PART 4: SOMETHING TO WRITE ABOUT
The book stewed in your mind for a while after you got back. Why?
I was working on something else at the time. If you're writing a very literary book, you don't need anything more than a man returning, the way William Manchester did in "Good Bye, Darkness." But that's not what they were looking for from me. They were looking for action and adventure. The book that was forming in my mind that could have been written – and maybe should have been written – is about a guy going back. He is leaving his family. He is going back to Vietnam to re-engage his ghosts, maybe go back with a buddy, but it didn't have anything to do with action or adventure. It was a literary kind of thing, sort of a journey. But they weren't looking for that from me. So he had to go back for some other reason.
Who is he? Obviously, he had to be military. So I made him Paul Brenner from "The General's Daughter," who was CID, who went back to investigate a 30-year-old murder. That was all I needed to get the book going in the direction that they wanted it to go, which had a little more shoot-em-up action and adventure.
Do you feel like you ultimately achieved both objectives?
Yeah, maybe. I hope. My editor said to me, and she was right, she said, "I know the book you want to write, but that book is not going to fly as fiction. It would fly commercially as non-fiction. If you want to do it as non-fiction about you, the way William Manchester did, going back, go to it. We're on board for that."
"Up Country" did not debut with either the commercial or critical response you wanted.
No, it didn't, but it was good to write the book, finally. To recall that time and place a little bit... I was able to do what I wanted to do, ultimately, within the commercial requirements of the book.
Other books you have written center on international espionage, terrorism, the mafia, police investigations and other topics you really can't understand through Google. How do you tell these stories convincingly?
I do my research. For "The Panther," I didn't go to Yemen. I wanted to go to Yemen, but nobody else wanted me to go. Well, my ex-wife might have wanted me to go.
I do field research when I can, like Vietnam and Moscow. And I do use the Internet. But the research that gives me the most results is interviewing people. I interviewed three people who had been to Yemen. One was from the joint terrorism task force. One was a businessperson. The other was a young student, who was a friend of my son. Whether it be cops or airline pilots, you talk to them because if you are trying to write a novel, these people will tell you stories that seem tangential, but they are not, and they work their way into my books. They're living this. They have a lot more observations than they realized they had. They also have pictures, which is good, pictures I couldn't get from Google. When you cut corners on research, you end up going off someplace you don't need to go. You pay the price for not doing the groundwork.
When you sit down to write a mystery novel, do you have the destination in mind first, or do you start writing and see where it leads?
That's about it. Sometimes, you have an ending, which is good, if you can. Sometimes, you think you have a good ending, but then you realize it's not a good ending. You take it page by page, chapter by chapter. At the end, you know what's going to happen – the good guy survives, theoretically, and the bad guy gets killed, or whatever. You're not sure what the setting is. This book, this last book, the ending was supposed to take place someplace else. Then I learned about the ancient city of Ma'rib, and the ruins of Ma'rib, and all of a sudden, this place became more central to the book. I was halfway through the writing the book when I learned about it.
Sometimes, I know right from the beginning what is going to happen. Like "The General's Daughter," which was made into a movie. You really need to plot it all out. Whatever was wrong at the end, then you have the luxury to go back and plant all those clues you forgot to plant and get rid of stuff that was there that was extraneous. You go back, you go forward, you go back and you go forward again.
Do you diagram it on a chart or something?
Your books are very character-driven. Is that by design?
I like the way the British do. The British are into character. They are into dialog. Very clever phrases, and they're into the ambience. The foggy London day. The steamy jungles of Burma. American writers – I won't mention any names – who write the action/adventure stuff are more into the killing and the high-tech stuff. It's very plot-oriented. My books are not plot-oriented. They're character-oriented – sort of a slice of life, the way life could really be. Some of the books written now are either cartoonish or they're missing something. They're missing the ambience of the book, what we used to call the "world of the book." You need the world of the book.
When I started writing "Gold Coast," my editor did not want me to write this book because nobody understands the north shore of Long Island. She said it would never play well west of the Hudson. I said, "You know what? ‘Great Gatsby' played fine west of the Hudson."
It's got to be a good story about good people – the human condition. Don't worry about it being set on the north shore of Long Island. But because it was, I was able to put that other layer of cultural mores and history on the book. A novel has got to be a complete thing. The world of the book. People interacting. My books tend to be a little lighter on violence, lighter on gunplay.
How did that work out for you?
"Gold Coast" is probably my best book. The New York Times compared it to Edith Wharton.
How many books have you sold?
About 50 million worldwide in every format, including audio and e-books.
Your name is often as big as the titles on your book covers. Does that speak to a built-in audience of followers?
What do you think it is that makes your readers return to your work?
That's a good question. I wish I knew. Someone should do a market survey. My readers found me. I didn't go out on any commercial venture to find them.
My books are all different. People follow the name. You can't follow the book because – other than the John Corey series, which is a series of stand-alone books – they are all very different. "Up Country" is different. "Gold Coast" is like "The Godfather" meets "The Great Gatsby." They have nothing to with each other or with anything else I have written.
The reviews of "Up Country" that were good were like, "You couldn't have written a better Vietnam book." Great. Then somebody else would give it a bad review. They were all over the place. It was a tough sell in a way. This book meant a lot to me. I wanted it marketed correctly. The happy ending is that people find the book now and, you know, it still sells very well. It's sold better than it did when it first came out in hardcover.
Is there a sense of connection among commercially popular authors like you who do not always get critical literary acclaim?
All of us could sit down and write literature if it was called for. These guys are writers. They know how to write. They picked the genre, and some people look down on the genre.
Today's popular pulp fiction can be tomorrow's classic. Look at what they said about Dickens and Sherlock Holmes – the Conan Doyle stuff was the kind of stuff you would find reproduced in newspapers and magazines, kind of pulpy for its day. Now look at it. It's literature.
