David Morrell: Literary High-Flier

By K.J. Howe

“Nobody is born a warrior, in exactly the same way that nobody is born an average man.  We make ourselves into one or the other.” Carlos Castaneda

If there is one author who has transformed himself into a literary warrior, it’s David Morrell.  David published First Blood in 1970 and he has now written over 30 books.  With 18 million copies in print, our current ThrillerMaster has been published in 26 languages.

Perhaps the best word to describe David is indefatigable.  Relentless in his pursuit of excellence, he has been a trailblazer in the publishing world for four decades.  As Jon Land (Strong Justice, June 2010) says, “David is a true warrior who sets trends and doesn’t please anyone other than himself.  He creates molds, and then breaks them.”  One only has to look at the variety and volume of books David has written to see he has always been ahead of the curve.

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David’s novels are timeless–you can pick up any of his books and be guaranteed a great read, regardless of when the novel was written.  Jon expounds that “David’s books don’t pigeon-hole into time and culture.  This makes him a challenge to market because he keeps reinventing himself.  First, he created the high-action thriller, then he wrote more Hitchcockian books, and then he combined the horror and thriller genres with Creepers.  Like a true warrior, he refused to be ‘typified’ as a certain type of writer.  There are few thriller writers who become great novelists and David is one of them.  David is a pioneer who made the thriller acceptable at a higher level.”

The Master Craftsman

“The more you sweat in training, the less you will bleed in battle.” Navy SEALs Motto

I’ve had the pleasure of hearing David speak numerous times and one of the many gems he shared was his strategic approach to writing novels.  When he invests a year of his life in a book, he wants to learn and grow as a result.  Perhaps this is why David has straddled genres and has written mostly stand-alone novels in a time when publishing encourages authors to create a series character.  David gives innovation new meaning, always striving for something that has never been done before.

When I asked David about his propensity to write mostly stand-alone novels, he explained that “I repeated a few characters:  Saul and Drew in The Brotherhood of the Rose spy trilogy, Balenger and Amanda in Creepers and Scavenger, Cavanaugh and Jamie in The Protector and The Naked Edge.  I even wrote two novelizations for the second and third Rambo films, which is weird because Rambo died at the end of my novel, First Blood.  But my more than 30 books have usually been stand-alones.  It wasn’t a deliberate choice.  My most enjoyable summer of reading involved all of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series.  I think I could have had fun writing a series.  But new possibilities kept occurring to me, and I couldn’t resist going in new directions.  I suspect that’s why I’m still being published after almost four decades.  With a series, there’s a risk that a writer might run out of variations and lose interest at the same time that readers get the idea and go elsewhere.”

Well, I don’t see readers losing interest in David’s gripping novels anytime soon.  Every detail of every book is meticulously crafted, from the well-constructed plots to the deeper messages subtly layered within the pages.  But what exactly is it about David’s writing that makes him a ThrillerMaster? C.J. Lyons (Urgent Care, October 2009) feels that it is his ability to establish an emotional connection with readers.  “He knows what his readers want and need in a story and he delivers every time.  David has mastered the art of storytelling and has the artistic sensibilities of a great wordsmith–and that’s an unbeatable combination.”

Perhaps another reason David’s novels are such a satisfying read is that they offer brilliant insights into the human psyche.  Douglas Preston (Fever Dream, May 2010) feels that David “invented the contemporary thriller novel with Rambo. The novel is non-stop action, but not mindless action because the arc of the plot is so amazingly constructed that it demands action.  At its time, this was something very new.  And the narrative is very deep with psychological motivations and the commentary on how people are damaged by war.  David explores deeper realities in Rambo.”

Anyone who takes the time to study David’s work will uncover certain themes–the search for father figures, the unveiling of his characters’ murky pasts, perhaps as a fictionalized way of searching for the truth in David’s own past.  When I inquired as to why David decided to write the short story, “My Name is Legion,” about the French Foreign Legion, he explained, “One of my persistent themes involves how people who consider themselves to be serious and solid can relentlessly follow their principles until they can no longer tell right from wrong.  That was the point of my first novel, and it continues to fascinate me almost 40 years later.  “My Name Is Legion” dramatizes a battle in WWII during which two elements of the French Foreign Legion (one working for the Germans, the other for the Allies) fought each other to the death, even though they had trained together, bunked together, and eaten together for many years.  They knew that the situation was insane, and yet they were committed to the Foreign Legion’s code to fight for whoever paid them. The principle of loyalty to an employer outweighed common sense and loyalty to one’s comrades.”

