A sense of incipient dread spreads though me when I first sit down to begin a new novel. No matter how many times I’ve done it before, the initial reaction is the same: where will this go? Will the attempt lead me to a dead end from which I can’t be extricated?
Perhaps it’s a crisis in confidence, but it’s far more than just a case of writer’s block. In fact, I’m not sure “writer’s block” is a valid name for this state of mind.
A novel is an organic thing. In a very real sense, it lives, breathes and takes on a life of its own, independent of my initial outline or plot summary. The outline never ensures full-blooded characters, not does it guarantee a rich plot, with compelling narrative drive. Hopefully, the story will grow or even change direction from the first plot summary, and the end result will be something I’d never anticipated. I never truly know the outcome — even as I’m traveling the novel’s trajectory — which can be part of the pleasure and nightmare of writing. In fact, whenever I look at the final product — the published novel — I find myself wondering where it all came from.
Once I barge past that initial feeling of immobilization, the writing assumes its own energy. Many things emerge. They seem to come from some deep mental recess. The experience can seem like a mystifying, dreamlike process, or even a strange form of magic.
But it’s not magic. Rather, mine is the writer’s oneiric landscape over which the quest occurs to capture in words, the thoughts and feelings of my characters in their turbulent stories.
I wonder if every writer experiences this when beginning a new work. I don’t know. I can only speak for myself.
Some people claim to experience this peculiar form of paralysis they call “writer’s block.” It seems to me, they just can’t get past the nightmarish fear of not knowing where it will all go, and beginning the hard work a novel demands — the brutal and beautiful slog of writing fiction.
David Mamet is one of the most acclaimed, and eclectic writers of our time. As a playwright, he has won a Pulitzer Prize and received Tony nominations for Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the-Plow. Other plays have included The Duck Variations, Sexual Perversity in Chicago and American Buffalo.
House of Games; Things Change; Homicide; Oleanna; The Spanish Prisoner; The Winslow Boy; State and Main; Spartan; Redbelt; Homicide; and the HBO film, Phil Spector, are among the feature films he’s written and directed.
His screenplays include The Postman Always Rings Twice; The Untouchables; Hoffa; The Verdict; Wag the Dog; The Edge; Ronin; and Hannibal.
He’s written poetry, essays and novels. He’s written for television and radio, and is the creator, producer and frequent writer for the television series The Unit. His latest work, Three War Stories, is a trio of novellas to be released November 11th.
Your dialogue has been called street-smart and edgy. It’s even called Mamet speak. How does it come to you?
There’s an old joke about a guy who comes home and finds his business partner in bed with his wife. And he says, ‘Sam, I have to…but you…?’ (Laughter) That’s not about my marriage…I’m married to a goddess, and I thank the Lord every day for the last 25 years. But the idea is simply…I have to. I just don’t know any better. That’s how I write. I’m a bit of a freak. There are times I re-craft it, but sometimes it just comes out of me. You just do it until it’s done.
Language seems so important in understanding and appreciating David Mamet.
Well, you know, a play is basically a long, formalistic polemic. You can write it without the poetry, and if you do, you may have a pretty good play. We know this because we see plays in translation. Not many people speak Norwegian or Danish or whatever guys like Ibsen spoke, or Russian–yet we understand Chekhov and the others. We don’t get the poetry of it because it’s been translated. So we follow the plot and get the idea. On the other hand, you can also write it in what’s essentially poetry that’s going to stick in your mind. The test of that is people remember what’s been said in the play. People remember Shakespeare’s words all their lives. We remember the rhythm of it. You’re a psychiatrist, right?
So as Freud said, it’s polymorphous perversity. It’s a priori…we can’t get beyond the fact that there’s something in music that gets to us. And for me, poetry is the music of speech.
Your dialogue has been considered a form of street poetry.
Maybe. I wrote an essay about rap music which is the operative poetry of our time. Speaking of street poetry, it has many precursors. I’ve been reading this great book by George McDonald Fraser, a Victorian writer. He quotes many of the old Scottish border ballads that were simply folk music. It’s clear he was influenced by and immersed in Sir Walter Scott. He was regurgitating the Scottish border ballads. By the way, if you read those ballads, you realize you’re partly reading Kipling, and that’s where Kipling got many of his ideas. It’s the music of the people. And I guess that’s the way I write.
Is some of your music, the music of your own people–the primary culture of David Mamet–meaning your own family as a kid? You once said you developed your penchant for dialogue from early family discussions.
Well, my family are Jews. We’re newcomers…we’ve only been Jews for about 7,000 years. But the Jewish family, like the larger Jewish community, operates through disputation, because that’s our great talent. That’s what the Talmud is, and that’s what the Jewish legal system is. You take two completely opposing views and try to find some middle ground.
Was there a great deal of disputation in your family…plenty of shouting at the top of peoples’ lungs?
No. I think that’s the Italians. We just bear grudges until the end of time. (Laughter). My father was very fond of the phrase, ‘Shut up and sit down.’ So there you have it. But I did go into poetry because that’s where the money is. (More laughter).
Can you compare writing a stage play with a screenplay as opposed to a novel?
