Hunter won a Pulitzer Prize for his newspaper movie reviews, but it’s been a long dry spell for fans who know him from that arena. He put together a longer piece – a review of the John Wick franchise – over at the NRA’s website this week. And it is excellent reading.
Stephen Hunter won this year’s Grits Gresham Shooting Sports Communicator award, awarded last week at the SHOT show in Las Vegas.
Grits son Tom perhaps put it best:
The attention and wide-spread following Hunter’s novels garnered have caused other writers to work harder to get the details right on firearms. Stephen also has exposed the world of the law-abiding gun owner to a greater audience.Tom Gresham, who handed Hunter his award in the ceremony
9/28/01 – A ‘difficult man’
Even with shades drawn, Post film critic’s novels open a window to his view
by Greg A. Lohr
Stephen Hunter made a choice. Unlike many people, who drift through life on a society-sponsored current of expectations and natural causes and effects, who fight to balance their career with family and life’s more mundane requirements, Hunter chose a path and stayed on it.
He knew at age 8 that he wanted to become a film critic and novelist. Now 55, he reviews – sometimes praising and often outright shattering – movies for The Washington Post, and spends most mornings and late nights alone in his Baltimore apartment, typing 77 lines a day into gritty, best-selling books about crime, war, inner turmoil and old-fashioned heroism.
“I’m one of the few people in the world,” he says) “whose life ended up exactly how he wanted it to be.”
Which also means that some losses are expected, and perhaps acceptable, to a man who extols the virtues of living life focused on a “narrow, concentrated goal.”
Hunter made his choice, and over the years he’s reaped the rewards and paid the price. He landed his dream job, he published his books. The money came, the marriage faltered, and Hunter, for better or worse, remains what he always wanted to be-a writer.
‘A LITTLE BARE SPACE’
Were Hunter to look out the window of his computer room at home, he would see the Canton area of Baltimore along the Inner Harbor. But he never does
In fact, “I don’t really even think of it as a window,” he says.
What he sees instead is the interior of his home office, a place he calls a “hideous mess, an ancient corner in a little bare space.” The shades stay drawn in his three-bedroom apartment, which
sits atop an old building and features “sort of cheesy, industrial gray carpet.”
“It looks like mid-’70s Howard Johnson hotel construction,” he says.
Mostly Hunter looks at the glowing screen of his nearly 15-year-old, DOS-based IBM clone. He feeds it words, and by now it can show him how he’s spent the middle of his life. It recalls his
years and his daily labors as book titles – “Time To Hunt,” “Black Light,” “Dirty White Boys” and more.
Hunter could easily afford a new computer, even Internet access at home. But the machine he’s got has history, and it might even serve a higher purpose.
“The computer screen ia so primitive I have to bend over and plug it in under the desk to turn it on,” he says. “I do that every time I write. It’s sort of a ritual, and I hope it keeps me humble.”
In conversation, Hunter says odd, funny and beautiful things, talkng so quickly and so honestly that one has trouble fathoming how his word choice consistently ends up so precise. His oral literature surprises, in part, because he describes himself as almost devoid of introspection: “It helps me to not be terribly reflective about who I am and what I do,” he says “I cultivate a personal shallowness. I just want to keep going; I don’t want to think too much about meanings.”
Yet critics and colleagues say he infuses his books with meaning that belies the novels’ testosterone-fueled framework.
Michael Korda, editor-in-chief at publishing powerhouse Simon & Schuster in NewYork, had been a fan of Hunter’s books even before the firm bought Hunter’s “Hot Springs,” Korda knows Hunter’s books fall toward the male-fiction end of the literal spectrum, but, he says, they’re much more
“They’re about real and believable people,” Korda says. “That’s something you don’t normally get in what’s called in the book trade, male fiction.”
“Steve is in some ways much more of a Southern gothic writer, and there’s an element of Faulkner in there,” he says. “It’s really much more about character than anything else.”
‘SORT OF FROM NOWHERE’
Hunter was born m 1946 in Kansas City, Mo„ one of four children of Charles Hunter, a college speech professor, and Virginia Hunter, a writer of children’s books.
