Interview: David Morrell

Interviewed by Michael Johnson


NY Times best-selling author David Morrell describes Rambo in one word and discusses craft and the business of writing.


David Morrel began his journey as a writer at the age of 17. His desire took him to St. Jerome’s University, where he earned a B.A. in English. Shortly after, he found himself at Penn State, where he earned a Masters and Ph.D. in American Literature. By 1970, he was teaching English at the University of Iowa. Then in 1972, his entire life came into focus with the publication of First Blood, the story of Rambo.


First Blood has given him much success. But like most writers, he is not one book or one character. He has written over 30 books in several genres and styles, including non-fiction works like the widely popular The Successful Novelist, which has helped many new writers work through artistic struggles.


David Morrell stands as one of the great American authors. He is a master of the thriller, and we’re humbled to have him agree to an interview for our premiere issue.


You are an expert in creative writing and storytelling. Is there something you see that stands out which is different from the newer generations of writers versus the ones that inspired you when you were younger?


Not so much new techniques and themes as new ways of getting the word out. The e-book revolution of 2009 provided an amazingly innovative outlet for authors. Some books aren’t suited for mainstream publishing, usually because agents and editors don’t see a market for a given topic. But now, through self-publishing, authors can make their own market. There’s a downside inasmuch as so many authors pursued this option that hundreds of thousands of self-published e-books are released each year, increasing competition–and some of the books haven’t been edited, their poor quality tainting the others. But in general, there’s never been a better time for writers. No worthy book need ever be unavailable.


What is the most surprising concept or revelation you have learned since you wrote First Blood that could help new writers?


I have a couple of mantras. “Be a first-rate version of yourself and not a second-rate version of another author.”  And “Don’t chase the market. You’ll always see its backside.”


In one word, describe Rambo.


There are so many different versions of Rambo that it’s hard to find a single word for all of them. One version–an angry one–is in my novel First Blood. Another version–a victim–is in the film adaptation.  The second and third films turned him into a jingoistic super-patriot, an interpretation that’s different from my novel and the first film.  Then the fourth film returned to the angry, disaffected character in my novel. A lot of Rambos. But if I had to describe him in one word, it would be “misunderstood.” Four words would be better, the military virtues: courage, honor, loyalty, and sacrifice.


On the topic of Rambo, one of the most found quotes by you is, “Before I start a project, I always ask myself the following question. Why is this book worth a year of my life?” Why was Rambo worth a year of your life? And did you expect the type of long life he has enjoyed over the years?


First Blood was published in 1972, and all these years later (44 of them to date) the book has never been out of print. I couldn’t have predicted it. No creator of an influential character could. I was seized by the violently divisive mood in the USA in the late 1960s. The hundreds and hundreds of riots made me worry that the nation was about to suffer another Civil War. I wanted to write a novel in which a disaffected Vietnam War veteran brought the war home. The novel’s an allegory that dramatizes opposites. The police chief is old enough to be Rambo’s father, so one level of the novel explores the generation gap of the late 1960s. The police chief is a kind of Eisenhower Republican while Rambo has been radicalized by the war. The police chief was a hero in the Korean conflict (a conventional war) while Rambo received medals for his role in the guerrilla war of Vietnam. Col Trautman (Rambo’s military mentor) has the first name of Sam. He’s Uncle Sam, the system that created Rambo and in the end destroys him. All of this really gripped me. I couldn’t resist the urge to write it. It was my first novel. I had a lot to learn. The process took three years.


You’ve written a number of standalone novels in addition to multiple series. Which type of approach is your favorite? Why?


It all depends on whether a character captivates me so much that I want to spend a lot of time with him or her. Also it’s a question of gauging how much time readers want to spend with a given character. Usually a new idea strikes me, and I set out to explore a new world rather than revisit a familiar one. Sometimes Fate can intervene. I might have written a fourth book in my Brotherhood of the Rose espionage series, but then my son Matthew died from a rare bone cancer. The series is about orphans searching for a father (I spent a year in an orphanage when I was three), but then I became a father searching for a son, and the series no longer spoke to me. There are a few sets of characters that I’d like to revisit–those in Creepers and Scavenger, for example. But it’s been almost ten years since I wrote about those characters, and the reality is that in today’s environment, no publisher would be willing to reintroduce a ten-year-old series. The same with Brotherhood of the Rose, which–no matter that it was high on Amazon’s listings a while ago–is thirty years old. If I proposed returning to a series from the 1980s, editors would look at me as if I were crazy.


