Friday, April 08, 2016

Gravetapping: Interview: Stephen Mertz

From Ben Boulden and Gravetapping:

Stephen Mertz has written under various pseudonyms, including Don Pendleton,The Executioner, Jack Buchanan, M.I.A. Hunter, Jim Case, Cody’s Army, Stephen Brett, Jon Sharpe, The Trailsman, and Cliff Banks, Tunnel Rats. His early work, as the pseudonyms suggest, was in the high flying men’s adventure genre of the 1980s, but his work has steadily moved from the formulaic action novels to an impressive, and varied, body of work stretching from historical to adventure to paranormal horror.
Mr. Mertz’s first published novel, Some Die Hard, was published as by Stephen Brett by the long ago Manor Books in 1979, and his most recent is an installment in his pulp western seriesBlaze! published earlier this year. In between, he created and wrote a few successful men’s adventure series: M.I.A. Hunter andCody’s Army come to mind. He wrote twelve Mack Bolan books, including the pivotal, and still popular, Day of Mourning, and over the last 15 years he has hit his stride as a novelist writing about a fictional meeting between Hank Williams and Muddy Waters,Hank & Muddy, and an international thriller set in the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics,Dragon Games.    

Mr. Mertz was kind enough to answer a few questions, and patient enough to keep answering when a few grew into more than twenty. The questions are in italics. The personal photographs are used courtesy of Stephen Mertz.

Your first professional sale was a short story, “The Busy Corpse,” to The Executioner Mystery Magazine.  Would you tell us a little about that experience?

Well, I guess every writer remembers the glorious day he sold his first story or she sold her novel and it’s a red letter day for sure. I was living in Denver at the time. I was running a second-hand record store. I was playing in a blues band, and I’d been writing unpublished (make that unpublishable) stories for years. In 1975, the magazine you mentioned bought that story. The funny thing about it is that I went on to become fairly well associated with the name of Mack Bolan, The Executioner, because about seven years later I ended up writing books for the Mack Bolan series. Actually, it was a coincidence that The Executioner Mystery Magazine bought that story. The editorial staff was out in LA and had nothing to do with Don [Pendleton] other than to use his name on the cover and he had nothing to do with them. The Table of Contents are interesting because it’s a mix of people that I never heard of again and then there are a few old hands like Talmage Powell who are placing some of their final work and there are a handful of new names like me and John Lutz and Margaret Maron who are just breaking in.

Your early career was spent writing men’s adventure fiction; The Executioner, and your own M.I.A. Hunter and Cody’s Army.  Were there any particular pleasures or displeasures of writing these types of books?

And let’s not forget The Tunnel Rats! The greatest pleasure was being able to practice the writing craft in anonymity while making money doing it. Because of course my name wasn’t on the Mack Bolan books; that was Don’s series. The other action/adventure books that I wrote were originally written under pen names. There are a variety of reasons that writers use pen names. You don’t want to be labeled in the popular or the editorial mind as a writer who only writes a certain type of novel, especially when you are as restless creatively as I am. It keeps you from being typecast. In a field like that, frankly, you are judged by the company you keep. There was Don Pendleton and one or two others but when I first broke into that field, even the established writers weren’t getting much respect. Not like today. So I thought it best to stay anonymous for that period of time. At the same time you’re delivering four to six books per year so you are honing your skills as a writer. It was a wonderful way to learn how to write. For instance, I wrote each of my first six action novels as a conscious nod to some writer who I felt influenced me and in that way I got it out of my system, to purge my writing of the sound of any other writer’s voice. I guess you could say that I arrived at my writing style through a process of exclusion. What was the displeasure? Having to meet deadlines.  Having to constantly work variations on the same formula. That generally applies to any sort of genre fiction. But all-in-all it was a good way to get started in the business.

Speaking of Don Pendleton, I know you are a great admirer of both him, as a person, and his work.  You have said his work was a direct descendent of what Mickey Spillane did with his hardboiled Mike Hammer novels and the pulp writer Carroll John Daly.  Would you expand on this idea?

I would refer anyone who’s interested in this subject to a book that came out back in the 1970’s called The Great American Detective, edited by William Kittredge and Steven M. Krauzer. It’s a collection of stories that trace the development of the fictional American Detective from the days of the dime novels and Carroll John Daly and it ends with the only Bolan short story that Don ever wrote. My point: the editors certainly saw Don in that tradition. The Introduction those guys wrote for that book presents the case more effectively than I could in an interview.