He spent most of his childhood, however, in “plush and easy” Illinois suburbs. For years, he regretted his lack of a “profound sense of there-ness.”
“I wasn’t from a place that had a distinct causal character,” he says. “I was sort of from nowhere.”
Ultimatety, he decided his bland origins had helped him. Without the Deep South or the West to define him, he had cultivated his own voice as a writer.
Hunter’s father may have defined him much more than his childhood geography did. While he calls his mother, who now lives in Chicago, a “very decent woman,” a “pre-feminism feminist” with talent and drive, he describes his late father as “the classic, self-loathing alcoholic.”
“I did not have a happy relationship with my father,” Hunter says. “He was a very powerful ’50s type of man who would have been much happier taking Prozac each day. But like John Wayne, he never did. I can’t really sum him up. He was just a man of tremendous ambition and tremendous secrets, who
to this day haunts my life.”
After earning a journalism degree at Northwestern University, Hunter joined the Army. But the military was a poor fit for a creative type inclined to ignore details. He ended his two-year Army career writing for a D.C.-area military paper, the Pentagram News.
In 1971 he joined the Baltimore Sun, eventually working as the paper’s film critic until taking the same spot at the Post in 1997.
Hunter says he still loves movies, the drama and action and grace, and the kind of stories movies tell. But even as a child, he says, he understood he could never work in Hollywood’. “I knew that I would always be much better on my own, in a little office somewhere, begging for my subconscious to get me out of this mess or that mess.”
‘I HATE FILM TALK’
Decades later, the traits that clashed with Army life still shape Hunter. He made his choice, and his choice was to be a writer. So, while he says he never misses a deadline at work, life’s other details tend to fall through the cracks.
Speeding tickets are almost routine, because often while he drives he slips into a fictional world, mapping out his newest book or a Post review.
Forgetfulness also earns him between $1,000 and $2,000 in parking tickets a year.
“I kind of live a life of chaos because I’m always ignoring things,” Hunter says. “I’ve had my phone cut off four or five times because I forget to pay the bill. I just found the envelopes for car insurance that was due three or four months ago. One of the things I’ll do when I get to work today is sneak away and write a couple of checks.”
Hunter often eats lunch alone in the Post’s cafeteria. He usually stays at work in downtown D.C. until around 6:30 p.m., then races to a movie screening three or four times a week. He likes to show up late and leave early.
“There does appear to be a Washington film-critic culture, in which I am a complete outsider,” he says, “Most of them know who I am. I have some friends and there’s some chit-chat. But I hate film talk. I just hate it. I hate to hear critics sort of auditioning their reviews for other critics.”
“They come up with a line and sort of test that line. There’s some sort of New York-y, self-diamatizine pretension in critics talking. I’m not a big schmoozer.”
When there’s no screening, Hunter drives home and writes fiction, drinking a few beers or a bottle of wine, taking frequent breaks if the Orioles are on TV.
His new book, “Pale Horse Coming,” is due out Oct. 12. On any project, he writes at least 77 lines a day, a goal he measured years ago as five pages when he wrote longhand on a yellow, legal-size tablet. For his books, he conjures up his own vision of strength – heroes who can be vicious or brutal, who can be drunks.
“I empathize with what I call the ‘difficult man,”‘ Hunter says. “He may be bitter, he may be angry, but there’s something about him. He may also be heroic. You can’t say, ‘Don’t be these bad things; only be these good things.’ Because he is the good things only because he’s the bad things. The two are
his personality and his character, and they’re inorexorably intertwined.”
Make Mine a Thompson!
Stephen Hunter’s powerful novels of the Swagger clan, including Vietnam sniper Bob the Nailer and his hardcase father, Earl, have found places both on the New York Times bestsellers’ list and in the hearts and bookshelves of gun owners everywhere. Beginning with Point of Impact in 1993, Hunter has created an imposing body of work made even more powerful by his uncompromising-and dare we say refreshing?-views on guns and their place in American culture. For the first time, Hunter sits down with AMHG regular contributor Michael Bane for the inside scoop on the gun culture’s preeminent literary voice.
Michael Bane: From reading books like Point of Impact and Hot Springs, which are so evocative of the Arkansas and the South, a person might get the impression that you grew up south of the Mason/Dixon line spending your afternoons toting a shotgun.
