Subterranean Press Magazine: Winter 2007
Interview: David Morrell
A name familiar to both horror and thriller fans, David Morrell, author of such classic suspense novels as First Blood, Testament, The Brotherhood of the Rose, The Covenant of the Flame, and Assumed Identity, to name a few, continues to push the envelope with his latest, Scavenger, a thrill-a-minute pulse-pounding adventure story about time capsules, “letterboxing”, video games, and egomaniacal psychopaths.
SP: Creepers has a lot in common with Scavenger. Aside from the presence of two of the main characters from the first novel, and a narrative that plays out in real-time, Scavenger also expands on the theme of the first book, that of obsession with the past. In this novel, our heroes discover a man not only obsessed with the past, but with the present and future as well. What for you is the appeal of this theme, and do you think it’s an inescapable preoccupation as we get older?
DM: The theme of an obsession with the past lurked in earlier books, also. Double Image comes to mind. It’s about photography and how a man falls in love with the image of a woman in a photograph taken in 1933. At one point, the main character decides to replicate a series of famous photographs that depict Los Angeles in the 1920s and 1930s. He goes to the original sites and uses the same camera that the original photographer used, trying to take new photographs from the exact same angle that the original photographer used, so that the new images can be positioned over the old ones in the manner of a double exposure. Photographs, in general, are eerie. They stop time. Meanwhile, the world moves forward, but particular moments are frozen. Many of the people we look at in photographs are dead, and yet they still seem alive on film. Obviously, there’s some psychological factor that drives me to write about this theme. Perhaps it’s inevitable as someone gets older, or perhaps it has something to do with my son’s death from cancer in 1987. I spend a lot of my time thinking about him and going into the past.
SP: Would you agree that another link between both books is that while Scavenger involves people hunting for time-capsules, The Paragon Hotel, (from Creepers) was itself a time capsule, in essence making the practice of “creeping” and “scavenging” very similar? And of course, books themselves are time capsules of a sort.
DM: Exactly. The Paragon Hotel was sealed and abandoned since 1971. It still has its original furniture, the old phones, the old TV sets, the business documents. Exploring it is like going into a time warp, or if you like, a time capsule. In SCAVENGER, the characters get drawn back into the past—the ghost town and the Sepulcher of Worldly Desires. In each case, the characters learn that the past is buried for a reason. But at the same time, Balenger is drawn to the past because of his post-traumatic stress disorder. He was in the First Gulf War as an Army Ranger. In the Second Gulf War, the current one, he was a civilian security contractor who got captured by insurgents and nearly had his head chopped off. His nightmares drove him to a psychiatrist, who fashioned a therapy for him in which the only books he reads are from a hundred years ago and more. The only television programs he watches are on the History Channel. He avoids the present by retreating into the past. The only “modern” novels he has read are Jack Finney’s Time and Again and Richard Matheson’s Bid Time Return, which was filmed as Somewhere in Time. The main characters of those books concentrate on the past with so much intensity that they transport themselves to an earlier time. That is Balenger’s goal.
SP: Both Creepers and Scavenger feature action told in “real time” – what additional challenges does this method present to you as a writer?
DM: Creepers is told in strict real time. The action of the book takes eight hours, and the book takes eight hours to read out loud (as exemplified by the Brilliance unabridged audio). There aren’t any cuts, summaries, or leaps forward, as in “Five minutes later, he reached the second floor.” Every instant of every breath is on the page. Scavenger is somewhat different. Although each individual section is written in real time, there are leaps in time between each section. Otherwise, the forty hours of the plot would have required a massive book. I chose forty hours because the average video game takes that long to play.
SP: In Scavenger, you’ve brought Balenger and Amanda back for another run through the wringer. What about these particular characters appeals to you?
DM: I enjoy writing about Balenger’s compulsion to retreat into the past. And I’m fascinated by the resemblance between Amanda and Balenger’s dead wife. The first sentence of Scavenger immediately addresses that theme: “He no longer called her by his dead wife’s name.” When he rescued Amanda from the Paragon Hotel, he literally thought he was rescuing his wife. Now he must make a huge adjustment in his emotions. As for Amanda, she’s amazingly strong: a survivor. That’s why they’re in the novel. I didn’t intend SCAVENGER as a follow-up book to Creepers. But the plot brings together a group of characters who are experts in survival—two mountain climbers who endured a harrowing incident on Mt. Everest, a woman who drifted for two weeks in a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean, a Marine aviator who was shot down in Iraq and hunted by insurgents for ten days. What Balenger and Amanda did to survive in the Paragon Hotel puts them in that category, so in a way the book demanded that they be included.
SP: Can readers expect to see them in further adventures, or do you think their run of bad luck has come to an end?