Writing a stage play and a screenplay have very little to do with each other. A stage play is just dialogue. One has to be able to communicate the play through disputation. A stage play is basically a form of uber-schizophrenia. You split yourself into two minds–one being the protagonist and the other being the antagonist. The playwright also splits himself into two other minds: the mind of the writer and the mind of the audience. The question is, how do you lure the audience in, so they use their reasoning power to jump to their own conclusion–so that at the end of the play–as Aristotle said–they’re surprised. It might even involve leading the audience to its own destruction. So, writing a play might be compared to the workings of psychopaths, who can be the most charming people in the world, and who move you step-by-step to your own destruction.
And writing a novel differs in what way?
Writing a novel is an incredibly free experience. One puts one’s self in a narrative mode. You can go off in any direction–the past, the future, or go laterally, or include one’s own beliefs. It’s total freedom.
So conflict is at the heart of it all?
Yes, of course. That’s what a play is about. That’s why it has the capacity to cleanse. Here’s what happens in a play. You get involved in a situation where something is unbalanced. If nothing’s unbalanced, there’s no reason to have a play. If Hamlet comes home from school and his dad’s not dead; and asks him if he’s had a good time, it’s boring. But if something’s unbalanced, it must be returned to order. The task of a play is to return to order that which has come unbalanced. In Hamlet, Shakespeare not only has conflict between people, but brilliantly conveys conflict inside Hamlet’s head. But conflict is the essence of it.
Your plays and films often deal with duplicity, theft, manipulation and con games, like House of Games and Heist or in a play like Glengarry Glen Ross. Is this your view about our times?
Well, it’s a view of every time. Some of my plays deal with conflicts in the business world; some deal with marital conflicts or in growing up. Perhaps you’re talking about the better known plays. There always has to be some conflict. If you keep writing the same play, why not just go home.
But there’s something about the con, the con game that seems to attract you.
Yes. That does attract me. You see, the con game, like the play, lures the mind on to its own destruction. Step A is correct; step B seems correct; step C makes sense, and then I wake up and realize I just gave all my money to a total stranger. How does that happen?
In a movie–which is a different kind of play–you lead the audience on. Or as my friend, Ricky Jay, the great magician says, ‘At some point, you just gotta ask for the money.’ You’ve got to lure them on to the point where they–unconsciously–make a leap of faith and then there’s the reveal, which is completely absurd.
So to some extent, is all art manipulation?
Maybe so. You know, magic is manipulation for which one signs on. A healthy person doesn’t go to a magic show and think, ‘I’m gonna find out where that duck actually came from.’ Right? They go in order to be fooled. They suspend disbelief. Basically, they trade their power to disbelieve for their power to be amused.
You were once asked what you would have done if you hadn’t become a writer; you said you’d have probably become a criminal. Can you tell us more about that?
It was a dramatic thing to say. My mother used to say–and my wife says it now–’Why must you dramatize everything?’ And I say, ‘Well, that’s my nature.’ My good friend Patti LuPone performed at a concert out here, and this guy came in–morbidly obese, obviously unhappy, badly dressed–and there was something pathetic about him. But he must have chosen to be the way he was. He could have made different choices. And I thought, that’s like me…I had choices, and I made them.
Your choice was to become a writer, a poet, a filmmaker, a director; not a criminal–although you’ve written extensively about criminals.
So did Brandeis, but he didn’t become a criminal. (More laughter).
You once said, “There’s no such thing as talent; you just have to work hard enough.” What did you mean?
It’s not true. You know, you can work forever but you’re not going to throw a fastball like Sandy Koufax. He spent time explaining the ergonomics of the fastball, and it made perfect sense to him, because he could throw the fastball.
You know, I was doing a movie with Helen Mirren and we were on the set. She said, ‘Oh David, when you direct, you kind of act.” Which is what a director does; he kind of acts out the piece for his actors. She said, ‘You must have been an actor.’ I said, Yeah, I was a kid actor.’ She asked how I was; and I told her I was terrible. She said, ‘but it’s so easy.’ And I said, ‘Yes, Helen, for you it’s easy.’ So, if you’ve got talent, some things are easier. I think Eric Hoffer said, ‘the talentless think everything happens without effort.’
Clearly, you make an effort at what you do but you do have that inborn talent.
Yeah, I do. I thank God every day. I used to lay sod for a living, and I washed dishes. I didn’t like it. So when I found out I had a gift for writing, it saved me. If I didn’t have writing, I’d have become a much more compromised individual than I am. I took this obvious gift and worked very hard. I didn’t want to end up like that guy at the concert.
Speaking of working hard, David, some people say writing is really re-writing. Does that characterize your writing or does it just flow and require relatively minor re-writing?
There are some things I work on forever. They can literally take years and years and years. Others may require relatively little effort.
Looking back on your body of work, would you say there’s any overriding theme?
I hope not. One of the reasons I go to work is to amuse myself. If I can’t amuse myself, it’s very hard to work. Someone once said, ‘Steal from anybody but yourself.’ I don’t want to take away the pleasure of writing by trying to pound home some theme. That’s a reason I’ve written non-fiction and a few novels…I just go and knock myself out.
What effects have Hollywood and mass media had on the theatre today?
