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A Conversation With David Morrell
An interview with Lisa DuMond
August 1999

David Morrell
David Morrell
David Morrell was born in 1943 in Kitchener, Ontario. He attended the University of Waterloo (B.A.) and later Pennsylvania State University (M.A. and Ph.D.) and then taught at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, as a professor of American literature. His debut novel, First Blood, and the lead character, John Rambo, have become embedded in Western culture principally due to the successful series of motion pictures. This led to a series of mystery/adventure novels -- grand thrillers, filled with espionage, assassination, and worldwide terrorism. Among these is The Brotherhood of the Rose, The Fraternity of the Stone, The League of Night and Fog, and The Covenant of the Flame.

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Just in the unlikely event that anyone out there doesn't make the connection with your name, let's point out right at the start that you are the author who "birthed" Rambo. Should we also point out that the hero of First Blood would have handled the situation in "Rio Grande Gothic" entirely differently?
Yes, the bad guys in the story would have had their hands full if they'd tried to tackle Rambo. Lately I've been noticing a pattern in my work. I'll do a book or a story that has a super-professional at home in a world of action (the executive protector of The Fifth Profession, for example, or the CIA operative in Extreme Denial), and then I'll do an in-between book that has an ordinary person trying to survive in extraordinary circumstances (the obituary writer in Desperate Measures, a book not to be confused with the wretched movie of the same name, or the photographer in Double Image). Evidently this alternation satisfies something in my imagination. Two different views of the action hero. I can't help remarking that next year's new novel, Burnt Sienna, is about a painter who was a Marine helicopter pilot during the invasion of Panama. Both types of hero co-exist in the same protagonist.

Your character, Officer Gabe Romero, is not a man looking to be an action hero, but isn't simple curiosity the thing that gets most people into trouble?
Romero is another of my favourite approaches to a hero. He's a police officer, which suggests that he's an expert when it comes to action, but in reality, because he works in a small town, he doesn't have the depth of experience to prepare him for the horror he stumbles into. Thus he is only an apparent expert. The story is an initiation of sorts. He learns to be a professional. The hard way. With regard to curiosity getting him into trouble, I think it's really obsession that gets him into trouble. Of course, one can lead to the other, but because of the personal problems that Romero has, he's ready to grab at anything that will distract him.

Shoes -- common, everyday items -- are the catalyst that sets off the chain of events in "Rio Grande Gothic." Is it the very banality of the their appearance that adds the distinct chill to the story?
Shoes are banal, yes, and thus an interesting unexpected catalyst. This part of the story is based on real life. My home is in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the story is set. A couple of years ago, on a major street near where I live, shoes began appearing, sometimes singly, sometimes in pairs. Old and new. All kinds of shoes. Every morning, on schedule, shoes would be on the dividing line of the street. There was a lot of speculation about who was putting them there. The local newspaper did several articles. No one had any answers, and eventually the shoes stopped appearing. I couldn't stop thinking about them and finally wrote "Rio Grande Gothic."

It's also the ordinary nature of the clues that provokes that essential reaction of disbelief that makes Romero the lone man out. How much of the tension is derived from Romero's lack of support?
The ordinary made extraordinary can be an interesting dramatic situation. My main characters often have an uncanny ability to recognize when the ordinary has tipped over into something else. It's a rare talent (or curse), and it separates Romero from his fellow officers. The System abandons him, forcing him to confront the terrifying truth on his own. I'm reminded of the police chief in my non-supernatural horror novel, The Totem. That character also is abandoned by the System.

Is a character with the weight of public opinion behind him something readers feel no need to "back up"?
If a character had the weight of public opinion behind him, he or she wouldn't interest me. There wouldn't be any conflict. Plus, public opinion is usually at odds with my own feelings.

Are the personal setbacks Romero faces a broad stroke to bring him to his lowest point or is there another, more camouflaged reason behind the traumas?
Romero's life is falling apart. It's easier for him to obsess about his work and spend all night on a stakeout to see who's dropping the shoes than it is to try to get control of his personal life, which (given the death of his son) cannot be controlled.

