Interview with Stephen Hunter
Conducted on December 20, 1994 for The Baltimore City Paper.
Copyright ©1994 by Dave Edelman.
It sounds unbelievable, but it's true.
I was raised in the liberal tradition, I'm from an academic family in Chicago, my father was a professor at Northwestern, I grew up to worship Aldai Stevenson and the progressive tendencies in the Democratic party, and to some extent I still do. But for some reason, I don't know how, I don't know where, I picked up this affinity for firearms. I enjoy firearms a great deal, I enjoy shooting, I don't want to stress the guns that I own too much because I don't want any burglars sneaking into my house some night. If you've read the books, you'll see that guns and the gun culture are very important to my imagination.
I think it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said that the mark of a great mind is that you can embrace two opposing philosophies. I'm a great deal to the left of the NRA, but a great deal to the right of many of my colleagues because of my gun philosophy.
It's never really caused any problems. We're all so busy putting out a newspaper, we never really have any time to sit in the lounge and chat about it.
I'm not crazy about gun control, because it doesn't seem to equate to crime control. At the same time, I'm not crazy about 14-year-old boys carrying 9mm pistols in their lunch boxes.
There seems to be some evidence that the way to approach criminally misused guns is to attack criminally misowned guns. The approach of attacking the tiny percentage of misused guns. By focusing on illegally carried guns — it's the illegally carried guns that cause havoc and violence in our society — we can be much more effective, particularly in the light of our steadily disappearing base of resources.
I'm not a gun control expert, and I'm not really prepared to have a discussion on gun control. One thing I've read about is how the Kansas City police created a gun squad to go after illegally carried guns on the street, and people who purposefully go out to find the suppliers who go around giving kids guns. That seems to have had some success.
Metal detectors also prevent guns from being carried in a specific environment. There are very few murders committed at airports, for instance. I don't see a problem with extending these principles.
Point of Impact did something that's really never been done before in that it refused to demonize or marginalize gun owners. It's the only book in history that has gotten rave reviews from both the New York Times Book Review section and Green Beret Sniper Team 556 of the Special Forces.
One of the secret pleasures of that book was taking someone who is America's furthest exile — the rural gun nut — and making him a hero.
As a novelist, there are certain types I can bring to life. And there are certain types I can't — I haven't had a great deal of success bringing women to life, for instance. I couldn't do a particularly good job bringing a corporate lawyer to life. I doubt I could even do a good job with a movie critic living on the Eastern seaboard. However, I do have an empathy for strong, stoic military types like Bob Lee Swagger and if one is going to write a novel and be enmeshed in one project for months, and in certain situations for years, you have to go with your strengths.
Guns are much more important to Swagger than to Bud. He's different from the standard police officer in that he doesn't just see guns as a hunk of metal that helps him do his job, he's aware of guns.
Virtually none. One of the pleasures of doing these things is immersing yourself in a different mindset. The creative writer's first gift is the gift of empathy. He tries very hard to create from the whole cloth a different mindset, a different set of reflexes, a different set of prejudices. The books generally succeed to the degree that that's successful. I suppose if you commit long sections of prose to words on paper, just by the natural law of psychological osmosis, you bleed certain portions of your psyche into your characters. I don't consciously model anyone on myself. The books aren't about me and about how darned wonderful and sensitive and underappreciated I am. They're rigorous exercises in disciplined imagination in which I figure out what someone else's life would be like.
Dirty White Boys is constructed around a principle irony, that from the outside Bud's family looks like a paradigm of middle class American virtue and he looks like an ideal father figure, while the Pye clan looks like this troglodyte group of sub-human mutants. Some reviewers seem to have gotten this, and some haven't. But as the book goes along you start to understand that in some odd way, Lamar Pye is a better exemplar of family values than Bud Pewtie is. In some degree, old Bud learns that too.
You try not to make these things little cartoons or Dan Quayle speeches or something like that. If there's some flavors, some odors available to the perceptive reader under the overarching energies of the plot, that is indeed pleasant. It seems to make the books more believable, the characters more believable. It's very difficult and boring to write about paragons. The more human the face, the more provocative the text.
What it seems to be is an acknowledgement of a fact of life, that even the most sacred and profane monsters like Pye have human needs. In fact, it's their human needs that make them compelling figures. Lamar is not an interesting character if he's sheer force, violence and evil. People don't care about him. The book as a mechanism won't work — meaning that it won't be publishable — if he's not interesting in a variety of other ways. The book began as this image I had of this titanic, earthy man. If I were to define someone that scares me, it would be Pye. Prison-trained, psychopathic, but still he's extremely intelligent — he's got a tactical mind, good at figuring small things out. He knew how to break down systems, he knew how to escape from places, he knew how to fight, he knew how to terrorize opponents. As I continued with the book, I understood that that wasn't enough. I began to wonder where he came from, what created him. I began to look for provisional graces in him. I'm not suggesting that Lamar is a victim and that he deserves two years of, of —
Yeah, and afterwards deserves a copy job at the Baltimore Sun. He lives by certain principles and must accept the consequences of these principles, one of which is a bullet in the brain.
