Interview: November 4, 2005
November 4, 2005
Bookreporter.com's Carol Fitzgerald and Joe Hartlaub interviewed David Morrell, the award-winning author of FIRST BLOOD, the novel in which Rambo was created. In this interview, Morrell discusses his childhood hobby of exploring abandoned buildings as the basis for his latest work, CREEPERS, and sheds light on the historical rise and fall of New Jersey's Asbury Park as a symbol of the failed American Dream. He also elaborates on his use of Poe's theories about readers' attention spans and discloses a few details about his upcoming projects.
Bookreporter.com: CREEPERS takes place almost entirely in The Paragon Hotel, an abandoned hotel in Asbury Park, NJ. Did you base the Paragon on an actual building in Asbury Park? And what was it about Asbury Park that inspired you to set CREEPERS there?
David Morrell: There are numerous “classic” hotels that are abandoned in Asbury Park; the Paragon is an amalgam of them, plus some ideas from Frank Lloyd Wright. But the essence of the hotel's structure needed to be that it got smaller (in a sort of pyramid shape) as the urban explorers climbed higher and the tension increased.
As for Asbury Park, I'm intrigued by the area's failed hopes --- the collapse of the American Dream. It's almost mythic. Asbury Park was founded in the 1870s as a bastion of Methodism, but thirty years later, there was a huge gambling casino at the end of a half-mile boardwalk. In an amazing contrast, the town became known as the crown jewel of resorts on the eastern seaboard. A fire in the 1920s destroyed the resort area, and they rebuilt. In 1944, a hurricane destroyed the resort area, and they rebuilt. But how many times can you have the strength to keep going? By the 1960s, the place was a haven for bikers, street musicians, hippies, and drug dealers. A riot in 1970 destroyed the resort area, but this time it wasn't rebuilt. Bruce Springsteen played in some of the remaining bars, and his early songs about desperation and needing to head down the road are emblematic of the emotions of Asbury Park. Today, despite repeated attempts to refurbish the area, it looks like bombed-out Bosnia.
BRC: Creepers are also known as "urban spelunkers," people who explore abandoned and deserted buildings and tunnels. Your biographical information indicates that you used to explore deserted buildings as a child as a means to escape your home life. Did you always go alone or did you occasionally do this with others? What made you give up your explorations? When did you become aware that others were interested in this pursuit?
DM: I was always alone. That's the way I was raised, alone. I stopped exploring old buildings when my family moved to the outskirts of town. There weren't any abandoned buildings to examine. But I always still had the urge. Then a couple of years ago, I read an article in my local newspaper (in Santa Fe) and was astonished to learn that exploring abandoned buildings is now an underground cultural movement with rules (take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints) and equipment (hardhats, cavers' lights, methane gas detectors). I did an internet search and found hundreds of thousands of contacts around the world. Wow. I knew it was a wonderful topic for a novel.
BRC: Did you engage in any creeping as part of the writing process of CREEPERS?
DM: I did not. The urban exploration sites on the Internet are so full of details and photographs that I felt I had more than enough information. At the end of CREEPERS, I list the Internet addresses for many of the main sites. They are very interesting. At one point, I sent emails, asking if I could go along on an expedition. No one ever responded, which is not surprising, as this can be an illegal activity. The explorers to whom I sent emails had no idea if I was who I claimed to be. Why would they incriminate themselves?
While I was writing the book, I did have a chance, legally, to enter my former high school, which has been sealed since 1980. It was eerie to walk along hallways that had once been full of life and that had now been ravaged by time and neglect. Strips of paint hung from the walls as if they had been clawed down by a giant rampaging animal.
BRC: Have you had any experiences similar to those encountered by Professor Conklin's group in CREEPERS? And what was the most unusual item you've discovered that you are able, or willing, to discuss?
DM: When I was very young, I found some old 78 rpm shellac records in an abandoned apartment building. One of them had a song, “Those Wedding Bells Are Breaking Up That Old Gang Of Mine.” I played it so often that I almost wore it out. My home life was so rotten (constant arguing between my mother and stepfather) that I fantasized about going back in time and being in the studio when the song was recorded. Only later did I realize how ironic the song's title was.
BRC: We love the concept that CREEPERS takes place in eight hours and can be read by readers in eight hours. What prompted you to come up with this concept? How did you time the eight-hour plan?