In my lifetime, television has been at war with the movies and seems to have wiped the movies out. They’re dying in the face of the Internet and other media. And theatre is pressed to the wall now and again. When I was a kid, there were the little theatres, and there was amateur theatre. Then there were regional theatres such as–Bob Bluestein at Yale–which spawned a resurgence of the American theater…Joe Papp and people like that. But now, maybe theater’s back is to the wall a bit.
But despite the internet and electronics, stage plays will always be relevant, just as rap music has reinvented the idea of poetry. If someone had something important to say it was said within his or her cultural milieu. Similarly, stand-up comedy born in the Borscht belt in the 40s and 50s, spawned improvisational theater. It’s become a staple of world entertainment. So I don’t think stage theater will ever die.
Do you feel a novel or play should be accessible to a wide audience?
I’ve been making a living writing for close to 50 years, and I never met a stupid audience. I never read a good book that’s inaccessible. I think it’s a status notion if we posit that people are dumber than ourselves. I read children’s literature because my last teen-ager is still at home…and the literature makes me want to throw up. The idea that kids are stupid and we must write “down” to them is ridiculous. But, it’s a great receptacle for second-rate writers.
Which writers do you enjoy reading most?
I feel almost anyone can write a book, but not everyone can write a good sentence. My Three War Stories is an homage to Patrick O’Brian who wrote some of the greatest adventure stories in the English language. If one goes back to the history of literature, there’s a whole bunch of them. I adore Hemingway, Kipling, Patrick O’Brian, the Trollope books, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Tolstoy…all the great 19th Century novelists.
Let’s talk about your latest work, Three War Stories in which the novellas deal with three wars spanning centuries and continents. Why write about war?
(Laughter) Well, I’m going to have to revert to being in kindergarten. I wrote one, and thought ‘that’s kind of cute’; then wrote another, and thought if I write a third, I might have a book. So, I wrote three. It just happened like that.
So there was no statement you were making by writing about war?
It’s not my job to make a statement. I know there are writers who do that, but as someone said, ‘If you want to send a message, send a telegram.’ I don’t know anything more than anyone else about the world. I just happen to be a writer.
The first paragraph of Redwing, the first novella in Three War Stories reads like this: “Advanced age, accompanied by reasonable health, is generally accounted a blessing. I do not know that it is so, and I suspect that such proclamation is made solely by those ignorant of the actual nature of age. For though age awards, to most, both increased time and ability for reflection, such leisure allows or suggests the question ‘To what end?’”
Can you talk a bit about that beautiful opening paragraph?
The question is not can one write a book, but can one write a sentence? So that was my task, especially in writing that novella which was an homage to the beautiful Georgian language of that period.
Yes, the writing in Redwing had that distinctive, formalistic, British quality. You intended that?
Yes. It’s a sea novella. There’s a tradition that goes back to Frederick Marriot, a captain in Nelson’s navy. In the 1930s and 40s, a fellow named Cecil Smith, under the name of C.S. Forester, wrote a series of novels about a fictional character named Horatio Hornblower. In the 1960′s or 70s, Patrick O’Brian wrote his version of the Forester novels. No one has ever written better sea novels. His was a magnificent achievement–like Mozart re-writing Salieri.
In your opening paragraph of Redwing, were you reflecting on advancing age, personally?
Well, sure. That’s what one does in advancing age.
Does that preoccupy you and will it emerge more in your work as it did for Philip Roth?
I don’t know. You’ve got two other novellas in there. One’s about the Indian Plains Wars; the other’s about the Israeli War of Independence. The third one’s not a reflection on age, but is, I hope, a ripping yarn.
The three novellas’ details are astounding. Reading the first, I wondered if you were in the navy. The third made me wonder how much David Mamet knows about airplanes. Do you do enormous research for these, or are you a pilot?
In the first one, I did an enormous amount of reading in the novels I’ve mentioned. I was also in the Merchant Service for a summer. And, I am a pilot.
If you could have dinner with any five people or writers from history–dead or alive–who would they be?
I would choose my family. Writers don’t like to talk with each other. We don’t like talking with anybody; that’s why we write for God’s sake (Laughter).
Will you indulge me…family aside…who would you like to have dinner with?
You know, when I give a talk or lecture, people want to speak with me afterwards. But there’s nothing to say to the audience. For them, it’s the longing to get close to someone provocative or mysterious. For me, to talk to the audience is like the audience wanting to know how a magician does the trick. The magician can’t tell them, because if he does, it ruins the trick. He has to resist the urge to confess, which is what I’m not doing very well today.
But you do talk to audiences and impart knowledge of your craft.
Actually, not. What I’m really doing is just showing off. Because, the things I can’t tell them are like the things one doesn’t tell one’s children…they can’t understand. They may understand as a memory–like later, when you say to yourself, ‘God, now I see what my dad meant.’ But at the moment, there’s an unbridgeable gap.
Some writers say “The art speaks for itself. I have nothing more to say. It’s far more interesting to read my book or look at my work than to speak with me.”
Of course. One is not Beau Brummel–a society wit. You know, someone sitting morosely in a corner at a raucous dinner party is probably a writer.
As an artist living in an absurd world, how do you respond to it?