Are there any of Don Pendleton’s books you particularly admire?

Don’s major contribution is in creating the action adventure genre. Probably the most important lesson that I learned from Don was to consider yourself a serious novelist even if you are slanting your work for a genre market. I have tried to adhere to that and Don very much adhered to that in the sense that his Mack Bolan saga is character-driven, as in “serious” fiction. It’s character driven in the sense that Bolan is not the same person in the first book as he is in the last of Don’s original novels. It’s like one gigantic novel that came to us in a bunch of volumes. 

Then there’s one of Don’s last books, Copp in Shock; not his best, but one of my favorites. It’s a detective novel narrated by a private eye suffering from amnesia. Well, Don was enduring some challenging health issues at the time he wrote that one and in fact was suffering from severe memory loss. His wife, Linda, heroically assisted him. Of all the thrillers written about characters with amnesia, this is the only one I’m aware of that was written by an author recovering from amnesia while he wrote it!

Stephen Mertz (right) with Don Pendleton (left) and Richard S. Prather
I know you are a fan of the early pulp stories – your terrific short story “The Lizard Men of Blood River,” featured in The King of Horrors and Other Tales is an homage to the work of Lester Dent.  Are there any other pulp writers you particularly like?

There are writers who wrote for the pulps but aspired to greater things. There I am talking about Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and, for my money, Mickey Spillane. But then there were writers who only stayed in the pulp field. That’s all they wanted to do. That is what they did do. Those guys are mostly fun. That is the word you have to go with. If you measured them up against people I just named, most of them aren’t going to cut the mark…but then, who does? We’re in a Golden Age of pulp reprints so I don’t know what’s kept them from rediscovering Cleve F. Adams, a very funny hardboiled PI writer who wrote for the detective magazines in the 1930’s and ‘40’s. Of course, pulp writing is always with us. When the magazines faded away, pulp fiction just moved over to paperback novels. I’d have to go to the 1950s-60s for my second favorite unknown and that is Ennis Willie. I helped edit a collection of his work that Stark House published. It’s great hardboiled tough guy stuff.

Your later work, starting with Blood Red Sun (1989), is more ambitious than your earlier work. What, as you see it, is the major difference between writing the more formulaic adventure novels of your past, and these bigger and more robust novels you have been producing over the past few decades?

Well, they’re more fun to write for one thing and I hope that translates into the fact that they are more fun to read. I am not reinventing the wheel. I am falling back on things I learned writing pulp fiction when I write the more ambitious novels.

Blood Red Sun was published by Diamond Books, which was a publishing house started by Warren Murphy. Did you work directly with Mr. Murphy during its publication, and if so, what was the experience like?

No, I never had any contact with Warren. He was sort of the money guy there.  We did cross paths a couple of times years later. I worked with some editor. I forget his name. What I was trying to do with Blood Red Sun: that was my first book where I really stretched out and tried to say something and tell a tale that hadn’t been told before. I mentioned earlier, Hammett and Chandler. I was trying to do what they did and that was to take genre fiction and lift it into something that had broader scope and appeal. That is what I was trying to do with Blood Red Sun: take the tropes of action/adventure and honestly tell a story that could really have happened. 

Blood Red Sun, The Korean Intercept (2005), andDragon Games (2010) are set in Asia; World War II Japan, North Korea, and China, respectively. Does the Asian continent hold any special interest for you?

Well yes, but no more so than, say, the Middle East. The primary engine for fiction has got to be conflict and normally that is personal conflict, but you take entire cultures in conflict and, man, you are really working with something there. If you look at the history of those regions you just named and the culture of those countries and you stack that up side by side with the American way of looking at things, rarely if ever will they connect or even brush into each other. So in terms of being a novelist, there’s a lot to work with. And plus, let's face it, Asian chicks are hot.

You have written two novels, Fade to Tomorrow (2004) and Hank & Muddy (2011), which are set in the music world. In the Afterword of The King of Horror & Other Stories, you wrote that you performed as a professional musician – vocals and harp (harmonica) – for seven years:  Do these titles hold any special meaning for you since they are centered around music and musicians?