DM: Next year’s book is an espionage novel, the first spy book I’ve written since Extreme Denial in 1996. But after that, I’m going to do another “eerie” thriller, and there’s a chance I’ll bring back Amanda and Balenger. It all depends if the plot requires them. There’s no point in repeating characters unless they bring something necessary and useful to the story.
SP: Scavenger reads as if it required a ton of research. How hands-on did you get with scavenging, “geocaching”, and video gaming?
DM: I started with a lot of on-line research. Then I got a hand-held GPS receiver and learned how to use it to follow a course to a specific destination. The interesting thing about geocaching is that it sounds simple—“follow the needle to the destination.” But objects such as rivers and cliffs keep getting in the way and demand a lot of problem solving. It’s very challenging and interesting. As for video games, I remember being addicted when the first versions came out. I got so obsessed and physical as I played the games that I caused the chair I was on to disintegrate. I almost knocked myself out when I fell on the floor. Since then, I’ve been cautious about them. But as I note in Scavenger, I was heavily influenced by the video-game theories in Stephen Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good for You. Johnson argues that the speed and complex decision making in video games teaches players to be capable of parallel thinking and multi-tasking. In effect, new ways of thinking are being developed. We may be seeing a radical change in the way our brains process information. I couldn’t wait to explore these ideas in Scavenger and to deal with the difference between time in virtual reality as opposed to clock time.
SP: You have launched a massive promotional effort for Scavenger, including, but not limited to: video and online interviews, a website for the book (http://www.scavengerthebook.com), MySpace pages for both yourself (http://www.myspace.com/davidmorrell) and Frank Balenger (http://www.myspace.com/frankbalenger), and even an excellently produced online game (which I completed, by the way, but not without much cursing and hair-pulling). After a similar campaign for Creepers, how effective has this kind of promotion been for you? And after so many years in the business, do you find it’s gotten tougher to raise awareness of your books?
DM: For writers who follow a traditional publicity model, it’s more difficult to get attention for a book. Fewer newspapers and magazines are doing book reviews, for example, and more books are being published. The consequence is that authors need to find newer, fresher ways of promoting a novel. For starters, I don’t talk about the plots of my recent books. Creepers is about urban exploration: history and architecture enthusiasts who infiltrate old buildings that have been sealed and abandoned for decades. Scavenger is about a desperate high-tech scavenger hunt to find a lost 100-year-old time capsule. When I do interviews for these books, I talk about those non-fiction topics: urban explorers and time capsules. Those subjects fascinate me, and I love talking about them. I enjoy seeing the looks on faces when I tell people about the Westinghouse time capsule that was buried at the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York. The capstone is still there, but the torpedo-shaped capsule won’t be opened until 5,000 years from now. Meanwhile, the chillingly named Crypt of Civilization at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta won’t be opened for 6,000 years. I love talking about the ten most-wanted time capsules. Reporters and media interviewers don’t like authors who emphasize plot. They want a non-fiction subject that can be approached as a news story. That’s one new approach to publicizing a book. The other is to use the Internet and provide intriguing electronic ways of telling readers about a book. On scavengerthebook.com, there’s a five minute video interview that I did with a supporting cast member of the TV show, Friends. There’s a one-minute animated trailer with sound, like a movie trailer. There’s a podcast with images. It’s all a lot of fun and only the beginning of how the Internet can make readers aware of books.
SP: When we last spoke, you were embarking on some pretty exciting comic book work, but couldn’t say much about it. Can you tell us a little more about the project now?
DM: It’s called CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE END, a six-part comic-book series scheduled to start appearing in September. I’m very excited by this journey into a new way of telling a story, which is basically stop-action images similar to those in a storyboard for a film. The story takes place in Afghanistan, and I had several goals. First, to make the reader believe there’s a Captain America. Second, to make the narrative as emotional as it’s action-packed. Third, to explore the theme of the burden of being a superhero in today’s troubled world, especially a superhero named after the United States.
SP: Lastly, rumor has it your next book will be entitled The Spy Who Came for Christmas (a wonderful Le Carre-like title). Can you tell us a bit about the book, and when we should look for it?
DM: The Spy Who Came for Christmas is the espionage novel I mentioned earlier. It’s a modern action thriller that takes place on Christmas Eve in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I live. We have a mile-long street of art galleries that are so spectacular when lit on Christmas Eve that Santa Fe qualifies as a world holiday destination. People come from everywhere to be here on Christmas Eve. During the course of the story’s action, the main character is trapped with a family that he didn’t mean to endanger. To try to calm them, he tells them the spy’s version of the Nativity story. His historical espionage tale makes the traditional Biblical testaments more vivid and dramatic. Those couple of paragraphs in the Bible are more complicated than is generally realized. All the elements of the novel have a strong basis in history. It was great fun to do research on Christmas Eve on the fabulously lit street, Canyon Road, where the story takes place.
SP: Thanks for your time, David!