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Interview: July 10, 2009

July 10, 2009

Though perhaps best known as the creator of Rambo, David Morrell has written over 30 works of fiction and nonfiction, including THE SPY WHO CAME FOR CHRISTMAS, SCAVENGER, CREEPERS and THE SUCCESSFUL NOVELIST. In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, Morrell discusses the real-life inspirations behind the unusual visual phenomena that take place in his latest book, THE SHIMMER, and elaborates on one of its smaller themes of media sensationalism. He also describes how he worked his fascination with actor James Dean into the story, explains how he overcomes bouts of writer’s block, and reveals how screenwriter Stirling Silliphant prompted him to jumpstart his writing career. Your new novel, THE SHIMMER, is set in the fictional town of Rostov, Texas, where a visual phenomenon consisting of mysterious, nocturnal lights has occurred on an intermittent basis for well over a century. What made you decide to write about the lights? How did you first hear about them?

David Morrell: Five years ago, I read an item in the travel section of my local newspaper, the Santa Fe New Mexican. It described mysterious lights that appear on an almost nightly basis outside a town in west Texas called Marfa. The lights have been witnessed as long ago as 1889 when a rancher first brought a herd of cattle to the region. He worried that the lights were the campfires of marauders from Mexico, but after a fearful night, he couldn’t find any evidence of fires. Moreover, campfires don’t drift back and forth and up and down. In World War I, the lights represented a different fear --- that Germans in Mexico would be mobilizing to invade the United States. The long-term mystery of the lights appealed to me as a subject for a novel, but even more interesting was the way that the lights emphasized the emotions of the people who saw them. That finally became my subject --- that the lights would be mirrors of who each of us is.

BRC: You did a great deal of research into the Marfa Light phenomenon in preparation for writing THE SHIMMER. Based upon that research, what do you believe the lights to be? A weather-related phenomenon? A geothermal reaction? Hysterical suggestion? Or something else?

DM: I love doing research. If a subject doesn’t have something that I learn from, I don’t want to write about it. In this case, the research was fascinating. It’s important to emphasize that there are many places in the world that have mysterious lights, but most are easily explained by swamp gas or ball lightning, etc. The Marfa lights, however, resist explanation. Many scientists have studied them, using sophisticated equipment, but their best theories seem a stretch. One is that the sun heats quartz crystals in the soil, contracting them. At night, as the crystals cool and contract (the theory goes), they give off an electrical discharge. Another explanation is that temperature inversions in the atmosphere cause distant lights to be refracted. I’m not persuaded.

BRC: The lights serve as a converging point for a military officer whose family has been obsessed with the lights for generations, a married couple whose relationship has been slowly slipping away, and a self-absorbed television anchorman whose ego is matched only by his single-minded ambition. Col. Warren Raleigh is the latest in a familial line of career military men whose lives have been affected by the Rostov lights. Raleigh seems to have been predestined to have an encounter with the lights that will end with either his control of them or his destruction by them. I thought that your portrayal of Raleigh, and his ancestors, was one of the most challenging aspects of THE SHIMMER. Did you model Raleigh and his family after anyone in particular, or is he part of a fictitious archetype that you have been developing?

DM: Raleigh and his ancestors are a way for me to dramatize how powerfully the lights can obsess someone. His family’s story dates back to the First World War and the fear that the lights were Germans about to invade. Then I leap to the Second World War, when a military base was actually built near Marfa. The base (an air field) was abandoned in 1945, but its ruins are still there, and I couldn’t help thinking that the scare from the First World War could have spread to the Second World War and that a military family could be connected to both as well as to the present. I live in Santa Fe, New Mexico, not far from Los Alamos where the atomic bomb was developed in the Second World War. The scientists at Los Alamos, encouraged by the military, are always trying to find new weapons. I kept wondering what would happen if someone tried to weaponize the lights and what would happen to that person if the lights mirror who we are.

BRC: Dan and Tori Page play an extremely important part in THE SHIMMER. When Tori abruptly leaves their marital home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Dan follows her, not entirely sure what is wrong but hoping to make things right. You could have written an excellent adventure novel by focusing on the military interest in and the television reporting of the Rostov lights, yet you made the book even deeper by using the lights as a symbol of an emotional tipping point of a relationship that might or might not be saved. How did the Pages creatively evolve for you while you were writing THE SHIMMER?

