Thursday, July 09, 2009

An Interview With David Morrell


When a high-speed chase goes terribly wrong, Santa Fe police officer Dan Page watches in horror as a car and gas tanker explode into flames. Torn with guilt that he may be responsible, Page returns home to discover that his wife, Tori, has disappeared.
Frantic, Page follows her trail to Rostov, a remote town in Texas famous for a massive astronomical observatory, a long-abandoned military base, and unexplained nighttime phenomena that draw onlookers from every corner of the globe. Many of these gawkers—Tori among them—are compelled to visit this tiny community to witness the mysterious Rostov Lights.

Without warning, a gunman begins firing on the lights, screaming “Go back to hell where you came from,” then turns his rifle on the bystanders. A bloodbath ensues, and events quickly spiral out of control, setting the stage for even greater violence and death.

Page must solve the mystery of the Rostov Lights to save his wife. In the process, he learns that the decaying military base may not be abandoned at all, and that the government may have known about the lights for decades. Could these phenomena be more dangerous than anyone could have possibly imagined?

1. You've written that the starting point for several of your novels was news stories. Was that the case with The Shimmer?

The common question all writers get is, “Where do your ideas come from?” In the case of THE SHIMMER, one Sunday morning about five years ago, I opened my morning newspaper and saw an article in the travel section about mysterious lights that appear almost nightly outside a small town in west Texas, called Marfa.

According to the article, the lights have been seen for as long as people have been in that area. As far back as 1889, a rancher moving a herd of cattle saw the lights and feared that they were the campfires of marauders from Mexico. He and his men pulled out their rifles and guarded the cattle all night. In the morning, they searched for where the fires had been, but they found nothing.

In World War One, the locals feared that the lights came from Germans who were in Mexico, perhaps getting ready to invade. In 1980, something called the Marfa Ghost Light Hunt involved 200 people using aircraft, horses, motorcycles, car, and trucks, searching for the lights and their origin, but the hunters were never able to catch the lights.

Equally interesting, if you and I went there, one night I might see the lights while you would not—but the next night, you might see the lights and I wouldn’t see anything.

I cut the article from the newspaper and put it on a shelf of other intriguing articles that I keep in my office. For three years, the article nagged at me

2. Roswell conspiracy theorists, among many other conspiracy lovers, will find that your novel ups the ante considerably. The story you present is much more mysterious than a pair of dead aliens in an airplane hanger somewhere. Have you listened to late night radio's take on UFOs and aliens?

Readers need not worry that I’m dredging up UFOs or aliens or any of those tired old theories. I like to believe that my novels surprise readers. The novel does dramatize a conspiracy, however. In actuality, next to where the Marfa lights are most visible, there’s an abandoned military base that dates back to World War Two. There’s also a nearby observatory. I couldn’t believe my luck when I researched that part of west Texas and found these settings. I imagined an alternate version of Marfa, which I call Rostov, and I incorporated both the observatory and the abandoned military base into my novel. But again, no UFOs and no aliens.

I can’t resist adding that the James Dean movie GIANT was filmed in Marfa. Dean was fascinated by the lights and often went to see them. He dragged his costars Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson to the observation area, but they weren’t able to see them. Only Dean did. Three days after finishing his work on GIANT, he was killed in a car crash. I incorporate this into THE SHIMMER, although James Dean becomes James Deacon and GIANT becomes a film called BIRTHRIGHT.

3. The love story here is particularly powerful. The police officer Dan Page, who must save his wife Tori from her fixation with the strange lights, is a more believable and complicated character than you find in the standard adventure novel. But Page is in the tradition of the Morrell protagonist, the competent, self-reliant man who is troubled by his past. I find a fair share of your protagonists to be obsessive men. Are you aware of that?

Yes, many of my protagonists are obsessed with a goal that they intend to achieve at any cost. Most of them had something terrible happen to them. They realized how dangerous life can be and became obsessed with acquiring skills that will help them defend against life’s uncertainties. The police officer Dan Page is a private pilot, for example. That activity saves his sanity because flying is so complicated that he can’t think about anything else when he’s in the air. He says it’s his way of “getting above it all.”

As for the love story, it’s not a conventional one in the sense of romance and sex scenes. I’ve been married forty-four years and am in awe of my wife. Her strength, her decency, her good nature, her generosity. In THE SHIMMER, I wanted to depict a couple whose marriage was dying—not because of infidelity or anything like that, but instead because they forgot why they wanted to be together in the first place. During the course of the novel, Page and his wife Tori learn to love one another again. It’s as if the lights allow them to see one another’s spirit. The final scene is deeply emotional and honestly earned, something that raises the bar for what an author can put in a thriller.

4. The Shimmer has a large cast. Does the material dictate the scope of the book? Several of your novels have been much leaner than this one.

Sometimes a particular subject matter requires a large cast. I’m fascinated by the films of Billy Wilder, especially his noir period. SUNSET BOULEVARD. DOUBLE INDEMNITY. The latter comes, of course, from James M. Cain’s wonderful book. Few authors are as lean as Cain, and I certainly wrote a number of lean books that were influenced by Cain, FIRST BLOOD and TESTAMENT among them. One of Wilder’s overlooked noir films is ACE IN THE HOLE, sometimes called THE BIG CARNIVAL. It’s set in New Mexico, where Kirk Douglas is a newspaper reporter who hears about a man who’s trapped in a cave. Douglas makes a big deal about the story until people come from miles around, hundreds of spectators and then thousands.