There is a scene that comes several pages into the story where the first concrete proof that something is terribly wrong appears. It is a moment some may anticipate, but, even with a bit of forewarning, it packs a powerful shock. Is the target of this jolt Romero, or is it the audience?
Yes, the first moment of horror occurs about 5 pages into the story. Until then, the enigma about the shoes has been engaging, I think, and even slightly humorous. The reader follows where I lead. It's as if I'm fishing and the hook is gently in the reader's mouth. But then the real nature of the story is revealed, and I pull hard on the hook, trying to give the reader a jolt. Whenever I describe this moment in the story to friends, I start laughing. Strong moments in a plot always strike me as having black humour, but only I, apparently, see the joke.

The desert setting adds a great deal to "Rio Grande Gothic." Would you put that down to the isolation of the people in these small towns? Or is a life lived in the desert wilderness just that much closer to the edge, and therefore more frightening?
New Mexico is one of the most sparsely populated states in the US. Only one and a half million people live here. There are huge distances between towns. The landscape is incredibly varied and majestic, but also foreboding. You don't take long trips without making sure you have emergency provisions. A lot of people have handguns in their cars. Only in a state like this, with the isolation that it has, could a story like this be set. "Rio Grande Gothic" wouldn't work in New York State, for example. Too many people. What would you call it? Hudson River Gothic? There's something about the remoteness of the west that makes this particular story possible.

The sheer visual impact of the story would seem to make "Rio Grande Gothic" another natural for translation to film. (This is not a paid, commercial endorsement.) Does that possibility enter your mind during the writing process? If not, you are probably the only author who doesn't let his mind wander in that direction.
My fiction is frequently described as being cinematic. But as producers have frequently discovered, the vividness of the story usually comes from the way I use a character's viewpoint. Most of my fiction is described from the interior of a character. If I've done my job correctly, the reader will so identify with the character that the character's perspective becomes like a movie to the reader. The Washington Post once said that my fiction has a "you-are-there quality" that makes reading my prose feel "like attending a private screening." It's something I don't think about it. The effect is something I automatically tend toward, although achieving the effect requires various techniques that I developed over the years and some that I learned from Hemingway, whose style was the subject of my Master's thesis. What it comes down to is this: any writer who consciously sets out to write a book that can easily be translated into a film is setting severe limitations. Movies are by nature exterior to a character's thought processes and emotions. Whenever I pick up fiction by someone who's been a screenwriter, I always find the same thing -- emphasis on externals, on description, on plot, but not on a character's mental conflict. The latter doesn't translate to film. But mental conflict is what most interests me, and what makes it hard for filmmakers to adapt what seems cinematic in my work.

"Rio Grande Gothic" is a perfect example of 999's celebration of the best of horror fiction. Plus, it is all too possible. Is that what makes the horror for you? The chance that it may show up any day on Headline News?
Let me start by reversing the emphasis of the question. If I see something on the news, I automatically dismiss it as a possibility for fiction. At the same time, I imagine hundreds of writers being inspired by a real-life event and writing a story about it, only to discover that their stories (or novels) all reach the market at the same time, that the market becomes glutted, and that all the stories seem unoriginal. The only news flashes I want are from my psyche. Mind you, the shoes in "Rio Grande Gothic" did appear in the local newspaper, but they were only the start of an extremely disturbing sequence that I knew only someone as narratively crazy as myself could (or would want to) imagine. To go back to the question, yes, what a writer wants (this writer at any rate) is the sense that the story has a basis in reality, that it is presented in such a way that the reader is hypnotized into believing the fictional reality of the story.

Do you ever look around you and think that people get crazier every day? Or, are our true colours just starting to show?
Each day, I am surprised anew by the capacity for human beings to engage in ever more weird and dangerous behaviour. I suspect that past centuries had equal shockers, but we never heard about them because of the limited means of passing on information. In the age of CNN and the internet, there are few secrets. We learn about horrors that might have been hidden in past times, and we learn about these horrors with remarkable speed. It's getting to the point where watching the evening news is like reading an anthology of horror scenes.

Copyright © 1999 Lisa DuMond

Lisa DuMond writes science fiction and humour. She co-authored the 45th anniversary issue cover of MAD Magazine. Previews of her latest, as yet unpublished, novel are available at Hades Online.


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