Stephen Hunter: Actually, I grew up in a Chicago suburb in an academic household-my father was a professor at Northwestern. Guns were absolutely forbidden, taboo, evil. I absolutely could not have a gun in the house.
MB: So how, and when, did you first start shooting?
SH: The thing is, I loved guns from the start. I think my first coherent memories are of guns, I’m so drawn to them. I remember an episode of Dragnet, I must have been seven or eight years old, which would make it 1953-54, where Sergeant Friday is going after a fleeing felon. “Be sure to bring plenty of .45s for the Thompson,” Friday says. “It looks like he wants to go all the way…” The next day, I started drawing guns in my school notebook; all my notebooks are filled with drawings of guns. And it was phenomenally liberating to my imagination! I started writing fiction with guns before I was 10 years old.
MB: But you drifted from the fold?
SH: Okay, I went through a period of creepy liberalism when I worked at the Baltimore Sun and thought all guns should be banned. But I knew on some deep level I was denying myself, not being who I was. I wasn’t a movie critic yet, and I was on my way to see a movie that I thought might help me along. I got to the theater early, so I went next door to a magazine stand. There was a gun magazine on the rack, I remember it had a picture of the S&W 745 introduction. I bought that magazine, read it from cover to cover, then subscribed. It was like I suddenly remembered who I was. I bought my first gun right after that, a Taurus PT-99.
MB: Everything changed after that?
SH: Absolutely. I was who I was, and I was here I belonged. If the world or the people around me didn’t like it, f**k ’em. I was going to be myself.
MB: What drew you to the movies?
SH: I liked the stories that the movies told; I liked the heroes, I liked the adventure. But I was never attracted to the movies as a career. I always knew I was going to be a writer. I think that’s both remarkable and lucky, to know at the age of 10 who you are and what you’re going to do. There’s a marksmanship principle that I try to adhere to in my life: Aim small; miss small. I knew what I wanted to do, what I wanted to aim at.
MB: Your first book was in 1980, the World War II cat-and-mouse game The Master Sniper. What drew you to snipers as a subject matter?
SH: Snipers always struck me as such demonic creatures. Think back on those old WWII movies, and there was always a German sniper lurking in the background. There were a lot of “twilight of WWII” novels around then, and I got to thinking about building a book about a German sniper at the end of the war. I understood that I could do it, that the story was within my range. It was traditional enough to be attractive, but it had never really been done, from the point of view of a German sniper after the war.
MB: So here’s the question AMERICAN HANDGUNNER’s readers are waiting for: How did you find Bob the Nailer?
SH: Sometime around the late 1980s, I read Charles Henderson’s book Marine Sniper, about Sergeant Carlos Hathcock. That book was very provocative to me! Hathcock lost his spotter, and that made my vision of a sniper even more fascinating. I started thinking about a sniper, and old sniper with a backpack of grief. And Bob Lee Swagger was born. That first book, Point of Impact, was a hellish experience. It took three years to write and I made many, many mistakes. At one point, the book was more than 1,000 pages long, and still no crime had happened!
MB: Did you ever actually meet Carlos Hathcock?
SH: No, I never did. I decided not to. If you meet someone, you’re obligated to treat them fairly, and from a writer’s viewpoint, that’s inhibiting. In fact, one of the problems with the original draft of Point of Impact was that Bob Lee was too much like Hathcock. I had to cut him free and let him be his own man.
MB: Did you ever hear of what Hathcock thought of Bob the Nailer?
SH: I heard that Point of Impact was on his bedside table when he died, but that he probably hadn’t read it. He wasn’t a man who read books like that.
MB: When you were writing Point of Impact, did you intend to writer other books about Bob the Nailer and his family?
SH: I had absolutely no idea! In some ways, I was disappointed in my career, because every book seemed to be staring anew. But I didn’t want to be one of those one-book-a-year guys. But the characters from Point of Impact lingered in my mind, and I realized that I had to deal with them…One discovery led to another discovery, and I found my life’s work. Just doing this has been so satisfying to me!