Existence is absurd. So, I try to find some meaning in it by doing my job. Christians say ‘In my father’s house are many mansions.’ You’re never going to get to the middle of the artichoke.
So you find meaning in your work, and I assume, in your family?
Yes. I’m also a big fan of the Bible. It seems to address most of our ineffable questions.
And of course, it’s poetry.
Yes, but there aren’t enough pages.
Let me ask you about actors. Are there any you’ve found most interesting to work with?
I find all actors interesting. The job of a director is to work with actors. It’s about how one speaks to them in a way to help them play the part and motivate them to go down the road you’ve conceived
Have you dealt with actors who don’t really get what you meant to convey?
One hires them not because they can get it right, but because they can act. The subsequent question is, can they act this part? The actor wants to know what’s going to help him understand, and be good in the part. It’s the director’s job to communicate it. But you know, an actor may keep blowing a line because the line is no good.
Has an actor ever convinced you a line is “no good” and you’ve changed it?
Sure. The better an actor is, the more he or she understands–intellectually or not–the text. It’s happened many times, and actors are right more often than they’re wrong.
What’s next for David Mamet?
I’m going to shoot this thriller I wrote, and will direct, with Cate Blanchett and I hope to do a new, original play next fall with Al Pacino in New York.
For a full audio version of this interview, follow the link to BookTrib.com
She’s now a 45-pound robust, gravelly-voiced girl, who along with her gentle brother, Hank, provides us with enormous pleasure. I really should say, joy.
But, here’s the rest-of-the-story:
From the outset, Jenny has always been insatiably curious and very opinionated. Unlike the five other dogs with whom we’ve shared our lives, Jenny’s felt she must weigh-in on anything and everything in the neighborhood. Though we are the only house on 11 acres; part of our property abuts a neighbor’s swimming pool.
Like all young children, our neighbors’ kids were a noisy bunch, which aroused Jenny’s not-so-latent herding instincts. Each time they were at the pool or in their backyard, Jenny saw and heard them through the chain link fence which separated the properties. No sooner did the kids venture out of their house, Jenny would run to the fence and bark incessantly in her Gravel Gertie voice. All attempts at acclimating her to their presence failed.
A palpable, not-so-neighborly tension arose. Clearly, Jenny’s persistent barking made the neighbors’ enjoyment of their backyard impossible. Believing that good fences make for good neighbors, we erected a six foot high, cedar stockade fence between the properties. We hoped this visual barrier would suffice and Jenny would quiet down.
Well, we were not so lucky. Now, instead of barking at the kids, she redirected her energies and ran to the northern end of the property, where through the chain link fence, she saw herds of deer needing her attention. And, since Jenny doesn’t believe in doing anything quietly, the barking would begin at dawn and would have continued ’til dusk, had we let it. The neighbors were going insane. We extended the cedar fence, effectively blocking Jenny’s view of the nature preserve which was home to the deer. We anticipated peace and quiet. But, Jenny had other ideas.
At the western end of our property, through the chain link fence, Jenny had a clear view of the road. Not a car or pedestrian could pass without Jenny going into high verbal gear. And, if someone happened to be walking with a dog, the decibel level became stentorian.
We extended the cedar fence to include that area.
By the time the fencing was completed, we’d erected 2,000 linear feet of six-foot-high stockade fence. To make it less noticeable, we had it stained a forest green. But that made it look like the Green Monster at Fenway Park. So, we planted 200 mature rhododendrons and Andromeda against the fence in an attempt to hide it.
No sooner was the fencing and planting complete, did Jenny figure out that if she positioned herself in just the right spot, she could still see the neighbors in their backyard. Their property is slightly elevated, and since a portion of our rear two acres was a scruffy deciduous forest, with trees having leaves only at their very tops, Jenny could see the comings and goings by looking above the fence, through the denuded lower portion of the forest, right into the neighbors’ backyard. And, any movement over there, had Jenny barking incessantly.
Desperate to preserve good will, we decided to tear down the entire forest. This mammoth undertaking involved an eight-man crew working with chain saws, ropes, cables and heavy excavation equipment. They sawed down trees, removed and ground stumps, repositioned huge boulders, leveled the land and hauled away and dumped (at considerable expense) an enormous amount of forest debris.
After that phase was completed, we had to replant a forest.
A crew of 10 men worked for almost two weeks, bringing in tons of topsoil, barrels of fertilizer and truckloads of cedar mulch. At what had been the edge of the original forest, we built a 250-foot-long, 10-feet-wide and five-feet-high earthen berm. This construction was designed to elevate the new forest, effectively blocking Jenny’s view of the neighbors’ home. We decided to extend the forest to include the area facing the road, eliminating that vantage point for Jenny’s roving eyes.
Where the scruffy forest once stood, we planted 145 mature evergreens: blue spruce, Norway spruce, giant thuja and white pines — all at least 14 feet high, and many closer to 16-footers. The cost of the trees alone was over $50,000. We planted so many trees, we qualified for a tax-abatement as a tree farm — a deduction we have declined to take.
Sitting down with a calculator earlier today, I began to add what we had spent over the last few years in fencing and landscaping alone, just to keep Jenny quiet. That sum floored me.