DM: Dan and Tori Page are the core of the book. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my own marriage, which has lasted 44 years and how I love my wife more fully with each of those years. I wanted to use Dan and Tori’s marriage as the heart of THE SHIMMER and to put them through a crisis that tests how they feel about one another. At the start, their marriage is falling apart because they forgot why they wanted to be married. At the end, Dan surrenders his soul to Tori, giving her unconditional love. The book has a strong spiritual and emotional content.

BRC: Brent Loft is another interesting character in THE SHIMMER. He is a television anchorman who regards each job and each co-worker as another rung to be stepped on as he makes his way up the career ladder. His particular story is almost like a parable. Did you intend this, or see it that way as you were writing the book?

DM: I knew that the media, particularly television, needed to be part of the story. A gunman starts shooting at the lights, screaming “Go back to hell where you came from!” Then he starts shooting at a crowd watching the lights and kills 20 people. In life, the media would seize on this event, and I wanted to dramatize how that would happen, how the media can influence the events they are reporting. Brent Loft is my focus on this aspect of the story. He uses the massacre as a way to move up the broadcast ladder. He so sensationalizes the mass murder, linking the deaths to the lights, that thousands of curiosity seekers converge on the area, ultimately leading to a greater disaster. It would have been easy to make Loft seem a villain, but what I wanted to do instead was to surprise the reader by showing how the lights bring out qualities in him that no one could have expected. The relationship between him and his female camera operator is meant to be a parallel to the relationship between Dan and Tori Page. Loft and Anita bond so closely that Loft eventually risks his life for her. In the end, he is almost tragic in the way that he learns to be a better person and then is destroyed.

BRC: Rostov is based upon an actual place --- Marfa, Texas --- which is known for the “Marfa lights,” a phenomenon that has been reported there not only by local residents but also, interestingly enough, by the late James Dean, who became entranced with the lights while Giant, a movie regarded by some as his masterpiece, was filmed in Marfa. Did Dean have experiences similar to those of James Deacon, the fictitious actor whose experiences with filming a movie in Rostov are recounted in THE SHIMMER?

DM: I’m fascinated by James Dean’s background, in particular how he died before realizing how big a star he was. When Giant was filmed in Marfa, he was entranced by the lights and took his co-stars Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson to see them, along with Giant’s director, George Stevens. But they couldn’t see the lights. Only Dean could. This is another puzzling aspect of the lights. Two friends could go to see the lights, but on any night, the first friend would see them while the other would not. On another night, the second friend might be the one to see them while the first friend would not. A few days after finishing his work on Giant, Dean was killed in a car accident. I wanted to put some of his experience into THE SHIMMER, using a character I call James Deacon. The book is about how we perceive reality, and one object that illustrates that theme is the ranch house set that was built for Giant, which I call Birthright. In the movie, that house looks as solid as the mountains in the distance, but in reality, it was a façade; the novel asks, “What’s behind the façade?”

BRC: You have indicated elsewhere that the television series “Route 66,” and the quality of the scripting of that program, initially sparked your interest in writing. I was a fan of the show myself, and I felt while reading THE SHIMMER as if perhaps the series influenced the book in some way. Part of the story concerns a couple --- Dan and Tori Page, who visit a city off the beaten path and whose interaction with the residents changes things irrevocably for everyone concerned. I don’t know if it was the wide open spaces of the setting or something else, but there were times I felt that I could almost see Tod Stiles and Buz Murdock just off to the side of what was happening in the book. Was “Route 66” on your mind at all when you wrote THE SHIMMER? And have any of your other novels served as a subtle homage to the series?

DM: Stirling Silliphant’s brilliant scripts for “Route 66” made me decide to be a writer when I was 17. At the time, I sent him a letter, telling him so, and he encouraged me. Eventually, we worked together when Stirling was the executive producer for the NBC miniseries of my novel THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE ROSE. His scripts are characterized by a tremendous amount of action coupled with ideas --- opposites coming together. The theme of “Route 66” is that the journey matters more than the destination, and that is how I’ve led my life. It’s also an important element in my work. It’s very easy to imagine that THE SHIMMER was an extension of that classic television series. As you say, Dan and Tori visit a town off the beaten track where things change irrevocably for everyone concerned. That’s something Stirling liked to write about.

BRC: You have not only created an American icon --- Rambo --- but have become in literary circles an iconic figure yourself. Yet, well into your fourth decade of writing, some of your most recent work is also some of your best. In fact, you seem to be entering a new phase of your literary career. What keeps you going, keeps you motivated, after all you have accomplished?

