Writer-to-Writer: A Conversation David Morrell, Master of the Modern Thriller

11/04/2013 02:26 pm 14:26:59 | Updated Jan 23, 2014

David Morrell is the author whose debut novel, First Blood, written in 1972, became a best seller, which spawned the Rambo film franchise, starring Sylvester Stallone. David has written 28 novels and his work has been translated into 26 languages.

He is acclaimed for his action-packed novels, including Brotherhood of the Rose, Desperate Measures, and The Naked Edge, to name a few. His latest novel, Murder as a Fine Art, is an historical thriller set in Victorian England.

David is rare among suspense/thriller writers, having received a B.A. in English from St. Jerome's University; and an M.A. and Ph.D. in American literature from Pennsylvania State University. In 1986, he gave up his tenure as an English professor at the University of Iowa, to begin writing fiction full-time. He also wrote the 2007-2008 Captain America comic book miniseries, The Chosen.

Among his many awards for writing achievements, is the 2009 Thriller Master Award presented by International Thriller Writers, Inc.

First Blood and Rambo are iconic names. Amazingly, First Blood was your debut novel. How did an author's first novel become such a wild success?
I have a graduate degree from Penn State. I studied at Penn State under a noted Hemingway scholar, Philip Young. I had an interest in thrillers and it occurred to me that Hemingway wrote many action scenes: the war scenes in A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls come to mind. But the scenes don't feel pulpy. I wondered if it was possible to write an action book that wouldn't feel like a genre book if I used the kind of art Hemingway brought to his prose. He avoided clichés like A shot rang out. With that intention, I wrote First Blood, allowing of course, that it was a very topical subject because there were so many returning Vietnam veterans in 1972. So, it was an attempt to re-invent the action book. The response was overwhelming. It was well-reviewed in virtually every major newspaper and magazine.

The tactic was to write action in a different way than had previously been done. I wanted to avoid all the vocabulary that had accumulated by that time. Initially, Stanley Kramer wanted to turn it into a film, but that didn't happen. A producer named Lawrence Turman, who had co-produced The Graduate, found the book in a bookstore and took it to Columbia Pictures, where Richard Brook began work on it. After about a year, Columbia Pictures sold the movie rights to Warner Brothers. They brought in Sydney Pollack to direct Steve McQueen. That moved along for a time, but they suddenly realized Steve McQueen was 45 years old and there were no 45 year old Vietnam veterans. The men who fought there were 18 and 19 years old.

Finally, two producers, Mario Kassar and Andrew Vanjna had an agreement with Ted Kotcheff, a director of note. Ultimately, with Ted directing and Sylvester Stallone in the role, the film was released. And, it did the same thing for action movies that the novel did 10 years earlier for action books.

I should note that Sly himself didn't have confidence in the film and said it would probably be the most expensive home movie ever made. But it was very well-received when it was released in the Fall of 1982. And, the rest is history.

You've said, "My novels dramatize fear." Can you elaborate on that?
One of the advantages of having gone to Penn State was having had a scholar for a mentor -- Philip Young. Also, a professional writer named Philip Klass, taught there. He was a science fiction writer whose pseudonym was William Tenn. As a professional writer, he brought wisdom to teaching because he'd done it for a living. He spent a great deal of time talking with me. One of the things he shared was, "The hardest thing for an author is to find a subject matter, a voice and distinct personality that will distinguish that author from everyone else."

Now, when I teach writing, I have a mantra: Be a first-rate version of yourself and not a second-rate version of another author. This was what Philip Klass essentially said to me. He said one way to find that voice -- that distinctive something -- is to think that every person has a dominant emotion. For some it's pity; for others it's lust, or anger, whatever. In his conversations with me, he determined my dominant emotion was fear.

And he was right. I had a terrible upbringing. My father died in the war, and my mother was forced, for a time, to put me in an orphanage. Then she remarried, but the marriage was horrible. There were terrible fights in the household. Many were the nights I slept under the bed, covering my ears. I told stories to myself in the dark. No wonder eventually -- despite my academic background as a professor of American literature -- I've become a thriller writer. I'm much happier doing that than writing academic literature, because basically, I have no choice because of how I was raised.

Philip Klass was right. My world view is that it can all go to hell in an instant, and you have to be ready for it. That's pretty much the central theme running through my work. It's about people's awareness of how uncertain life can be and their trying to guard against that. So essentially, much of my work orbits around that theme as its core emotion.

