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Most authors dream of creating a character that escapes from their books and becomes part of popular culture. Today I'm interviewing David Morrell, who created Rambo and whose writing career has spanned four decades, and we get an insight into David's research process, his work ethic and his mindset.
In the intro, I mention my research trip to Barcelona and you can see the pictures on Flickr here; I also mention the launch of Pentecostés in Spanish and the Spanish book trailer that promotes it. Coming this month are also the German version of Desecration, and Delirium, plus I am off to New York for Thrillerfest, so expect a roundup of that mid July.
This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.
David Morrell is the multi-award winning and many times bestselling author of 35 books, as well as many short stories, essays and collaborations that have sold millions of copies and are available in many different languages. He has a Phd in American literature and was a Professor of Literature at the University of Iowa. His novel ‘First Blood,' became the Rambo franchise, his latest novel is ‘Murder as a fine art,‘ a historical thriller, and today we're talking about his book for writers, ‘The Successful Novelist,' recently updated and released in ebook format as well as print.
You can watch the interview on YouTube here, listen above or on the podcast feed on iTunes or Stitcher, or read the transcription below. We discuss:
- The themes that David returns to in his writing
- A thriller author who actually lives a thriller life. On taking research to extremes
- On the inspiration for Murder As A Fine Art
- David's writing process
- The precariousness of life. Don't spend time writing books that are aren't worth writing.
- Writing a letter to yourself before you start a book
- Screenwriting and Rambo
- Movie contract clauses you should watch out for
- The business of being an author. Even after so many years, David spends an hour a day on marketing
- On The Architecture of Snow and publishing
- Longevity in the business
You can find David at DavidMorrell.net and his books at all stores. You can also connect with him on Facebook/DavidMorrellAuthor
Transcription of interview with David Morrell
Joanna: Hi, everyone, I’m Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com, and today I’m here with David Morrell. Welcome, David!
David: Hi, Joanna, it’s good to see you again.
Joanna: It’s so good to have you on the show. Just as a bit of an introduction, David is the multi-award-winning and many times best-selling author of 35 books, as well as many short stories, essays and collaborations that have sold millions of copies and are available in so many languages. It’s very hard to introduce David!
David: And I’m Rambo’s daddy, you have to remember that.
Joanna: That’s what I was about to say: your first novel, “First Blood,” became the Rambo franchise, and your latest novel is “Murder as a Fine Art,” a historical thriller, and today we’re also talking about your latest book for writers, “The Successful Novelist,” recently updated. So lots to talk about.
But let’s start, David, you’ve written so many books across multiple genres, but what are the themes that you keep returning to, over and over again? What, what are your obsessions?
David: Well, before I answer that, remember, this is my 42nd year as a published author, so if I didn’t have a sizeable bibliography, we would say what have I been doing for 42 years, so that accounts for a lot of what I’ve been doing. I have a couple of themes, and they date back.
People say, “Well, why do you write thrillers?” I have a doctorate in American literature, I was a professor at the University of Iowa, in the English department, and people sometimes kind of snootily say (if that’s a word), “Why do you write thrillers?” and I’m reminded of something that Stephen King said about writing horror: which is “What makes you think I have a choice?”
It goes back to when I was young: my father died in the war, and my mother was forced for a time to put me in an orphanage, she couldn’t support me as a single mother. Then she remarried, and the man she married, he didn’t like children. There was a lot of fighting in the house, and my parents argued all the time, and I was in fear for much of my early years. And what I did, when I went to bed, is I put pillows under the covers—it’s like in a prison movie, when they’re breaking out, and they stuff the pillows—and I then went under the bed, and I slept under the bed. And in my fear, I told myself stories, I was at the time, four years, five years, six years old, and I told myself stories in which I was the hero, and rescuing people or whatever—in effect, rescuing myself.
And so, in a way I was hard-wired from when I was very young to be a thriller author, and one of my themes—and I learned this the hard way, as I was growing up, I won’t bore you with all the stuff that went wrong in my life, but it was a rough upbringing—it occurred to me (this is not news, but it’s worth remembering) that life is a very unpredictable affair, and things can go wrong quickly.
And so my themes, one of them, at least, a constant one, is it doesn’t hurt to be aware of what’s going on around you. And interestingly, when I was a professor, one of my authors I loved teaching was Henry James, because that was his theme, awareness, that we have an obligation to become more and more aware. Of course, Henry James is not a thriller author, but I’m taking that theme and applying it in another way.
