Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Riding High with David Morrell

Although I am “mature” enough to remember when Sylvester Stallone’s first Rambo action picture splashed onto U.S. movie screens in 1982, it wasn’t until two decades later that I finally understood those films had been spawned from a 1972 work titled First Blood, by Canadian-American novelist David Morrell. Credit for this realization lies largely with my fine friend Ali Karim, a Rap Sheet contributor and big Morrell enthusiast, who in 2003 conducted what is still one of the most thorough interviews with the author, published by the e-zine Shots.

And only last fall, during Bouchercon 2014 in Long Beach, California, did I finally have the opportunity to meet (and actually dine with) Morrell. More recently, I decided to fire some questions off to him--via e-mail--about his new historical thriller, Inspector of the Dead (Mulholland). Many of Morrell’s responses can be found in my latest Kirkus Reviews column. Those that couldn’t fit there are posted below.

Morrell, you might already know, was born in 1943 in the Canadian city of Kitchener, Ontario (which also happens to have been where the man who would grow up to be private-eye novelist Ross Macdonald spent a good chunk of his boyhood). After receiving his B.A. at St. Jerome’s University in Ontario, Morrell moved to the United States in the mid-1960s and studied American literature at Pennsylvania State University, eventually receiving his M.A. and Ph.D. Morrell began working as a professor with the University of Iowa English department in 1970, and two years later his debut novel, First Blood, was published. Described on Morrell’s Web site as “a ground-breaking 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,” First Blood was followed in fairly quick succession by such books as Testament (1975), The Totem (1979), and Brotherhood of the Rose (1984). The last of those was adapted into a two-part television movie of the same name, broadcast in 1989, and followed by a pair of sequels.

Morrell left teaching in 1986 and has since produced 20 additional novels (not only crime thrillers, but works in the horror and Western genres as well), plus a collection of short stories (1999’s Black Evening). He’s also racked up enough literary prizes to make a sturdy shelf sag, including the Nero and Macavity awards, multiple Bram Stoker Awards (from the Horror Writers Association), an Inkpot Award (bestowed by the Comic-Con International convention in San Diego, California), and, in 2009, the ThrillerMaster Award, presented for lifetime achievement by the International Thriller Writers.

My chief purpose in interviewing Morrell recently was to talk about Inspector of the Dead and its no-less-captivating predecessor, Murder as a Fine Art (2013), both of which find UK essayist and notorious drug addict Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859)--best known for penning Confessions of an English Opium-Eater--serving in the role of detective, with his youngest daughter, the resourceful and self-confident Emily, acting as his sidekick. However, I also asked him about his interest in the classic Martin Milner/George Maharis TV series Route 66, his often difficult childhood, the use of violence in his fiction, and a supposedly growing resurgence of interest in the eccentric De Quincey. I suggest you first check out my new Kirkus Reviews column, which highlights a variety of Inspector of the Dead’s essential plot elements, and then come back here to read the remainder of our lengthy e-mail exchange.

J. Kingston Pierce: Let’s start out with a simple question. Is it true that you’re 71 years old, with your next birthday on April 24?

David Morrell: It is. My debut novel, First Blood, was released in 1972. This is my 43rd year as a published author, an eternity if we consider that many careers end after 15 or 20 years. I think one reason I’m still being read is that I did my best to evolve. With each decade I tried to find new ways of writing action and suspense. My recent Victorian mystery/thrillers are a good example. Who could have predicted them?

(Left) David Morrell and his books. Photo by Jennifer Esperanza.

JKP: Is it also correct that you became a writer because of the early 1960s TV series Route 66? What was it about that program’s scripting that so affected you?

DM: My life was changed at 8:30 p.m. on the first Friday of October in 1960 when Route 66 premiered: two young men in a sports car traveling across the country in search of themselves. I was 17, and the scripts by Oscar-winner Stirling Silliphant (a fascinating mix of action and ideas) spoke to me so powerfully that I wrote him a letter, saying that I wanted to do what he did. He wrote back with the advice to write, write, write, and write. I never looked back. Route 66 was about moving ahead and searching, an attitude that really stuck with me.

JKP: You had a very difficult childhood. Your father, a Royal Air Force (RAF) bombardier, was shot down over France during World War II, and your mother first put you in an orphanage, then later sent you to live on a Mennonite farm. Your mother finally remarried and took you back, but your stepfather wasn’t a fan of children. How did those trying times prepare you for a life composing novels?

DM: I found out recently that my father was actually a Royal Navy pilot (not a bombardier). His task was to fly over German military facilities that were targeted by Navy cannons and to report where the shells were landing so that the ships could improve the trajectory of their barrage. I’m told that he was shot down during D-Day operations. Before that he was in Ontario, Canada, training Canadian pilots for the war. That’s where he met my mother. With the orphanage and the distant, sometimes violent stepfather, I had a troubled youth. My mother and stepfather argued so much that, as a child, I was so afraid I slept under my bed. That’s when I started telling stories to myself in which I was a hero, saving people. In a way, I was programmed to write thrillers.

