David Morrell is the award-winning author of “First Blood”, the novel from which the movie First books with eighteen million in print, which have been translated into twenty-six languages. form of bone cancer and died in 1987. The loss haunts his life and work, like in his memoir about Matthew, titled “Fireflies: A Father’s Tale of Love and Loss” (1988) and his novel “Desperate Measures” (1994), whose main character has lost a son. They are the picture of writing what you know.
Morrell has several non-fiction books as well: “John Barth: An Introduction”, “Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing: A Novelist Looks at his Craft” and “The Successful Novelist”. His expertise reaches beyond that of the ordinary author such as: training in firearms, hostage negotiation, assuming identities and executive protection to name only a few. With a background like Morrell has, you know his writing is like no other.
Suspense Magazine is honored to have a chance to talk to David about his life and his work.
Suspense Magazine (S. MAG.): What was it like to find a vestige of James Dean?
David Morrell (D.M.): James Dean has always fascinated me, the mystique that this amazingly talented actor died so young and that some of his movies had not yet been released and that he didn’t have a chance to know the force he would have in the public’s mind. In the 1980s, I wrote a short story “Dead Image” about a version of him, a character I called James Deacon. The idea was what if he didn’t die on the day he was supposed to? What would have happened next? When I was researching “The Shimmer”, which is a fictional version of the famous Marfa lights, I was intrigued that Dean’s final movie Giant was filmed in Marfa and that Dean was captivated by the lights, so I resurrected James Deacon and put him in the novel and showed his reaction to the lights. It’s an eerie experience to re-use a character who already has an eerie background.
S. MAG.: You have lived every parents' nightmare. What piece of advice could you pass on to a parent who can’t move on from the same tragedy your family suffered?
D.M.: My son Matthew died from a rare bone cancer, Ewing’s sarcoma. Recently my granddaughter Natalie died from the same disease. In the US, only two hundred people contract it each year. It’s not supposed to be inherited. The terrible odds are soul shaking. In my many years, I have never experienced pain the equal of what this kind of grief can cause. The first year is the worst, reliving every terrible moment of the year before. After that, scar tissue begins to accumulate, year after year. The best analogy I know is that you can learn to adapt to having only one arm, but that you always know you don’t have the arm.
S. MAG.: “The Shimmer” is about a policeman’s wife who becomes obsessed with the Marfa lights. Did that idea come to you before you went thus inspiring the trip to west Texas, or the other way around?
D.M.: I got the idea for “The Shimmer” from an article in the Sunday travel section of my local newspaper, the Santa Fe New Mexican. It introduced me to the Marfa lights and very quickly I had a mental image of an unhappy woman who spends her nights, staring at the lights, drawing comfort from them. Gradually a plot developed from that image, the theme of which is that our view of reality depends on the emotional baggage we carry. The woman’s husband, a police officer, comes looking for her, but as a professional skeptic, he is unable to see what she does. The story has a lot of action and mystery, but essentially it’s about a husband who learns to view life through his wife’s eyes.
S. MAG.: What did you read growing up?
D.M.: I have fond memories of the Hardy Boys and the Nancy Drew books. Nancy Drew was better. I enjoyed dog stories by Albert Payson Terhune. I moved on to Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan novels. My childhood was an unhappy one and I used thrillers to distract me from reality.
S. MAG.: Do you have any superstitions surrounding your writing, i.e. not allowing anyone to read your work until it’s done, etc.?
D.M.: I start around nine and work until five, with a goal of five readable pages a day. I don’t show rough material to anybody. Only when I feel I absolutely can’t do any better unless I get feedback will I let other people read pages, first my wife and then my agents. I print pages at the end of every day and read them in the morning, making revisions in pencil, then adding the revisions to the electronic text. That way, I see the text from two different perspectives. I never read in the same place where I write, again achieving a different perspective. Sometimes I change the fonts on a text to see it in a fresh way. A lot of these devices I describe in my writing book, “The Successful Novelist”.
S. MAG.: If you could write a book with any author who would it be?
D.M.: I tried working with another author once. It wasn’t a successful experience. I think I was meant to be a solitary writer.
