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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.

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