Like Jason's Facebook Page

Monday, May 12, 2014

David Morrell: An Interview with the Author of "Murder as a Fine Art" Part Two

International Best-Selling Author
David Morrell
(photo courtesy of David Morrell)

Last month I had the chance to talk with best-selling author David Morrell.  After discussing his latest book Murder as a Fine Art and its forthcoming sequel Inspector of the Dead, our conversation turned to his early influences.  (Be sure to read part one if you haven’t already.)

Television, Hollywood, and art of Turning Novels into Movies

Read any book of David Morrell’s and you’ll likely come across a foreword, afterword or author bibliography that begins with the story of Morrell’s early inspiration found in the television show Route 66 and one of its creators and head writer, Stirling Silliphant.  The series was about two young men in a Corvette convertible as they traveled across the country in search of America and themselves.

“I was 17 and aimless when Route 66 premiered,” he admitted.  “I had a troubled childhood. My widowed mother was forced to put me in an orphanage for a while because she couldn’t work in a factory and take care of me at the same time. When she remarried, my stepfather turned out not to like children. He and my mother argued a lot.  Afraid, I used to sleep under my bed. As I grew up, I spent most of my time watching television—sometimes 10 hours of it a day. My high-school principal told me that I’d never amount to anything. Then I happened to watch the first episode of Route 66, and it showed me what life could be like if you wanted to bust out (to use a favorite expression from the series) and make life your own instead of surrendering to it.”

Morrell was not just drawn in to watching a television show.  He was drawn to the writing, and the man who did the writing—Silliphant.

“It had an amazing mix of action and ideas. I sent a hand-written letter to him (thanks to a librarian who found the address for Screen Gems, the series’ distributor), telling him that I wanted to be him.  He sent me a two-page typed letter in return, encouraging me, and I was on my way.”

Out of that initial correspondence, they eventually became friends.

“We exchanged more letters over the years. I sent him congratulations when he received a 1968 Oscar for adapting John Ball’s novel, In the Heat of the Night. When my debut novel, First Blood, was published in 1972, he phoned me to tell me how thrilled he was. But we didn’t meet until 1985, during the height of the Rambo phenomenon. He was working on the miniseries for James Michener’s Space at the time. I happened to see a TV piece about the historical highway Route 66. It featured a clip from the series. On impulse, I phoned the Writers Guild and asked them to contact Silliphant and gave them my phone number. He called me a half hour later and suggested that I spend the Fourth of July weekend with him. So I flew to Los Angeles, and he introduced me to his family. He showed me the places where he used to live. At one point, we went to Malibu and had a photograph taken by his wife, Tiana.”

David Morrell with Stirling Silliphant in Malibu
(photo courtesy of David Morrell) 

This was only a few years before they would collaborate on the mini-series Brotherhood of the Rose.

“My espionage novel, The Brotherhood of the Rose, was published the year earlier.  It was the first novel to combine the British and American espionage-novel traditions. Stirling took the book to NBC, who bought it as a miniseries.  I did four drafts of the script. Stirling did one. Someone else finally got the credit. (That’s how television works.)  It was the only miniseries to be broadcast after a Super Bowl, and Stirling was the executive producer. Working with him was the highlight of my writing life.”

In his short story collection Nightscape, Morrell based a character in the short story “Front Man” on Silliphant.  Morrell explained:

“When Stirling was in his 60s, he didn’t get as much work as he once had, because TV networks thought he was out of touch with the culture because of his age. When he went to pitch an idea to a network executive, his agents warned him not to bring a list of his hundred credits, because no one would believe his amazing productivity.  Anyway, I used the anecdotes he told me about his meetings with executives. I combined them within my own weird meetings (a barefoot twenty-something executive swinging a golf club in a tiny putting green in his office), and “Front Man” was the result, about an aging screenwriter who hires a young writer to front for him, with disastrous consequences. It’s a primer about the negative aspects of the business.”

Weird meetings?

