What made you decide to become a writer?
When I was seventeen, I was almost a high-school dropout. My school’s principal told me that I’d never amount to anything. Then I happened to watch a new TV series that premiered in the fall of 1960. It was called Route 66 and depicted the adventures of two young men driving across the United States in search of America and themselves. The series was filmed on location and had a mixture of action and ideas that I fell in love with. I wrote to the show’s head writer Stirling Silliphant, asking how I could learn to do what he did. He sent me a long encouraging letter. After that, I was burning with determination and never stopped wanting to tell stories. Years later, Stirling not only became my friend but was the executive producer of the miniseries of my novel, The Brotherhood of the Rose.
Who is Philip Young?
Like Stirling Silliphant, Young was extremely important to me. In 1965, as an undergraduate English student at a small college (St. Jerome’s) in Ontario, Canada, I came across Young’s book, Ernest Hemingway. A Hemingway enthusiast, I was first attracted to the book because of its subject. But Young had such an engaging style and such interesting ideas that I instantly knew I had to study with him. So I went home and asked my pregnant wife if she would give up her job as a high-school history teacher and travel with me to the United States, where Young taught at Penn State. To my surprise, she agreed. That was a life-changing moment. With most of our possessions crammed into a VW bug, we (and our newborn daughter) moved to the U.S. in 1966. Eventually I progressed from being a student in Young’s classes to being his graduate assistant. After his first wife died, my wife and I helped take care of his home and his grade-school-aged son so that he would have the freedom to teach and do research. He was like a second father to me. After Young died in 1991, I worked with another of his students, Sandra Spanier, now a professor at Penn State, to edit a volume of his wonderful essays, American Fiction, American Myth.
Your debut novel, First Blood, is dedicated to Philip Klass and William Tenn. Who are they?
At Penn State, I met a fiction writer named Philip Klass. He was the first professional writer I’d ever met. As William Tenn, he had written numerous, admired science fiction stories in the fifties and was now teaching fiction writing. He had a theory that we all had a secret that we didn’t know about and that the secret was like a ferret darting around inside us, desperate not to be discovered. He told me that searching for that ferret, I would find my subject matter and write fiction that was distinctly my own. Basically it was a form of fiction-writing as self-psychoanalysis. As with Stirling Silliphant and Philip Young, I’m immensely indebted to him. What he taught me I explain at length in my writing book, The Successful Novelist.
Was it difficult for you to get an agent?
I was very lucky. In 1969, Philip Klass bought a house near the Penn State campus. He invited his agent, Henry Morrison, and a writer friend, Donald E. Westlake, for a house-warming party. After they drove all the way from New York City, Klass introduced them to me. Needless to say, I was thrilled to meet an agent. Donald E. Westlake was a legendary crime author. I was in awe. Then Klass surprised me by telling them that I was working on a novel he thought was exciting and would they please listen to my description of it. I was not at all prepared. To complicate matters, Henry and Don chose to sit on a staircase that led to the house’s only bathroom on the second floor. Dozens and dozens of people trooped up and down, interrupting me as I described the plot of First Blood. I have no idea what I said, but after I finished, they were silent for the longest while. Boy, I really ruined that chance, I thought. Henry looked at Don and asked, “What do you think?” Don answered, “I think it’s a hell of an idea.” Henry added, “So do I. When you finish the novel, send it to me.”
What about actually getting published? Was that difficult for you?
Again, I was lucky. I started First Blood in 1968, the year Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., were assassinated. It was a year of turmoil, with hundreds of riots in American cities. That turmoil was in my mind as I worked on the book. I reached the halfway mark in 1969, but then I needed to postpone it so that I could write my doctoral dissertation on John Barth. I graduated in 1970 and went to teach at the University of Iowa. There, I immediately went back to writing First Blood and finished it in June of 1971. Along the way, I kept in touch with agent Henry Morrison about my progress. I sent the novel to him, and six weeks later, in August, he phoned to say that he had a publisher for the book. At first, I thought he was saying that he’d found a publisher for my John Barth dissertation. He burst out laughing and said, “No, your novel. Your novel.”
How did the movie of First Blood happen?