Creating him is only an interesting process for me if he is a whole man. Lamar is to armed robbers what Ted Williams is to baseball players. Think how boring a book about Ted Williams would be if it was just about his hitting. If you're to believe in a character in a story, you need information. You need to see him in his best moments and his worst moments. That rather than any formal decision to deliver this sermon on family values formed Lamar Pye.
Curiously enough, none of that was in the original idea or the outline. I'll tell you about my timing. I wrote a book about the Kurds ten years too early.
The Second Saladin. That shows you about my timing. In many ways that was a flawed book anyway, and that's probably why it went straight into el tanko.
Well, the first book, The Master Sniper, was quite successful for a first novel. It earned me more money than I thought existed in the world. Still not enough to do more than go to Europe and buy some neat shoes and a burbury raincoat with. I was really excited and thought I was poised on a major career. My second book didn't quite work, a bitter work for some reason, about people fighting this war in some place nobody had ever heard of back then. It didn't quite work. I then wrote a book about the Spanish Civil War, The Spanish Gambit, which was a fucking killer — it took me years to write the damn thing, I made a plot mistake that cost me a year. This was in my British period when I came to work in a tweed jacket and tie every day of the week, even in the middle of July. I was trying to be the young George Orwell. The book was a pastiche of Homage to Catalonia and Brideshead Revisited with a little For Whom the Bell Tolls thrown in. I was in my high pitch of British imagination. That book was a commercial failure, but it got really good reviews. At that point, my career was going nowhere and I'd squandered whatever momentum I had from my first book. I couldn't just write another so-so book, another publishable book but nothing spectacular.
So I'll never forget, I was driving with my wife in the car to Dayton, Ohio — the Shangri-La of the Midwest, Dayton — and I'd just read a book called The Tunnels of Co Chi about tunnelling in Vietnam. The idea of men fighting these most hideous battles underground in these cramped spaces really captured my imagination. And then I saw a mountain and I thought about a rocket silo. I was inflamed with special operations at the time. In a quarter of a nano-second, I had every single detail of Day Before Midnight. The next day, I went to a bookstore and bought everything they had on nuclear warfare. Writing that book was such fun, and it was sold for quite a bit of money. Halfway through it, I signed a blind contract for a second book to be invented later.
Point of Impact was one of the few books where I basically changed the fundamental theory of the book at the three-quarter mark. It took me ten drafts to get the fucking thing right.
It started out as a novel specifically about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It was explicitly clear that the Ramdyne team was the same team that hit JFK.
What remains is just a whiff of that, which I like. But the original didn't work. At page 100, it stopped being a novel and became an essay for another 75 pages, which raised a whole bunch of questions about the Kennedy assassination. The book went on for another 500 fucking pages. Then the last 50 pages were another essay answering the questions that were in that other 50 pages. I knew that wouldn't work, and a very patient, good editor finally nudged, cajoled, soothed, licked, caressed — I'm sure you can think of a better word — me to see that that just wasn't working. One of the problems was with the villain. In order to be who he was, he had to have two separate elements. Eventually I had to jettison all but the basest hint of the Kennedy assassination and split the enemy into Raymond Schreck and — Hugh something-or-other, I can't even remember his name anymore. I was surprised how well it worked once we got to that point. It turned out to be an extremely successful book — about a million in print, same with Day Before Midnight. I still get two-three letters a week about Point of Impact, I used to get midnight calls. The thing is, I made a couple of technical mistakes in the book.
No, not really. Oh, there were a couple of letters from real pedants. But I came to review the mistakes with good humor, because it let me meet and talk to literally hundreds of people.
After that book, I was exhausted. I was in a very dark mood, a survivor's bleakness that doesn't have much flavor to it. I wanted to write a book that's not nearly as plot complex, not as thrilleresque, a much purer simpler story that was geographically united in a single locale with four or five vivid characters. I knew it would be in a small town. One of the things that I liked about Point of Impact was that, unlike thrillers that are set in Paris and Canton and places like that, most of the action took place in rural Arkansas.
I would not want to make my living as a farmer, I wanted to write about a life that I knew nothing about. I wanted it to be really tough, to have some values. Suddenly, somehow, who knows how, I came up with Dirty White Boys.