Oh, very much so. I think Hank & Muddy is the best novel I’ve written thus far, although it is certainly not cool to admire one of your children more than another. But still, music just flows through me. In fact, most of the years I was writing my early pulp fiction I didn’t write with any photograph or icon of any writer near me for inspiration; I had a picture over my desk of Chuck Berry doing the duck walk. The music we listen to says so much about us. Just like the food we eat and the movies we watch and the clothes we buy.

Hank & Muddy is a fictional imagining of Hank Williams and Muddy Waters meeting in Louisiana in 1952. The narrative is loaded with biographical information of both men. What type of research did you do?

This one pretty much ties into the last question. I’ve been listening to what they today call roots music since I was in high school. The Rolling Stones opened the door to a lot of us kids to what the blues was and soul music and everything else. So really the research for that book, I never really sat down and researched that one. I seem to remember almost every liner note and every musician’s biography that I’ve ever read. It was my long suffering mother who once observed that if I could only remember my multiplication tables as well as I remembered who played bass on Chuck Berry records, I’d be a brilliant mathematician. Mom, rest her soul, was right. I’ve been living music and writing since the day I found out about either one. I guess it’s inevitable that each would influence the other.

The title story in The King of Horror & Other Stories features a bitter writer who is no longer able to sell his work. In your Afterword you wrote it was an “open letter” to your friend Michael Avallone who had similar difficulties at the end of his writing career. Mr. Avallone had a wild reputation of self-promotion and an uncanny ability to bring others to anger. Do you have a story or two about Michael Avallone you would be willing to share?

I not only loved Michael Avallone but I also loved his wife, Fran, who was a great woman. She was everything that someone who loves a writer should be. I’ll always remember visiting them at 80 Hilltop Boulevard in East Brunswick, NJ. Fran cooked up a fantastic Italian dinner; this would have been 1983. Mike was pretty much in the state that you just mentioned.  He and I were sitting in his office which was within easy earshot although not within view of the kitchen where Fran was slaving over a hot stove. Mike went on about his travails, the challenges that were facing him and any number of complaints. He went on and he went on and he went on. I loved every word and I loved every minute of it. But I have a clear memory of Fran periodically calling up to us, “Michael, shut up and listen!” I am happy to report that Michael did not, could not, heed her advice. I walked away the richer for it.

Stephen Mertz (left) and Michael Avallone
Your more recent work has a quiet humor to it.  An example is Kim Jong-II using terrified prisoners as personal barbers in The Korean Intercept. Was this imaginary on your part, or is there some truth to it?

No, that was my sick imagination running rampant through my fingertips. By all accounts, the guy was totally bugfuck. You have two ways to look at that when you’re portraying it: you can either shake your head and let it happen or you can try to pull something out of it. It seems that if the guy was going to be crazy, he would be crazy in every department, not just in what he was doing to his own people but also getting a haircut. He was probably no fun to go shopping with. 

You wrote two dark suspense novels, Night Wind (2002) and Devil Creek (2004), which are different from anything else you’ve written. They both have significant elements of horror, suspense, and even a touch of romance. These novels, to me, showcase your range as a writer.  Would you tell us a little about these books?

Actually, when we get to the novels and stories published under my own name, nearly every one is different from anything else I’ve written. That’s my restless nature. I bore easily. I develop a story about people when I feel compelled to do so and when I’m finished writing that novel or story, I’m ready to move on; meet new people and write new stories. I think that is probably the overriding aspect of my work over the past fifteen years. Most of the novels are different from each other. The main similarity is that I wrote them. The idea for Night Wind had been in me since I moved to a remote rural area in Arizona. There’s no convenience store, no stop lights. The old joke is that Welcome and Come Again are on the same sign. When I first moved here thirty years ago, I was keenly aware that I was an outsider. Now I can spot an outsider right off. But feeling the way I first did, that if terrible crimes were suddenly committed right after I’d just moved here, good people would be well within the realm of reason to suspect that I, the unknown newcomer, had something to do with it . . . that’s the plot.

Funny story about Night Wind. One evening I had dinner with Joe Lansdale and a friend of his, Dean Koontz. Dean had just written a book, How to Write Best Selling Fiction. I had never read any Dean Koontz but after meeting him, I bought that book. It’s probably the best book about commercial writing that I’ve ever read. I perused that book meticulously. Then, still without reading any of Dean’s novels, I wrote Night Wind. People still come up to me after reading that one and say, “Hey, that reminds me of reading a Dean Koontz novel!"  Considering Dean’s enormous success, I’ve decided to interpret that as a compliment.