MB: The relationship between Bob the Nailer and his father, Earl, who was killed early on, is central to the whole series, if series is the right word…
SH: The model for the relationship between Bob Lee and his father, Earl, the cop who was killed by a couple of punks in a field when Bob Lee was young was Ty Cobb. Cobb was a monster in some ways, but he had a father he adored who died when Cobb was young. Everything that Ty Cobb did was to prove himself to his father. So I wrote that Earl was a war hero who was killed when Bob Lee was young. But I couldn’t get Earl out of my mind, and I realized that I had to go back and sort him out. The “Earl” book became Hot Springs.
MB: I grew up in Memphis in the 1950s hearing stories about Hot Springs, Arkansas-a cross between Sodom and Gomorrah and hell itself. Hot Springs was Vegas before there was a Vegas. How did you discover Hot Springs? And why did you decide to place Earl there after WWII?
SH: I bumbled into it. In fact, it sort of highlights my theory of unconscious. Your unconscious is much smarter than your conscious. When something feels like an epiphany, it means your unconscious has put whole lot of smaller moments together. It puts the puzzle together; then it knocks on your conscious door.
I had wanted to write a gangster novel, but a small city gangster novel. I also wanted to do a novel set in the 1940s-I liked the music, the clothes, the cars, but most of all, I liked the guns. It’s one of those times when you had a real mix…the military weapons of WWII, the bank robber guns from the 1930s, some of the European semi-autos, Mauser, Lugers and the like. Plus, the guns of the Old West hadn’t yet declined in popularity, so you had Colt Peacemakers and the lever guns all mixed in with the newer stuff.
Finally, I wanted to write more about Earl, and I seemed to remember that Hot Springs was a big gangster town. It was pure luck that I discovered in the spring of 1946 there was a gangster war for control over of the town.
MB: Your gangsters seem like real gangsters, real bad guys…
SH: Exactly. A lot of times my stories are stories that have been done before, but that have troubled me for some reason. For example, remember that Bugsy Segal movie with Warren Beatty? Well, Bugsy and his girlfriend seemed completely phony to me. I mean, I liked the movie, but they we so eloquent, so refined, so well-spoken. I thought that in reality, they must have been violent, grasping, profane people, and that’s how I wrote them. I wanted to get it right by my lights.
MB: Let’s talk a little about Pale Horse Coming, your most recent book. It centers around a really grim Mississippi prison in the 1950s and a rescue mission by Earl and an elite posse of…gunwriters…
SH: That book had its origin in the film version of The Green Mile, which present a prison Death Row in Mississippi in the 1930s as a caring and compassionate. I knew in my mind that such a place would have been a cesspool of violence, corruption and racism, and I wanted to write a Mississippi prison book that sort of reversed the polarities.
I think of my books by the guns that were used in them. Hot Springs was my Tommy gun book. Pale Horse Coming is my revolver book. My first heroes were Elmer Keith and those guys from the golden age of gunwriting. There’s also something so attractive about those guns from that time period, those great Smith & Wesson revolvers.
I began Pale Horse with the idea of a posse of those great gunwriters riding to the rescue. My homage to the Good Old Days that never were!
MB: I’ve got to say, I think you’ve got it knocked, making a profession out of watching movies and shooting guns.
SH: What else is there? I go west every year and see if I can get a big mule deer. If I see a gun that’s really provocative to me, I buy it. That’s freedom!
MB: What guns are particularly provocative to you these days?
SH: I’ve been in a Peacemaker state of mind lately. Plus Smith & Wessons from the 1930s and 1940s. Both of those type handguns have these incredible lines, this incredibly high level of artistic renderings. I’m also starting to get a taste in my mouth for .45s, maybe a genuine WWII 1911. Pale Horse got me focused on revolvers, though. Revolvers are such fabulous contraptions, as 19th Century as the day is long, but still modern in a way. I just love ’em.
MB: Is there a “Holy Grail” gun that you’d love to won?
SH: I would love a perfect example of a Thompson submachinegun; one of the M1A1 cheap military versions they made in 1943, ’44 and ’45. There’s something about those guns and their lines that’s just legend to me. They are so profoundly American.