JKP: The scope of research you must have done in order to produce Murder as a Fine Art and then Inspector of the Dead had to be extensive. It’s always a risk, after an author has done such considerable research for a book, that he will feel the need to share too much of that knowledge in his story. Do you find yourself prone to such over-explanation?

DM: My goal was to try to make readers believe that they are truly on those harrowing, fogbound streets [of London]. So I kept reminding myself that every detail had to serve the story and move it along. But because Murder as a Fine Art and Inspector of the Dead are imitation Victorian novels, I had an advantage--the omniscient viewpoint. Typical of many Victorian authors, [Charles] Dickens allowed his narrator to explain things, almost as a historian. Note the opening of Bleak House in which the narrator descends through London’s smog and finds the law courts at the center of it. Dickens basically explains the British legal system before the story begins. I find this to be refreshing, a technique so out of fashion these days that it’s brand new. The omniscient narrator gave me the opportunity to explain aspects of Victorian culture, burial practices for example, that I couldn’t have done any other way.

JKP: You’ve occasionally been criticized for inserting too much violence into your novels. In Murder as a Fine Art, you even cautioned readers in the introduction that some people might find the bloodshed, particularly in Chapter 1, “shocking.” Inspector has its own savage elements, though they’re somewhat less nightmarish. Are you sensitive to criticism about violence in your fiction? And what kind of balance do you try to strike between being honest to your story, letting violent acts speak when they must, and understanding that violence may sometimes turn off readers?

DM: Murder as a Fine Art uses many details from the first media-sensation murders in English history …, the 1811 Ratcliffe Highway slayings in London. Those murders--two sets of them, only a few days apart--were so ghastly that they literally paralyzed all of England. I call them the first media-sensation murders because they happened after improved roads and the speedy mail-coach system allowed the news to travel everywhere in England within two days. My main character, Thomas De Quincey, wrote in detail about those killings in the third installment of his famous “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” The point of the novel is that someone uses his step-by-step essay (the start of the modern true-crime genre) as an instruction manual. So I needed to be specific about the murders. It’s strong stuff. That’s why I put a disclaimer in the foreword, advising readers to be prepared for the first chapter, but that it was necessary for me to be specific.

In terms of violence in my work generally, I don’t include it unless it’s essential to the story. In my debut novel, First Blood, for example, you could say that I was dealing with “war as hell,” so sometimes the details are necessarily strong in order to show their effect on Rambo. In contrast, the movie (which I like) is more like “war is heck.”

JKP: After reading Inspector of the Dead, I find myself amazed by Queen Victoria’s willingness to appear regularly in public, even though men kept trying to assassinate her on the streets of London. Do you think her courageous, or perhaps willfully naïve?

DM: Victoria’s immediate forebears, George IV and William IV, were seldom seen in public. They mostly stayed in their country houses and lived excessively with their mistresses. When she was a child, Victoria was trained by her mother and her mother’s “advisor,” a man named [John] Conroy, to appear in public often and play up to the crowd. So … I’m not sure we can say she was courageous (although seven men did try to kill her). Mostly I see her as doing what she’d been indoctrinated to believe an effective monarch should do.

JKP: Thomas De Quincey seems rarely to sleep in your stories, for fear that his opium nightmares will plague him. Is that true, that he remained awake as many hours as possible? And what part did all that sleeplessness play in shaping his personality?

DM: Opium affected De Quincey as a stimulant. It wasn’t unusual for him to stay awake for 24 hours at a stretch, and to be writing all that time, dropping manuscript pages everywhere. But when he did sleep, he suffered opium nightmares that led him to conclude that the human mind has “caverns and abysses, layer upon layer,” where there are secret chambers in which alien natures can hide, undiscovered. These dreams caused him to write about the subconscious, a concept that he invented 70 years before Freud.

JKP: How do you see Emily De Quincey’s role in these novels? Is she principally the tether that keeps her father grounded, prevents him from bewildering his police associates with philosophizing above their comprehension, and translates his more obscure musings? Or does she serve a less obvious part in your fiction?

DM: Yep, she’s the tether. The books depend on her.

JKP: Much is known about Thomas De Quincey, but I believe relatively little is known of Emily. Do we even know what she looked like?

DM: [There’s] a wonderful painting that one of De Quincey’s daughters commissioned in 1855. The daughter was going to India to be married, and she wanted an image of her father and her two sisters. That painting survives. I often look at it as I write about these historical figures. Emily looks beautiful and, for me, spellbinding.

This 1855 painting by James Archer (part of the collection of The Wordsworth Trust) shows Thomas De Quincey with his daughters Emily and Margaret and granddaughter Eva Craig.

