure all your research you accumulated helped you decide to publish this between the novels, but can you talk a little about your thoughts in sharing more of the historical background? Why was he called the Opium-Eater?

David: De Quincey’s most famous book was Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.  He was the first person to write about drug addiction. In the 1800s, laudanum was the only effective painkiller. A mixture of alcohol and powdered opium, it was as common in Victorian homes as aspirin is today. The bottles had a POISON warning, and most people knew to be careful with it. But De Quincey fell under its power. An average person would die from drinking a tablespoon of laudanum. In contrast, De Quincey sometimes drank sixteen ounces of it a day. The paradox here is that the drug affected him as a stimulant, and against expectations, he wrote some of the most amazing prose of the 1800s.

Erin: Thomas De Quincey seems like a good historical person to form a character around for a book like this. But how does his daughter, Emily, fit into the plot of the book? Was she truly his daughter? How did you construct her character and how has her role, as well as herself, grown in this second novel?

David: De Quincey’s daughter, Emily, did indeed exist. She was 21 years old, and she’s essential to Inspector of the Dead and Murder as a Fine Art. I knew that some readers might have trouble accepting an opium addict as a main character, no matter how brilliant and witty De Quincey was. So, I presented many of his scenes from Emily’s viewpoint. She’s funny and independent and irreverent. I reasoned that if readers liked her, they’d share her affection for her father. 

In the second novel, their relationship deepens. A Scotland Yard detective asks her to marry him, and she replies that she already has a great responsibility taking care of her father, that she can’t look beyond that, the point being that in the first novel we don’t see the burden of his addiction. He’s funny. He’s eccentric. He’s interesting.  But in the second novel, the cost of his addiction becomesmore evident.

Erin: Inspector of the Dead plot surrounds itself with the actual attempts to assassinate Queen Victoria. The murderer is clever. How much fiction do you blend with fact?

David: I tried to include as much historical fact as possible. Both De Quincey novels are based on famous crimes of the era. Murder as a Fine Art explored the Ratcliffe Highway mass murders of 1811, the first media-sensation killings in English history. The brutality of those murders literally paralyzed all of England, and forty-three years later, in 1854, De Quincey recreated them in his Postscript to “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” The plot of Murder as a Fine Art imagines that someone uses De Quincey’s essay as a blueprint for committing the murders anew.

The new novel, Inspector of the Dead, explores the astonishing eight attempts to assassinate Queen Victoria. One man even tried to shoot heron two consecutive days. I imagine that someone uses those attempts as the inspiration for a new attempt against her. He leaves cards at various crime scenes, mentioning the names of the previous men who tried to kill the queen. The idea is that when he runs out of names, the queen will be the next victim. The blending of fact and fiction was very precise and detailed.

Erin: Though this series is set in a very different time than many of your other books, you still bring a government and social aspect to them. You show the disparity between the upper European elite and those with less and how that creates a radical atmosphere. Do you feel that class struggles are always a recipe for rebellion, crime, murder, etc.? How important are these themes to you in your novels?

David:  The Victorian era was class conscious to an extreme. The difference between surgeons and physicians provides a good example. We think of surgeons as superior to physicians, but in the 1850s, surgeons weren’t respected. They actually touched their patients and, worse, dealt with blood and gore. Moreover, they accepted payment directly from their patients. In contrast, a physician never touched a patient and was paid indirectly by the druggist to whom the patients were sent. Thus surgeons were “in trade,” but physicians weren’t. A physician could be presented to the queen while a surgeon couldn’t.  The highest members of society were the peers (earls and dukes and so forth). Roughly one thousand of them controlled all of England’s wealth. The average wage for a laborer was fifty-two pounds a year. The average income of a peer was fifty-two thousand pounds a year. In 1848, revolutionaries marched on London, with the real risk that Parliament and the monarchy would topple.  The sometimes-violent tension between the social classes is a theme in both De Quincey novels.

Thomas de Quincey by Sir John Watson-Gordon/Wiki

Thomas de Quincey by Sir John Watson-Gordon/Wiki

Erin: You write with such vivid detail and description. I believe so, but plenty of others have said so as well. How do you immerse and delve so completely into an era you didn’t live in? How do you pen something that is so vibrantly authentic?