I gravitate toward professionals, people whose business is it to be aware, and whose lives depend on them being aware, but the hope is that non-professionals, so to speak, reading my work will apply these lessons. There’s a book called “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin de Becker, do you know the book? Everyone should read it. And, and as de Becker says, we have all these signals coming at us all the time, and some people choose to ignore them, and get mugged, or have their car stolen, or terrible stuff, because they say, “I kind of knew there was something wrong there, but I thought, oh heck, it doesn’t matter.” Well, when you feel that, it, it does matter, and basically that’s what my books are about: the gift of fear.
Joanna: On that subject, in terms of your research, as a professional, you’ve done a lot of professional training as well. In fact, you are a thriller author who is pretty thrilling!
So, tell us about some of the research stuff you’ve done and some of the exciting adventures you’ve had.
David: Well, I did a novel called “Testament,” which was about a man on the run from a terrorist organization, who is forced to live in the mountains, over a winter. This is long ago, when you couldn’t get information as readily on the Internet, so I went to the library, and what I was reading, how do you survive in the wilderness, it just wasn’t persuasive. And I heard about an organization called the National Outdoor Leadership School, which is based in Lander, Wyoming, in the United States, and basically takes groups into the mountains and teaches them how to survive up there.
And so, prior to writing “Testament,” I went and I lived above timberline in the Rocky Mountains for 30 days. And the graduation exercise—I remember this so vividly—there’s a mantra, “You can go three minutes without air, three hours without heat, three days without water and three weeks without food.” And so they said, “We’re going to take away”- we’d packed our food, you can’t scavenge in the mountains unless you’re hunting or fishing, because the nuts and berries that you’re eating aren’t enough to sustain you, given the effort you’re putting out to get the nuts and berries: it’s a minus deal. So they took our food away, and they said, and then they showed us the map, and it was on the other side of the Continental Divide, “Three days from now, we’ll pick you up over here.” So, you had to know how to use a compass and a map, we kept our canteen, but we didn’t have any food, and basically for three days—there were five of us in this particular group—we just kept going and kept going, and I lost 25 pounds, and it was kind of interesting when we were done and we got out there, we did find where they picked us up, otherwise God knows what would have happened.
And they came, and they had this big spread of all this food, and I thought, “This does not feel right: I haven’t eaten anything for three days, and they’re giving me hamburgers, I don’t think so,” and I think that was part of the lesson, and I chewed on a banana for like two hours, and these guys were eating the hamburgers: in half an hour, they were throwing up in the ditch, because their whole system had shut down.
So, I did that, that was an exciting thing. I went to the Bill Scott Raceway in West Virginia, where many government people go to learn how to drive in emergency situations (I’m using government as a code for all kinds of places), and so for five days, I learned how to car fight, how to ram through barricades, at 50 miles an hour, we were doing all this stuff, and the movies have it all wrong. It, it was a glorious time, I never had so much fun as doing all this car fighting on this raceway. And I used that in a novel called “The Protector,” because it occurred to me that car chases in the movies are fake, and I hardly ever see them in novels, so I thought, “Well, why not do a car chase in a novel that’s authentic in the way a professional would really do it.”
I think the one that really transformed me the most, I was doing a novel called “The Shimmer,” which is about mysterious lights that appear in West Texas, and have been since 1889, and they’re real, I’ve seen them, they’re very strange. And the government, the military, for a time, tried to investigate them using aircraft. So I knew that the novel, if it was going to be realistic, would have to use aircraft. And then I thought, “Well, what do I know about aircraft?” and I’m not going to fake that: if you’re writing about guns, it helps to go out and shoot one, just so you know what it’s like, and so I live in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and I went down to the local airport and found a place that taught flying. I started taking flying classes, and I liked it so much that I then actually became a private pilot. I have my license, which has the Wright Brothers on it, very cool. I’ve had a lot of fun doing the research.
Joanna: You have, and I think you’re my example, so I say to my husband, “Well, you know, David learnt all this stuff, and went to go do car chases, so I have to as well.” And in fact, we went to Budapest and went to a Soviet bunker and shot a lot of guns!
David: Yes! You know, there’s a reason why people, why gun enthusiasts are so enthusiastic: it’s fun to shoot guns. But there are other issues to do with it, but we won’t get into that.