Longevity

The path of the warrior is lifelong, and mastery is often simply staying on the path. Richard Strozzi Heckler

In an industry that changes daily, it’s a challenge to remain in the spotlight.  Few authors have matched David in longevity and his work has definitely stood the test of time.  Jon Land shares that “some writers create books that only fit into a certain time period, but David’s books are timeless and do not fit into any specific era, time or culture.  Creepers is the perfect example.”  David is creating ‘accessible intellectualism’ in his books because readers learn something in every novel while still escaping into the story.

Shane Gericke (Torn Apart, July 2010) agrees. “I’m claustrophobic,” says the chairman of ThrillerFest. “Get me in a tunnel, cave or one of those 14th-century castles with the narrow stone passageways, it’s freakout time. David’s Creepers, which is about people finding themselves in exceptionally tight quarters in and under an abandoned building, is the only book that ever made me feel that same claustrophobia. Hat’s off to a writer who’s that good at his craft. But I won’t re-read Creepers. Don’t want to feel those quiverin’ shivers again!”

When I queried David about the evolution of the thriller genre in the last forty years and his role in it, he explained that the changes have been huge.

“When First Blood was published in 1972, there were few subgenres among thrillers, and thrillers didn’t routinely appear on bestseller lists.  The spy thriller existed in strength with authors like John le Carre and Ian Fleming, but the legal thriller, the medical thriller, the high-tech thriller, the religious thriller, the corporate thriller, the anti-terrorist thriller and so on were yet to be developed.  Thrillers: 100 Must Reads shows how this happened–one of the book’s many values.  As for my own role in these changes, First Blood has been called “the father of the modern action novel” because prior to that time few books had that amount of action and pace, especially in a non-genre context.  The Brotherhood of the Rose made a difference, I think, because it combined John le Carre’s authentic espionage approach with the action approach of Robert Ludlum.  The Fraternity of the Stone was perhaps the first religious thriller.”  David wrote about urban explorers in Creepers–but he is the true Christopher Columbus of fiction, plunging into unknown depths and discovering new subgenres of the thriller.

C.J. Lyons feels that David has elevated the genre by creating more emotional and character-driven novels without losing the pacing needed to thrill readers.  Regardless of how you categorize thrillers, it is evident that David has had a massive impact on the genre–and he continues to inspire many novelists, both new and experienced, through his innovative and meaningful stories.

The Man Behind the Author

A warrior must only take care that his spirit is never broken. Shissai

Behind every great warrior’s exterior lies tales of hardship and loss.  In David’s case, he has had many personal challenges to overcome. His fighter pilot father died in the war and his mother left him in an orphanage when he was four years old.  Perhaps this early trial gave him the strength and skills to become a great warrior.  One of Douglas Preston’s mentors shared that, in his opinion, the most successful writers have suffered childhood trauma.  If this is truly the case, David’s childhood prepared him exceedingly well.

Later in life, David also battled personal tragedy with the loss of his son Matthew and his granddaughter Natalie.  “While I have been fortunate in my career, I can’t say the same for my private life.  The death of my 15-year-old son, Matthew, in 1987 took me down for three years.  When I regrouped, everything was difficult, merely getting up in the morning, let alone writing.  Matt died from a rare bone cancer, Ewing’s sarcoma, that afflicts only 200 people in the United States each year.  In 2009, my 14-year-old granddaughter died from the same disease.  She was in the hospital for 250 days.  The disease is not supposed to be inherited.  What terrible odds.  I sometimes make a dark joke that the only reason I keep going is that I’ve had practice dealing with horror.”

Gayle Lynds (The Book of Spies, April 2010) shares that “David waged war against the despair and allowed time to pass, returning to writing with a greater depth of understanding of life that deepened his writing, turning personal tragedy into something that is universal.”

During a keynote speech, David shared that the emotion he writes about is fear, but C.J. Lyons believes that the emotion is actually hope.  “He turns personal tragedy into something that is inspiring and empowering and offers hope–hope that the world can be transformed through acts of bravery and sacrifice and courage.  Hope that good will triumph and justice will prevail.”