“I went to the office of a woman who was the head of production at a major studio. She was just under five feet tall.  She sat on the edge of her desk and indicated that I should sit on a nearby sofa.  As I sat, I realized that the sofa had no springs. I sank until my backside was literally on the floor. In that fashion, she was able to tower over me for the meeting.”

He continued to talk about the movie-making process, and I would have to say that while it was fascinating to me, it was both funny and discouraging.  A case in point was his sotry about the efforts to make a film version of his book The Fifth Profession.

“It’s funny in retrospect. I should add that more than half my novels have been optioned by studios or sold outright, but it takes a miracle to get a picture made.  Too many people need to share the same goal, but directors and actors come in and out of favor, and packages of talent keep falling apart. About The Fifth Profession, there were numerous screenplays, none of which I wrote. One of them depicted black-clad ninja warriors descending ropes into an extinct volcano that had been turned into a rocket-launching site.  This nonsense wasn’t in my novel.  I warned the producers that they risked a possible lawsuit from the producers of the James Bond film, You Only Live Twice, which used the same ending. The producers had no familiarity with that film. As they told me, ‘That’s a Sean Connery Bond movie. We’ve never seen the Connery films. We’ve only ever seen the Roger Moore ones.’ In the end, the picture was never made, but the screenwriter stole the central plot element and used it in another film. It wasn’t blatant enough for me to sue him, but he definitely stole.”

I was even more intrigued when he told me Pierce Brosnan was scheduled to be in the adaptation of his novel Burnt Sienna.

“When Pierce was James Bond (odd how the character shows up here), MGM optioned that novel for him, partly because the novel is a thriller about a painter and Pierce is a painter who wanted to feature some of his work in the film.  But then the screenwriter turned it into a horror movie about a painter whose work predicted the future (which isn’t in my novel). Then Pierce stopped being James Bond, and MGM lost interest in the project.”

“Does this drive you crazy?” I asked him.

“It’s show business. By its nature, it’s unpredictable. But I had a great relationship with Carolco, the company that made First Blood and the first two Rambo sequels.  And I had a great relationship with NBC’s miniseries department. Also I loved working with Laurel Entertainment when I did a script for their Monsters series.  One of the projects that I really regretted not reaching the screen was an adaptation I did of Michael Palmer’s The Sisterhood that Laurel Entertainment was going to produce.  When my schedule got weird, the producers actually flew to Iowa City where I then lived rather than asking me to come to a story conference in New York. Unfortunately the novel became lost in a rights issue, with another studio claiming involvement and the film never got made.  But the experience of working on it was wonderful.  Currently I have three books in development, Creepers, The Brotherhood of the Rose (for a feature), and Murder as a Fine Art (for a TV series). There are so many variables in getting a picture made that I’ve learned not to have expectations. And then, of course, there’s the risk that the finished films will be poorly made. In the end, I can control what goes into my novels, whereas the movies are in the hands of Fate.”

David Morrell and Sylvester Stallone
(photo courtesy of David Morrell)

Donald E. Westlake, Sinatra, and Irons in the Fire

I had once read that Morrell knew Donald E. Westlake.  I’m a big fan of Westlake’s work, which includes his hard-boiled detective novels as well as his hilarious crime-caper novels featuring John Dortmunder, the hapless New York thief.  I asked him how they’d met.

“In 1968, I was a graduate student at Penn State. My fiction-writing teacher was Phillip Klass (pen name—William Tenn), who had an agent named Henry Morrison.  Morrison also represented Westlake.  Klass had bought a house near Penn State, and Morrison and Westlake drove out from New York City for a house-warming party. At the party, Klass introduced me to them, told them that I was working on a novel (First Blood), and then suggested that they let me tell them about it. So in the middle of this housewarming, party, the first pitch I ever did, I had to sit down on the stairs with people going up and down to the only bathroom and I described First Blood. Morrison asked Westlake, ‘What do you think?’ Westlake answered, ‘I think it’s a helluva idea.’ Morrison said ‘I think it is too. David, you have an agent.’”

Westlake ended up reading the first draft of First Blood and passed along some advice.