But, that’s not the entire Jenny story.
Jenny is an adventurous pup and a relentless one — once she has her mind made up about something.
Last October, just before bedtime, she met a skunk.
A spray directly to her face did nothing to deter her. Jenny carried on, waging battle with the creature until it was vanquished. When she came back, not only was the horrific odor overwhelming, but she was covered in blood. Not knowing at first it was the skunk’s (and not hers), I reached out with bare hands, and began to clean her blood-soaked coat. Within seconds, I realized although she got away with merely a scratch above her nose, I had exposed myself to the possibility of rabies (skunks are among the most commonly infected wild animals).
A thorough search the following morning for the deceased skunk turned up nothing. Off I went for the first in a series of very expensive rabies shots, not covered by my health insurance.
To add insult to injury, the costs for Jenny’s skunk adventure continued to mount. She headed to the vet for a check-up, where in addition to an office visit fee, we purchased every skunk odor removal product on his shelves. Since none of them lessened her odor, which by now had overwhelmed the entire house, several trips to the groomer were made. His ministrations did little good; Jenny still reeked and our house was almost uninhabitable.
A dinner party had been planned for the upcoming Saturday night. No way could we entertain at home, so we hosted eight guests at a restaurant, at considerable expense.
Over time, the odor in the house has dissipated, but eight months later, Jenny still smells of her victim, especially around her mouth.
But, that’s not all …
Just a week ago, Jenny killed a rabbit. Many dogs kill rodent-like creatures; at least, this time there was no stench. But, because Jenny hid the kill from me, and went back for several portions of putrefied hare over a few days (when the average temperatures were near 90 degrees), she became violently ill with severe gastrointestinal symptoms. An overnight stay at the veterinary hospital set us back over $1,400.
Once home, she infected Hank with a milder version of what she had acquired, and he too was placed on anti-parasitic medications, at considerable cost.
Fortunately, both pups are doing well.
But, it got me to thinking …
This incredible pup of ours, if we were to add it all up, has cost us nearly a quarter of a million dollars in eight years due to her rambunctious nature. She’s an amazing and sweet little girl (if you’re not a skunk or rabbit), and we love her far more than the twenty-five million pennies we’ve spent since she came into our lives.
After all, you can’t put a price on love.
An article appeared in today’s Wall Street journal about a Marine veteran who had overdosed twice on opioid painkillers prescribed for a hand injury suffered in Iraq. After a week of withdrawal, he checked himself out of a VA hospital, and was given 168 pills of the same drug to which he had been addicted. The following day, he was given another 168 pills.
The article pointed out that many of the more than two million Americans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from a combination of physical pain (from various injuries) and PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder). The VA treats many of them with powerful opioid painkillers which make for a high risk of addiction in these vulnerable veterans.
In one case (detailed in the WSJ article), the VA had prescribed more than 3,600 oxycodone tablets to one veteran over the three years between 2008 and 2011. This single veteran overdosed on the medication six times. At one point, he no longer wanted to live and became briefly homicidal. (This raises the specter of yet another mass shooting.)
The article pointed out that some 30 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans under VA care suffer from PTSD, and more than half experience chronic pain from war injuries. Last year, more than 50,000 veterans were treated by the VA for problems associated with opioid use, nearly double the figure from a decade ago.
In essence, these highly addictive medications are being prescribed to veterans in an effort to relieve physical pain, and temporarily relieve (by sedation) their serious mental conditions. Their mental and emotional states, by themselves, often heighten their perceptions of physical pain.
Many veterans with PTSD and pain issues take excessive amounts of narcotic painkillers to numb themselves from their nightmares, flashbacks and from free-floating anxiety, all part of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder deriving from their combat experiences.
In addition to the horror of opioid addiction, VA physicians also prescribe benzodiazepines such Klonopin and Ativan. These medications are also highly addictive. One need take them for a mere 30 days for tolerance and withdrawal symptoms to develop.
To make matters worse, not only do these medications require increasing doses to maintain anti-anxiety effects, but they are not FDA approved for treating Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. In fact, they are completely inappropriate because of their addictive qualities and because they don’t effectively address the target symptoms of PTSD. There are classes of medications approved by the FDA (the SSRIs and SNRIs) for treating PTSD. In addition, there are non-narcotic treatment options available for controlling physical pain.
The “treatment” provided our veterans not only fails to help them, but creates the burden of addiction with its attendant psychic and social concerns–superimposed on smoldering PTSD. “Unfortunately, it is typical,” among vets with PTSD and pain issues, said Reza Ghorbani, medical director of the Advanced Pain Medicine Institute near Washington, D.C. “It’s the wrong way of treating a patient.”
As a physician and psychiatrist, I must say this: not only does our mental health system need an overhaul, but our veterans’ treatment is out of touch with the latest developments in mental health treatments. Our government is creating a population of war-torn addicts who will limp through the rest of their lives with the debilitating stigmata of drug and alcohol addiction; chronic pain; and the erosive effects of PTSD.
This is the truly sad aftermath of battle.
Mark Rubinstein, M.D.