JKP: So is the young woman on the cover of Inspector of the Dead supposed to be Emily? I can’t imagine who else it might be, but I don’t recall a scene in the tale that would have inspired such an image.

DM: The image on the cover--a young woman walking across a bridge with a mysterious figure ahead of her--doesn’t depict anything in Inspector of the Dead. My Mulholland Books editor and I had several conversations about the image, which looks wonderfully atmospheric. We finally decided to pretend that it was Emily in a part of the book that wasn’t written.

JKP: More than a few book critics have compared the investigative partnership of De Quincey and Emily to that of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson. Is it that simple?

DM: For certain, Emily’s function isn’t simple. With her bloomer skirt, her independent attitude, and her suspicion about authority, she’s an anachronism, and that’s important because the contrast shows how few rights and how little freedom Victorian women had.

JKP: You’ve suggested before that we’re in the midst of a De Quincey renaissance. What factors convince you of that?

DM: One of my research assets is Robert Morrison, an English professor at Queens University in Ontario, Canada. Years ago, I too was a professor, so I wrote to him as one professor to another, asking for advice. I sent him the manuscript for Murder as a Fine Art to find out if he thought I had been true to De Quincey. When he gave me his imprimatur, we became Internet friends. The two of us are on a mission to make De Quincey part of the pantheon of 1800s English authors. Robert has been receiving reports about an increasing number of university courses that feature De Quincey. For a long while, TDQ (as Robert and I call him) didn’t receive his proper credit--because of the suspicion that an opium addict couldn’t have been a major author. But that overlooks the obvious. He was the first person to write about drug addiction, vividly, in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. I mentioned that he invented the modern true-crime genre in the third installment of “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” He invented what he called “psychological” literary criticism in his groundbreaking essay, “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth.” At a time when Wordsworth’s poetry was ridiculed, De Quincey championed it to everyone he met and was a major factor in Wordsworth’s being accepted as major poet. And then there’s De Quincey’s psychoanalytic writing. This guy was a big deal and deserves to be treated as such. Robert and I are spreading the word. The other major De Quincey expert, Grevel Lindop, has also been a big help to me.

JKP: How have you changed as an author since you published First Blood back in 1972? And what do you know about the business of fiction-writing now that you wish you’d known then?

DM: Every book is a new adventure. I finish one novel and decide that I finally understand what’s involved, but then I start a new one, and I realize that I have to learn how to write a book all over again.

JKP: You’ve said that you are currently at work on your third De Quincey novel, and you have “always thought of this as a trilogy.” Does that mean readers absolutely cannot expect a fourth installment … or that you’d be open to considering a fourth book, if you’re happy with how the first three are received?

DM: There’s always the chance there could be a fourth De Quincey novel. But at the moment, I’m focused on completing my original intention of a trilogy, and I can’t see beyond it. I never imagined that I’d write a short-story prequel about De Quincey (The Opium-Eater), which is sort of outside the trilogy, so it just goes to show that anything’s possible.

JKP: Finally, the Wikipedia page about you contains a particularly odd résumé item. It says that you’re a graduate of the G. Gordon Liddy Academy of Corporate Security. When did you take on that instruction, and what did the course work entail? Does this mean you actually had some contact with Liddy, the notorious Watergate burglar?

DM: In 1986, Gordon allowed his name to be used for an Academy of Corporate Security. The course lasted three weeks--days, nights, and weekends. It was taught by instructors who were retired from the DEA, FBI, CIA, etc. The course was designed for professionals in the security field, but I was allowed to attend (President Reagan’s son Ron was also allowed to attend). I spent a lot of time with Gordon, who mostly talked about opera and his family. The course was very intense. From the sessions with a professional undercover operative, I got the details for Assumed Identity [1993]. Another instructor, a retired U.S. marshal who’d been part of the team that protected John Hinckley Jr. after he shot President Reagan, gave me the research that I needed to write The Fifth Profession [1990], The Protector [2003], and some other protective-agent novels. Over the years, I’ve [had] numerous similar kinds of training from people who basically put me through what CIA operatives learn at the so-called Farm in Virginia.

I’m a Method-actor sort of novelist. I love learning what I write about. For one of my novels, [2009’s] The Shimmer (which is about the mysterious Marfa Lights in West Texas), I even became a private pilot. Of course, this hands-on approach is impossible for the Victorian period. Most of the De Quincey-era buildings are gone. But where possible, I did prepare some photo essays about the physical parts of the Victorian world that remain and that I wrote about in the novels. Here’s a link to one of them: “Eerie Lord Palmerston’s House.”

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If you’d like to watch the first episode of Route 66, “Black November,” which Morrell credits with changing his life, click here.

1 comment:

Ben Boulden said...

Excellent interview.