“At that time, I was still learning about structure. I began the novel, wrongly, with a chase scene in the middle of the plot. I figured that I ought to start with action, but as Westlake pointed out, the reader didn’t know anything about the characters and hence couldn’t feel involved. I restructured the novel and began with the first time that Rambo and the police chief meet.”

Did they ever meet again?

“Every couple of years, most memorably at a Mohonk mystery weekend that he organized in upstate New York. He invited several of his author friends, including me, Brian Garfield, and Justin Scott to be guest speakers.  He was the funniest man I ever spoke to.  No one ever spoke more amusingly or more wisely about writing than he did. In October, the University of Chicago Press will release a collection of his non-fiction, The Getaway Car, in which he talks about his approach to writing.”
A real treasure supplied by David Morrell for this interview: The Mohonk Mystery Weekend organized by Donald E. Westlake.  From left to right: David Morrell, Donald E. Westlake, Justin Scott, Alice Turner, Christopher Newman, and Brian Garfield on the far right.  Newman is the author of the Joe Dante police thrillere.  Scott is a veteran writer who is now co-writing with Clive Cussler.  Garfield, who got his start cranking out westerns, is best known for his novel "Death Wish", the book that started the film franchise of the same name.  At the time this picture was taken, Turner was the fiction editor for Playboy magazine.

Just as I was surprised to learn that Morrell had written a Victorian murder mystery, I was also surprised to find that he had written an eBook about Frank Sinatra.  I asked him about Frank Sinatra; the Artist and His Music.

“Just before I discovered Route 66, I considered a career in music. At an early age (16-17), I took lessons in musical theory, harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration. I wanted to be a composer/arranger like Nelson Riddle, who wrote charts for Sinatra and, ironically, later wrote the music for Route 66.  By studying Riddle, I came to realize what a genius Sinatra was as a vocalist. I’ve been studying Sinatra for more than 50 years and finally wrote the e-book about him, just about his singing, about his breath control and phrasing and how he copied the lyrics of the songs he sang, writing them again and again on sheets of paper until he internalized them.  My hope was that anyone who reads my analysis of Sinatra’s technique will think of singing in a new way.  I wrote a companion e-book, Nelson Riddle: The Man behind the Music. I once wrote a similar piece (for Absolute Sound magazine) about Bobby Darin, another genius. I think that my interest in arranging music helps me understand structure in storytelling.”

“And you’ve written similar eBooks on John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe,” I added.

Morrell surprised me yet again.  “Those are more of the magazine pieces I wrote.  I have dozens of similar essays—about Steve McQueen, Rod Serling, and Richard Matheson, for example.  One day I’ll collect them in a book.”

I was amazed at how many irons Morrell had in the fire.  I brought up his involvement with Marvel Comics.  How did he manage to do it all?

“Well, I learned from Stirling Silliphant.  He wrote 5 pages every day. Sometimes he did TV scripts in a week.  In the 1960s, there was a joke, ‘How can Stirling Silliphant writes so fast?’  The answer was, ‘He has an electric typewriter.’  I have a lot of stories to tell, and whenever I feel lazy, I ask myself what Stirling would do. The answer is ‘Keep writing’.”

And he certainly does.  Murder as a Fine Art is a runaway hit (Publishers Weekly called it “One of the ten best summer detective/thrillers of 2013), his fans are eagerly awaiting the release of its sequel Inspector of the Dead next year, and he has a new Wolverine comic coming soon.  He’s been at it since the day he had an idea to write about a Vietnam veteran who goes to war with a local police chief.  Since then he’s never really taken a break.  But despite the odds in this shaky publishing business, he’s kept his writing career relevant and vibrant for over forty years.  And like both characters in his famous debut novel—John Rambo and Chief Wilfred Teasle—he obviously isn’t one to give up.  Even in the face of tragic events he’s found the inspiration to try new things and provide his readers with something fresh and exciting, infused with his never-dying passion for a great story.

Be sure to read Part One of this interview.