Many writers turn to writing for cathartic purposes.  The land of fiction can provide escapism of sorts, a place where writers can withdraw from reality for a short stint.  Jon Land wonders if this is the case with David as Jon recognizes in David a brilliant tactician, the Flaubert of thriller writers.  Jon suggests that “there is an element of control over what David does and his writing may not be as cathartic for him as it is for me.  David has no bad sentences.  He has tight writing, a level of control that demonstrates his mastery.  David’s craft is so important to him–he sweats every word–that he may not be able to lose himself in writing fiction.”

When I asked David if he found writing fiction cathartic, he shared, “John Barth once said that reality is an interesting place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there very long.  Escaping into the daydream of fiction and the magic of words is a wonderful alternative to what can be a hostile neighborhood.”  Knowing the personal losses David has suffered, I find it comforting somehow to know that fiction allows him a porthole into another reality, a place where he can leave his worries behind.

Gayle Lynds shares that, “David is a hands-on kind of man and he has limitless curiosity and he likes to try new things.  In addition to having an incredible intellect and being a fine writer, he is a first-rate human being.”  As Douglas Preston puts it so eloquently, “David is the quintessential old-school gentleman.”

David is a unique and engaging individual. When asked to reveal something surprising to his fans, he comments, “The creator of Rambo, who once broke his collarbone in a knife-fighting course, loves to grow vegetables and dig in the garden.”  Rumors also suggest that he sports a wicked forehand in tennis and that he is an avid fan of Dr. Oz.  If there is one thing I’m sure of, it’s that there are many surprises left to be discovered about David.

Preparation is Key

The focused mind can pierce through stone. Hagakure

An intelligent and successful warrior never goes into battle unprepared–and David is no stranger to in-depth research.  In fact, as you read above, he has broken a bone or two during hand-to-hand combat sessions.  Now that’s sacrificing for the art!

David’s research acumen is rarely matched.  He doesn’t just investigate his characters’ professions, he becomes them.  For example, to prepare for Double Image, David lived the life of a photographer.  He is also a graduate of the National Outdoor Leadership School for wilderness survival as well as the G. Gordon Liddy Academy of Corporate Security. In addition, he is an honorary lifetime member of the Special Operations Association and the Association of Former Intelligence Officers.  David has been trained in firearms, hostage negotiation, assuming identities, executive protection, and anti-terrorist driving, among other action skills that he describes in his novels.

“Before I start a book,” David shares, “I write a letter to myself in which I discuss why a particular project is worth a year of my life.  That’s really all I have that matters–my time.  There needs to be something about the theme, the approach, and the research that changes my life.  Learning about photography for Double Image profoundly changed the way I see things around me.  Learning how to fly a plane was profound as well because I am now able to move in three dimensions. As for the week I spent at the Bill Scott Raceway, learning how to drive cars the way stunt people do in the movies, that was the finest amusement park I ever went to.  I laughed constantly for the entire week as I spun cars at high speeds and rammed barricades.  Living above timberline for 30 days in Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains also stands out–because of the resilience it taught me.”

David immerses himself in his research not only through “book learning” but also by living the research to augment the sense of veracity in his writing.  C.J. Lyons says “David never takes the easy way out.”  Douglas Preston echoes David’s commitment to research.  “He is a warrior in the real world, battling reality to gain the information he needs to write his book.”  David’s action scenes mirror his in-depth research.  An excellent example is the fight scene in complete darkness In the League of Night and Fog, the mood palpably breathtaking and sentient, the details precise and vivid.

Future Warriors

The two most powerful warriors are patience and time. Leo Tolstoy

David is well-known for his mentoring spirit and his support of upcoming authors.  Jon Land shares that “David helps people find their voice and encourages writers to be themselves and do what feels right to them. He has his eye on the bigger picture and has a great love of the art of writing.”

If you are an aspiring author, be sure to read The Successful Novelist: A Lifetime of Lessons about Writing and Publishing. Not only will you be privileged to view a snapshot into David’s life, you will learn a great deal about the craft of writing and the art of storytelling.  “I have several mantras that I teach my writing students.  “Be a first-rate version of yourself rather than a second-rate version of another writer.”  “Write the book that you were meant to write, not the book that you think will satisfy the current, soon-to-change market.”  “Approach your profession with a sense of devotion, adventure, and discovery.”  “Stay ahead of the curve.”  That last mantra is worth expanding.  The publishing world is experiencing massive changes at a rapid pace.  Every author needs to become an expert in these changes and change with them, anticipating if possible.  We need to be active in our careers rather than allowing things to happen to us.”

