Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Author Spotlight: David Morrell

Let's say you're assembling your authorial curriculum vitae — not for any particular reason, just something to tickle your fancy in a moment of periodic self-reflection and personal professional assessment. Keeping up with your inner Joneses, if you will. On your clean sheet of paper, you jot down your professorship in the English department of the University of Iowa for a decade and a half. You list your extensive training in firearms, hostage negotiation, assuming identities, executive protection, and anti-terrorist driving skills, plus your FAA pilot's license. You note the 1972 publication of your debut novel, First Blood, the book introduced the world to iconic Vietnam War veteran John Rambo, a character later featured in a quartet of international blockbuster movies starring Sylvester Stallone. After writing down the titles of 28 novels, six nonfiction books, 40 published short stories, and numerous analytical essays for film magazines, you'll find yourself with hardly any room left on your formerly pristine sheet of paper to squeeze in that you're a co-founder of the International Thriller Writers organization, which honored you with its prestigious career-achievement Thriller Master Award. With a satisfied sigh, you realize your piece of paper would have to be a scroll to contain all your other career highlights, only some of which are being an Edgar, Anthony, and Macavity nominee, and a three-time recipient of the distinguished Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers Association. Oh, yeah, plus you have 18 million copies of your books in print, in 26 languages.

None of that even includes the release today of your brand new thriller, Murder as a Fine Art, a work as eagerly anticipated as it it is highly acclaimed. Early reviews of Murder as a Fine Art include the Associated Press deeming it, “A literary thriller that pushes the envelope of fear.” The Providence Sunday Journal declares the book "a masterpiece." Publishers Weekly calls it "brilliant." Suspense Magazine says, "This is one thriller that is beyond thrilling.”

David Morrell is the only author whose curriculum vitae the foregoing could be. And we're pleased that Morrell has joined us today at the Gazalapalooza Author Spotlight. Without further ado, let's get Morrell seated under the Spotlight's blazing klieg glare, and get this interview underway. 

Gazala:    In my omnipotence, I've sentenced you to be stranded alone on a desert island for offenses best left unnamed. In my beneficence, I've decided to allow you a limited amount of reading material to make your stay a little less bleak than it would otherwise be. I'll spot you your religious text of preference, and the collected works of William Shakespeare. In addition to those, name the one fiction book, and the one nonfiction book, you'd choose to take with you, and why you choose them.

Morrell:    The non-fiction book is easy. Thoreau’s Walden contains a wealth of wisdom that deepens with each reading. I never fail to marvel at how he compares the veins in a leaf to those in a human hand to those in a cliff side to the Milky Way. The interconnection of the universe. As for fiction, my interest in Victorian history prompts me to choose Charles Dickens’s Bleak House from 1853, one of the many Victorian novels that I read during my research of Murder as a Fine Art when I was trying to trick my mind into believing that I was actually in London in the 1850s. Dickens’ complex plot and period details become more fascinating with each reading. 

Gazala:    Your latest book is an excellent and gripping thriller titled Murder as a Fine Art, where gaslit London becomes a battleground between controversial Victorian literary star Thomas De Quincey and a demented murderer whose lives are linked by secrets long buried, but never forgotten. I've read it. I enjoyed it immensely, and recommend it highly. Shockingly enough, however, from time to time my bare recommendation doesn't always motivate a book's potential reader to become a book's actual reader. Tell us something about Murder as a Fine Art, and why its potential reader should make the leap and become its actual reader. 

Morrell:    Murder as a Fine Art is based on the first publicized mass murders in England, the infamous Ratcliffe Highway killings in London in the early 1800s. Because of improved roads and the newly invented English mail-coach system, London’s 52 newspapers spread news of the murders throughout England within two days, terrorizing not only London but the entire nation, rivaling the fear caused by Jack the Ripper much later in the century.  My novel’s main character, Thomas De Quincey, was a brilliant author who wrote obsessively about the killings in the third part of an essay, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” He invented the word “subconscious,” and anticipated Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis by a half-century.  He was the first person to write about drug addiction in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. He influenced Edgar Allan Poe who in turn influenced Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes. Put all this together, and the reader will experience a detective of a rare type. Going to 1854 London is like going to Mars. The era is so weird that the details alone are worth reading the novel.  For example, how much did a middle-or-upper-class woman’s clothes weigh?  Thirty-seven pounds—because the hoop beneath the dress needed to be covered with ten yards of ruffled satin.  No wonder women kept fainting. 

Gazala:    What are books for? 

Morrell:    Horace said that the purpose of literature was to teach and delight.  Let’s focus on fiction.  Its vividness can take us out of our every-day lives and spark our imaginations. If our lives are dull, we are transported to a more interesting place. If our lives are burdened with pain, a novel can provide distraction. Beyond that, the characters in novels can help us to understand human nature, which is a form of teaching as well as delighting. Important novels change the way we perceive the world. 

Gazala:    W. Somerset Maugham said, "There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." Do you agree, or disagree, and why? 

Morrell:    The rules keep changing.  During the 19th century, there was an accepted way of writing novels. Then Flaubert, Henry James, Hemingway, and other writers came along and changed the rules. Dickens was fond of the 3rd person omniscient narrator, a technique that is hardly used anymore, because fiction writers are taught that showing is better than telling, which is what the omniscient voice does. But sometimes telling is in fact better than showing, and I work with that concept in Murder as a Fine Art. Providing my version of a Victorian novel, I began each chapter with an omniscient narrator (a sin in some creative writing classes), mixing it with a first person narrator (a combination that is also a sin in some creative writing classes). But Dickens used both in Bleak House, and the combination worked wonderfully.  London in the 1850s was so strange that I decided the only way to express its strangeness was by providing a guided tour throughout the novel. 

Gazala:    A long, loud, and canorous peal of laughter coming from the heavy fog pushing against my front door seems an ominous thing worth my immediate attention. Ask yourself a question, and answer it. 

Morrell:    Q: What’s your favorite Thomas De Quincey story? A: Because of his compulsive book collecting and his opium use, De Quincey was constantly in debt. One of his landlords held him prisoner for a year (that’s right — a year), forcing him to keep writing until he paid his lodging bill. De Quincey described his room as becoming snowed over with manuscript pages. He asked his publisher to smuggle in some laxative salts with his weekly supply of ink and blank pages to write on. Overdosing on the salts, he spent two days in the lodging house’s privy, prompting the other lodgers to complain to the owner, who reluctantly set De Quincey free so that his lodgers could use the privy. 

Wow. We're not sure how to comment appropriately on that anecdote, other than to say that clearly, Morrell's research for his excellent new book left absolutely no stone unturned. You've no need to take our word for that. Find out for yourself by getting your very own copy of Murder as a Fine Art. To order yours from Amazon, all you have to do is click here, and then settle back to enjoy the read.


  1. Wow, I'm a fan of David Morrell. I don't think I have missed any of his novels. I even have his book on writing.

    His characters are a delight, so real, and he does transport me to the world and places he writes about.

    This one sounds like another winner for him to chalk up.

    Thanks for the interview

    1. Hi, Lorrie. We're glad you enjoyed our interview with David. Thanks for your kind words. You're right about his new book -- "Murder as a Fine Art" is a great read.