Joanna: We won’t go there.
But what’s interesting, a lot of your books have the technology, , the speed, the car chases. Your latest book, “Murder as a Fine Art,” is, is a little bit different, isn’t it. Tell us about that book.
David: Well, it’s set in 1854 London, and I remember when I first proposed the subject to a couple of author friends, they were horrified, because here’s somebody known for contemporary American, more or less—I’d written international thrillers, but American subjects, and after all, “First Blood” and Rambo—and I’m saying that I want to go to 1854 London. Part of this was that I’m sort of disillusioned with the opportunities in novels using contemporary settings. I feel as if I’ve done it a lot, and I wanted a fresh perspective. And I fell in love with a real person from the period named Thomas De Quincey, who was the first person to write about drug addiction in a book called “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.” He anticipated Freud’s theories by a half-century and invented the sub-conscious, and he saw, to quote him, he “saw the mind as filled with chasms and sunless abysses with secret chambers in which alien natures could live undetected,” I thought, “Oh, isn’t that cool.”
And he was an expert in murder, he was fascinated by the first publicized mass murders in English history, the Radcliffe Highway slayings of 1811, and he wrote a famous blood-soaked essay called “On Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts,” and I thought, “OK, that’s my title, ‘Murder as a Fine Art’, and it’ll be about him and those killings.” The idea was so exciting. And then I said to myself, “Wait a minute: I don’t know anything about 1854 London,” I mean, yes, I was raised in Canada, born and raised, so I’m sort of a Commonwealth citizen, but that doesn’t make me, what am I going to do?
So, in my method acting way, for two years—I’m not lying here—all I read were books related to 1854 London: either histories or contemporary, there are lots of memoirs from the period, or novels from the period, Dickens and what have you, and certainly De Quincey, De Quincey has thousands and thousands of pages, and I read his again and again—someone said I’d become a ventriloquist for him, because after a while, I feel I’m reincarnated, Thomas De Quincey’s squirming around inside me, and finally, I got so it’s like in a Richard Matheson novel, like “Time Return” and Jack Finney, “Time and Again,” where I actually felt I was there, and I had a map on my wall over of 1851 London, and I can get around on that as if I lived there. And—I love to say this—once I knew how much a woman’s clothes weighed in 1854, middle-class, upper-class, not a shop girl, the answer is, the clothes weighed 37 pounds, and why did they weigh 37 pounds? Because they wore these outrageous hooped skirts with either whale teeth or metal underneath, and that wide surface had to be covered with cloth. And the cloth, ten yards of this satin and undergarments and weights to keep the skirts down, and what nonsense, it amounted to 37 pounds if you do the math.
Anyhow, it was just a joy, and, and the response was so good that I’ve written a second one that’ll be coming out, called “Inspector of the Dead.”
Joanna: Wow. You, you certainly go deep in your research, don’t you!
David: Yes, I am a method actor writer. I must get into the role, I must feel that I’m there. It takes time, mind you.
Joanna: I love research, too. We’re off to Barcelona on Monday to start some research on another book.
Is that the bit you like best? I mean, what of the writing process do you like best?
David: Oh, it’s a combination of things. Obviously, there’s that excitement when an idea seizes you, creeps up on you. You know, people say, “Where do you get your ideas?” well, for me it’s always when I’m not looking. I say, “Well, that’s kind of interesting,” and of course what I call civilians, non-writers, they’ll say, “Oh, that’s interesting,” and go on about their, their day, but a writer will say, “I wonder why that’s so interesting,” I may make a few notes, and if it sticks the next day and the day after that, the next thing you know, you’re writing.
And then, of course, people say, “Write what you know about,” butI kind of think it’s more fun to pick a topic I want to know about and then research the hell out of it, and then write the book.
I have this rule which is about life being so short.
I mentioned earlier about the curiousness. My son died when he was 15 from a very rare bone cancer. He was in the hospital for six months, he lost this entire part of his ribcage to surgery, and died anyhow, and my granddaughter, Natalie, died from the same rare bone cancer, and only 200 people get that disease each year in the United States.