(David Morrell is a New York Times bestselling writer who holds a Ph.D. in literature. He has been nominated for numerous awards, including the Edgar, Macavity, and Anthony, and has received 3 Bram Stoker awards.  The International Thriller Writers organization honored him its prestigious career-achievement Thriller Master Award.  With eighteen million copies in print, his books have been translated into 26 languages.  I consider it an extraordinary honor to have been able to interview Mr. Morrell.)

For more information on David Morrell, visit his website at 

I highly recommend the following:

At the end of this month, Marvel is releasing a collection of Spider-Man stories, which will include David Morrell's Spider-Man: Frost series as well as an essay on writing comic books written by Morrell.

Monday, May 5, 2014

David Morrell: An Interview with the Author of "Murder as a Fine Art" Part One

International Bestselling-Author
David Morrell
(photo courtesy of David Morrell)

When I first saw the book Murder as a Fine Art, I was intrigued by the author’s name: David Morrell.  Known the world over as the father of Rambo, Morrell had authored First Blood, a book that many people mistakenly call “Rambo” since its principle character became one of the most recognizable pop-culture icons in the world.  A Victorian murder mystery written by the father of Rambo?  Was this a bad mash-up of testosterone and fog-shrouded streets?  Murder as a Fine Art turned out to be a well-crafted, complex novel about the 1854 gruesome murder of a family that mirrors the unsolved Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811.  Morrell’s foray into Victorian London was richly decorated with what was obviously a great deal of research.  The story and the characters were lots of fun.  Morrell had delivered a crackling-good Victorian thriller.

But I kept returning to my original question: A Victorian murder mystery written by the father of Rambo?

I was curious enough to request an interview.  At the time, in the fall of 2013, Morrell had to turn me down.  His schedule was full.  He was right in the middle of working on a sequel to Murder as a Fine Art.  We eventually agreed to reconnect in the spring of 2014.

During the interval I began to research Morrell’s diverse career.  Look him up online and you’ll find short stories, thrillers, comic books, and essays in addition to his twenty-five-plus novels.  Morrell has completely embraced the eBook revolution.  In fact, he holds the rights to most of his books in the eBook market, since so many of the original contracts he signed were written before the days of digital reading platforms.  One short story that caught my eye was They.   Available as a single, this thriller is something like Little House on the Prairie meets Wolfen.  (Morrell explains in the foreword how Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories influenced this particular piece.)  Another single, My Name is Legion, is a World War II adventure involving the French Foreign Legion.  These are only a few of the titles available.  It is impossible to read everything out there; the man’s been writing for more than four decades.

I had never read any of Morrell’s books until I picked up Murder as a Fine Art.  One of the benefits of Morrell writing a Victorian murder mystery is that it is drawing in readers who are unfamiliar with his early books.  He had certainly drawn my attention.

Murder as a Fine Art and the Art of Time-Travel

We finally talked over the phone once Morrell had finished a major revision of the text to Inspector of the Dead, the sequel to Murder as a Fine Art.  Understandably, it was foremost on his mind.

Most of the time, editors of mainstream fiction are looking to cut down the word count of any and all manuscripts that come across their desks.  His Victorian novels, however, bucked this trend.  According to Morrell, every time he sent Inspector of the Dead to his Mulholland Books editors, Josh Kendall and Wes Miller, they would send it back, asking for more detail.  This was encouraging to hear.  The prevailing line among writers, editors, and anyone else associated with the publishing industry is that readers today just won’t read anything with detailed descriptions.  They don’t care about them, won’t spend the time it takes to read them, and they haven’t the intelligence to absorb them.  Did this mean there was a new wind blowing through the halls of publishing houses?  Well, there’s more to it than that.

We’ll start at the beginning; how a renowned writer of modern thrillers came to publish a Victorian novel, how the author who gave us John Rambo turned his attention to the London, England of the 1850s, and how this beginning, as with so many beginnings, started with the tragedy of death.

