Thursday, October 02, 2008

Writing Between The Lines with Stephen Hunter

Between The Lines

By Carolyn Haines
September 2008

Blending a career in journalism and fiction writing is a delicate balancing act, but for a number of years, Stephen Hunter has done just that. A Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic, Hunter has long made daily deadlines and also created a world of action-packed fiction with his characters Earl Swagger and Bob Lee Swagger. His books are consistent NYT bestsellers.

Hunter recently retired from the Washington Post, where he was a film critic for a number of years. His latest novel is Night Of Thunder: a Bob Lee Swagger Novel.

In this latest action-packed thriller, Bob Lee Swagger must protect his journalist daughter Nikki, who is injured while following leads that point at the Dixie Mafia. There's also a bit of corrupt law enforcement and deranged evangelicals thrown into the mix. All of this is set against a week long NASCAR event in Tennessee.

What inspired this particular plot? And I have to know, are you a fan of NASCAR?

My professional athletic poisons of choice are the Baltimore Ravens and Orioles, who between them have tried to drive me to suicide for years. (The Patriots game last year came close!) So, no to NASCAR, not a fan, didn't have policies or attitudes or favorites going in. Never even changed the oil on a car. But I went to Bristol to visit my daughter, Amy, a reporter on the Courier-Herald, during big race week (entirely by accident) and consequently stumbled not upon NASCAR but NASCAR culture. It was astonishing! It was rapture combined with tribal unity, lubricated by beer and cigarettes and it was the damndest thing I ever saw or felt in my life. I had never even suspected such a great wild festival still existed, and I realized no book or movie had ever briefed me. So the book more than anything is meant as a kind of tribute to the crazy joy of NASCAR, the cone of utter happiness and obsession its zealots generate as they gather in the glens and hollows, Bud cans in hand, and enjoy. Not being a lyric poet or a penetrating New Yorker essayist (both way above my pay grade), I could only offer a thriller in tribute. I just tried to think of ways to get the scene into the book, really to make the scene the star of the book. It was great fun.

Many of your books have inter-related characters. Earl, Bob Lee and Nikki Swagger. What are the pleasures, for a writer, of interconnected characters?

The pleasures of linked characters. . . are fabulous if completely unanticipated. I never set out to tell the generational story of the Swaggers and their friends, lovers and enemies in Polk County, Arkansas; it was never even a blip on my mind in the smallest way. I never read or enjoyed family sagas and my own family is spread from sea to sea, never again to assemble under one roof, I fear. But as all professional fiction writers know, the characters are wiser than you are by far, and they are constantly explaining things to you and showing you connections, genetic traits spread throughout the generations, ironies, pains, and secrets. Who knew Sam and Miss Connie were in love? I didn't until the exact moment I wrote it, and saw how it explained SO MUCH. Who knew that Earl and Bob would have similar but not identical talents: Earl was a small-unit leader, a sergeant's sergeant with the highest warcraft in the Corps; Bob was a solitary, no leader or charmer at all, but a man who wanted to test himself alone against the harshest circumstances. That meant, of course, that Earl was a charmer, a cajoler, a charisma merchant; Bob was the man without name or past who hardly uttered a word but watched and processed at genius level, uttered cryptic remarks when prodded, and found himself in exile. Who knew that as he aged, re-entered society, married, had children, that he would grow verbally and acquire a kind of avuncular charm, in essence becoming more like the father he mourned so even after 50 years. Who knew. They all did, and I'm lucky that they got around to telling me.

Stephen Hunter

A lot of your books are set in the South, but you were born in Missouri. What's the attraction of the South in your work?

That came about as a consequence of exposure to an urban legend (the same one Tom Wolfe discovered in his Junior Johnson piece) which goes like this: "If you are going to have to fight for your life with fists, and can chose a few allies, chose African Americans. If you are going to have to fight for your life with guns, chose white southerners." I'm sure Sicilians were included for blades, and New Englanders for frugality and so forth. But I just felt there was more courage in the south, especially the courage to use firearms in battle and Medal of Honor statistics tell that story too. Audie Murphy, Alvin York, Carlos Hathcock, William Darby: all southerners. So that got me there but what kept me there was the language. I loved conjuring a slightly more stylized southern accent, and somehow felt at home. In fact, I think I'm pretty good at it. It's a south of the imagination, I suppose, but nurturing just the same. And, for the record, I always thought of Missouri as "southern," and visited an Uncle's farm frequently in the '50s. They all talked funny-beautiful and I never forgot it, worked like dogs, were as honest as the day was long and brave as their whiskey was powerful. I never went back but I also never really left.

In several reviews, your work is noted as "violent." Do you think that's a negative description? What role do you think violence plays in contemporary fiction?

