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Interview: March 23, 2007

March 23, 2007

Dubbed "the father of the modern action novel," David Morrell has written close to 30 books during the course of his 35-year career, including FIRST BLOOD, THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE ROSE and CREEPERS. In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, Morrell explains why he chose to bring back the protagonists of his previous thriller for his latest work, SCAVENGER, and describes the research he conducted to accurately portray the nooks and crannies of New York City. He also discusses the various creative directions his novels have taken over the years and shares details about several projects he's currently working on. SCAVENGER is nominally a sequel to CREEPERS, given the return of Frank Balenger and Amanda Evert. It is quite different from CREEPERS in many ways. CREEPERS was confined to one location, while SCAVENGER is painted on a cross-country canvas. When you first conceived CREEPERS, did you anticipate bringing Balenger and Evert back for a second book? And do you have any plans for them to return yet again, either as primary or secondary characters?

David Morrell: I've written few sequels and initially didn't intend for SCAVENGER to be a follow-up to CREEPERS. But the plot insisted that Balenger and Amanda return. The book is about a desperate hunt for a lost 100-year-old time capsule. The people involved in the hunt are forced to participate and are selected because they have proven themselves to be world-class survivors: two mountain climbers who survived a harrowing ordeal on Mt. Everest, a woman who spent two weeks in a lifeboat on the Pacific Ocean, a Marine aviator who was shot down and then pursued by Iraqi insurgents for 10 days. What happened to Balenger and Amanda in the abandoned Paragon Hotel qualifies them as survivors on that scale. Whether I put them in yet another book depends on whether I can find the right plot for them. They've certainly been through a lot. I don't want to be sadistic. And yet I'm fascinated by Balenger's need to escape into the past.

By the way, you mentioned that CREEPERS has one location while SCAVENGER has a cross-country canvas. One of my goals was to move from the claustrophobia of the first one to agoraphobia in the second. As a character notes in SCAVENGER, Hitchcock made North by Northwest so that he could do his best to create fear in wide-open spaces in daylight.

BRC: A good deal of SCAVENGER is set in New York's Greenwich Village. When visiting that neighborhood, one tends to forget that many of the buildings there have existed for over a century, and have nooks and crannies that haven't been examined in decades --- at least until Frank Balenger came along. What was involved in gaining access to some of those buildings while you were writing SCAVENGER?

DM: A couple of years ago, I was at Peter Straub's house on New York's Upper West Side. It's an old brownstone, and at one point he led me to the basement, which exuded the sense of age. He opened one of several cardboard boxes, searched inside and pulled out an old ledger, which to my surprise and delight turned out to be the original handwritten manuscript for GHOST STORY. Age seemed everywhere. I eventually used that old brick-lined basement in SCAVENGER, transporting it to a brownstone near Gramercy Park. I've been in similar old New York buildings. Basically, I moved the details from one location to another. Greenwich Village fascinates me because, during colonial times, it had the sweetest drinking water on the island as opposed to the brackish water that was in most of Manhattan. The first streets in Greenwich Village were built along streams, which is why the streets seem haphazardly arranged. Eventually the streets and houses were built over the streams, but some houses still had access to the water under them, a detail I use during a claustrophobic scene in SCAVENGER. To this day, if you want to build something in Greenwich Village, you need to get a map that shows where the streams were and perhaps still are.

BRC: The New York Public Library is another New York landmark that plays a primary role in SCAVENGER. While the Internet in general is an indispensable research tool, it is often forgotten that there is much that can be learned by rolling up one's sleeves and getting into the stacks such as Balenger did in SCAVENGER. While researching SCAVENGER, approximately how much of your time was spent utilizing Internet resources as opposed to hard copy research? Did you find that there was actually more to be found in a physical search than online?

