It’s rare that you meet a thriller writer with a PhD, but that’s David Morrell. He perfectly mixes fact with fiction, and has an immense appreciation for and understanding of the thriller genre. Morrell is a co-founder of International Thriller Writers, and he’s the father of John J. Rambo. Without his novel First Blood, the iconic film franchise starring Sylvester Stallone wouldn’t exist.
I first met David at ThrillerFest in 2013 and have enjoyed getting to know him better over the past couple years. Below is an interview I conducted with David. We cover everything from what inspired him to become a writer to what it was like working on a novel while his son was struggling with a rare disease. After you’ve read it, please make sure to pick up a copy of David’s latest novel, Inspector of the Dead. It’s receiving rave reviews from critics and fans alike.
You co-founded International Thriller Writers 11 years ago. What was your inspiration for starting this organization?
Throughout the 90s thrillers did not enjoy the popularity they do now. In the 1980s, of course, they were very popular. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a decrease in popularity. It’s not like they went away, but thrillers weren’t the same, in the way they were perceived by the public.
It’s difficult to go back to 2003 and realize the impact that Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code had. It revitalized the thriller genre. We weren’t thinking of Dan Brown, but we were thinking about the fact that when we went to conferences there were no thriller panels. We were often trying to find our way in an environment where the primary interest seemed to be toward mysteries in a traditional sense, as in whodunit, and, to a degree, to crime fiction in general.
So, we thought, if we had our own conference we’d be able to draw like-minded people and have the panels that we wanted to be on. In addition, we wanted to have a community in which everybody was helping everybody else. I’m especially pleased with how that turned out because through ITW a lot of people have been able to earn a living being thriller writers. It filled a need.How did the TV show Route 66 inspire you to become a writer?
I enjoy talking about Route 66. It was about two young men in a Corvette convertible driving across the country, as the promo for the show said, “in search for themselves.” I identified with the characters. One of them was an orphan from Hell’s Kitchen and I had been in an orphanage. I’m not an orphan but my father died in the war and my mother wasn’t able to support me and hold a job, so she had to put me in an orphanage for a period of time. It had an effect on me, so the fact that the one character had been in an orphanage was something I identified with. The other character was someone who enjoyed a well-to-do life until his father died and then it was discovered that the corporation the father owned was bankrupt. And in the end, this character also became an orphan, with only the Corvette remaining after the creditors went after his father’s estate. So, I identified with him too.
Then, as I got beyond the characters, I started to realize how truly remarkable the series was in terms of its writing. How odd to imagine – a very young person identifying with writing. But it was a unique blend of action and ideas, and long philosophical speeches amidst the action, which really grabbed me.
I noticed after a number of weeks that most of the episodes were written by Stirling Silliphant. I wrote Stirling a letter and, by god, he answered me and encouraged me. Basically, I told him I wanted to be him. So, wanting to be Stirling Silliphant I forged ahead. It’s a source of great pride and satisfaction for me that in the late 1980s I worked with Stirling. Stirling and I became very close and I worked with him on the TV adaptation of my novel the Brotherhood of the Rose. He was the Executive Producer of the mini-series. It was a wonderful closing of the circle. He inspired me and at the same time, later, I got to work with him.
You have an MA and PhD in American Literature. How has this influenced your writing?
Many writers come to writing intuitively. They sort of know why something works and why something doesn’t work, and they follow their intuition. I compare them, I guess, to a jazz musician. My background is that I’m classically trained. I started out as a concert pianist and then became a jazz pianist, so I have a better understanding than any other writer. Not all. There are some in the same situation I’m in, but not many. Add to that the years I taught writing and literature at the University of Iowa. I know pretty much what technique works for a particular scene and which one doesn’t. So, I don’t use a lot of intuition. I’m thinking of it from a different kind of approach to the craft.
Would you recommend that all aspiring writers seek an advanced degree that is applicable to the field?
Not necessarily. Everybody is different. Some people write during the day, while others write at night. Some do a couple hours, and others do eight hours. Everybody is unusual and has to find their own way. It worked for me, but not everyone has the patience or interest in getting those degrees.