Author of Mad Dog House and Love Gone Mad
I was in a restaurant having lunch with some psychiatrist colleagues. As is often the case, we talked about our practices, psychotherapy, medications, and other issues relating to the field of mental health. One man, a guy who fancied himself a bit of a bon vivant, made an interesting comment.
“I have this woman patient who’s extremely seductive.”
“Welcome to the club,” said another therapist.
“She has a terrible sex life with her husband…it’s virtually non-existent.”
“What do you think is behind it?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “But I’m very tempted…”
“It would be the easiest thing in the world to have sex with her.”
Two other colleagues and I exchanged glances. “Have sex with your patient?” one asked with widened eyes.
“Every therapist can be tempted by some patients. It’s part of the landscape. But sex with a patient…? You can’t be serious.”
“I am. She’s seriously considering having an affair with a guy in her office. It could be terribly destructive if she did…”
“And if she had sex with you?” I asked, barely believing my ears.
“Actually, it could be therapeutic, he said.”
“Therapeutic?” asked a colleague, nearly choking on his sandwich. “How?”
“Well, it would prevent her from getting involved with an office colleague. That could have disastrous repercussions at work; and in her relationship with her husband. It could get very sticky and complicated.”
“And sex with her therapist wouldn’t get complicated?” I asked. My incredulity was difficult to contain. I inwardly dubbed this guy Lothario.
“Well…” he said, “With me, the relationship would have specific times and certain boundaries. It would be controlled.”
“But it’s a serious boundary violation,” said another colleague.
“This whole thing about boundary violations is overblown,” Lothario said.
“But you’d be taking advantage of the transference,” I added.
“I’m not sure of that,” he replied.
“You’re not sure? She no doubt views you as someone from her past—maybe a powerful father figure. And you’d be taking advantage of a power disparity in the relationship. It’s malpractice…and in some states, having sexual relations with a patient is viewed as criminal. A therapist can be charged with rape…as though he’s an adult having sex with a child.”
“The law is arbitrary,” Lothario countered. “And it could be therapeutic for her.”
“Therapeutic?” asked a colleague. “Sounds like you want your needs satisfied. How’s your sex life at home?” he asked, not so jokingly.
“That’s none of your business,” said Lothario. “And I think it would be therapeutic for her.”
“Let me ask you something,” I said. “What does your patient look like?”
“Oh…she’s tall, with blonde hair and blue eyes…Scandinavian-looking. In fact, she was a model in her twenties…now she’s 35.”
“So, she’s good-looking…?”
“Very good looking,” he said.
I nodded my head. “Let me ask you this…” I paused.
He looked at me quizzically.
“Do you do this kind of therapy with your ugly patients, too?”
He turned beet red as the rest of us laughed.
David Morrell is the author whose debut novel, First Blood, written in 1972, became a best seller, which spawned the Rambo film franchise, starring Sylvester Stallone. David has written 28 novels and his work has been translated into 26 languages.
He is acclaimed for his action-packed novels, including Brotherhood of the Rose, Desperate Measures, and The Naked Edge, to name a few. His latest novel, Murder as a Fine Art, is an historical thriller set in Victorian England.
David is rare among suspense/thriller writers, having received a B.A. in English from St. Jerome’s University; and an M.A. and Ph.D. in American literature from Pennsylvania State University. In 1986, he gave up his tenure as an English professor at the University of Iowa, to begin writing fiction full-time. He also wrote the 2007-2008 Captain America comic book miniseries, The Chosen.
Among his many awards for writing achievements, is the 2009 Thriller Master Award presented by International Thriller Writers, Inc.
First Blood and Rambo are iconic names. Amazingly, First Blood was your debut novel. How did an author’s first novel become such a wild success?
I have a graduate degree from Penn State. I studied at Penn State under a noted Hemingway scholar, Philip Young. I had an interest in thrillers and it occurred to me that Hemingway wrote many action scenes: the war scenes in A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls come to mind. But the scenes don’t feel pulpy. I wondered if it was possible to write an action book that wouldn’t feel like a genre book, if I used the kind of art Hemingway brought to his prose. He avoided clichés like A shot rang out. With that intention, I wrote First Blood, allowing of course, that it was a very topical subject because there were so many returning Vietnam veterans in 1972. So, it was an attempt to re-invent the action book. The response was overwhelming. It was well-reviewed in virtually every major newspaper and magazine.
The tactic was to write action in a different way than had previously been done. I wanted to avoid all the vocabulary that had accumulated by that time. Initially, Stanley Kramer wanted to turn it into a film, but that didn’t happen. A producer named Lawrence Turman, who had co-produced The Graduate, found the book in a bookstore and took it to Columbia Pictures, where Richard Brook began work on it. After about a year, Columbia Pictures sold the movie rights to Warner Brothers. They brought in Sydney Pollack to direct Steve McQueen. That moved along for a time, but they suddenly realized Steve McQueen was 45 years old and there were no 45 year old Vietnam veterans. The men who fought there were 18 and 19 years old.
Finally, two producers, Mario Kassar and Andrew Vanjna had an agreement with Ted Kotcheff, a director of note. Ultimately, with Ted directing and Sylvester Stallone in the role, the film was released. And, it did the same thing for action movies that the novel did 10 years earlier for action books.