I am, after all, the son of a squalid murder victim, a man killed in the most lurid, demeaning way possible. It taught me how a murder rips through a family and even a society and if rarely spoken of, is never forgotten, and casts its shadow into the years that follow. All that is true and I've tried to get it into the books. But it's equally true that I have an imagination for the stuff and have always enjoyed its representation in movies and books. I love the guns, as is well known, and trying to portray how they were used truly instead of in a Hollywood fake way was really the raison d'etre of the whole thing, and it necessarily involved violence. And the final truth is, I have no idea how to write a book without violence in it. I wouldn't know how to plot it, I wouldn't know what direction to take it, what to build toward; my whole definition of "story" is "events building to and resolved in violent confrontation." It's my one-trick pony, it's really all I have or know.

Writing for a newspaper means having rigid deadlines, often on a daily basis. How did you manage to write fiction around the deadlines of your "day job" schedule? Did the day job requirements make you work harder?

It turns out that I'm fast. Don't know why, don't know where it came from, only know I was damned lucky to be fast. The newspaper work just somehow happened. I'd sit down and it would explode out of me, and there it was, in plenty of time. It was enormously helpful and editors knew they could always count on me to do what I said I'd do (Not doing what you say you'll do is a surprisingly large problem on every newspaper that has ever existed). So that was a "given" of my life: the commitment to getting it done. As for the fiction, it's a similar thing. I dreamed of it for 30 years and believed I had nearly enough talent to get it published, but the actual doing of the thing arose from a newspaper discipline in a strange way. For a while I was the book review editor of a paper and every Christmas, by tradition, the book review editor would churn out a giant piece that reviewed 40 or so of the leading Christmas gift books. Good god, it seemed like a killer job. So I decided to do one piece every morning for a month, just a graf or two, but as always in the course of writing, the graf would turn to four and then eight. In the end, a month later, I pasted it all together (it was done that way in those far-off times) to send by tube to composing. Holy Freakin' Cow, it was 50 pages long! I remember holding the substantial stackage of copy paper, feeling the weight, the heft, the floppiness of it all, and realized I had just written 50 pages and I wasn't even tired. That taught me the only secret of my career, which I have passed on in a variety of forums: Start now, work every day, finish. You'd be stunned how much the pages add up to in a very short time and how much a half an hour a day can amount to. That's a newspaper lesson that explains why all the geniuses of my early years are still trying to decide which form of greatness to pursue, while I've modestly published 18 books and won a Pulitzer Prize.

Has your fiction been impacted by the films you watched and reviewed? If so, how?

Of course, in many and varied ways. I once wrote an entire novel and not until somewhere late in the process did I realize it was basically "influenced," as in "stolen" from, Dr. Strangelove, almost plot beat by plot beat, with minor adjustments in point of view. Of course I immediately . . . did nothing. The book was pretty successful, and then the Russians had to go and end the Cold War and kill my shot at a movie. Agh. In other ways, it seems to me I picked up the rhythms of cross-cutting from the movies, the play of competing narrative strands against each other in order to manipulate and intensify narrative tension. Now and then there's a particular movie "quality" (don't know another word) that gets into a book, like the chaos of The Wild Bunch or the hysteria of Reservoir Dogs or the bleak rural despair of One False Move. That stuff just creeps in and when I discover it, I immediately . . . publish it. But there's another way the movies are in play: sometimes I'll write a book to rebuke a particular film or aspect of film. To take one obvious example, I saw Barry Levinson's Bugsy and liked it very much except that it bothered me in that its portrayals of Ben Siegel and Virginia Hill were all wrong--they were too refined, too witty, ironic and sophisticated. Somehow, I worked the Bugman and Ginny into Hot Springs and I tried in some way to "correct" the Levinson version: I wanted them cruder, more primal, more powerful, more violent, more rough-edged, less classy. The same thing happened with The Green Mile, an endless Frank Darabont version of a Steve King novel, which envisioned death row in a southern prison in the '30s as a kind of Harvard Department of Sociology Outreach Program, full of noble guards and empathetic prisoners and I just HATED it. It made me crazy, such a lie. So I returned to that theme and created a racist southern prison of the Fifties in a book as an upside-down, hellish vision of such a place, a primal bog, full of savagery and hatred and completely shorn of nobility and sacrifice. It gave me much pleasure to turn The Green Mile on its head in that book. Then there's an issue of action. I read something Francis Ford Coppola said about filming The Godfather with so many gangland cliches, and how to make them fresh again. He said the trick was in finding some new detail--the blood floating in mist behind Stirling Haydon and Al Leteri's heads in the scene where Michael plugs them--and building the sequence around that. So that's my mantra: I try and find some new detail--maybe the gunflashes, maybe the speed and craziness of close-quarters gunplay, maybe the way full-autos spit empty shells and fire so fast it seems almost unbelievable--when I do a set piece.