So clearly, your personal life wends its way into the thematic infrastructure of your writing.
Yes. The circumstances impinging upon each of us to make us who we are -- I think about that concept a lot. I try to write novels that in some ways reflect my own life's events. The major event was the 1987 death of my son from Ewing's sarcoma, a rare bone cancer. Then, in 2009, my 14 year old granddaughter died of the same disease. One could talk about unimaginable bad luck. It's not an inherited disease, so the fates really, really slammed my family. These terrible losses reinforced for me the fragility and unpredictability of life. So truly, it can all go to hell in an instant.

If you look at my work up until 1987, there was a theme of young people looking for fathers who usually disappointed them. After my son died, there were a couple of books where parents were looking for son figures. I know we're going to talk about this, but in my latest novel, Murder as a Fine Art, we have a 69 year old man, Thomas De Quincey with a 21 year old daughter, Emily. Only after I finished the book did I realize Emily was a version of my granddaughter. So, my books are very personal. Someone once said that if you read them in chronological order, you would have what amounts to an autobiography of my soul.

In psychiatry, we sometimes say, no matter how much he tries, the patient can never really change the subject.
It's very true. Getting back to Thomas De Quincey, he talked about these mental phenomena and preceded Freud by more than 70 years. He invented the word sub-conscious. We know that Freud read De Quincy. I mention this because the issue of the sub-conscious is so vital and there's a suspicion that some of what developed in psychoanalysis was inspired by De Quincy.

Philip Klass said we all have a ferret darting around inside of us, not wanting to be discovered. But, if we use our dominant emotion to try to identify that ferret, then we're on our way to finding our subject matter. So, Philip Klass's conversations with me were often self-psychoanalytic in nature. He told me to go to the bookstore and look at the hundreds of books there. See how on the first page or two, maybe five out of a hundred novels are different from the others. He wanted me to be one of those five -- he wanted someone to be able to pick up a book I'd written, and instantly recognize my writing, even if my name wasn't on the novel.

This is my 41st year as a published novelist. That's an eternity in the publishing world. The average successful career lasts 15 to 20 years. The reason is because authors tend to repeat and repeat themselves once they've found something that works. The author and the fans get tired. What I try to do is use my writing as a way of discovering myself.

This past summer, I attended ThrillerFest, the annual meeting for suspense/thriller writers and devotees. You gave a talk on setting. I confess I first thought it would be a discussion about scenes and locales for a novel. But it was much, much more. Can you tell us what you meant by setting?
If you think about the authors who have lasted, they have a world view and a kind of world within themselves -- a setting, so to speak. We think of Hemingway in Michigan or Key West, or Paris; Fitzgerald in New York; or Faulkner in Mississippi. Philip Klass encouraged me to think of setting as having a finality -- that a novel could stand alone, simply on how its setting was handled in terms of the research that went into it. For instance, in Murder as a Fine Art, it was fascinating to discover how different London was in 1854 from what it is today. The setting helped establish the character for everything else in the novel.

When talking about ideas for a story, I put a lot of stock in daydreams because they're examples of our sub-conscious burbling up to the surface. I've noticed in my daydreams, the settings are as important as the situations. So, I ask myself why a certain setting comes to me. On a simple level, imagine lying on a beach with a pleasant breeze and listening to seagulls. Clearly there's a sub-conscious text having to do with feeling tired and the need to rest. But, I began looking deeper in the novel to detect psychological issues by its setting. It's complicated, but it can make the all difference between a superficial book and one that goes more deeply into the subject.

One other thing I said was that in addition to place -- or physical setting -- one must consider how to describe things in a novel. If you use the sense of sight exclusively to describe things -- which is what most authors do -- you will have a one-dimensional, flat atmosphere. But, if you put three or four senses into a setting by taking the sense of sight for granted, and using others such as smell and touch, you will, by adding those elements, have a multi-dimensional setting. It sounds so obvious but I see it all the time in published books -- authors using only the sense of sight in their settings.

I recall you gave the example of what it feels like to have grass crunching under foot, or how the light changes when you walk from indoors to the outside, how the pupils constrict. It struck me that, among other things, you're a sensory writer.
Yes. People tell me 'I read your books, and it's like watching a movie.' What I'm really doing is hypnotizing people to feel they are literally within the situation. I use these senses: touch, sight, feel and smell as triggers that invite readers or propel them into the scene. The trick is not to make it obvious. I've written an entire chapter about this in my book, The Successful Novelist. I've lectured about it extensively, but have yet to see many people pick up on it.