What I do say to beginning writers is if you want to try and achieve a certain level of sophistication in your writing, you should read most of the great books in the genre in which you wish to investigate and write. I find that I’m often amazed and secretly appalled when young writers come up to me and discuss books and I realize how narrow and limited their range of reading is, and that they seem to be more influenced by television and movies than they are by books.
What does a successful day of writing look like for you?
If I can get five pages that are readable, I’m happy. Many readers know you best for your debut novel, First Blood. How did you get the idea for the story?
I was a graduate student at Penn State in 1968 and the school said that if I taught Freshman level composition that they’d pay for my tuition. So, I took them up on this offer to be a teacher. I was teaching first-year rhetoric composition and in 1968 some of the students were returning veterans who were roughly my age and they were asking why I was giving them direction when I should have been in Vietnam. I told them that, first, I was a Canadian citizen, and also that I was married and had a young daughter. There was no way I was ever going to be in that war. Once they understood that I wasn’t trying to dodge being in the war, they opened up to me about what it felt like to return, including the symptoms of what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The nightmares, the sweats, the difficulties in relationships, the tendency to over-drink, things like that.
I got an education in what it felt like for people to come back from the war zone. In the back of my mind I was also thinking about the vast number of riots happening in the United States around that time. Not 10, not 20, but hundreds of riots. And a lot of those cities never recovered. I remember watching the TV news and thinking it was as if the war had come home. And it was at that time the two ideas came together. What would it be like if somebody had come back from the war had been radically changed by the realization that he was good at killing people? What that knowledge did to him, and how he was trying to find his way. And how, because of that, a mini-version of the Vietnam war occurred in the United States.
Did you work with Sylvester Stallone at all during any of the films?
No. Everyone once in a while in the film business, you’ll see that an author is able to adapt his or her work or is asked to be a consultant. That makes the news because it’s so unusual. Most film studios don’t ever want to see the author again, partly because it’s a closed shop in the movie world, and also because they know that most authors aren’t able to strip a story down to what a film requires.
Over the years, Sylvester Stallone has occasionally called me to ask if I have anything that might be good for him. Or, for example, when he directed the fourth Rambo movie, he called to tell me what he had in mind.
I didn’t expect to work on the script, so there wasn’t any disappointment there.
You wrote the novelizations for Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III. However, the limitations that writers commonly face when writing such books weren’t imposed on you. Would you explain what the process was like?
Those were amazingly fun projects. In those days novelizations were popular because films weren’t released for home video. VHS tapes at the time were very expensive and basically only used for rental. So, in the case of the second and third movies, they saw the novelization as an essential part of the marketing.
The problem was that, by contract, I was the only one who could write about Rambo in prose. So, nobody else could do the novelizations. They sent me a script that was 85-pages long. It was very thin. This was for Rambo: First Blood Part II. And while the film was amusing, the script didn’t have a lot of heft and weight. I turned them down about 15 times but they kept coming back because they really needed the novelization.
So, they asked me if it would help if they provided me with a script that wasn’t used. I said, “Well, who is it by?” And they told me James Cameron (laughs). Now, this is James Cameron before Terminator 2 and Alien. Before all the fame. I asked them to send it to me, and I knew right away why it wasn’t used. In the script Rambo had a side-kick, and I presume, in the movie, it would have been John Travolta because Sylvester had recently directed John, at that time, in the sequel to Saturday Night Fever. But all of the comedy wouldn’t have worked, so they didn’t do it.
This original script would have also had Rambo starting off the film in an insane asylum. I could see why they were nervous about that. But for my purposes, this was wonderful stuff. This was breaking the rules of what a novelization was like because typically they were simply punched up versions of the films upon which they were based.
My novelization of the second film was a blend of three things. A third of it was the shooting script. Another third was the unused script by Cameron, and the last third was original material by me because I wanted to make him like the character in First Blood.
I had a great time with these books, from a technical standpoint. However, I had a huge problem. I killed off the character at the end of the first book, so how the hell am I writing about him alive in the second book? My friend provided me with an easy solution. He said, “Include a little note at the beginning of the book saying ‘In my novel First Blood Rambo died. In the movie he lived.” (laughs) It struck me as so amusing. So I said, “What hell, let’s do it.” And it spent six weeks on the New York Times’ best-sellers list.
While writing Rambo III, your son was diagnosed with a rare bone cancer. I imagine it was incredibly difficult to focus on the book at this time.