MB: That’s true. You can imagine a Thompson as anything but American…
SH: Somehow, guns represent their countries’ national character. In WWII, for instance, American just couldn’t produce a Schemeisser. When we did-the M3 Grease Gun-it just looked American. We imprint our national character on our guns. Only the British could make a Webley; only the Germans could make a Luger, and only America could make a 1911. That’s fabulous to me.
MB: As a movie critic, what do you think is the best “gun movie” ever made?
SH: The Wild Bunch, of course. I really love that movie! The guns used are central to the ideas expressed in the movie. It’s set in an age when the ways of the Old West are giving way to the new ways. Pike, the character William Holden plays, carries both a Peacemaker and a 1911 .45. The people who made the movie thought very serious about what the guns were expressing-the guns weren’t there just for show. By the way, did you know that in the movie Holden didn’t actually carry a 1911? They couldn’t get the .45 to work reliably with blanks, so they used a Star Model B in 9mm. Same thing in Saving Private Ryan-I asked Spielberg about that. I found that out about the Wild Bunch at the NRA Firearms Museum show on great movie guns. I got home at 9 PM. By 1:17 I’d logged onto the Internet, and by 9:18 I’d purchased a Star Model B and arranged to have it sent to my local dealer. Hey, it’s a better gun than you’d think!
MB: I see where Hot Springs has been options and a script is circulating. Who would you like to see play Earl Swagger?
SH: Tommy Lee Jones. He’s a little too left in his thinking, but he’s a good gun owner. He’s got that blunt Southernness and would make a good Earl. But the studio wants a younger guy…that’d be terrible to me!
MB: The next adventure?
SH: It’s set in 1953, and Earl goes to Cuba to assassinate Castro. Watch for it in mid-2003.
A couple of days after this interview, the following message showed up in my e-mail:
“Hey Michael. You didn’t ask me this, but I think it fits…Frequently I hear, ‘I love your books except for all that gun stuff. Why don’t you just cut the gun stuff and just tell the stories?’ That misses the point: the stories start with the gun stuff because it’s the guns, really more than the words, that are at the center of my imagination. Show me a pair of ballet slippers, a pencil, a microscope, a dog or a president, and ask me to write a story, and here’s what you’d get: zilch. Nothing. My brain doesn’t work that way. Show me, say, a well-used Colt 1911A1, built in the year 1934 and suddenly I’m excited: Hmmm? Marine Corps? Used in Nicaragua and China? Or a mobster’s gun, carried by Babyface himself. Or maybe in the holster of a western lawman, fighting against enforcers from a copper mining company. Or a D.A. in Chicago. Or a woman fleeing a brutal, drunken husband. My imagination is the only thing I have and it’s how I make my living: the guns are absolutely at the center of it, the one thing that stimulates it to produce images, characters and, most of all, energy. You can’t write 12 books in 20 years while holding down a fulltime job and raising a family without energy.”
Frequent contributor Michael Bane‘s first novel, All Night Radio, is also scheduled for mid-2003 release, albeit on a much smaller scale. In the meanwhile, he’s happily playing with a new .223 Contender barrel from Mr. Politically Incorrect himself, J. D. Jones.
by Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 27, 1999; Page C01
The academics write their mighty histories. The politicians dictate their memoirs. The retired generals give their speeches. The intellectuals record their ironic epiphanies. And in all this hubbub attending wars either lost or won, the key man is forgotten — the lonely figure crouched in the bushes, wishing he were somewhere else: the man with the rifle.
Such a man has just died, and his passing will be marked elsewhere only in small, specialized journals with names like Leatherneck and Tactical Shooter and in the Jesuitical culture of the Marine Corps, where he is still fiercely admired.
And in some quarters, even that small amount of respect will be observed with skepticism. After all, he was merely a grunt. He was a sergeant who made people do push-ups. He fought in a bad war. He was beyond irony, perspective or introspection. He made no policies, he commanded no battalions, and he invented no colorful code names for operations. But worst of all, he was a sniper.