In Murder as a Fine Art, I was struck by the change in venue, by the time frame of the novel and by how you described people's clothing and other things in 1854 London. This must have involved an enormous amount of research. Can you talk a bit about the novel and your research for it?
Four years ago, Creation, a film about Darwin, referred to Thomas De Quincey. Charles Darwin had a nervous breakdown when he was writing On the Origin of the Species. It had to do with the death of his favorite daughter. His wife suggested that maybe God was trying to tell Darwin not to write the book. He had fevers, he couldn't eat, and his ills didn't match any disease known at the time. We know about it now: it was his sub-conscious in relation to his daughter's death. In the film, there's a line that said, "You know Charles, there are people like De Quincey who know we can be controlled by thought and emotions beyond our awareness." I thought, this sounds like Freud, but the movie was set in the 1850s, long before Freud. So, I thought I'd like to learn more about Thomas De Quincey.

I fell in love with the guy. Not only did he create the word sub-conscious, he was the first person to write about drug addiction; the first who used a psychological approach to understanding Macbeth; he was obsessed by the first publicized mass killings in England -- the Ratcliff Highway murders in 1811, way before Jack the Ripper; and wrote about these killings in a 50 page, blood-soaked essay. In essence, he invented the true crime genre. In addition, he inspired Edgar Allan Poe, who in turn inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes. De Quincy has never been given his due because of his drug addiction. I decided to write a novel about the Ratcliff Highway murders. The basic concept of the novel was that someone had read De Quincey's 1854 essay about the original murders which occurred in 1811, and replicated the murders using De Quincey's essay as a blueprint. The question was, why was he doing it? De Quincey would have to use his psychological innovation to identify why this person was committing the crimes.

I wanted to write a novel about a real person and wanted to set it in 1854 when that essay was published. I realized to do this, I needed to study the period as if I was working toward a Ph.D., because people would jump on me if I got it wrong. I spent two years doing sort of Ph.D. thesis research about 1854 London. I had an 1851 map of London, and now I can get around 1851 London the way some Londoners can get around their city today.

It was just a joy to do the research. For me, form and content must go together. The only thing that wasn't typical of the time was De Quincey's daughter, Emily, who didn't conform to the male-dominated Victorian dictates of the era. It was great fun having her make some of the men look very foolish.

What's the most exciting thing about being a novelist? Are there any specific instances you can talk about?
There are a couple of ways to look at this. If we want to look at the false value of fame, which always changes, I guess I have to smile. There were five thriller characters from novels and films in the 20th Century who became worldwide icons. They were Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, James Bond, Rambo and Harry Potter. I grin a little at the idea that I created a character in that pantheon. In a slightly different way, my Brotherhood of the Rose was the first novel of a trilogy to be filmed as a miniseries. It's the only miniseries to this day that was broadcast after the Super Bowl. This past August, Murder as a Fine Art rose in ranking until it was the number one book in the entire Kindle universe on Amazon. These things were exciting.

But this is really the false value of fame. It can all change. The universe is filled with people who were popular at one time, and not at another. You must have a steady sense of yourself and a core of validity, so that as the world changes, you can remain unfazed. The most exciting thing for me, and the one with the most lasting value, is to have a chance to research subjects in which I'm deeply interested. These subjects make me a fuller person because they require me to explore topics for my fiction which allows me to understand myself and the world more fully. It helps me move forward as a human being. Writing fiction--researching and then exploring the story, its emotions and ideas--is the payoff. Hopefully, I become a fuller, better person through these projects. It all keeps me fully grounded.

If you could have dinner with any five people from history--either writers or others, living or not--who would they be?
That's a loaded question because I'd love to have dinner with my son and granddaughter more than anyone else. But if we step aside from that, Thomas De Quincey would be high on my list as would Benjamin Franklin. My mentors, Philip Young and the screenwriter Stirling Siliphant who wrote Route 66 would be there, too. If we're talking about the great minds, I think St. Thomas Aquinas would be at the table. I'll leave it at that.

To hear the entire, unedited audio of the conversation, follow the link below to BookTrib.

Mark Rubinstein
Author of Mad Dog House and Love Gone Mad