David:  I always felt that something was missing in Victorian novels, that I wasn’t getting the full picture. During my research, I realized that I was right. Authors such as Dickens didn’t explain what were to them obvious elements of their culture, but over the years, those obvious elements were forgotten until now when we almost need annotations to understand those novels. At the start of Inspector of the Dead, there’s a murder during a Sunday church service. The drama of the scene involves church pews. Today, we take for granted that pews are bench-like seats that stretch from aisle to aisle. But in the 1850s, pews were shaped like boxes with several benches in them, and a table, and probably a carpet and pillows and even curtains. These box pews had locked doors that were opened by pew openers, who made sure that only the families who rented the pews gained access to them. Dickens took this for granted and didn’t bother to explain it. Today, almost no one knows about this system, so I explain what Dickens and other Victorian novelists didn’t think it was necessary to point out. My De Quincey novels seem authentic because readers get the sense that they’re seeing the Victorian world truly for the first time.

Erin: That’s excellent, David! I can see that now you’ve mentioned it! I love how you’ve brought the era to light in such a descriptive way!

What is the number one (or two) thing(s) that thriller/suspense/mystery readers want each time they read a novel, no matter the era? What are the ingredients for a successful novel in this genre?

David: Because our world keeps changing and thrillers tend to respond to that world, the genre itself keeps changing.  Since 2003, the three biggest, most influential thrillers were Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. All three came out of nowhere. Their phenomenal success couldn’t have been predicted. In general, however, a successful thriller tends to provide an odd combination of distracting us from our troubling world while at the same time dramatizing the emotions that are troubling us. One reason I wrote my 1850s London novels is that I keenly wanted to be distracted from the modern world.

Erin: I admire your willingness to try different types of action writing as well, from these historical mystery novels to even your six-part Captain America comic book series. What is something from yourself as a writer that crosses over into each one of your works?

David: Marvel also asked me to write comic books for Spider-Man and Wolverine. It was fun to work in a different medium. In Captain America: The Chosen, I emphasize the virtues of courage, honor, loyalty, and sacrifice. Those are my constant themes—along with trying to be aware of what’s happening around us.

Erin: You’ve won or been a finalist for many various awards that most writers only dream of, like the Nero, Macavity, Edgar, and Anthony, as well as ITW’s Thriller Master Award and three Bram Stoker Awards. You’ve accomplished so much already, what keeps you writing? What broad goals do you still have for yourself in your career?

David:  I think it’s important to keep evolving and changing. Before I start a novel, I ask myself why the book is worth a year or two or even three years of my time. After all, time is the only important thing we have. There needs to be something about the theme, the research, and the way the book will be written that will hold my interest.  At the end, I hope to be a fuller person than when I started.

Erin: I know you get asked this a lot, but we all reach various readers, so what is the best advice you can give to aspiring writers that will encourage and motivate them to keep working?

David:  In terms of motivation, I think fiction writers tend to be damaged people who perform a kind of self-psychoanalysis, putting their anxieties on the page. Sitting alone in a room for hours and hours isn’t normal. So, fiction writers have a drive to tell their story and hardly lack motivation. As for building a career and going the distance, I give my writing students these two mantras.  1. Be a first-rate version of yourself and not a second-rate version of another author. 2. Don’t chase the market.  You’ll always see its backside.

Erin: Is there another novel in the Thomas De Quincey series planned? I’d love to read about another murder case this team falls upon….if so, explain, if not, tell us what else you plan to write?

David: I always thoughts of this as a trilogy, so I’m working on a third De Quincey novel. Again it will blend fact and fiction and be based on a major crime that changed Victorian society.

Erin: What is the best place you’ve traveled to and what type of food would you travel the world to eat again (this is a fun question!)?

David: For research, I once went to Paris, where I found a restaurant near the Sorbonne. It served my favorite dish, cassoulet, and I went there four nights in a row, always ordering the same thing. I couldn’t get enough of it.

Erin: Thank you, David, not only for your amazing novels but also for doing this interview with me today! It’s been an honor for me.

David: Thanks for the chat. Your enthusiasm makes me smile.