So, you know, I have seen this, I’ve learned that the most precious thing we have is time. So I won’t write a book simply because I think it will sell copies. I’m not a dimwit. I mean, obviously, that’s in the equation. But I have three requirements, and one is that there must be something about the theme of the book, the situation, which, as I write it will make me understand myself better. The second is that there’s something about the research that will add to me as well, that I’ll become a fuller person because of the research. And the third is, there has to be something about the way that the book is written that will engage me, that I’ll have the feeling that I’m moving the idea of what a thriller can be forward, instead of doing what I’ve done or, you know, what a lot of other people have done.
I think I told you my mantra, which is, “Be a first-rate version of yourself rather than a second-rate version of another writer,” and so that’s sort of the rule I follow.
Joanna: Which is brilliant.
And then in “The Successful Novelist,” you talk about your process for writing a book, including this written conversation with yourself, which I love. Tell us a bit about that.
David: Well, again, ideas come from the strangest sources. I wonder if anybody even remembers Harold Robbins. You know, “The Carpetbaggers” and “The Adventurers,” he had great tales. I read them, they’re fun. But, one evening, during his fame (who remembers him anymore, this is another example of if you write to be famous, good luck, because in this country, a famous politician was dethroned yesterday, and they say, “Alright, you know, it comes and it goes,” so, in, in any case if you don’t want to do it for the fame-).
Going back to Harold Robbins, he talked to his typewriter. He would go in and sit down, before computers, he’d say, “Oh, hello, Doris,” whatever her name was, “How are you today?” and Doris would say, imagine this, he thinks the typewriter’s talking back to him, “Well, Harold, I just can’t wait for you to keep writing, that story you told me yesterday, so exciting.” “Oh, well, Doris, thank you, yes I had a few ideas,” that’s how he wrote. And then he’d start, he’s telling the story to Doris the typewriter.
So I got into thinking, what if I wrote letters to myself, conversations, whatever you want to call them, in which I would, in a conversation with myself, and this is almost schizophrenic, discuss ideas, It would be like, “Well, David, what are we doing here?” and I’d say, “Well, I had this idea for a novel about a guy named Thomas De Quincey,” and the other part of me would say, “Well, what’s so special about Thomas De Quincey?” and then I would answer that question, and so I’m constantly prodding myself, why is this interesting, who would care, why would you bother doing this? that kind of question. And sometimes these written conversations have gone on for 10 or 20 single-spaced pages.
The advantage of it is that you don’t talk out the idea into the ozone, as you would, say, with a friend or a spouse or a partner or whoever, “Have you got an idea?” “Yes, I’ve got one, let me tell you about it,” and when you’re all done, you don’t want to write the darn thing. If you’ve written it on paper, it’s a different process, and the advantage of doing this also is that in the long run, let’s say, life being what it is, you get sick, or a major catastrophe occurs, well, you can come back to that written conversation and pick it up, and be re-primed, just as when you first wrote it.
So I’ve found it to be very helpful for myself and, and people who’ve read “The Successful Novelist,” that’s the chapter that most people want to talk to me about.
Joanna: It’s actually the first time I’ve heard of that particular technique.
David: Just me and Harold Robbins, that’s all I can tell you!
Joanna: No more: it’ll be everyone now!
David: Well, it’s everyone. Well, people that read the book, but it gets around.
Joanna: It’s a really good tip.
Now, I wanted to ask you about the screenwriting and the whole Rambo thing, because obviously, I guess many writers hear Rambo and they kind of think, “Oh, wow, that movie must have been the pinnacle of everything, and getting a movie deal is the best thing ever for an author.”
Can you talk a bit about that process, and what you learned about authors and movies?
David: Well, it, it was a long process. “First Blood,” my first novel, I’m still amazed that it’s in print, 42 years later, it’s never been out of print, and people talk about the movies as if they were yesterday. There’s a theater here out in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and at the end of this month, June, I’m going to be introducing a screening of First Blood here in Santa Fe, at a local theater, and a question and answer afterward.
The novel came out in 1972, and a producer named Lawrence Turnman, who had co-produced The Graduate, was approached about it through my agent, and he liked it a lot, and he went to Columbia Pictures, where Richard Brookes, a writer-director I deeply admire, was hired to adapt and direct. After a year, I don’t know what Brookes turned in, I don’t know what the script was, but Columbia immediately sold it to Warner Brothers, and Warner Brothers hired Martin Ritt for a time, or at least approached him to see if he would direct it, and Ritt had worked a lot with Paul Newman, so it looked as if Newman would be in the picture, playing the police chief, not Rambo. And that fell apart.