That was a saga. My agent submitted the manuscript to various studios. We soon heard that producer/director Stanley Kramer (The Defiant Ones, Mad Mad Mad World, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) wanted to buy the movie rights. I was very excited. After Kramer made a verbal commitment, we took the book off the film market, declining other offers. Then we waited for Kramer’s contract. And waited. It turned out he didn’t have any financing and was basically lying to us. The experience was disappointing but educational. By then, First Blood had been published. Producer Lawrence Turman (The Graduate) came across the novel in a bookstore (this never happens) and thought it would be good for writer/director Richard Brooks and Columbia Pictures. Brooks worked on the script for a year. For whatever reason, Columbia sold the project to Warner Bros. Then Warner Bros. sold it to someone else. Eventually there were 26 scripts. Paul Newman was associated with it for a time. So was Steve McQueen, with Sydney Pollack directing. It took ten years before the film, with Sylvester Stallone, appeared on the screen. I tell a fuller story of this in my introduction to my novel, First Blood, and in the “Rambo and the Movies” chapter of my writing book, The Successful Novelist.
What other books have you sold to the movies?
The Brotherhood of the Rose was a top-rated NBC television mini-series, the only mini-series to be broadcast after a Super Bowl. A short story, “But at My Back I Always Hear,” was filmed as an episode of the Showtime series, The Hunger. Apart from those, more than half my books have been optioned or else sold outright to film studios, but none got beyond the development stage. Some books (Testament, The Totem, and Assumed Identity) have been optioned several times. Michael Douglas bought the movie rights to Extreme Denial, but I don’t think anything will ever happen with that. MGM optioned Burnt Sienna for Pierce Brosnan when he was James Bond, but then Pierce stopped being James Bond, and MGM let the option lapse. Jessica Simpson’s father, Joe, a presence in the movie business, owns the rights to Creepers. In 2008 alone, I signed five movie contracts. But what happens is that studio heads leave, and the projects they championed are cancelled. Or trends change. These days, sequels, remakes, and comic-book heroes are the trend. Two years from now, it’ll be something else. Meanwhile, directors and actors are known for changing their minds a lot. It’s a shifting, unpredictable industry. Out of 100 movie/novel deals, perhaps only five films get made, and four of those five will probably be terrible. I love movies, but I’m always skeptical about the industry.
Is the television adaptation of The Brotherhood of the Rose available for home video?
Not commercially. During the videotape era, there was a VHS, but I don’t recommend looking for it. It cut the four hours into two and was incomprehensible. There are a lot of pirated full-length copies floating around the Internet, however. Of course, you never know what kind of video quality you’ll get. I wrote four drafts of the script for the miniseries. My friend Stirling Silliphant wrote a draft. Then Gy Waldron wrote a draft and received credit.
Do you like to do research?
I’m a Method actor type of author and love to immerse myself in a book’s subject. The research is often dramatic, as when I attended the G. Gordon Liddy Academy of Corporate Security. The faculty for this legendary three-week course consisted of former members of the CIA, FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, US Marshals Service, the Mossad, and so on. My novel Assumed Identity was based on training I received about assuming identities. The Fifth Profession, The Protector, and The Naked Edge came from instruction I received about how protective agents operate. I’ve had extensive firearms training as well as instruction in surveillance, electronic eavesdropping, hostage negotiation, industrial espionage, and a lot of other subjects.
What were your most memorable research experiences?
I spent a week at the Bill Scott Raceway in West Virginia, where numerous government agencies send their operatives to learn how to crash through barricades, do 180 degree spins, and car fight at fifty miles an hour. I broke my collarbone in a knife-fighting class taught by knife maker Ernest Emerson. For Testament, I learned wilderness survival from the National Outdoor Leadership School, spending thirty days in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming. At the end, the instructors took away my food and pointed at a spot on a map where they said they’d pick me up in 3 days. The location was fifty miles away on the other side of the Continental Divide. It was interesting (to put it mildly) not to eat for three days while climbing up and down mountains. For the airplane sequences in The Shimmer, I earned my pilot’s license. I’m also an honorary lifetime member of the Special Operations Association and the Association of Intelligence Officers. For details about my spy training, please read the introduction to my espionage e-story, The Interrogator, which is described in the E-WORKS section of this website.
