Monday, August 26, 2019

The Story Behind the Story: “The Death Dealer,” by Adam Rocke and Mark Rogers

(Editor’s note: This is the 85th entry in The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series. The essay below comes from Adam Rocke Slutsky and Mark Rogers, co-authors of the new thriller novel The Death Dealer [World Castle]. Adam grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains—the famous “Borscht Belt”—where his family owned a hotel. He has since worked as a journalist, specializing in “high octane participatory articles for hip men’s lifestyle publications.” Meanwhile, Mark is a veteran travel journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Village Voice, and other publications. He’s also the author of the novel Koreatown Blues [2017]).

In the late-1990s, I was following in the footsteps of my literary idol, Hunter S. Thompson, engaging in participatory journalism—primarily for hip men’s lifestyle publications (Razor, Maxim, Stuff, etc.).

One day I received a call from Keith Blanchard, the editor-in-chief of Maxim, asking me if I knew any mercenaries. Soldiers of fortune. War-fighters who played for pay. Turns out I did. A man by the name of Jonathan Keith Idema was my “Dark Arts Yoda,” schooling me in self-defense, guns and weaponry, CQB (close quarters combat) tactics … Everything I’d ever need to know to survive if society collapsed.

If Idema’s name sounds familiar, that’s because he would go on to become infamous. He was convicted of running his own private prison in Afghanistan and served three years of a 10-year term before being pardoned by Afghanistan’s then-president, Hamid Karzai. Idema also led an Afghanistan group called Task Force Saber 7, whose mission it was to hunt for Osama bin Laden. Many of Idema’s claims that he was a clandestine operative working for the U.S. government have been challenged. Some say Idema was an operative, others portray him as a con man.

Editor Blanchard wanted a no-holds-barred, up-close-and-personal “mercenary story” worthy of being a cover feature. I had one that definitely fit the bill.

For more than a year, Idema had been taking wealthy big-game hunters on real-life “Most Dangerous Game” safaris, hunting prey that could shoot back. While Idema claimed to have done some of this unlawful guide work in Eastern Europe (where there were multiple conflicts raging), the vast majority of his illicit safaris took place in Africa, hunting poachers.

Idema’s “clients” had checked off every item on their bucket lists and were now looking to scratch some ungodly primal itch—without legal consequences. As far as moral consequences go, that was between them and their consciences.

The story I produced—titled “The Death Dealer”—was a cover feature in Maxim magazine’s September 1998 issue. Despite writing the piece under a pseudonym, and also changing Idema’s name in the story, along with some pertinent details, almost a month before the magazine hit the newsstands I was questioned by the FBI about what I had written.

(Left) The September 1998
issue of Maxim magazine.

Fast-forward now to January 21, 2012. Jonathan Keith Idema died in Bacalar, Mexico. His cause of death was listed as HIV/AIDS. Those who followed his actions closely would say his demise was a product of his latter-years lifestyle, but there others who weren’t convinced. He had made a lot of enemies during his 55 years on Earth (including the CIA, NSA, and more than a few so-called No-Name agencies), so it stands to reason that anyone could have done the deed and masked it to look like natural causes.

I knew I had a story here—maybe a screenplay, maybe a novel. I brought in Mark Rogers to partner with me in writing a screenplay based on Idema’s human safaris.

After Adam opened the door to my working with him on The Death Dealer, I sat down with the original Maxim article and the notes Adam had drafted for a screenplay. It took me only moments to get inspired. One of my favorite stories growing up was “The Most Dangerous Game,” by Richard Connell, and one of my favorite movies was Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey (1965). The Death Dealer would have elements of both of those works, but it also had its own unique slant. The fact that it was based on a real person made the project even more appealing.

