Rambo To Real Life David Morrell looks back and forges forward
By Diego X. Jesus and Mark London
Despite the surprise success of his debut novel, David Morrell kept on teaching.
Canadian-born American novelist David Morrell is the creator of Rambo.
First Blood, the novel in which Rambo really roared, was Sylvester Stallone's big career break, too, and somebody, eventually, somewhere, will have made a lot of money.
Whether Morrell did or not is moot in any case, as he made the conscious decision to continue his distinguished attachment to academia and avoid any Hollywood/media hoopla. Education was and is as important to him as a finely crafted scene or a riveting narrative. Parties and dollars are not. That's why he moved to New Mexico.
Born in 1943 in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, Morrell, in 1960, at the age of 17, he became a fan of the classic television series, Route 66, about two young men in a Corvette traveling the United States in search of America and themselves. The scripts by Stirling Silliphant so impressed Morrell that he decided to become a writer.
In 66, the work of another writer (Hemingway scholar Philip Young) prompted Morrell to move to the United States, where he studied with Young at Penn State and received his M.A. and Ph.D. in American literature.
There, he also met the distinguished fiction writer William Tenn (real name Philip Klass), who taught Morrell the basics of fiction writing. The result was First Blood, a novel about a returned Vietnam veteran suffering from post-trauma stress disorder who comes into conflict with a small-town police chief and fights his own version of the Vietnam War.
That "father" of all modern action novels was published in 72 while Morrell was a professor in the English department at the University of Iowa, our fearless editor's alma mater. He taught there from 70 to 86 (when Daryl Jung had him for an American Lit grad course), simultaneously writing other novels, many of them national bestsellers, such as The Brotherhood Of The Rose (the basis for a highly rated NBC miniseries with Robert Mitchum). Eventually wearying of two professions, he gave up his tenure in order to write full time.
Shortly afterward, his 15-year-old son Matthew was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer and died in 87, a loss that haunts not only Morrell's life but his work, as in his memoir about Matthew, Fireflies, and his novel Desperate Measures, whose main character has lost a son.
"The mild-mannered professor with the bloody-minded visions," as one reviewer called him, Morrell is the author of 28 books, including such novels of international intrigue as The Fifth Profession, Assumed Identity, and Extreme Denial (set in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he now lives with his wife, Donna). His most recent publication is the dark-suspense thriller Creepers.
And he took time in his frenetic schedule to talk to IN. Very cool.
IN: A lot of years have passed since you introduced Sly Stallone and the world to First Blood and the Rambo character. Did the fact that your father was killed in WWII have anything to do with the development of such a bigger than life, super hero, military character?
DM: Only in the second and third movies, which I didn't write, is Rambo a super military hero. In my novel First Blood, he is angry about what war did to him. Really furious. So, ironically, his anger turns him into the warrior that he didn't want to become. As for my father, yes, he was shot down over France in WWII. I am forever marked by his loss. But as writer Graham Greene tells us, an unhappy childhood is a goldmine for a writer.
IN: But you're trained in wilderness survival, hostage negotiation, executive protection, anti-terrorist driving, assuming identities, electronic surveillance, and weapons. Why did you choose writing, per se, as a career?
DM: I have always had an active narrative imagination. When I was 17, I saw the first episode of the classic TV series Route 66. Stirling Silliphant's script made me decide then and there to be a writer. I couldn't get over the power of his work. The adventurous research you mention is a bonus. I get to learn about the exciting things that my characters do. I'm the mild-mannered writer who from time to time goes away to enter a world of action.
IN: Your upcoming release Creepers is an off-the-wall, seat-of-your-pants thriller. What was your motivation, regarding the research for the novel?
DM: The title Creepers refers to a nickname for urban explorers. Sometimes they're called urban adventurers or urban archeologists. Basically, they are history and architecture enthusiasts who break into old abandoned buildings in an effort to experience a time-capsule effect.
Some of these buildings (in downtown Buffalo and Detroit) have been sealed since the 1970s. Many still have furniture and business documents, etc. It's eerie to enter them and go back in time. Those old buildings are also very dangerous because of rotted floors and walls, so the authorities tend to frown on this activity.