In 2009, Morrell explained, his fourteen-year-old granddaughter, Natalie, died from a rare form of bone cancer known as Ewing’s Sarcoma.  This in itself was a terrible blow.  It is often said no man should outlive his children.  To experience the death of a child’s child is to experience an exponential grief.  But there was a greater despair to be found here.  Morrell had already lost a son to this rare bone cancer in 1987.  The number of people who fall to this sickness in the United States is only a few hundred every year, yet the Morrell family had lost their second loved one to this disease.  Morrell’s response was to retreat.  “I wanted to get away from the modern world,” he admits.  “I wanted to disappear into another era.”

Morrell is known as a tenacious researcher, having been trained in hostage negotiation, assuming identities, defensive/offensive driving, and many other skills he incorporates into his novels.  At times it might even appear he goes a little overboard in this area.  He is a graduate of the G. Gordon Liddy Academy of Corporate Security and the National Outdoor Leadership School for Wilderness Survival.  Not only did he become a private pilot subsequent to his research for The Shimmer but he has also earned honorary lifetime memberships in the Special Operations Association and the Association of Intelligence Officers.

Retreating into the past, he brought this nearly manic obsession for research with him.

Still dealing with grief over his granddaughter’s death, he followed his daughter’s advice to watch a film about Charles Darwin.  The film, Creation, explores Darwin’s breakdown after his own daughter’s death, and includes a mention of Thomas De Quincey and his theories in the same vein as if he were a precursor to Freud.  Morrell was intrigued; soon enough, he was hooked.

Thomas De Quincey was a journalist and essayist best known for his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, published in 1821.  It is an autobiographical account of De Quincey’s laudanum addiction and the effect it had on his life.  Not only did this work influence the literary efforts of such writers as Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, and Nikolai Gogol, but it also influenced the study of psychology and abnormal psychology.  And now we can add David Morrell to that list of influences, especially after he read De Quincey’s On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.

Once the idea of a book began to take shape in his mind, Morrell admitted to his agents what he intended to do.  According to Morrell—“They said ‘Well, it’s a big risk’ and I said ‘I know, but you know what?  If I don’t write this I don’t think I’m ever gonna write anything.’”

Surprisingly, and to their credit, they agreed.

He was soon in the midst of writing an imitation Victorian novel.  Morrell felt early on that the style would have to match the story.  “I’m very big on form and content.  That what a book is about should match how it is written.”  He enjoyed the challenge of using techniques that no one uses anymore, including the Victorian habit of inserting journal entries into the story. 

As excited as he was about the book, there were those who questioned his judgment.

“When I told some fellow authors what I was doing they were horrified.”  They assured him he would lose his readers, and destroy his career.  Morrell simply didn’t care.  He was already known for not allowing himself to be pigeonholed as a one-trick genre writer.  He had dabbled in Westerns, Psychological Horror, and even Super Hero comics during his forty plus years as a writer.  And with his current issues of grief and a need to step back from the pain of this world it was easier to follow his heart in this endeavor.

Murder as a Fine Art artwork by
Tomislav Tikulin, courtesy
of David Morrell.

Once the book was completed, it caught the interest of then head-editor at Mulholland Books, Little, Brown by the name of John Shoenfelder.  In Morrell’s words, Shoenfelder “told me that he went in to his boss at Little, Brown and told him that this was an important book and it needed to be published, no matter that it seemed a departure for me.”  Shoenfelder was given the green light.

And that was it.  With the publishers on board, the book, or to be more precise, Morrell’s passion for the book became contagious, drawing in more supporters.  Morrell told me people said, “You know he’s done this weird thing but, my heavens, you know, it’s really interesting.”  Gaining more attention than many of his more recent books, Murder as a Fine Art was chosen by Publisher’s Weekly as one of the top ten Mystery/Thrillers of 2013.  Even better, it made the top five for Library Journal.

Morrell knew his gamble had paid off.  “God knows it could have gone the other way,” he gamely confessed.

Morrell says the email response to Murder as a Fine Art from readers was tremendous.  The good news was that his fan base had joined him as he led them down this new path.  But the better news was that he was hearing from readers who had never read his books before.  They were loving it and asking for more.