What prompted you to choose Victorian England as the setting for your latest series?


In 2009, my granddaughter Natalie died from the same rare bone cancer that killed my son Matthew in 1987. Twice assaulted by grief, I needed to retreat from the modern world (a little like Balenger, the main character of the Creepers books). I’d always been interested in the Victorian era, and now I decided to disappear into it. For a couple of years, the only books I read were histories or cultural studies or novels or whatever that related to London in the 1850s. I learned about incomparable Thomas De Quincey, notorious for having written the first book about drug addiction, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Because of his epical opium nightmares, De Quincey formulated a theory about dreams and the human mind that’s close to what Freud proposed many years later, that our minds are composed of “chasms and sunless abysses, layer upon layer in which there are secret chambers where alien natures can hide undetected.” I imagined what the newly formed detective division of Scotland Yard–beginning to create crime-scene investigation, proud that they could make plaster casts of footprints–would think of a man whose life-long nickname was the Opium-Eater and who told them about the chasms of the human mind. For me, it was a seven-year odyssey that resulted in three books, Murder as a Fine Art, Inspector of the Dead, and Ruler of the Night. Each used the background of an actual (and major) Victorian murder, and in each I did my best to try to convince readers they were truly on those harrowing fogbound streets. The series gave me a much-needed escape from the modern world.


Was there any particular writing advice given to you when you were first learning your craft which really stayed in your mind as your career advanced?


I made the decision to become a writer when I was 17, thanks to Stirling Silliphant’s amazing scripts for the classic TV series Route 66. But I didn’t know how to go about it. Years later, when I was a graduate student at Penn State, I had the luck to meet a professional writer, Philip Klass, who taught there. Under the pen name William Tenn, Klass had been part of the golden age of science fiction in the 1950s. He generously encouraged me whenever I showed up at his office. He had several theories about writing (which I describe at length in my writing book The Successful Novelist: A Lifetime of Lessons about Writing and Publishing.) These are some of them.


Klass told me that the secret to having a career was to develop a distinctive voice and subject matter. Everyone has a dominant emotion, he said. But that emotion is often something that we don’t want to acknowledge–hate, envy, and anger, for example–so we hide it from ourselves. He compared the emotion to a ferret that scurries around inside us, not wanting to be discovered.  But if a writer could identify that emotion and be honest about it, it would be a distinctive subject matter. Klass believed that my own dominant emotion was fear (he was right–I had a terrible fear-laden childhood–I expect every day to end in doom), and if I could write honestly about fear, I might be able to use it to build a career. He said that the key to understanding my fear was to pay attention to my daydreams (the horrific ones) and analyze where they came from. Many decades later, thanks to him, I’m still paying attention to my daydreams and trying to write honestly about them.  


Can you tell us about your next work in progress and what brought you to writing it?


After Ruler of the Night, my next book will be a collection of essays, Stars in My Eyes: My Love Affair with Books, Movies, and Music. These are mostly articles that I wrote for magazines about cultural icons such as Ernest Hemingway, Richard Matheson, Rod Serling, John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, Steve McQueen, Frank Sinatra, and Bobby Darin. Philip Klass is in it also–and Henry James’s ghost stories, and a lot of other fun topics.


One of the best ways to discover new reading material is through recommendations.  Are there any obscure or off-the-beaten-path books that you know of which you would advise our readers to seek out?


They’re not off-the-beaten path, but these are the two thriller authors who had the most influence on me (James M. Cain: The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity) and Geoffrey Household (Rogue Male and Watcher in the Shadows). The first taught me about pace and dialogue. The second taught me about outdoor action scenes.