Thus creepers sometimes refer to themselves as infiltrators and think of themselves in terms of a military special operations group going on a mission. Three years ago, I read a newspaper article about them and realized that an impulse I have felt all my life actually had a name. I went to the Internet and was amazed to find hundreds of thousands of urban-explorer sites around the world.
Immediately I knew I had to write a novel about this activity. The book takes place in eight hours on an October night in the abandoned Paragon Hotel in blighted Asbury Park, New Jersey. The narrative occurs in real time. Every second of the story is accounted for, almost like a documentary. This may be the only novel in which that happens. I have a website about the hotel and the book - http://www.theparagonhotel.com. It's a lot of fun. Images pop out of walls.
IN: Your oeuvre is impressive, (listed below), also short stories and the movie making process. With Creepers coming out in September, what's your next move?
DM: I've always enjoyed going in new directions. At the moment, I'm writing a six-episode illustrated novel for a major comic book company, using a very famous comic-book hero. The contract forbids me from saying anything more until the company releases its own press announcement. All I can say is that this will be a huge project that will get a lot of attention because of the nature of the material.
I'm writing it seriously, getting into the hero's psyche. At the end, I believe readers will be tempted to cry. I found the illustrated novel format to be much like the format for screenplays, so it felt natural to me. The project will be published next year.
IN: What advice do you have for authors who are going to be dealing with Hollywood and having their book turned into a movie?
DM: Don't count on the contract being issued. Don't spend the money before you get it. Remember that Hollywood is the stuff that dreams are made of. It can seduce you and trick you. A skilled producer can make you believe you're the most important person in the world. The next day, that same producer won't take your phone calls. Read William Goldman's Adventures In The Screen Trade.
If the contract does appear, make sure it has a clause in which you retain print control of your character. That way, the studio can't hire someone else to do novelizations for later movies or original novels based on the characters it bought from you. I cover a lot of this in the Hollywood section of my how-to book Lessons From A Lifetime Of Writing.
IN: As a former professor, are you involved at all in education for new writers?
DM: About six times a year, I do a writers workshop in various places around the country. Sometimes, it's an hour or two. Sometimes it's all day. I don't do critiques. Instead I discuss with my students the various things that I have learned in my 37 years as a writer. One upcoming workshop is at the Love Is Murders suspense writers conference in Chicago next February.
IN: What are the most common mistakes advanced students of writing make?
DM: I think the same mistakes get made no matter how experienced we are. We constantly need to remember the basics. For example, in description, we should take details of sight for granted and emphasize the other senses, in a process that American novelist John Barth calls "triangulation." In dialogue, we should avoid melodramatic speech tags. Characters shouldn't snarl their speeches. Or hiss them. Or spit them. We should avoid adverbs in speech tags. They are a sign that we couldn't find the right verb. We should avoid flashbacks, which are usually a sign of faulty structure.
IN: What are the greatest challenges for today's writers to become successful authors?
DM: These days, the marketing department rules the publishing world. That's where manuscripts go when a decision needs to be made about whether to buy them. The marketing department then analyzes whether the author has a "platform." The marketers may even go to the big chains like Borders and ask them, "If we publish this book, how many copies would you buy?" If the number isn't high enough, the book doesn't get bought. This system makes it difficult for books that don't have a mass-market feel.
IN: With the Internet, ebooks, and self-publishing software,what do you think is best about the current state of the book publishing industry? The worst?
DM: It's a good news/bad news sort of thing. The buy-ups and mergers of the major New York publishing houses in the last 10 years have led to a significant reduction in places to which agents can take our work. As the phrase goes, there are now only "six sisters."
Recently, I heard that the six have now become five. Very depressing. But the good news is that independent publishers have begun to be a greater market than they seemed before. Mid-list authors who don't have the "platform" that the big publishers want (a zingy subject matter or a former career in the NFL) are now going to the smaller publishers. The advances aren't great, but at least a book that a writer believes in has a chance to get published in that other market.
IN: How important is it for writers to have an Internet presence with their own website, such as yours at http://www.davidmorrell.net/ to contain and present their portfolio?