Then, if you live long enough, like Stephen King, who is recognized as one of America's greatest writers. His stuff hasn't changed at all. The perception has finally changed. Somebody finally figured out that this guy is brilliant, and he knows how to write. He is up for almost every prize in the business, in terms of writing achievement. That normally would not be given to writer of shock horror, or occult, or whatever. Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" and Bram Stroker's "Dracula." These were all popular fiction of their day. Now they are classics.
How good is the writing? How good is the characterization?
There is a lot of bad stuff out there. And a lot of it passes for American literature now – and I won't mention any names – but a lot of stuff that gets prizes is garbage. It's unreadable. It's make-believe literature. It's forced. It's not entertaining. It doesn't hold your attention. It's hard to plow through it.
People today have a lot of options. They don't have to put up with bad novels. There was a time when if you bought a bad novel, in the era before TVs and other entertainment, you were kind of stuck with the bad novel. But you put your money into it, or went to the library, so you're going to read it. Now, you're competing for people's time. You're competing for their beer money. You're competing for their attention. You don't need to make the reader suffer. The reader should be entertained.
Also, the reader should learn something. My novels do teach. There's a lot in there – factual stuff. It's not non-fiction, but it could be non-fiction. It's the type of thing that people come away from saying, "I never knew that much about Vietnam." Or, "I never knew that much about Yemen." So that's good. You're raising the consciousness level on some important subjects, through entertainment, through fiction.
Do you always have a new book under way?
I have the outline done, yeah.
And you start the whole process on a legal pad?
And a No. 2 pencil?
Yeah, I don't know how to type. I don't know how to type well – not fast enough to write a novel. I find the process is better. It's more direct. Me, the page, the pencil. You're not forced into this mechanical box, by the machine. I can do what I want. I can drink coffee. I can have a book in my hand and look up something while I am writing or making notes. Some of what I write is not narrative or the dialog. It's notes. But I am making notes on the same page, to remind myself. It's like a draft, like sketching with charcoal, the way an artist would do. The first draft is a skeleton of what it's going to be. Then I do a second draft, handwritten also. Then I do a third draft. Now it's readable, at least to my assistants, and they will put it on the computer. They will key it in, and I can work with it that way.
You are now in your late 60s, have had a lot of success, and yet you keep going. Can a writer ever really retire?
A lot of writers should retire. A lot of writers have gone a book too far. You don't know when that time is. A lot of writers who are hitting my age maybe have had one bad book. That's a signal that maybe it's over. But to the writer, the writer is saying, "I've got to come back on a stronger note and maybe leave on a strong note." Joe DiMaggio knew where he was when he left, and he became a legend. There are writers who need to know when they are finished. The language changes. Your mental abilities change. I don't know what the signals are, but I know this last book took, "The Panther," took a little longer than most of my books. But most critics and most reviewers are saying this may be my best book. That's good to know at 69 years old. It's certainly a good seller. It debuted at No. 1.
I know that I have another book left in me. But you have to know when to quit. See, it's like any other business. When you're the talent, your agent, your publisher, they will convince you that you need to go on and that you are at the very top of your game. The wise man knows when he is not at the top of his game. Surely, I have one or two or three more books left in me. You've got to be enthused all over again. If you are enthused all over again, you can write.... Thornton Wilder, Agatha Christie – they wrote into their 80s. It wasn't their best, but it wasn't their worst, either.
You could probably retire now and not worry about much.
Uhhhh. Not in New York, not really. I could not retire here, no.
Is there something inside you that drives you to continue?
There's an old saying: "I don't like writing, but I like having written." I don't enjoy the process as much as I enjoy the product at the end. I'm happy with my writing. It's good stuff. How could you not be happy? Getting there is a slog. It's work. It's a lot of work. A lot of torture. A lot of lonely days in the office by yourself. A lot lonely nights. It's hard on family life, sometimes when you are writing hard at the end of a deadline. But when it's over, it's over. The worst thing is to work all those years and then produce a piece of junk.
You are a 27-year member of The American Legion. How did you get into it?
It wasn't family. It was friends. It was The American Legion post. Twenty-seven years ago – when was that? Early ‘80s? I actually enjoy the magazine. I took a lifetime membership because I didn't want to have to renew every year. I get The American Legion. I get the VFW Magazine. I get Disabled American Veterans because I am 10-percent disabled. And I read them. Most people do. They're informative. Some of the articles, especially history, like Vietnam and World War II, this is stuff we all love.
Veterans' magazines are the only ones where I actually read the ads. I'm not an ad sort of person. But the ads are interesting. There's some interesting stuff in there – memorabilia, military stuff. Sometimes, I actually order something. My main contact is through the magazine. Like a lot of organizations, the magazine is the face of the organization. Even in this age of the Internet – the younger generation maybe not so much – but my generation, we read the magazine.
If not for your military experience in Vietnam, do you think you would have become a successful writer?
A lot of my writing was informed and influenced by the Vietnam experience. You don't know what course your life might have taken. But it could have taken another course. Had I had a normal four years of college without interruption, I might have ended up at a Fortune 500 company. I think the Army opened my eyes to a different world. Coming back from a combat situation, like all combat veterans, you promise yourself you'll do this, or you'll do that. You don't sweat the small stuff anymore. It changes your life. Does it make you a writer? No. It was the thing that made me think about writing for the first time. Everybody wants to write the great American war novel. I don't know if Norman Mailer wanted to be a writer before his time in the Pacific, but he certainly had something to write about, as a 24-year-old man. I think it spurs a lot of people. I think in my particular case, it was the combat. I think that three years in the Army without combat, I don't think I would have been spurred to sit down and write.