Then, Sidney Pollack, another director I admire, was hired to direct Steve McQueen, and this was firm, this was a gold project with McQueen, and then somebody remembered that McQueen was 45 years old, and that in 1975, there were no 45-year-old guys coming back from Vietnam, that was a young person’s war, unlike what’s happening in Afghanistan and Iraq, where most of those people are 45, 50 years old.
So it went through ultimately six studios, twenty-six scripts…
Michael Douglas was approached, I forget who all else, and then finally, Andy Vajna, Andrew Vajna as they say in the film, and Mario Kassar, two distributors, wanted to make a movie, they had a company called Carolco, so they approached Sylvester Stallone, who had never had a hit in anything except Rocky, was considered very risky, and Stallone himself said that it was going to be the most popular home movie ever made, he didn’t think anybody would go see it, but to the contrary.
And so that picture came out ten years after the book was published. I’d had a lot of time to be seasoned.
I mean, I’ve seen people go crazy, by having movies and whatever, they really have: they become different people. But I thought it was exciting, I won’t deny that, and I was very flattered, for the US Blu-ray DVD of First Blood, I was asked to do a full-length audio commentary: asking the author, there’s something wrong there, what made them think of doing that? It was all very exciting, and the character, of course, has been interpreted different ways by different people. It was politicized in this country, in the United States, Ronald Reagan, when he was President, invoked Rambo a lot in his speeches. And he once said, and I cringed, “I saw a Rambo movie the other night: now I know what to do the next time there’s a terrorist hostage crisis.” And I couldn’t tell whether he was kidding or not. You just have to laugh.
But the best story I heard about Rambo, I was in Poland on a publicity tour, and I had received an unusual amount of press attention, a lot of media, more than was right, this didn’t make any sense to me. And a very nice woman journalist, she said, “You’re confused, aren’t you?” and I said, “I don’t know why?” They were interviewing me for three days, twelve hours a day, they were just stacked up, and I said, “What’s that about?” And she said, “Well, you have to understand the Solidarity years here”. The Rambo movies were illegal. But pirated copies were smuggled in, and she referred to herself as a demonstrator; she said, “Groups such as mine watched the movies, dressed up as Rambo, and went out and demonstrated against the Russian soldiers.”
And so she said, with a smile, “So in a small way, Rambo helped bring down the Soviet Union.”
And I thought, “Alright, this is cool, we can put that on my tombstone, although I’m not ready to go yet, but we could consider that.”
Joanna: Wow. I think one of the big things from reading the chapter and hearing you talk, is that how much out of the author’s control the whole thing gets, as in it could have been nothing, it could have been the expensive home movie, but it’s become a film that people, teenagers now still know, even though it was way before they were born: it’s amazing.
David: First Blood, the others are of varying quality. The second one is kind of a comedy, kind of a Western, Tarzan, Rambo of the Jungle, I don't know what you’d call it, and the fight in the helicopter’s like the fight on the stage coach in a Western. And the third one’s a mess, by any standard, it’s just not a very good film. The fourth one has good and bad stuff to it, but the middle, I gather, was eviscerated by the producers. But the first one has aged well, and if you think again about changing society, who could have predicted this.
At the time of the Vietnam War, returning Vietnam veterans were literally spat upon; they were insulted, they were called baby-killers, and they were being confused with the political policies that sent them to war. Military personnel are servants of the government. One of the things that First Blood did was to change people’s perception of not only Vietnam veterans, but also of all returning veterans, and, and it’s pretty much acknowledged that the sympathy that Rambo’s character created because of Sylvester Stallone’s eyes, particularly, you don’t have that happening anymore, and people became sophisticated enough to understand that military personnel and the politicians, there’s a disjoint there.
So it’s been a ride to have created a character that changed society, and, and as you say, though, I call it two different train tracks: there’s the novel and then what happened with the films, and because First Blood’s a pretty good film, I certainly am not going to complain. But that’s why I call myself “Rambo’s father,” “Rambo’s daddy,” I like to kid around with it, because it’s like a character that grows up and goes his way, and it’s not under my control what will happen, but it’s certainly interesting to watch how it happened.
Joanna: Just as a follow-up to that, are there any things that authors should watch out for with movie contracts in particular, because you do cover that in the book.