Douglas Preston was once a recipient of David’s kindness.  Over 15 years ago, he approached David for a cover quote for his first novel Jennie.  David graciously agreed and a wonderful friendship bloomed.  Today, Doug is a fiery proponent of ITW’s mission to help debut and mid-list authors because of the support and encouragement he received from David.

Gayle Lynds appreciated David’s incredible devotion as her partner in starting ITW. “With David it is all about community and collegiality and protecting fellow authors, giving these authors opportunities they might never have. David always looks for talent in aspiring authors, that little extra that includes an eye for a story and an ear for words and the personal vigor that will keep a person at their computer long enough so he/she can be very good.”

The caring attitude that Gayle and David exhibit is exactly why the International Thriller Writers has grown to be such an influential and positive organization.  When asked about his vision for ITW in the next five to ten years, David shares, “ITW’s mandate is to help thriller writers become better at their craft and to educate readers about the enormous possibilities of thrillers.  Our Debut Authors program and our CraftfFest/AgentFest sessions go a long way toward the first goal, and books like Thrillers: 100 Must Reads help with the second goal.  But we have plenty more to do along those lines.  For example, the current changes in publishing are fast and enormous, comparable to what happened in the music business.  I think ITW needs to help authors learn about these changes and embrace them.  Perhaps the organization could even become a publisher or a packager, but we would need to use a different model than the one that existed prior to the Internet.”

David is a steadfast warrior, a mind warrior, an intrepid warrior, a loyal warrior, but most of all a literary warrior–and we are grateful for his legacy of books.  David has had a fascinating career thus far, never compromising his integrity or inner voice by writing to market rather than writing for himself.  Instead, he paved a new path for himself and others and I can’t wait to see what he does next.  No matter which direction he turns, I’m sure we’ll all learn from David’s exploration.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting David, hopefully you will have that opportunity at ThrillerFest in July.  David has the gift of making you feel like you’re the only person in the world–he listens attentively, gives sage advice, his intelligent eyes full of kindness and warmth.  The world would be a better place if we had a few more warriors like David.

DAVID MORRELL FICTION

First Blood (1972)
Testament (1975)
Last Reveille (1977)
The Totem (1979)
Blood Oath (1982)
The Hundred-Year Christmas (1983)
The Brotherhood of the Rose (1984)
The Fraternity of the Stone (1985)
Rambo (First Blood Part II) (1985)
The League of Night and Fog (1987)
Rambo III (1988)
The Fifth Profession (1990)
The Covenant of the Flame (1991)
Assumed Identity (1993)
Desperate Measures (1994)
The Totem (Complete and Unaltered) (1994)
Extreme Denial (1996)
Double Image (1998)
Black Evening (1999)
Burnt Sienna (2000)
Long Lost (2002)
The Protector (2003)
Nightscape (2004)
Creepers (2005)
Scavenger (2007)
The Spy Who Came for Christmas (2008)
The Shimmer (2009)
Tesseracts 13:  Chilling Tales from the Great White North (Edited with Nancy Kilpatrick) (2009)
“My Name is Legion” in Warriors (2010)
“The Interrogator” in Agents of Treachery (2010)
The Naked Edge (2010)

DAVID MORRELL NONFICTION

John Barth: An Introduction (1976)
Fireflies: A Father’s Tale of Love and Loss (1988)
American Fiction, American Myth: Essays by Philip Young (Edited with Sandra Spanier) (2000)
The Successful Novelist: A Lifetime of Lessons about Writing and Publishing (2008)
Thrillers: 100 Must Reads (Edited with Hank Wagner) (2010)



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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

K.J. Howe is a medical, health, and fitness writer whose passion is international thrillers. She has a Master’s in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University in Pennsylvania and has the honor of winning three Daphne du Maurier awards for Excellence in Mystery and Suspense. Travel and adventure fuel her imagination. She has raced camels in Jordan, learned how to surf in Hawaii, zip-lined in the Costa Rican jungle, dove with Great White Sharks in South Africa, and co-mingled with elephants in Botswana. Home is in Toronto, Canada, but she is often missing in action! www.kjhowe.com

ITW

International Thriller Writers Inc represents professional authors from around the world. Learn more about them, their work, and the sources from which they draw their inspiration at the Official ITW Organization Website.

Interested in becoming a member of the International Thriller Writers? ITW offers Active and Associate memberships.
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