That film came to mind when I wondered how to dramatize a scene in which a man starts shooting at the lights, screaming “Go back to hell where you came from!” He then turns the rifle on a crowd of bystanders, killing twenty of them. I decided that I’d use a television journalist to show how such a shocking event might be publicized until increasingly larger crowds are drawn to the area, creating even more turmoil.

I also needed to show how people who live in the town react to the sudden influx of thousands of people. I needed to characterize the local chief of police and a Highway Patrol officer and the mayor and a special operations colonel who’s in charge of a military effort to weaponize the light. Characters at the observatory needed their own scenes. THE SHIMMER kept growing in that manner. It’s not a long book in terms of pages, but it sure feels big.

5. This is a familiar question but I think it's relevant here given the number of sub-plots. Do you generally outline before you begin writing and do you stay with the outline?

At the start of every project, I write a letter to myself in which I ask myself why a particular project is worth a year of my life. I then ask all kinds of questions about how the story might unfold. By the time I finish the letter, which might be twenty single-spaced pages, I have a pretty clear idea of what the story needs and where it will take me. I find this method to be more creative than writing a standard outline.

6. There's a real sense of history in The Shimmer. I'm talking about the backstory scenes. This enriches the people and the story. Have you always done this?

Some of my author friends, like Steve Berry, call me “the professor.” Unlike many writers, I’m classically trained in the sense that I have an MA and PhD in American literature from Penn State. For sixteen years, I was a professor at the University of Iowa. I love adding history to my novels—anything that gives the plots texture and teaches my readers while entertaining them. My fans often tell me that my books are different when read a second time. The first time, if I did my job, the force of the story keeps them turning pages. But the second time, readers notice all kinds of historical and even philosophical details that I embedded in the novel but that aren’t noticeable at first.

7. The lights that are the central element of the book effect different characters differently. Tori for example, is trying to save her marriage by following the lights while the Colonel wants the power the lights can give him. Are you suggesting that people are pre-disposed to reacting a certain way to the lights--good people in a positive way, bad people in a negative one?

I thought of the lights as mirrors of each observer. Someone who is hateful will become more so when he sees the lights. Someone who is lonely and empty will be filled with an emotion that is almost like seeing God. Someone in law enforcement, a professional skeptic, won’t be able to see the lights because of the guarded way that person sees the world. In a way, this is a novel about how what we are affects how we see reality. One of my favorite sections involves a character looking at a huge aquarium in which there seem to be only plants, rocks, and a miniature shipwreck. Then the character realizes that what he is actually seeing are dozens of cuttlefish, which are squid-like creatures that have the ability to change colors and assume the shapes of objects around them. One theme of the book is that our assumptions control the kind of reality we think we’re seeing.

8. This would make a fantastic mini-series. Have you gotten any Hollywood interest as yet?

The book is circulating among producers, but William Goldman’s famous statement remains more true than ever. “No one knows anything.” The movie business has been stunned by the collapse in the world economy. In an effort to bet on big box office receipts, Hollywood seems inclined to make only those films that are based on comic-book characters. Everyone’s afraid to say “yes” to a project because, if a film isn’t financially successful, executives lose their jobs.

9. Because you basically created the modern adventure novel what do you think of the form today in books? In movies?

Thrillers have never been more popular or more varied. I’m delighted to have been a co-founder (with Gayle Lynds) of the International Thriller Writers organization. Our members include all kinds of stars like Lee Child, Sandra Brown, R.L. Stine, Steve Berry, James Rollins, Katherine Neville, Kathy Reichs, Vince Flynn, Joseph Finder. Each of these writers is distinct from the others. Moreover, they are serious about what they do. In contrast, when my novel FIRST BLOOD was published in 1972, there were only a few types of thrillers. I was (and hope I still am) a pioneer.

Movies are another matter. It’s been a long time since I saw a thriller that I thought was effective. The latest James Bond movie QUANTUM OF SOLACE was the worst of the series. The cuts were so fast, presumably to imitate the Jason Bourne movies, that I could not follow what was happening. The handheld camera was out of control. The script and direction felt calculated rather than inspired. Characterization was ignored. The plot ideas seemed recycled. We’re a far cry from NORTH BY NORTHWEST or THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR.

10. Is there a literary accomplishment that has still eluded you?

I treat each book as a special project and want to keep trying new approaches to what a thriller can be. Sometimes something comes along that I hadn’t considered. For example, five years ago Marvel Comics asked if I’d write a 6-part comic-book series about Captain America. I jumped at the chance and had a wonderful time writing CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE CHOSEN, adding an afterword to the series when it was collected in a book—and even including my script for the first issue. I’ve written liner notes for CDs. If there’s a type of writing that I haven’t tried, when I’m given the chance, I go for it.


Anonymous said...

This is a brilliant interview of a superb and truly thoughtful novelist and student of literature.

Richard Wheeler

Phantom of Pulp said...

Great interview, Ed.

His writing a letter to himself was a fascinating, inspiring tidbit.