David: There is, yes. First of all, make sure that you have payment for sequels and prequels and remakes, and that this is in the contract. I have profit participation in the Rambo films, and they actually pay. I mean, the joke in the movie business is that the profits are like the horizon, they recede infinitely, but I actually got money from the Rambo films, so, make sure you have, even if it looks meaningless, profit participation. But more than that, from the point of view of us as writers, have a clause in the contract that says you have the exclusive right for prequels, sequels, if you want to do a remake of your novel, updated, that you have the exclusive right to do that, and that no one can write novelizations or plots based upon the characters in the movie—characters that you created.
I mean, I see television shows where I see paperbacks using those characters, and I’m pretty confident that the creator of those characters is not getting money from those books. So make sure you have the control. And it’s pretty simple, the exclusive right to write—the “right/write” there gets a little awkward—to create sequels, prequels, remakes, whatever, that no one else can do it. It’s pretty important.
Joanna: It’s a really good chapter, and I think everyone should read that, because it’s one of those things when a lot of authors are so grateful when they get someone going, “Ooh, we’re thinking of a movie,” but you just never know, so you have to protect your rights, that’s just a big deal.You have to look after your author business.
How do you see the difference between being an author and running a business as an author?
David: Well, when I started in 1972, nobody talked this way. There were no book signings, I mean, none of what we take for granted, and of course there wasn’t the Internet then. I remember when I received a postcard one day, in 1972, and it had blood on it, I mean the word “blood.” And I honestly thought it was from the Red Cross, asking me to go to a local hospital and give blood for a blood drive. And I put the postcard up, and I do give blood, so I thought, “Alright, I’ll try to remember that and I’ll get over there.” And about half an hour later, I said, “You know, there’s something strange about that postcard,” and I went back and it was for my novel, it was for “First Blood,” and it was a card they sent out to reviewers. This was considered so avant garde: “Oh my god, they sent postcards out, oh, what genius!”. And now, of course, it’s like skywriting. I mean, what were they thinking?
So I lived through it, I remember when the author tour started in the mid-1980s, and then became, sort of, I mean people have to do it, but it’s hardly as fresh, and then what’s happening in the Internet. You’re my guru when it comes to how to market books, especially, on the Internet.
And it’s become a source of frustration for me: what I tell my writing students is we have an obligation to write the most interesting, meaningful, moving, dramatic story we possibly can, one that we are driven to write, and again remembering what I said earlier about time is all we have, so why waste it chasing the market, which you will always fall behind on, as opposed to writing something that’s meaningful for you, and at least is worth doing from a personal perspective.
And so that’s what I do, and then, OK, that’s done, clunk, it’s over here, and now I have to turn into a different kind of person in order to promote the books.
Now, there was a time when I invoked Arnold Schwarzenegger—I know this gets really weird—Schwarzenegger like 20, 15 years ago, said that he felt that he should put in one tenth of the time promoting a film than he did for making it; putting all things together, he was going to devote a month to promoting. Well, that’s the lot, Arnold, because I mean, that’s skywriting again.
Now, every day, I get up and I’m doing an hour of trying to make people aware of my books.
Talking about Facebook, for example, I’m not cynical about Facebook, I believe that the only reason Facebook works is if we are honest about what we’re doing and the things that are interesting to us, and I hardly ever talk about my own work, I talk about the books I’m reading, or authors whom I admire who I have met, and things like that. I do, however, when I have a book come out, such as the trade paperback of “Murder as a Fine Art,” which just came out, I promote that. But there are others, so we have Twitter, we have a number of other things, and it’s difficult to balance things.
[Follow David on Facebook here]
On another occasion, you and I were talking about how you do it, because you’re so much better at it than anybody I know. And I don’t know what the answer is to it, because the writing is the key.
Joanna: I think you said it there, it’s about sort of splitting that every day and doing a bit. Every morning I get up and I put on Antisocial, which is a really good app on the computer. It turns off everything else!
David: Alright, I’ll get that.
Joanna: So what’s so great for people, I think, is to hear that you've got 40-odd years’ experience, yet still struggle with this balance question. It’s very encouraging. But I wanted to just move on …
I recently read your novella, “The Architecture of Snow,” which is lovely, and it’s about a manuscript from a reclusive writer and an editor’s attempts to get the rights from him, and the sub-text suggests huge changes in the publishing industry.
So I wondered if you could talk about what do you think about big publishing now, and what have you seen change over, over your time?