DM: The Internet is a wonderful tool for gaining information, although I need to pretend I'm a newspaper reporter and get three verifications for supposed facts that I'm using. When writing SCAVENGER, I used the web to research the New York City locations, but then I went to New York and actually walked to every location and inspected it as best I could. At Gramercy Park and again at the New York City Public Library on 5th Ave. and 42nd St., I discovered that the Internet information was wrong. I should point out that, at the so-called main branch of the library, you can't get into the stacks. You fill out a card, and a librarian brings you the book you want. It's a huge, wonderful building, very evocative and filled with the sense of history.

BRC: You have been writing novels for over 30 years and have achieved some remarkable milestones, not the least of which has been the creation of John Rambo, an American icon. What personal goals, if any, do you have yet to accomplish?

DM: Each new book is a new start. This is my 35th year as a published author. I'm amazed by how fast the time went. I think one reason I've lasted so long is that I tried not to repeat myself. All the novels have action and suspense, but after that, each tends to take a different creative direction. The Brotherhood of the Rose series was about spies, for example. Later, I wrote two thrillers about artists --- DOUBLE IMAGE was about a photographer, and BURNT SIENNA was about a painter. With CREEPERS and SCAVENGER, I became interested in what I call eerie thrillers --- novels that have the moody tone of a ghost story, and yet there's nothing supernatural in them. I'm sure that another different type of thriller will occur to me. It's great fun taking various journeys.

BRC: SCAVENGER is perhaps your most interesting book to date, which, considering the length and breadth of your bibliography, is quite an accomplishment. It is very contemporary, given its focus upon video games, role playing, and the increasing presence of and reliance upon GPS units. Yet it has a "pulp fiction" feel to it as well, with a hero running into danger after danger, all the while attempting to rescue a damsel in distress --- kind of a Doc Savage meets Matt Bourne scenario. Given that you yourself have created one of America's most enduring icons, are there are particular authors, or fictional figures, that provided inspiration for you?

DM: SCAVENGER is definitely a high-action story, not quite Indiana Jones, but close. I wanted it to have a big adventurous feeling in the spirit of the obstacle race and scavenger hunt metaphors that motivated me to write it. There are a lot of contrasts --- the modern topics of video-game theory and GPS receivers in contrast with the theme of the past as exemplified by the 100-year-old time capsule. But at heart, I'm still heavily influenced by Joseph Campbell's THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES, which I read in 1968 and I never got over. Myth and archetypes are disguised throughout my fiction. It may be these characteristics are what you feel when you mention a hero running into danger after danger while trying to rescue a damsel in distress. I feel strongly connected to the principles of ancient storytelling.

BRC: You describe yourself in the author's note to SCAVENGER as a packrat. I would like for you to look, right now, at the lower right hand corner of your desk and describe everything that you have stacked there.

DM:On the lower right section of my desk, I see a poster for a book signing that I did in New York City in 1996. Next to it is a compound bow leaning against the wall, the result of research into archery that I conducted in the mid-1980s. There are several book posters in tubes and an advertisement for a Rambo movie in the 1980s. On the left side of my desk, there are three huge shopping bags filled with corrected drafts of my last three projects. There is also a 3-D poster display (small) advertising the NBC miniseries of my novel THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE ROSE. But this doesn't quite communicate the chaos.

BRC: You published a collection of your short stories, BLACK EVENING, in 1999. Do you have any plans to issue a second collection in the near future?

DM: Actually, a second collection of stories, NIGHTSCAPE, appeared in 2004. In the U.S., a specialty publisher, Subterranean Press, handled it. One of these days, there will be a paperback. In the U.K., there was a mass market edition. I love the creative challenge of writing short stories, the compression and the chance to experiment with different approaches. In fact, I have enough stories for a third collection, but so many other projects are in the works that I don't know when I'll put that together.

BRC: You have already announced your next project, which I've heard described as an espionage novel set around the Christmas holiday. What other projects are you presently working on?