Erin: That totally made my week!

02_Inspector of the Dead CoverInspector of the Dead, Synopsis~

Publication Date: March 24, 2015
Mulholland Books
Hardcover; 342p
ISBN: 9780316323932

Genre: Historical Mystery

GoodReads

David Morrell’s MURDER AS A FINE ART was a publishing event. Acclaimed by critics, it made readers feel that they were actually on the fogbound streets of Victorian London. Now the harrowing journey continues in INSPECTOR OF THE DEAD.

Thomas De Quincey, infamous for his Confessions of an Opium-Eater,confronts London’s harrowing streets to thwart the assassination of Queen Victoria.
The year is 1855. The Crimean War is raging. The incompetence of British commanders causes the fall of the English government. The Empire teeters.

Amid this crisis comes opium-eater Thomas De Quincey, one of the most notorious and brilliant personalities of Victorian England. Along with his irrepressible daughter, Emily, and their Scotland Yard companions, Ryan and Becker, De Quincey finds himself confronted by an adversary who threatens the heart of the nation.

This killer targets members of the upper echelons of British society, leaving with each corpse the name of someone who previously attempted to kill Queen Victoria. The evidence indicates that the ultimate victim will be Victoria herself. As De Quincey and Emily race to protect the queen, they uncover long-buried secrets and the heartbreaking past of a man whose lust for revenge has destroyed his soul.

Brilliantly merging historical fact with fiction, Inspector of the Dead is based on actual attempts to assassinate Queen Victoria.

Praise for Inspector of the Dead

“Riveting! I literally thought I was in 1855 London. With this mesmerizing series, David Morrell doesn’t just delve into the world of Victorian England—he delves into the heart of evil, pitting one man’s opium-skewed brilliance against a society where appearances are everything, and the most vicious killers lurk closer than anyone thinks.” —Lisa Gardner, New York Times bestselling author of Crash & Burn and The Perfect Husband

What the Victorian Experts Say:

“Even better than Murder as a Fine Art. A truly atmospheric and dynamic thriller. I was fascinated by how Morrell seamlessly blended elements from Thomas De Quincey’s life and work. The solution is a complete surprise.” —Grevel Lindop, The Opium-Eater: A Life of Thomas De Quincey

“The scope is remarkable. Florence Nightingale, the Crimean War, regicide, the railways, opium, the violence and despair of the London rookeries, medical and scientific innovations, arsenic in the food and clothing—all this makes the Victorian world vivid. The way Morrell depicts Thomas De Quincey places him in front of us, living and breathing. But his daughter Emily is in many ways the real star of the book.” —Robert Morrison, The English Opium-Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey

“I absolutely raced through it and couldn’t bear to put it down. I particularly liked how the very horrible crimes are contrasted with the developing, fascinating relationship between Thomas De Quincey and his daughter, Emily, who come across as extremely real. It was altogether a pleasure.” —Judith Flanders, The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Reveled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime

Buy the Book

Amazon US
Amazon UK
Barnes & Noble
Books-A-Million
iBooks
IndieBound
Kobo

Author David Morrell, Biography~

03_David Morell ©_Jennifer_EsperanzaDavid Morrell is an Edgar, Nero, Anthony, and Macavity nominee as well as a recipient of the prestigious career-achievement ThrillerMaster award from International Thriller Writers.

His numerous New York Times bestsellers include the classic espionage novel, The Brotherhood of the Rose, which was the basis for the only television mini-series to be broadcast after a Super Bowl.

A former literature professor at the University of Iowa, Morrell has a PhD from Pennsylvania State University.

His latest novel is INSPECTOR OF THE DEAD, a sequel to his highly acclaimed Victorian mystery/thriller, Murder as a Fine Art, which Publishers Weekly called ”one of the top ten mystery/thrillers of 2013.”

For more information visit David Morrell’s website. You can also connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

Tour Schedule: http://hfvirtualbooktours.com/inspectorofthedeadblogtour/

Hashtags: #InspectoroftheDeadBlogTour #HistoricalMystery

Twitter Tags: @hfvbt @_DavidMorrell

04_Inspector of the Dead_Blog Tour Banner_FINAL

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