David: Well, “The Architecture of Snow” imagines that a writer like J.D. Salinger would out of nowhere send a manuscript to an editor, and the former editor’s dead, and this young editor, and it’s under a pseudonym, so it takes them a while to figure out who this guy is, and how, as you say, how much the business has changed, and how they would now market something by J.D. Salinger—it’s another name in the story.
I mean, what we’re experiencing, this started approximately 1999, when the big media companies began buying up publishers. When I was starting in 1972, no lie, there were about 40 independent book publishers in New York City, and these were not small presses. Over the years, they got scooped up, until now we have—I lose count on whether it’s five or six, it seems to change a lot.
And then, of course, Amazon, meanwhile has risen. It was powerful to begin with, but then, because of the ebook revolution, which started in 2009—it’s hard to believe it’s only been five years—it gained a status as both a publisher and a distributor, and some people are no doubt aware of the contest that’s going on, the dispute between Amazon and Hachette, and I am a Hachette author through Mulholland Books. I don’t know, no one knows the specifics of the discussion, but what we do know is that Little Brown Books, Mulholland Books, Hachette Books, if there’s a new book about to be published, they are not for sale on Amazon. And about 1,000 authors have been affected.
Now, clearly this dispute will be resolved, but we have now four or five other major conglomerates that must then come to terms with whatever deal Hachette and Amazon come to terms with, and, being a novelist, a person who uses his imagination, I conceive of the day when the only publisher will be Amazon, and the only distributor will be Amazon.
It all depends on how you look at this, in terms of competition. The people who are published by Amazon, and I have many ebooks published through Amazon …
Amazon has been a huge boon for authors, but we’re in this very complex time, everything changes, and our task as authors is how to adapt.
I foresee a time when, when authors—and many of them are—will be a lot like, musicians, singers and musical groups, who have their own website, who are their own boss, and are perhaps making distribution deals over here, but this could conceivably be the start of authors no longer wanting to be with big publishers, because of this glitch.
I mentioned a while ago that the sequel to “Murder as a Fine Art,” “Inspector of the Dead,” will come out next year, that’s two years in my life. I mean, deep research, deep commitment, that’s all I did for two years. If that book had been coming out today, it would have been disastrous for me.
So it’s now making me wonder about what is the relationship between author and the publisher and the distributor. Mulholland Books has been glorious to me, the editorial help, advice, conversations, whatever we’d like to call it, and it’s been marvelous, their promotion, they’re wonderful promoters. I have no complaints at all. But, you know, it’s the situation, it’s so interesting, in the abstract, to see how it’s playing out.
Joanna: And at the end of the day, it does seem like a power differential: as the author, if you have the power to reach readers, like you, you have so many readers who love your books, you can reach them directly, as can I, and we can now sell directly from our websites, as you’re saying, like musicians do.
But I don’t want to go into that, because I’ve only got a few more minutes left with you! So I wonder, as a final question, you say in the book, and I quote …
“The profession is not for the weak-willed or the faint of heart.” So I wondered, what are the keys to longevity in this business, both in mind-set and work ethic?
David: Well, it’s a long view. I mean, I’ve been doing this for 42 years, and I always tried to think, you can’t predict, but I’ve always tried to imagine it’s five years later. Not so much in the circumstances, but in terms of my time frame. A career has peaks and valleys, and anybody who goes into it expecting that every year it’ll always go like this, is foolish.
I’m reminded, one of my favorite authors is Stephen Hunter, “Point of Impact,” he really is an excellent action writer, and he had what I think is his best book, “A Pale Horse Coming,” and that book was published just as the World Trade Center was attacked. People don’t remember, but I do, that for six months, New York publishers refused to even think about publishing thrillers. If you had a thriller coming out, or were submitting a thriller, you were out of luck.
And I thought of all the people who write thrillers, perhaps because they think it’s a hot market, and, “Oh, I’m going to be so successful,” but again, stuff happens, and you have to put your faith in the work, rather than thinking about, “Oh, I’m going to be so successful.” If the success happens, hooray. You can work and work and work and ideally it will pay off, but that doesn’t mean that it necessarily will, so, I’m always committed to the work.
I know so many people who write for money and so many people who write for fame. And OK, I can see for the money, but the fame, what? What is that about?
Why would you be so nuts as to want to be famous? I mean, it’s so shallow. And if those are your motives, then you’re going to be set up for disappointment. But if you’re writing because you’re writing the best book you can, then I think that’s the way to, to get through it all.