Most of your books are standalones, but do you have any series?
A few. I try not to repeat myself on the theory that it’s better to look forward than back. But occasionally characters fascinate me enough to make me want to return to them. There’s the Rambo series, of course. After my novel First Blood, I did novelizations for Rambo (First Blood Part II) and Rambo III, which I talk about on the Rambo page of this site. Then there’s The Brotherhood of the Rose, The Fraternity Of The Stone, and The League Of Night And Fog, a trilogy in which the first two novels are stand-alones, but their main characters meet in the third book. A short story, “The Abelard Sanction,” ties up a loose plot thread in the Brotherhood series. The characters in Creepers are repeated in Scavenger. The characters in The Protector are repeated in The Naked Edge and in three short stories, “Blue Murder,” “The Attitude Adjuster,” and “The Controller.”
Which authors influenced you the most?
At Penn State, I wrote my Master’s thesis about Hemingway’s style. While I don’t pretend to have Hemingway’s skill, I learned a lot from him about treating action seriously. You never catch him using pulp phrases like “A shot rang out.” In books like A Farewell to Arms, To Have and Have Not, and For Whom the Bell Tolls, he made readers smell the gunsmoke and hear the shots. His palpable vividness without clichés became my goal. I learned pace from James M. Cain, whose The Postman Rings Twice and Double Indemnity are models of efficient storytelling. (Interestingly, when Stephen King taught fiction writing at the University of Maine, he used First Blood and Double Indemnity as his only textbooks.) I learned how to write outdoor thrillers from Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male and Watcher in the Shadows. Household uses an almost mystical approach to outdoor action scenes, as if Wordsworth had returned and become a thriller writer. I wrote an essay about Household’s Rogue Male for Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, a non-fiction collection I co-edited with Hank Wagner. That essay is available for free on this website, as is Steve Berry’s essay about First Blood, also originally published in Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads.
What’s your next project?
My next novel is called Murder as a Fine Art. It’s a brooding, disturbing, hair-raising thriller set in 1854 London. Part of the reason there’s a gap between The Naked Edge in 2010 and this new book, which will be published in June of 2013, is that the research took me a long time. Many novels written about the Victorian era are costume dramas with the characters speaking as if they’re in the twenty-first century. But I wanted readers to feel that they were actually on the streets of 1854 London. That meant a total immersion in the subject. For a year, everything I read and thought about was related to that city and that year. Its main character is the most notorious English author of the mid-1800s, Thomas De Quincey, who wrote a scandalous bestseller, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, the first book about drug addiction, although the Victorians had no concept of addiction as we know it. De Quincey was fifty years ahead of Freud in formulating theories about nightmares and the subconscious. He was also an expert in murder, particularly the Ratcliffe Highway mass murders of 1811. Those murders were so sensational that they literally paralyzed England. Their effect wasn’t equaled until the Jack the Ripper slayings at the end of the century. De Quincey wrote the first-true crime essay about those murders, “On Considering Murder as One of the Fine Arts,” from which I take my book’s title.
You said that the research for Murder as a Fine Art is one of the reasons there’s a gap between it and The Naked Edge. Is there another reason?
My debut novel, First Blood, was published in 1972. I’m now in my fifth decade as an author. I decided that it was time to revisit all my books, essays, and short stories and organize them so that readers would be able to find them easily and understand how the various titles related to one another. This new website is part of that effort. It clearly categorizes what I’ve written and provides a ton of information about the many facets of my work. The e-book revolution also motivated me. Over the years, as I moved from publisher to publisher, my books came in and out of print. My friend, Donald E. Westlake, a brilliant author, once said, “If you’re out of print, you’re dead.” But e-books make it possible for an author’s work always to be available. I own the e-rights to the majority of my work, so I began releasing them in all the e-formats. That’s a big job. If you look at the Complete Bibliography on my BOOKS page, you’ll find 28 single-spaced pages of material. I revised the texts. I wrote introductions. I supervised the creation of new covers. It has literally taken me a couple of years to make the majority of my work available in this way, with more to come. I suppose you could say that I became my own archivist.