First, let me say that you’re the first person to ever see the parallel. No one ever looked into those particular years and realized what I was dealing with while I was trying to write that book.
My son, he suffered from a very rare bone cancer. And it killed him. While he was in the hospital receiving chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, I was working on the novelization for Rambo III.
Unlike the novelization of Rambo II, they didn’t have any James Cameron scripts lurking in the background that I could pull from. But they did have some excellent first drafts, which I don’t know why they didn’t turn into the final film. They were so much better than the finished script.
So, again, I was able to use one-third shooting script, one-third the other script and one-third me, in order to make a more interesting story than the one that was filmed. But while this was going one, I was going up to spend a significant amount of time each day with my son in the hospital. I often slept up there.
It was easily the most harrowing time of my life, in terms of writing. At the same time, it provided me with a distraction. It was very difficult to concentrate on the book. But getting back to Rambo and that other world, I think it helped me a little bit. It was just a very difficult time. And the book took a lot longer than the previous book did because there were so many other distractions.
Some authors don’t enjoy research while others revel in it. What kind of author are you when it comes to research?
I’m absolutely a research-oriented person. I don’t know how you can write about something without fully understanding it. I often compare myself to the school of method acting. I don’t think there’s any substitute for fully immersing yourself in researching whatever you’re writing about. I know some authors who see no use for it. But you can tell when authors do the research and when they don’t, and I believe readers notice the difference.
Speaking of research, Murder as a Fine Art required a great deal of research, correct?
It did. The book is set in 1854 London, so what I did was, basically, going back to graduate school. Going in, I knew that for this Canadian-American who typically wrote about contemporary subjects to go over an ocean and back 150 years would require the equivalent of earning a doctorate on London in the Victorian era. For two years, all I read was books set in London during that era. I just loved it.The follow-up to Murder as a Fine Art is Inspector of the Dead, which came out earlier this year. For those that haven’t read it, what can readers expect from this new book?
This one is set in 1855 during the Crimean War. A war correspondent who worked for the London Times saw a mismanagement of the war on a colossal level. More soldiers were dying from disease and starvation than they were from enemy bullets. He wrote dispatches to the Times that so infuriated England that a massive vote of non-confidence brought down the English government. That happened on January 30, 1855 for six days. During those six days there was no government. Those six days are when this novel occurs, during which there was an assassination attempt on Queen Victoria.
In 2010 you signed a deal to release The Naked Edge and nine other e-books exclusively through Amazon’s Kindle store. What was that experience like?
I’ve always tried to be on the forefront. This is my 43rd year as a published author, and you’ll find very few people who started in 1972, when I did, who are still around. There are a few, but very few. And it isn’t because they died. Many of them are still alive. It’s because something happened in their careers that caused them to not continue.
In some cases, authors find something that really works for them and they repeat it and repeat it, often in a series, until the readers get tired of it. There’s nothing new, and the author gets tired of it. So, they sort of walk away. What I’ve always tried to do is evolve and look ahead.
In 2005 I had a publisher, eventually called Vanguard Books, and they had a new business model. This business model was one in which an author didn’t receive an advance. Instead, they received an extraordinary percentage of royalties, starting at 25%. At the same time, the author, by not agreeing to take an advance, had veto power as a member of the publishing team.
I did four books with Vanguard. The first one went extremely well. But the publishing world started to change, with all the mergers. And what I noticed was Vanguard was publishing more and more books. This meant you couldn’t have the same quality of distribution or marketing because of the increase in quantity. As a result, Vanguard went out of business. That was in 2009.
In 2010 I was looking around for yet another experiment, and Amazon came to my agent and asked if I’d be interested in releasing nine of my backlist titles in the then new and untested eBook format. At the time, eBooks were considered a novelty so they wanted established authors. And then they asked if I’d be willing to release a never-before published book as an eBook, and that was a first. I was one of the very first established authors to do this. It was such news that it was on the front page of the Los Angeles Times.
So, we released them. I learned a lot, and we had an exclusive for one year. I don’t like exclusives, so when the exclusive ran out I then released the eBook in every other format I could find. I continue to do that. All in all, it was a great experiment and I’m glad to have been part of it.