DM: The other day, I was amazed to realize that I’ll soon enter my fifth decade as an author. I think one reason I lasted so long is that while all my books have action and suspense, each takes its own direction. I treat each book as a special project. Before beginning, I write a letter to myself, asking “Why is this novel worth a year of my life?” I’d better have a damned good answer before I proceed. As for my motivation, I guess I’m still trying to be Stirling Silliphant. He was unbelievably creative and energetic. He remains my role model. Plus, all these ideas for stories keep popping into my head. I can’t sleep at night unless I write them down.

BRC: On a related note, how do you keep your expression of your ideas so new and so fresh? Is it an ability that comes naturally to you, or is redundancy something that you occasionally find creeping into your work so that you have to work to avoid it?

DM: I have a morbid fear of repeating myself. Hardly a day goes by when I’m not asked to write another novel in The Brotherhood of the Rose series. But that series came out of the writer I was in the 1980s. Twenty-five years later, I’m a different person, addressing new imaginative horizons and trying to relate to a vastly different world.

BRC: What do you do when you are not writing or not researching? What non-writing activities do you utilize to recharge your creative batteries?

DM: Believe it or not, Rambo’s father is an avid vegetable gardener. I enjoy swimming, tennis and hiking, particularly in the mountains outside Santa Fe. The research for my books is very battery charging. I’m always learning new skills and new ways of seeing things (the latter is a big theme in THE SHIMMER). I once lived in the Wyoming mountains for 35 days. For one of my novels, I learned how to race cars and do the spins, etc. that you see in the movies. For the aircraft sequences in THE SHIMMER, I became so engrossed in the research that eventually I earned my private pilot’s license. Next, I’d like to learn to sail.

BRC: In your afterword to THE SHIMMER, you discuss your idea files, as well as the fact that the concept for the novel lay dormant for you for a while before you revisited it and completed the book. How often do you begin projects that ultimately don’t seem to go anywhere at first? And have you had any ideas that you, regrettably, have totally given up on as being unworkable?

DM: The 100-page mark is a big deal for me. Even after I write a long letter to myself in which I discuss all the elements I think will be in the story, I can fool myself. I have three projects that sit in a drawer, never proceeding past the 100-page mark because I couldn’t sustain my interest or because I uncovered a serious flaw.

BRC: You are known not only as a prolific author but also as a vociferous reader. What have you read in the past six months, in any genre, that you would recommend to our readers?

DM: I’ve been revisiting favorites that influenced me but that I haven’t read in decades. James M. Cain’s THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE. Geoffrey Household’s ROGUE MALE. Thomas Tryon’s THE OTHER. William Goldman’s MARATHON MAN. Goldman in particular has a lot of technical flourishes --- elements of punctuation, for example --- that I’d like to explore.

BRC: Writer’s block is a problem that is shared by aspiring writers and seasoned authors alike. Has it ever been a problem for you? If so, how do you break through it?

DM: There are two reasons for writer’s block. One is that the story hasn’t been thought through properly, that there’s a flaw in the concept that the writer doesn’t realize and that makes the story a struggle. The other reason is that there is some element in the story that the author can’t subconsciously deal with. Over the years, both have happened to me. When a story gets to be tough sledding, I always start looking for its flaw or else my own flaw.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

DM: In September, I have a novella “The Architecture of Snow” in an anthology, DARK DELICACIES 3. I feel it’s one of the best things I’ve written --- an eerie piece about modern publishing, about an editor and a recluse author who strongly resembles J. D. Salinger. Also, with Hank Wagner, I’m co-editing THRILLERS: 100 MUST READS, a collection of essays about 100 classic thrillers, such as Wilkie Collins’s THE WOMAN IN WHITE, John Buchan’s THE THIRTY NINE STEPS, and Brian Garfield’s DEATH WISH. The essay writers are some of the best living thriller writers, such as David Baldacci, Steve Berry, Sandra Brown, Lee Child, Lincoln Child, Jeffery Deaver, Tess Gerritsen, Heather Graham, John Lescroart, Gayle Lynds, Katherine Neville, Michael Palmer, Douglas Preston, James Rollins, R. L. Stine, and on and on. The book will be published in July of 2010, during ThrillerFest, the gala readers/writers festival of the International Thriller Writers organization.

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