Do you have plans to write any other dark tales?

I will let you know when I get there.

You have been very prolific in the past few years. You have published a handful of novels, including creating a new adult western series called Blaze! Would you tell us a little about the series, and its genesis?

Now we’re back to the latest medium for pulp fiction. I created that series to establish a presence in the digital reading world; a series was the best way to go, so I worked a twist on the western genre that I’d never encountered before. Its genesis is a short story I wrote called “Last Stand,” which introduces a pair of gunfighters who are the two fastest guns in the West…who just happen to be married to each other. Kate and J.D. Blaze. I couldn't get away from the idea that those two deserved more than one story. I am happy to say that Rough Edges Press felt the same way and, in fact, wanted to amp up with a bi-monthly publication schedule. I’m too slow a writer to accommodate that, so a handful of topnotch writers stepped in to maintain consistent scheduling. They’ve just published Book #10 and presently there are enough books in the pipeline to get us through the year. J.D. and Kate. She’s a little smarter than he is but dog-gone-it, J.D. is a standup gent. They banter back and forth in between shooting the bad guys and sorting out various marital issues. These are western tall tales for today’s audience.

J.D. stands for Jehoram Delfonso.  Where did you come up with such an awkwardly intriguing name?

Well, it’s method writing. You try to be the guy, y’know? Would you want to be called Jehoram Delfonso, or J.D.? I know I'd prefer J.D. Jehoram is a warrior king in the Old Testament. At least once per book, Kate gets so mad at J.D. about something that she’ll call him by his given name in public. She’s the only person alive who has ever called him that besides his mother.

Many of your early works have appeared in eBook format over the past few years and you have several new titles that are primarily available as eBooks – Sherlock Holmes:  Zombies Over London, the Blaze! series. EBooks have seemingly opened new markets for many writers. What are your thoughts about eBooks, and how have they impacted your career?

It doesn’t make sense not to write for the digital market. Writers write to be read and these days that’s where the action is. It’s an exciting time to be a writer. I’m reminded of the 1950s. From what I know of the history of those years in popular writing, between the invention of the paperback novel, the advent of television, and comic books, all of a sudden there were all of these new ways to make money writing but everyone was still trying to figure out just how.  It was a wild frontier. That’s the way it is now. The M.I.A. Hunter series has gotten a second life. The new novels likeDragon Games and Hank & Muddy are doing well as eBooks. It’s a mixed blessing. As a reader, I prefer to sit under a light with a real book in my hands but as a writer, I’d have to say that much of my writing income today comes from eBook sales. So, it’s hard to be less than happy about success.

Speaking of eBooks, you did an interview with the blog Glorious Trash in 2013 and hinted there may be new M.I.A. Hunter novels appearing as eBooks. Is this still a possibility, or have you moved away from the idea?

No, it’s actually already happening. I’ve written a new Mark Stone, a reboot set in the present. Also, years ago when we were both hungry young lads, Joe Lansdale and I collaborated on three M.I.A. Hunter books.  They’ve just sold out aSubterranean Press hardcover omnibus of those so they’re now available in eBook format and trade paperback. Bonus material is included in the new editions to take readers behind the scenes of the development of the novels.

I heard this question in an interview on a BBC program a few years ago. If you were stranded on an island and you had only one book, what would it be?

Well, of course, we all have our favorite novels but once read, the great ones are remembered.  I’d have to cheat. I snuck in two. If I was looking at eternity all by myself on a deserted island and wanted entertainment, wisdom, and to stay in touch with the universe beyond the end of my nose, reckon I’d pack along a Bible and The Collected Plays of Mr. Shakespeare.

 The opposite side of the coin. If you were allowed only to recommend one of your novels, or stories, which one would you want people to read?

Hank & Muddy. That one just has a life of its own. I love that book and I hope I write a few more that are as good.

1 comment:

Mathew Paust said...

Fascinating, Ben. Superb interview. I read some of the Bolan novels back in the day, but had no knowledge of Mertz. Love that photo, btw, of Los Tres Amigos.