So were his publishers.

Morrell is not a series writer.  It is part of what has kept him from being stuck in a rut, like so many of his contemporaries.  (Realize that his contemporaries consist of writers from the 70s, 80s, 90s, 2000s, and the 2010s.  Many of them can no longer be listed as his contemporaries, since their time came and went long ago.)  That he has more often than not found a way to reinvent himself is a big factor in his longevity.  But his tendency to shy away from recurring characters did not prevent him from dipping his quill back into the inkwell for another adventure in Victorian London.  (Morrell was willing to acknowledge that a close friend read the first book and immediately told him he had a trilogy in the making.  Though he didn’t jump at the idea, he says her suggestion has always remained nestled in the back of his mind.  But he’s not making any promises.)

And that brings us back to Inspector of the Dead and his editors’ requests for more detail.  You see, in his modern thrillers, Morrell never felt the need to provide much detail to the world around us, since readers were already familiar with the day-to-day elements that make up our modern lives.  In his opinion, writers don’t need to add details that would be understood by a reader.  But since he had chosen the alien world of Victorian London, and he had learned so much about it, he just felt that readers needed a little help to get them to take the trip with him.

As he wrote that first book he had kept a note by his computer which read: Try to make readers believe they are truly in 1854 London.  Using shelves and shelves of research material on the time period, and at the same time befriending and relying on several historical experts in that era, Morrell began to fill his story with these rich details that would facilitate the reader’s ability to co-exist with him in that bygone London, something unnecessary for writer’s from that era.  Their readers were well acquainted with such things as the hygienic customs of the day and the cultural habits of all the classes.

It was this desire to recreate the past accurately that aided him in avoiding the recent steampunk fad.  I have teenagers who introduced me to steampunk around the time Morrell would have been writing Murder as a Fine Art.  It’s true I enjoyed that little sub-genre for a time, but its overuse in books and movies shortened its lifespan.  I told Morrell I was glad he had avoided giving Thomas De Quincey a steam-powered airplane in which to run around.  Morrell was amused at such an idea but said wasn’t the least bit tempted to go that route.  While he was aware of the steampunk revolution, as it has been called, he was determined to remain true to his goal and that note by his computer.

Morrell wasn’t ready to begin sharing too much of the story of Inspector of the Dead but he did make sure I understood that it wasn’t a simple matter to insert the details as requested by the editors.  Most importantly, it had to be done in such a way as to insure that the pace of the novel remained consistent.  In fact, this last round of edits brought more than a few new details to the book.  According to Morrell, he realized that he needed to change and expand a portion of the book, and it meant an increase of nearly 15,000 words.  While it meant a great deal of time had to be spent getting it right, he was able to complete it in time.  Deadlines, after all, and his ability to meet them, are a personal pride of his.  He emphasized this by repeating something he’d once told a fellow author.  “We all know authors who are more talented than we are, there’s always someone more talented, but can they meet the deadline?  Can they perform professionally and be part of the team in order to take this very complicated process and bring it to fruition?”  His experience has taught him that if you can’t do that, your career will never get off the ground.  “Deadlines are the absolute,” he said, adding off-hand, “I’ve never missed one.”

So we can be assured that if his editors ask him for yet another edit of the second book in his Thomas De Quincey series, Morrell will get the job done in time for his readers to catch that return trip to Victorian London.  I know I’m looking forward to tagging along.

Murder as a Fine Art artwork by
Tomislav Tikulin, courtesy
of David Morrell.

On June 14, Murder as a Fine Art will come out in trade paperback as a book-club edition.  Added material will include study questions, an interview between David Morrell and Thomas De Quincey biographer, Robert Morrison, and an essay by Morrell in which he discusses his approach to writing thrillers.

Inspector of the Dead is scheduled to be released on March 24, 2015.  

(Part Two of this interview, in which our discussion turns to Frank Sinatra, Stirling Silliphant, and Rambo, is available at this link.)

For more information on David Morrell, visit his website at

eBooks by David Morrell:  I highly recommend his short story They.