I should note that Sly himself didn’t have confidence in the film and said it would probably be the most expensive home movie ever made. But it was very well received when it was released in the Fall of 1982. And, the rest is history.
You’ve said, “My novels dramatize fear.” Can you elaborate on that?
One of the advantages of having gone to Penn State was having had a scholar for a mentor—Philip Young. Also, a professional writer named Philip Klass, taught there. He was a science fiction writer whose pseudonym was William Tenn. As a professional writer, he brought wisdom to teaching because he’d done it for a living. He spent a great deal of time talking with me. One of the things he shared was, “The hardest thing for an author is to find a subject matter, a voice and distinct personality that will distinguish that author from everyone else.
Now, when I teach writing, I have a mantra: Be a first-rate version of yourself and not a second-rate version of another author. This was what Philip Klass essentially said to me. He said one way to find that voice—that distinctive something—is to think that every person has a dominant emotion. For some it’s pity; for others it’s lust, or anger, whatever. In his conversations with me, he determined my dominant emotion was fear.
And he was right. I had a terrible upbringing. My father died in the war, and my mother was forced, for a time, to put me in an orphanage. Then she remarried, but the marriage was horrible. There were terrible fights in the household. Many were the nights I slept under the bed, covering my ears. I told stories to myself in the dark. No wonder eventually—despite my academic background as a professor of American literature—I’ve become a thriller writer. I’m much happier doing that than writing academic literature, because basically, I have no choice because of how I was raised.
Philip Klass was right. My world view is that it can all go to hell in an instant, and you have to be ready for it. That’s pretty much the central theme running through my work. It’s about people’s awareness of how uncertain life can be and their trying to guard against that. So essentially, much of my work orbits around that theme as its core emotion.
So clearly, your personal life wends its way into the thematic infrastructure of your writing.
Yes. The circumstances impinging upon each of us to make us who we are—I think about that concept a lot. I try to write novels that in some ways reflect my own life’s events. The major event was the 1987 death of my son from Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare bone cancer. Then, in 2009, my 14 year old granddaughter died of the same disease. One could talk about unimaginable bad luck. It’s not an inherited disease, so the fates really, really slammed my family. These terrible losses reinforced for me the fragility and unpredictability of life. So truly, it can all go to hell in an instant.
If you look at my work up until 1987, there was a theme of young people looking for fathers who usually disappointed them. After my son died, there were a couple of books where parents were looking for son figures. I know we’re going to talk about this, but in my latest novel, Murder as a Fine Art, we have a 69 year old man, Thomas De Quincey with a 21 year old daughter, Emily. Only after I finished the book did I realize Emily was a version of my granddaughter. So, my books are very personal. Someone once said that if you read them in chronological order, you would have what amounts to an autobiography of my soul.
In psychiatry, we sometimes say, no matter how much he tries, the patient can never really change the subject.
It’s very true. Getting back to Thomas De Quincey, he talked about these mental phenomena and preceded Freud by more than 70 years. He invented the word sub-conscious. We know that Freud read De Quincy. I mention this because the issue of the sub-conscious is so vital and there’s a suspicion that some of what developed in psychoanalysis was inspired by De Quincy.
Philip Klass said we all have a ferret darting around inside of us, not wanting to be discovered. But, if we use our dominant emotion to try to identify that ferret, then we’re on our way to finding our subject matter. So, Philip Klass’s conversations with me were often self-psychoanalytic in nature. He told me to go to the bookstore and look at the hundreds of books there. See how on the first page or two, maybe five out of a hundred novels are different from the others. He wanted me to be one of those five—he wanted someone to be able to pick up a book I’d written, and instantly recognize my writing, even if my name wasn’t on the novel.
This is my 41st year as a published novelist. That’s an eternity in the publishing world. The average successful career lasts 15 to 20 years. The reason is because authors tend to repeat and repeat themselves once they’ve found something that works. The author and the fans get tired. What I try to do is use my writing as a way of discovering myself.
This past summer, I attended ThrillerFest, the annual meeting for suspense/thriller writers and devotees. You gave a talk called “Setting.” I confess I first thought it would be a discussion about scenes and locales for a novel. But it was much, much more. Can you tell us what you meant by setting?
If you think about the authors who have lasted, they have a world view and a kind of world within themselves—a setting, so to speak. We think of Hemingway in Michigan or Key West, or Paris; Fitzgerald in New York; or Faulkner in Mississippi. Philip Klass encouraged me to think of setting as having a finality—that a novel could stand alone, simply on how its setting was handled in terms of the research that went into it. For instance, in Murder as a Fine Art, it was fascinating to discover how different London was in 1854 from what it is today. The setting helped establish the character for everything else in the novel.
When talking about ideas for a story, I put a lot of stock in daydreams because they’re examples of our sub-conscious burbling up to the surface. I’ve noticed in my daydreams, the settings are as important as the situations. So, I ask myself why a certain setting comes to me. On a simple level, imagine lying on a beach with a pleasant breeze and listening to seagulls…clearly there’s a sub-conscious text having to do with feeling tired and the need to rest. But, I began looking deeper in the novel to detect psychological issues by its setting. It’s complicated, but it can make the all difference between a superficial book and one that goes more deeply into the subject.