DM: A website is essential. I started my own site in 2001 and have found it to be a significant way for me to communicate with my fans, to let them know what's happening with my work. But a website is only a minimum. Blogging is now popular, although I believe that its appeal will diminish as everyone does it.
Still, at the moment, it's an important Internet tool. In addition, authors need to educate themselves about Internet "viral" marketing. I did this with my new novel Creepers and discovered significant new outlets on various websites that are in tune with what I write about.
IN: Is it advantageous for a writer to be part of a union or guild, such as International Thriller Writers Organization?
DM: I think it's essential to have some sort of network, a way to meet colleagues and learn from one another, a chance to meet editors and agents and critics. The International Thriller Writers organization, of which I'm co-president along with Gayle Lynds, is an attempt to do that. Our purpose is to encourage thriller authors to explore the creative possibilities of the form and to find new ways of marketing what they write. It's also a way to show readers how good thrillers can be.
IN: You wrote a "how-to" book on writing titled Lessons From A Lifetime Of Writing. What advice can you offer an author who has one book out and is stuck on getting the second written?
DM: The second-novel syndrome is one of the most serious issues that some writers face. In my own case, it took me three long years to move on from First Blood and write my second novel Testament. I think what happens is that we get absorbed in the world of the first novel, and then we don't know how to leave that world to enter another.
Ultimately it all comes down to passion about the narrative. If the second book insists on being told, we ought to be able to turn from the past and face the future. Literally we need to think that way and see the problem as a spatial one. Turn from the past. Face the future.
IN: Currently who/which would you recommend as an: agent; publisher; publicist; educational institution; course etc.?
DM: Last year, I switched agents and went to the Dystel/Goderich agency, so naturally I'm high on them. Also I think Richard Curtis is an interesting agent because he writes so well about the current state of publishing. See his fascinating essays at http://www.bksp.org.
I'm also high on my current publisher CDS Books, about whom I get a lot of questions because they don't sound as familiar as the big New York houses. CDS stands for Client Distribution Services. They are the biggest book distributor in the United States and probably in the world. As a sideline, they publish about a dozen books a year, and each of these projects is given special attention. A publisher who distributes its own books. What an integrated concept.
They agreed that my daughter, a former publicist for Random House, would handle the publicity campaign. Together, we've come up with really cool ways of promoting Creepers. For example, take a look at the one-minute animated version of the novel at http://www.madlabcreative.com/creepers.html. Make sure you turn on your computer's sound.
About writing institutions, I'm of two minds. They provide a creative environment in which to work, but many writing schools do not give nuts-and-bolts instruction. In my opinion, the lack of instruction about the mistakes beginning writers make with regard to dialogue and description leads to a lot of wasted time.
The justification for the lack of instruction is that a beginning writer with a unique vision might be shoved into attitudes that make her or him conventional. I question that assumption because the very nature of writing schools tends to lead toward a personality for each school -- a set of attitudes that become institutionalized. If a writer doesn't have those attitudes, often she or he doesn't feel welcome.
I much prefer the writers conferences that occur throughout the country. These are advertised in places like Writers Digest and The Writer. They usually go from Friday to Sunday and are filled with informative sessions about writing and publishing. I can't resist giving another plug for Thriller Writers.
Next June, at the Arizona Biltmore, we'll have Thrillerfest in which many of the biggest names in the thriller field will be available to talk about their work and agents and editors and publishers. It'll be very instructive and exciting.
IN: What would you tell young writers about forging a successful career other than "keep writing"?
DM: The most important thing is to have a distinctive voice and subject matter, qualities that distinguish your work from anyone else's. In Lessons From A Lifetime Of Writing, I talk about the process by which I found my identity as a writer.
Other writers tell me that they have been able to apply that process to themselves.
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) Creepers (2005)
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)
Diego X. Jesus is a Dominican-born American freelance journalist and associate editor of IN who makes Toronto his home approximately half the time. Otherwise, we don't know where he might be. email Diego Jesus
Mark London is a Toronto based freelance writer and associate editor of IN who has been with the FWO-Int'l from the early years volunteering much of his time in assisting young writers' careers. email Mark: email@example.com