Skip to main content.

Washington Business Journal - 9/28/01 edition

A 'difficult man'

Even with shades drawn, Post film critic's novels open a window to his view

by Greg A. Lohr

Stephen Hunter made a choice. Unlike many people, who drift through life on a society-sponsored current of expectations and natural causes and effects, who fight to balance their career with family and life's more mundane requirements, Hunter chose a path and stayed on it.

He knew at age 8 that he wanted to become a film critic and novelist. Now 55, he reviews - sometimes praising and often outright shattering - movies for The Washington Post, and spends most mornings and late nights alone in his Baltimore apartment, typing 77 lines a day into gritty, best-selling books about crime, war, inner turmoil and old-fashioned heroism.

"I'm one of the few people in the world," he says) "whose life ended up exactly how he wanted it to be."

Which also means that some losses are expected, and perhaps acceptable, to a man who extols the virtues of living life focused on a "narrow, concentrated goal."

Hunter made his choice, and over the years he's reaped the rewards and paid the price. He landed his dream job, he published his books. The money came, the marriage faltered, and Hunter, for better or worse, remains what he always wanted to be-a writer.

'A LITTLE BARE SPACE'

Were Hunter to look out the window of his computer room at home, he would see the Canton area of Baltimore along the Inner Harbor. But he never does

In fact, "I don't really even think of it as a window," he says.

What he sees instead is the interior of his home office, a place he calls a "hideous mess, an ancient corner in a little bare space." The shades stay drawn in his three-bedroom apartment, which
sits atop an old building and features "sort of cheesy, industrial gray carpet."

"It looks like mid-'70s Howard Johnson hotel construction," he says.

Mostly Hunter looks at the glowing screen of his nearly 15-year-old, DOS-based IBM clone. He feeds it words, and by now it can show him how he's spent the middle of his life. It recalls his
years and his daily labors as book titles - "Time To Hunt," "Black Light," "Dirty White Boys" and more.

Hunter could easily afford a new computer, even Internet access at home. But the machine he's got has history, and it might even serve a higher purpose.

"The computer screen ia so primitive I have to bend over and plug it in under the desk to turn it on," he says. "I do that every time I write. It's sort of a ritual, and I hope it keeps me humble."

In conversation, Hunter says odd, funny and beautiful things, talkng so quickly and so honestly that one has trouble fathoming how his word choice consistently ends up so precise. His oral literature surprises, in part, because he describes himself as almost devoid of introspection: "It helps me to not be terribly reflective about who I am and what I do," he says "I cultivate a personal shallowness. I just want to keep going; I don't want to think too much about meanings."

Yet critics and colleagues say he infuses his books with meaning that belies the novels' testosterone-fueled framework.

Michael Korda, editor-in-chief at publishing powerhouse Simon & Schuster in NewYork, had been a fan of Hunter's books even before the firm bought Hunter's "Hot Springs," Korda knows Hunter's books fall toward the male-fiction end of the literal spectrum, but, he says, they're much more
than that.

"They're about real and believable people," Korda says. "That's something you don't normally get in what's called in the book trade, male fiction."

"Steve is in some ways much more of a Southern gothic writer, and there's an element of Faulkner in there," he says. "It's really much more about character than anything else."

'SORT OF FROM NOWHERE'

Hunter was born m 1946 in Kansas City, Mo„ one of four children of Charles Hunter, a college speech professor, and Virginia Hunter, a writer of children's books.

He spent most of his childhood, however, in "plush and easy" Illinois suburbs. For years, he regretted his lack of a "profound sense of there-ness."

"I wasn't from a place that had a distinct causal character," he says. "I was sort of from nowhere."

Ultimatety, he decided his bland origins had helped him. Without the Deep South or the West to define him, he had cultivated his own voice as a writer.

Hunter's father may have defined him much more than his childhood geography did. While he calls his mother, who now lives in Chicago, a "very decent woman," a "pre-feminism feminist" with talent and drive, he describes his late father as "the classic, self-loathing alcoholic."

"I did not have a happy relationship with my father," Hunter says. "He was a very powerful '50s type of man who would have been much happier taking Prozac each day. But like John Wayne, he never did. I can't really sum him up. He was just a man of tremendous ambition and tremendous secrets, who
to this day haunts my life."

After earning a journalism degree at Northwestern University, Hunter joined the Army. But the military was a poor fit for a creative type inclined to ignore details. He ended his two-year Army career writing for a D.C.-area military paper, the Pentagram News.

In 1971 he joined the Baltimore Sun, eventually working as the paper's film critic until taking the same spot at the Post in 1997.

Hunter says he still loves movies, the drama and action and grace, and the kind of stories movies tell. But even as a child, he says, he understood he could never work in Hollywood'. "I knew that I would always be much better on my own, in a little office somewhere, begging for my subconscious to get me out of this mess or that mess."

'I HATE FILM TALK'

Decades later, the traits that clashed with Army life still shape Hunter. He made his choice, and his choice was to be a writer. So, while he says he never misses a deadline at work, life's other details tend to fall through the cracks.

Speeding tickets are almost routine, because often while he drives he slips into a fictional world, mapping out his newest book or a Post review.

Forgetfulness also earns him between $1,000 and $2,000 in parking tickets a year.

"I kind of live a life of chaos because I'm always ignoring things," Hunter says. "I've had my phone cut off four or five times because I forget to pay the bill. I just found the envelopes for car insurance that was due three or four months ago. One of the things I'll do when I get to work today is sneak away and write a couple of checks."

Hunter often eats lunch alone in the Post's cafeteria. He usually stays at work in downtown D.C. until around 6:30 p.m., then races to a movie screening three or four times a week. He likes to show up late and leave early.

"There does appear to be a Washington film-critic culture, in which I am a complete outsider," he says, "Most of them know who I am. I have some friends and there's some chit-chat. But I hate film talk. I just hate it. I hate to hear critics sort of auditioning their reviews for other critics."

"They come up with a line and sort of test that line. There's some sort of New York-y, self-diamatizine pretension in critics talking. I'm not a big schmoozer."

When there's no screening, Hunter drives home and writes fiction, drinking a few beers or a bottle of wine, taking frequent breaks if the Orioles are on TV.

His new book, "Pale Horse Coming," is due out Oct. 12. On any project, he writes at least 77 lines a day, a goal he measured years ago as five pages when he wrote longhand on a yellow, legal-size tablet. For his books, he conjures up his own vision of strength - heroes who can be vicious or brutal, who can be drunks.

"I empathize with what I call the 'difficult man,"' Hunter says. "He may be bitter, he may be angry, but there's something about him. He may also be heroic. You can't say, 'Don't be these bad things; only be these good things.' Because he is the good things only because he's the bad things. The two are
his personality and his character, and they're inorexorably intertwined."