DM: I wanted CREEPERS to have an intense unity of time and place. From the start I decided that the goal was to get the characters into the abandoned Paragon Hotel as soon as possible and then to dramatize every instant of every breath of eight hours. No summaries, no cuts, no leaps forward. I absolutely loved the idea. Most of my novels tend to be structured so that a major section takes about one hour to read. (This is something I got from Poe, who theorized that an hour was the maximum time you can count on a reader's attention.) Based on my own experience of reading my manuscripts, it takes me about an hour to read 50 typed pages, so that became my method of timing it. I was delighted to learn that the unabridged Brilliance audio lasts eight hours.
BRC: You created an interesting website to promote CREEPERS. What can you tell readers about it?
DM: The website is www.theparagonhotel.com. It's a collaboration among my publisher (especially Elizabeth Whiting), my publicist daughter (Sarie), my Internet guru (Nanci Kalanta of www.horrorworld.org), and me. We started small, trying to make the viewer believe that the Paragon Hotel was a real place. Thus the first version of the site was nothing but a timeline for the hotel, with all the interesting things that happened there. We had photographs, and it was convincing. Then we added new pages in which images of ruin pop out of a glamorous hotel lobby. We had sections from the book. We had photographs of the way Asbury Park looked in its glory days, compared to how it looks now. There's a spooky image of a woman in a full bathing costume, probably taken in the 1910s, and she seems to have ectoplasm around her. The photo was perfect for the tone of the book. Then we added a one-minute animated trailer with sound --- almost as if it were a trailer for a movie. Afterwards, we added greeting cards and a “live” interview. You can explore the website the way you would the actual hotel. It's very cool. At the same time, there's a BE A CREEPER maze game over at www.horrorworld.org, and that's very cool also.
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, a fictional icon. What personal goals, if any, do you have yet to accomplish?
DM: In my writing book, LESSONS FROM A LIFETIME OF WRITING, I tell a story about my wife and a child she met outside our home. The child was carrying drawings home from school, and he spread them on our lawn and told my wife the story behind each sketch. “This is my school, and these are my friends, and this is the playground.” Then he added, discouraged, “In my head, they were a whole lot better.” I have stories teeming in my imagination. With each novel, I hope to make the finished book the same as what's in my imagination. Each time, I get closer. Perhaps the day I achieve a complete match, that's when I'll stop.
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, in 2004, there was a second collection, called NIGHTSCAPE, and I now have almost enough material for a third collection, although I'm not sure when I'll put it together. So many other things are happening.
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'm working on a novel, I tend to read only nonfiction so that I'm not influenced by another fiction writer's style. My Master's thesis was about Hemingway's style, so I assume I was influenced by that. The thriller writer who got me excited about the possibilities of what goes into a thriller is Geoffrey Household, a British author most famous for ROGUE MALE (1939), a novel about a British big game hunter who stalks Hitler on the eve of WWII. He's caught on the first page, left for dead on the second, and by the third page, the pace really gets going. Much of the action takes place in a hole in the ground. I never got over reading it.
BRC: You, along with Gayle Lynds, recently founded the International Thriller Writers Association. What can you share with readers about this organization and its mission?
DM: Gayle and I thought it was time for an organization that would help writers and readers better understand the exciting potential of what thrillers can be. We also wanted to help our members find a greater readership. We've been in existence a little more than a year, and already we have more than 300 members (many of them New York Times bestsellers), with over 2 billion books in print worldwide. Next June, at the fabulous Arizona Biltmore Resort, we're going to have ThrillerFest, an exciting event for thriller authors and readers, in which such luminaries as John Lescroart, Brad Meltzer, Douglas Preston and R. L. Stine (among others) give presentations. It's going to be a blast. For information about ITW, go to www.internationalthrillerwriters.com. To learn about ThrillerFest, please go to www.thrillerfest.com. Lee Child will be there. So will Tess Gerritsen. There will be a Who's Who of thriller authors.
BRC: What are you working on and when can readers expect to see it?
DM: I'm involved with two very exciting projects that my contracts prevent me from saying much about until the people in charge release their press announcement. But I can say this much: I've written a six-part comic book series for a major comic-book publisher about a major comic-book hero. I had three goals --- to make the reader believe in the character, to explore a major theme (the responsibility of being a hero in today's troubled world), and to add emotion to the action. Parts of it invite tears.
Also, I've been asked to write a script for the new Showtime series, "Masters of Horror," which features such well-known horror directors as John Landis, John Carpenter, Joe Dante, Tobe Hooper, Mick Garris, etc. These are one-hour stories that look and feel like major movies. I'm delighted to be part of the project. To me, thrillers and horror are related genres because they share the emotion of fear. To be given the chance to explore so many different creative directions is a writer's dream.