S. MAG.: When did you know, or what happened in your life that made you realize, writing is what you wanted to do?
D.M.: In my troubled youth (at one point I was a member of a street gang), I lacked direction. The principal of my high school told me I watched so much television that I would never amount to anything. But television turned out to be my salvation. At 8:30 p.m. on the first Friday of October in 1960, the classic TV series Route 66 premiered, about two young men in a Corvette convertible who drive across the United States in search of America and themselves. The scripts by Stirling Silliphant changed my life and motivated me to become a writer. Thanks to a librarian who gave me the address for Screen Gems, which produced the series, I was able to send a handwritten letter to Silliphant, saying that I wanted to be him. He sent me a long letter of encouragement, which I refer to in my writing book. Many years later, when my novel “THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE ROSE” was a miniseries that premiered after the Super Bowl, Stirling Silliphant was the executive producer. My life came full circle.
S. MAG.: We know the movie Rambo came from your book “First Blood”. However, did the movie sequels come from your book sequels, or did the directors and producers just move along on their own to do the other Rambo movies?
D.M.: Actually the film version of my novel “First Blood” has the same title as the book. The other films had ‘Rambo’ in the title, so some people assumed that the first one was called Rambo when in fact that was the title for the fourth film. The terms of my film contract for “First Blood” indicate that the production company can make sequels. I wasn’t consulted about any of them, which is the usual way it happens. But for Rambo (First Blood Part II) and Rambo III, I agreed to do novelizations of the scripts. I did this because no one else has the legal right to do novels about Rambo and that meant I could negotiate with the producers to be more inventive with the novelizations than an author is normally allowed to be. The scripts were so paper thin, with directions like “Rambo jumps up and shoots this guy” and “Rambo jumps up and shoots the other guy” that I felt there was plenty of room for expansion. Rambo died at the end of my novel “First Blood”, so I needed to include a note at the start of each novelization, indicating I was aware of the contradiction. One of the joys of the novelization for Rambo (First Blood Part II) is that I was able to use portions of an alternate script that James Cameron wrote, a lot of which was never used except in my adaptation.
S. MAG.: If you could only write one more book for the rest of your life, what would it be?
D.M.: Before I begin a project, I write a letter to myself in which I ask myself why a particular novel is worth a year of my life. Although I am a professional author, I’m less concerned with the income than I am with a project that will make me a fuller person by the time I finish it. Something about the theme and technique and research needs to make life more interesting for me. In that sense, every book I write is approached as if it were my last.
S. MAG.: You are an author with many, many books to your credit. Doubts creep around in everyone’ s mind about their work throughout their careers. Does it ever get old for you? Have you ever asked yourself, should I keep doing this?
D.M.: This is my thirty eighth year as a published author. That’s an eternity in a profession where even the most successful careers tend to conclude after twenty years. What happens is that some authors find an element that works for them, and they repeat it until both they and their readers get tired. To avoid that, I worship people like Frank Sinatra and James Stewart who made significant changes in their careers as time progressed, as the world changed and as they grew. I had many different stages in my career. For a time, I wrote outdoor action books like “First Blood”. Later, I wrote espionage novels, “The Brotherhood of the Rose”, “The Fraternity of the Stone” and “The League of Night and Fog”. After that, I wrote what I call “eerie” thrillers, which have nothing supernatural in them and yet feel like ghost stories: “Creepers”, “Scavenger” and “The Shimmer”. All my books have action and suspense, but each takes its own direction and I hope pleasantly surprise my readers. If I’m writing something and it starts to feel like a book that someone else might have written, I immediately stop. This happened at the one-hundred page mark of three different books. I say, “I’ve seen this before” and put the manuscripts in a drawer. On occasion, I do sequels, but only when I think I can find a new way to reveal the characters. In my latest, “The Naked Edge”, for example, I was motivated by the end of a thirty-year friendship; a man whom I felt as close to as a brother finally tested my patience to the point where I no longer wanted to associate with him. Telling him how I angry I felt made me realize that the end of a friendship between two men can be as emotionally powerful as a divorce between a husband and wife. Fans had been asking me to bring back the characters from “The Protector” and in the sequel “The Naked Edge”, I realized I had a chance to document the damage that a failed male friendship can cause while at the same time I show the marriage of the main characters, Cavanaugh and Jamie, becoming closer.
Suspense Magazine was more than honored by David Morrell and his honesty. We want to thank him and if you’re interested and would like to know more about him, visit his website at www.davidmorrell. net/about.cfm.