One other thing I said was that in addition to place—or physical setting—one must consider how to describe things in a novel. If you use the sense of sight exclusively to describe things—which is what most authors do—you will have a one-dimensional, flat atmosphere. But, if you put three or four senses into a setting by taking the sense of sight for granted, and using others such as smell and touch, you will, by adding those elements, have a multi-dimensional setting. It sounds so obvious but I see it all the time in published books—authors using only the sense of sight in their settings.
I recall you gave the example of what it feels like to have grass crunching under foot, or how the light changes when you walk from indoors to the outside, how the pupils constrict. It struck me that, among other things, you’re a sensory writer.
Yes. People tell me ‘I read your books, and it’s like watching a movie.’ What I’m really doing is hypnotizing people to feel they are literally within the situation. I use these senses: touch, sight, feel and smell as triggers that invite readers or propel them into the scene. The trick is not to make it obvious. I’ve written an entire chapter about this in my book, The Successful Novelist. I’ve lectured about it extensively, but have yet to see many people pick up on it.
In Murder as a Fine Art, I was struck by the change in venue, by the time frame of the novel and by how you described people’s clothing and other things in 1854 London. This must have involved an enormous amount of research. Can you talk a bit about the novel and your research for it?
Four years ago, Creation, a film about Darwin, referred to Thomas De Quincey. Charles Darwin had a nervous breakdown when he was writing On the Origin of the Species. It had to do with the death of his favorite daughter. His wife suggested that maybe God was trying to tell Darwin not to write the book. He had fevers, he couldn’t eat, and his ills didn’t match any disease known at the time. We know about it now: it was his sub-conscious in relation to his daughter’s death. In the film, there’s a line that said, “You know Charles, there are people like De Quincey who know we can be controlled by thought and emotions beyond our awareness.” I thought, this sounds like Freud, but the movie was set in the 1850s, long before Freud. So, I thought I’d like to learn more about Thomas De Quincey.
I fell in love with the guy. Not only did he create the word sub-conscious, he was the first person to write about drug addiction; the first who used a psychological approach to understanding Macbeth; he was obsessed by the first publicized mass killings in England—the Ratcliff Highway murders in 1811, way before Jack the Ripper; and wrote about these killings in a 50 page, blood-soaked essay. In essence, he invented the true crime genre. In addition, he inspired Edgar Allan Poe, who in turn inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes. De Quincy has never been given his due because of his drug addiction. I decided to write a novel about the Ratcliff Highway murders. The basic concept of the novel was that someone had read De Quincey’s 1854 essay about the original murders which occurred in 1811, and replicated the murders using De Quincey’s essay as a blueprint. The question was, why was he doing it? De Quincey would have to use his psychological innovation to identify why this person was committing the crimes.
I wanted to write a novel about a real person and wanted to set it in 1854 when that essay was published. I realized to do this, I needed to study the period as if I was working toward a Ph.D., because people would jump on me if I got it wrong. I spent two years doing sort of Ph.D. thesis research about 1854 London. I had an 1851 map of London, and now I can get around 1851 London the way some Londoners can get around their city today.
It was just a joy to do the research. For me, form and content must go together. The only thing that wasn’t typical of the time was De Quincey’s daughter, Emily, who didn’t conform to the male-dominated Victorian dictates of the era. It was great fun having her make some of the men look very foolish.
What’s the most exciting thing about being a novelist? Are there any specific instances you can talk about?
There are a couple of ways to look at this. If we want to look at the false value of fame, which always changes, I guess I have to smile. There were five thriller characters from novels and films in the 20th Century who became worldwide icons. They were Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, James Bond, Rambo and Harry Potter. I grin a little at the idea that I created a character in that pantheon. In a slightly different way, my Brotherhood of the Rose was the first novel of a trilogy to be filmed as a miniseries. It’s the only miniseries to this day that was broadcast after the Super Bowl. This past August, Murder as a Fine Art rose in ranking until it was the number one book in the entire Kindle universe on Amazon. These things were exciting.
But this is really the false value of fame. It can all change. The universe is filled with people who were popular at one time, and not at another. You must have a steady sense of yourself and a core of validity, so that as the world changes, you can remain unfazed. The most exciting thing for me, and the one with the most lasting value, is to have a chance to research subjects in which I’m deeply interested. These subjects make me a fuller person because they require me to explore topics for my fiction which allows me to understand myself and the world more fully. It helps me move forward as a human being. Writing fiction—researching and then exploring the story, its emotions and ideas—is the payoff. Hopefully, I become a fuller, better person through these projects. It all keeps me fully grounded.
If you could have dinner with any five people from history—either writers or others, living or not—who would they be?
That’s a loaded question because I’d love to have dinner with my son and granddaughter more than anyone else. But if we step aside from that, Thomas De Quincey would be high on my list as would Benjamin Franklin. My mentors, Philip Young and the screenwriter Stirling Siliphant who wrote Route 66 would be there, too. If we’re talking about the great minds, I think St. Thomas Aquinas would be at the table. I’ll leave it at that.
To hear the entire, unedited audio of the conversation, follow the link below to BookTrib.
Author of Mad Dog House and Love Gone Mad