Interviewed by Michael Johnson
NY Times best-selling author David Morrell describes Rambo in one word and discusses craft and the business of writing.
David Morrel began his journey as a writer at the age of 17. His desire took him to St. Jerome’s University, where he earned a B.A. in English. Shortly after, he found himself at Penn State, where he earned a Masters and Ph.D. in American Literature. By 1970, he was teaching English at the University of Iowa. Then in 1972, his entire life came into focus with the publication of First Blood, the story of Rambo.
First Blood has given him much success. But like most writers, he is not one book or one character. He has written over 30 books in several genres and styles, including non-fiction works like the widely popular The Successful Novelist, which has helped many new writers work through artistic struggles.
David Morrell stands as one of the great American authors. He is a master of the thriller, and we’re humbled to have him agree to an interview for our premiere issue.
You are an expert in creative writing and storytelling. Is there something you see that stands out which is different from the newer generations of writers versus the ones that inspired you when you were younger?
Not so much new techniques and themes as new ways of getting the word out. The e-book revolution of 2009 provided an amazingly innovative outlet for authors. Some books aren’t suited for mainstream publishing, usually because agents and editors don’t see a market for a given topic. But now, through self-publishing, authors can make their own market. There’s a downside inasmuch as so many authors pursued this option that hundreds of thousands of self-published e-books are released each year, increasing competition—and some of the books haven’t been edited, their poor quality tainting the others. But in general, there’s never been a better time for writers. No worthy book need ever be unavailable.
What is the most surprising concept or revelation you have learned since you wrote First Blood that could help new writers?
I have a couple of mantras. “Be a first-rate version of yourself and not a second-rate version of another author.” And “Don’t chase the market. You’ll always see its backside.”
In one word, describe Rambo.
There are so many different versions of Rambo that it’s hard to find a single word for all of them. One version—an angry one—is in my novel First Blood. Another version—a victim—is in the film adaptation. The second and third films turned him into a jingoistic super-patriot, an interpretation that’s different from my novel and the first film. Then the fourth film returned to the angry, disaffected character in my novel. A lot of Rambos. But if I had to describe him in one word, it would be “misunderstood.” Four words would be better, the military virtues: courage, honor, loyalty, and sacrifice.
On the topic of Rambo, one of the most found quotes by you is, “Before I start a project, I always ask myself the following question. Why is this book worth a year of my life?” Why was Rambo worth a year of your life? And did you expect the type of long life he has enjoyed over the years?
First Blood was published in 1972, and all these years later (44 of them to date) the book has never been out of print. I couldn’t have predicted it. No creator of an influential character could. I was seized by the violently divisive mood in the USA in the late 1960s. The hundreds and hundreds of riots made me worry that the nation was about to suffer another Civil War. I wanted to write a novel in which a disaffected Vietnam War veteran brought the war home. The novel’s an allegory that dramatizes opposites. The police chief is old enough to be Rambo’s father, so one level of the novel explores the generation gap of the late 1960s. The police chief is a kind of Eisenhower Republican while Rambo has been radicalized by the war. The police chief was a hero in the Korean conflict (a conventional war) while Rambo received medals for his role in the guerrilla war of Vietnam. Col Trautman (Rambo’s military mentor) has the first name of Sam. He’s Uncle Sam, the system that created Rambo and in the end destroys him. All of this really gripped me. I couldn’t resist the urge to write it. It was my first novel. I had a lot to learn. The process took three years.