It puts me in a very awkward position is what it does. I've actually had three movie sales, for Day Before Midnight, Point of Impact, and Dirty White Boys. I actually left the Sun at one point to take a leave of absence to work on them, which is why they're so fucked up. I've discovered that as a screenwriter, I'm not exactly Robert Bolt. But I've actually done things most movie screenwriters haven't done — I sat in on the meetings and so forth.
The Day Before Midnight is dead because the Cold War is basically over, the Russians had to fucking end it. Point of Impact has gone through a jillion writers, and it's on its second studio. I don't keep too up on these things. My last contact with the West Coast is that they had a very good writer make a draft, but there were certain things he didn't get. He didn't know which end of the barrel the bullet came out of, he was a very cosmopolitan sort of guy. So they put in a kickass guy that had actually pulled the trigger once or twice, and he went a little too far. He's now trying to rework his reworking to tone the whole thing down. So who knows if we'll ever see a movie made.
Dirty White Boys is in very good shape. My Hollywood agent says it's in very good shape. Very, very professional script written by two guys whose names I can't remember. They really wrote a good script. They got about 80% of the book. Some of the changes they made, I didn't particularly appreciate, but I understood that they had to be done. For instance, in my book, Ruta Beth, the woman who takes in Lamar Pye, is a real twisted mutant with a dark secret, she's an unattractive woman with dark undertones. In the movie, she's a chick.
Right. And while I'd rather see a movie with my Ruta Beth, I know that that will help the movie get made. Another change, my climax was a very hard, bitter to the death fight between two men in a glade of trees, it has a real mystic quality, like two high priests fighting to be the head of a cult of manhood. They turned it into a Hollywood thing where there's a wheat field and all these wheat thrashing machines running around. What happens is that Pye is stabbed with a stalk of wheat or corn or something, and with this thing sticking out of his throat he tumbles into the path of a thrasher and is chewed to a pulp.
I have to admire these guys' professionalism because they know what it takes to get a movie made. I don't. One thing they really got correctly is a sense of place. It looks like they actually went out to Oklahoma. Just as a read, it's a very good read.
Yeah, Joe Ruben bought it. I can tell you that as money goes, it was not a huge sale as a movie. We took the bad deal on the basis that the most important thing is to get a movie made that will really stir up interest in my work.
One big star has read it and expressed some interest.
[Unfortunately, the "big star" Mr. Hunter mentioned here is still off-the-record.]
Right. It's made me more cynical, I'm even more gimlet-eyed now than I was before. I'm more cynical about the usual Hollywood crap, and more extraordinarily impressed that some really good work comes out of that town. The place is not built to make good work. If good work comes out, it's not only an act of integrity and professionalism, it's an act of genuine heroism. Every act of the way, people are saying "you can't do this" and "you can't do that." You're dealing with a bunch assholes who want nothing more than to see their thumbprints on the product. When I see people making stuff against the grain, I'm really impressed.
From '74 through '82 I was the book review editor. But it was much different then, because it was an editorial job. The book industry is much less intense than the film business. I virtually knew then and still now know nobody in New York. It's done entirely in the mail and sometimes on the phone. The most awkward thing I had to do was find a reviewer for my own novel. Eventually what I ended up doing was giving it to a colleague of mine to find a reviewer. My colleague found Jonathan Yardley's wife here in Washington, and she reviewed it for the Sun. She actually said some bad things about it.
One thing I'll never forget is that I wrote to Peter Benchley. I had reviewed Jaws years back when I had been a jealous little obnoxious punk, and I said some really nasty things in that review that I regretted. I still think it was a bad book, but I don't think it's the paragon of evil I had before. So I wrote to Peter Benchley and I said "I wrote this review of your book three or four years ago that even now I admit was pretty nasty. Anyway I seem to be publishing a book. If you want to review it, I can promise you that I won't edit your remarks at all." He very graciously wrote back and said, "thanks, but it would make me feel awkward and I'll pass."
I've never been actively involved in reviewing for the Sun. I've never really gotten very good reviews there. I always walk away when it comes to my books getting reviewed.
I must confess I have cheated this one particular time. The woman who reviewed it for the Sun misspelled Lamar's name as "Lemar" with an "e" instead of an "a". I vacillated over whether I should tell someone or not. It was my loyalty as a Sun employee vs. — well, who knows what. Eventually I told them and they fixed it. I discovered, though, that she sold the same review to the Boston Herald, and they spelled Lamar's name wrong there. How could she make that mistake? That name was on every fucking page of the manuscript.