Is there an author who has greatly influenced your work? A director or screenwriter or actor?

When I was writing a book called Dirty White Boys I thought of it as a Jim Thompson novel, you know, the GREAT Jim Thompson. And then I realized I had never actually READ a Jim Thompson novel, and so I did, and I realized my book was nothing at all like it. For one thing, I actually did some research, but I guess when you're churning 'em out in two weeks driven by booze and poverty, research is a luxury, like re-writing, you can't afford. So my book was influenced by my dream of Jim Thompson, my sense of him as I had inferred his reality from other critics. That's so common with me that I realize the truth about other writers is: No. Uh-uh. This hasn't made me popular, much less one of the guys, and I'm completely apart from the culture of thriller writers, and go out into the world unblurbed (I hate the whole blurb thing, but don't get me started) and I almost never read other thriller writers or even other novelists. I loved le Carre, but I can't read him any more. I loved Thomas Harris, but the recent books have become thin and, while fun, nowhere near the dense genius of Silence of the Lambs. I read . . . nobody. Mostly magazines with things that go bang in them, snarky blogs, the occasional bio or battle history, and that's about it. It seems like a secret coping mechanism: I really don't want to read anybody who's more successful but much less talented, and I don't want to read anybody who's much more talented but less successful. In fact, I just realized that in the last five years, I've finished more books as a writer than as a reader.

When you write an action scene, which your books are acclaimed for, do you visualize it cinematically, like a film?

I love it. I think I should get a T-shirt made that reads, "Actually, I'd rather be a second unit director." That's my dream job, cooking up, then implementing gunfights in hitherto undreamed of locales with hitherto undreamed of permutations. I plan the books up to and away from the gunfights and truly enjoy finding new ways to bring drama and realism to that sort of thing. I talked earlier about finding "the new detail," so I won't repeat myself, and I talked about how I couldn't plan a book without violence (meaning, for me, action, or vice versa) so I needn't repeat that either, but there are certain rules I might pass on. The first is that the action has to be not merely organic but expressive. By that I mean, you just don't stick it in anywhere to heat things up; it has to come naturally in story and you have to care about the characters, or it's nothing but spectacle. By "expressive" I mean that each character must stay IN character during the fight and act in accordance with his personality as previously evoked. Next, you should feel death; it's a big thing and if you're exposed to death, especially by violent misadventure, it's a shattering emotional experience: you don't come back from it fast, and I hate the movie trope where somebody gets killed and none of his friends are depressed or upset about it and get back to the business of the plot without a second thought. (Heat was particularly annoying in that respect: when Ted Levine got killed, an integral member of Pacino's team, none of the survivors gave it a second thought. And when Pacino is closing in on DeNiro, it's clear that he actually likes and admires him, when De Niro is, after all, the guy who killed one of his own men.) And there's another thing: the death of bad guys should be appropriate. I hated the moment in the movie Shooter where Swagger shoots old Ned Beatty as the Senator. Please. Beatty was not a man of physical violence so dispatching him with a bullet in the forehead seemed to completely upset the moral balance of the universe. Much better if Beatty were destroyed in terms of the life he lived: by scandal, by arrest, by exposure on TV. I always try and get my bad guys the deaths they've earned; that seems to me to be one of the rules of the game.

How did winning the Pulitzer affect your fiction writing life?

This is an easy one: not in the slightest. S&S puts it on the cover, a slight marketing subterfuge that suggests I won in Fiction (it was, of course, in Criticism) and I feel so strongly about it, I intend to write them a strong letter . . . never.

And finally, you have the reputation of being a tough critic. Do you read reviews of your books, and if so, do they have an impact on you?

I have no trouble with the epic proportions of my hypocrisy here. I am two men: as a movie critic, I kicked ass, took names but not prisoners, ripped, shredded, spindled mutilated and took pleasure in the carnage I wrought. When I am subjected to same, it is one of the greatest unfairnesses in the history of man. It is wrong, unfair, rotten and whoever is doing so is motivated by envy, greed, sexual favors from female rivals, drunkenness, or stupidity. There's someone on PW right now I wouldn't mind beating to a pulp with a hockey stick, and I don't even LIKE hockey. So the answer to your question reveals the following sad truth: the writer is pathetically, tinily, inconsequentially and unsurprisingly human. Sorry about that, but as Dutch said to Pike, "I wouldn't have it any other way."

Contributing editor Carolyn Haines's last novel is WISHBONES, the 8th of the Sarah Booth Delaney Mississippi Delta mysteries. She was recently named a 2009 recipient of the Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence.

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