We decided not to use Idema’s name; our death dealer is named Haden. Idema was a scurrilous and unsympathetic character. Haden, the protagonist in our book, has his rough edges but he’s developed a code of honor as a mercenary that he brings to all of his relationships. His predilection is to organize hunts against the kind of people the world would hardly miss: African poachers, Somali pirates, Mexican drug dealers. But of course, very little is truly black and white, good or evil, and Haden’s moral education is an ongoing process.

(Right) Mark Rogers

Collaboration can be tricky—it demands honesty and an attitude of good will. Both writers have to be riding the horse in the same direction. Luckily, our writing styles melded really well. Both Adam and I have our own individual strengths as writers. In the case of The Death Dealer, our combined talents created a work that is stronger than if we had tackled it singly. I actually met Adam on this project, so we developed our friendship at the same time as we pounded out the story.

Trying to open the doors to Hollywood and mainstream publishing can be a battering process. It helps that both Adam and I are optimists. I think you have to be in this business. The odds are against success, and adding a pessimistic nature to the struggle only handicaps the writer. That said, there’s a big difference between being an optimist and being a Pollyanna who thinks every moment is a Christmas gift waiting to be unwrapped. If all goes well, an attitude of tough optimism can be developed.

One of Idema’s positive characteristics was his love for animals, especially dogs. He had a massive Tibetan Shepherd named Sarge that was easily the most well-trained pooch on the planet. Idema took his dog training to the next level, rigging up a specialized oxygen rig so Sarge could accompany him on skydiving adventures, jumping out of C-130s leaving from Stewart Air Force Base in Newburgh, New York. Idema’s efforts in this arena paved the way for today’s SEAL and Spec Ops teams, which employ K9 units on their missions. Whenever they do HAHO jumps (high altitude, high opening) or HALO jumps (high altitude, low opening) requiring supplemental oxygen, the canine rigs are derivatives of the ones Idema created.

It was Idema’s love of dogs, and his interaction with Sarge, that lead Mark and I to give Haden a dog in our story, and the scenes in which he acquired the dog and gained its trust are a direct product of Idema’s early years.

(Left) Adam Rocke Slutsky

We both felt that this “softer side” of our anti-hero mercenary lead character would play well with a wide audience. And so, to test the waters, we entered the screenplay (at that time titled Hunter’s Moon) in the 2014 Script Pipeline screenwriting competition. To our surprise, out of more than 5,000 entries, our work was a top-10 finalist. We received some option offers but decided that writing a novel was our best bet.

Diving into work on the novel after writing the screenplay gave us the opportunity to provide an inner narrative for each of the characters. It also allowed us to stretch out in depicting the African setting, as well as adding scenes that worked well in a novel, but would have slowed a screenplay down. In writing the novel, we actually discovered some alternative ways of telling the story, and a few of these changes found their way into subsequent drafts of the screenplay.

We took our completed novel—retitled The Death Dealer, in synergy with the Maxim article that spawned it—and found a home for it fairly quickly, at World Castle Publishing. We’ve already started receiving inquiries from Hollywood about the novel’s television and film rights.

We’re also in discussions with our publisher about creating a series featuring Haden, the death dealer from the first novel. Of course, this depends upon what kind of reaction we get in the marketplace. We consider Haden a kind of story machine, with each novel having a different client (or clients) and taking place in a different part of the world: The Philippines, El Salvador, Haiti, etc.

Bringing this story to market was an exceptionally long road and, speaking for both Mark and I, there’s a definite feeling of accomplishment—a victory of sorts—that we were able to weather the storm (or in this case, storms) that many novelists face when trying to get their work published. The upside here was that the lengthy amount of time that passed between the story’s inception and the final, ready-for-publication manuscript allowed us to refine every element from start to finish, resulting in a book that we hope readers will truly enjoy.

I’ll add that while writing is, for the most part a solitary process, The Death Dealer is proof that two sets of eyes, two different life experiences, and two different collections of sensibilities are better than one.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Adam ‘‘tis sounds fascinating I know it’ll do well in all mediums.
Lisa d