DM: Next year's book is called THE SPY WHO CAME FOR CHRISTMAS. It's a contemporary action espionage story that takes place on Christmas Eve in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I live. Santa Fe is a major holiday destination for travelers. We have a mile long street called Canyon Road that has about 1,000 art galleries and is lit spectacularly for the holidays. The story takes place there. At one point, the main character, a spy, takes refuge in a home where he discovers that he has put a family in danger. As he prepares the house for a siege, he tries to calm the family by telling them the spy's version of the traditional Nativity story. I did a lot of historical research based on events in the New Testament. Readers will be surprised by the background I've uncovered. None of it is faith-threatening, but it does make the often-told traditional Nativity story more vivid. The book will probably have some illustrations, and that's in keeping with another new project, a six-part Captain America comic book series that I wrote. The first issue will probably appear in September. Eventually all six episodes will be collected in a book, for which I'll write an essay. It's a serious project that deals with the burden of being a superhero in today's troubled world, especially a superhero named after the United States. I do my best to make the reader believe that Captain America is a real character. There's a lot of emotion as well as action. I enjoyed learning a new way to tell a story.

BRC: SCAVENGER has much to do with time capsules. Have you, to your knowledge, had any of your novels placed in time capsules? And if you could pick one of your works to be placed in a time capsule, which one would it be?

DM: No one ever informed me that one of my novels was ever placed in a time capsule. I suppose FIRST BLOOD would be the book to include because Rambo became such an internationally iconic character. Indeed I was told by a Polish Solidarity demonstrator that she and her companions used to watch tapes of Rambo movies (which were illegal in Poland). Then they would dress up as Rambo, complete with the headband, and demonstrate against the government soldiers. In an odd way, she said, Rambo helped bring down the Soviet empire. Who'd have thought? But when we consider time capsules, we need to remember something I mention in SCAVENGER --- that two famous capsules (one in 1939 and one in 1940) both included copies of Margaret Mitchell's GONE WITH THE WIND. I wonder if they realized the irony of the title and its broader application: all societies eventually vanish, gone with the wind.

BRC: Are there any authors who have been of particular influence upon you? And what authors, of any genre, do you read for pleasure?

DM: When I started FIRST BLOOD back in 1968, I was deeply influenced by Geoffrey Household's ROGUE MALE, a 1939 thriller in which a British big-game hunter stalks Hitler on the eve of the Second World War. Part of its appeal is Household's use of forests and other natural locales as a backdrop to the action. I think of that book often and still love writing action scenes set in nature --- the mysterious Wyoming valley in SCAVENGER, for instance. I wrote my Master's thesis on the style of Ernest Hemingway and am very influenced by the techniques he uses to gain immediacy in his prose. Along with these two authors, the only other author whose work is totally represented on my book shelves is Dan Simmons. One reading problem I have is that I don't look at much fiction when I'm working on a book. Sometimes another author's style can be contagious. Mostly, when I'm involved in a project, I read nonfiction, most of it for research. Because I'm a co-founder of the International Thriller Writers organization (and its current co-president), I need to be circumspect about which authors I mention, lest I offend some by not mentioning them. However, I'll take a risk and include Stephen Hunter, whose POINT OF IMPACT is an amazing action book.

BRC: While you are primarily known for your works of fiction, you have also co-edited one and written three nonfiction works. Do you have any interest in writing another nonfiction book? If so, what topic interests you?

DM: For the International Thriller Writers, I'm going to co-edit (with Hank Wagner) a nonfiction project called THRILLER: 100 MUST-READS. We have a list of 100 classical thrillers about which contemporary thriller writers will write 900 words of appreciation. It's a very exciting project that will educate readers about how varied and ambitious thrillers can be.

BRC: You have been described as the father of the modern action novel. If you decided that you were going to stop writing tomorrow, what would your next vocational move be?

DM: For many years, I was a professor of American literature at the University of Iowa. I still enjoy teaching and do presentations at a dozen or so writers' conferences a year, so perhaps I would pursue that vocation again. At the same time, I'm fond of tennis, hiking and gardening, which can easily fill a day. Currently, I'm also taking flying lessons. There's always something new to explore.