Joanna: Fantastic. Just tell people where they can find you and your books online.
David: I’m DavidMorrell.net – I couldn’t get the .com because there’s a guy with my name who’s a photographer, and more power to him. I have, I call it my network of readers: davidmorrell.net and, it’s like a magazine, there’s a lot of photographs, a lot of information. I think it’s entertaining. And there are ways then to go to my Facebook page, and I’m on Facebook every day. I start the day, because I’m for it, as I said earlier, I’m not cynical about Facebook. I learn a lot about what people that I care about are doing, so I go on it each morning, and I reply to things that people have said, so that’s another way to pay attention, to find me.
Joanna: Thank you so much for your time, David, that was brilliant.
David: Well, it’s always good to see you, Joanna, and as I said, I admire your fiction, and at the same time I think what you’re doing to help people with marketing skills is extraordinary as well.
E. Kaiser Writes says
Great interview, Joanna! That is definitely a really important perspective, coming form an author with such longevity and obvious success as well. What a ride it’s been for Mr. Morrell!! 🙂
Highly interesting thoughts here! Thanks for sharing!
Kim Foster says
Fantastic interview. I saw David Morrell speak last year at RT and he came across as a warm and genuine person, as he did in your interview. I love that he disregards the advice to “write what you know” because I always tell people to ignore that one, too! Research the hell out of a subject? Exactly my thinking.
I’m going to Thrillerfest next week, too, Joanna! It’s going to be amazing. I can’t wait. I’m going to be speaking on a panel about medical thrillers (are you speaking too?)…so perhaps I’ll see you (and David Morrell!) there. Cheers.
Joanna Penn says
Great – I have down to come to your panel 🙂 I’m on a Sat am panel about great endings – should be fun! but I’ll also be at the various functions so maybe see you with drink in hand!
Kim Foster says
Oh, awesome! I will definitely come to your panel on Saturday. And yes–there are so many events! There’s a good chance I’ll see you, drink in hand 😉
Stuart Taylor says
I was both entertained and fascinated by David recounting his previous experiences. He has a lot to teach and a very enjoyable way of communicating, which made this interview a pleasure to listen to and learn from. Thank you!
David Penny says
Joanna – what a truly fascinating interview. I definitely plan on looking up several of David’s book now. I think until reading this I’ve judged him almost entirely on the movie version of First Blood, and not getting Sly Stallone as an actor at all this influenced my opinion.
But what an interesting and fascinating guy, and so many great anecdotes.
This shows how these podcasts and interviews can make a real difference both to interviewed and reader. Good job, Joanna.
I don’t buy very many books on writing any more – I’ve spent too much over the years. But I bought The Successful Novelist immediately after reading a library copy so I would always have it on hand. It’s a great, practical guide on writing a novel, not a rehashed bunch of tired old tips. Very readable with a deep understanding of what it takes by someone who obviously knows what he’s talking about.
Dennis Blanchard says
Joanna, in the USA we have a baseball saying, “You’ve hit one out of the park.” I suppose in the UK it would be, “Goooaaaaaallllllllllll!” Either way, that was a fantastic interview. Kudos to David Morrell and yourself. I felt like I was sitting right at the table. He has a very natural, comfortable style and I couldn’t believe how quickly the interview went.
I’m a veteran, and his comments about coming home certainly hit home. Rambo did change things as to the mindset about veterans coming. Thank you David.
Joanna, I can’t wait for you to take David’s advice when Pentecost comes to the big screen, that will be thrilling. I’ve had two nibbles about movie possibilities for my book; nothing panned out. I will keep his advice in mind if anything serious ever comes along…good advice.
Thanks for all you do for us writers.
John A. A. Logan says
A really wonderful interview!
COLIN FALCONER says
Well done Joanna. You have the best interviews here. This was just great. I try and limit my time on the net, but I always make time for these! I always learn something.
Graham Ride says
Just when I think your podcasts can’t get any better you prove me wrong.
Brilliant stuff, Joanna, it was just like I was there.
“Why do you write thrillers?” and I’m reminded of something that Stephen King said about writing horror: which is “What makes you think I have a choice?”
Yes! The entire interview was terrific. Sorry I pestered you for this before the links were out from the webinar. I love his obvious warmth and perspective. A great reminder to write the real stories inside of us all.