Gunnery Sgt. (Ret.) Carlos N. Hathcock II, USMC, died Monday at 57 in Virginia Beach, after a long decline in the grip of the only enemy he wasn’t able to kill: multiple sclerosis. In the end, he didn’t recognize his own friends. So it was a kind of mercy, one supposes. But he had quite a life. In two tours in the 1960s, he wandered through the big bad bush in the Republic of South Vietnam, and with a rifle made by Winchester, a heart made by God and a discipline made by the Marine Corps, he stalked and killed 93 of his country’s enemies. And that was only the official count.
It’s not merely that Vietnam was a war largely without heroes. It’s also that the very nature of Hathcock’s heroism was a problem for so many. He killed, nakedly and without warning. There is something in the mercilessness of the sniper that makes the heart recoil. He attracts vultures, not only to his carcasses but also to his psyche. Is he sick? Is he psycho? The line troops call him “Murder Inc.” behind his back. They puzzle over what he does. When they kill, it’s in hot blood, in a haze of smoke and adrenaline. And much of the other death they see is inflicted by industrial applications, such as air power or artillery, which almost seem beyond human agency.
But the sniper is different. He isn’t at the point of the spear; he is the point of the element, the destruction of another human being. He’s like a ’50s mad scientist, who learns things no man can learn — how it looks through an 8x scope when you center-punch an enemy at 200 yards, and how it feels — but he learns them at the risk of his own possible exile from the community.
But maybe Hathcock never cared much for the larger community, but only the Marine Corps and its mission. “Vietnam,” he told a reporter in 1987, “was just right for me.” He even began sniping before the Corps had instituted an official policy.
And one must give Hathcock credit for consistency: In all the endless revising done in the wake of our second-place finish in the Southeast Asia war games, he never reinvented himself or pretended to be something he wasn’t. He remained a true believer to the end, not in his nation’s glory or its policies, but in his narrower commitment to the Marine code of the rifle. He never euphemized, didn’t call himself an “enemy “counter-morale specialist.” He never walked away from who he’d been and what he’d done. He was salty, leathery and a tough Marine Corps professional NCO, even in a wheelchair. His license plate said it best: SNIPER.
“Hell,” he once said, “anybody would be crazy to like to go out and kill folks. . . . I never did enjoy killing anybody. It’s my job. If I don’t get those bastards, then they’re going to kill a lot of these kids. That’s the way I look at it.”
Though he was known for many years as the Marine Corps’ leading sniper — later, a researcher uncovered another sniper with a few more official kills — he took no particular pleasure in the raw numbers.
“I’ll never look at it like this was some sort of shooting match, where the man with the most kills wins the gold medal,” he once said.
Ironically, the only decoration for valor that he won was for saving, not taking, lives. On his second tour in Vietnam, on Sept. 16, 1969, he was riding atop an armored personnel carrier when it struck a 500-pound mine and erupted into flames. Hathcock was knocked briefly unconscious, sprayed with flaming gasoline and thrown clear. Waking, he climbed back aboard the burning vehicle to drag seven other Marines out. Then, “with complete disregard for his own safety and while suffering an excruciating pain from his burns, he bravely ran back through the flames and exploding ammunition to ensure that no Marines had been left behind,” according to the citation for the Silver Star he received in November 1996, after an extensive letter-writing campaign by fellow Marines had failed to win him the Medal of Honor for his exploits with a rifle.
But he was equally proud of the fact that as a sniper platoon sergeant on two tours, no man under his command was killed.
“I never lost a person over there,” he told a visiting journalist in 1995. “Never lost nobody but me, and that wasn’t my fault.”
Hathcock was an Arkansan, from a dirt-poor broken home, who joined the Marine Corps at 17 and quickly understood that he had found his place in the world. He qualified as an expert rifleman in boot camp and began quickly to win competitive shooting events, specializing in service rifle competition. In 1965, he won the Wimbledon Cup, the premier American 1,000-yard shooting championship. Shortly after that he was in Vietnam, but it was six months before the Marines learned the value of dedicated sniper operations and a former commanding officer built a new unit around his talents. Hathcock gave himself to the war with such fury that he took no liberty, no days off and toward the end of his first tour was finally restricted to quarters to prevent him from going on further missions.
After the war, he suffered from the inevitable melancholy. Forced medical retirement from the Corps in 1979 — he had served 19 years 10 months 5 days — led to drinking problems and extended bitterness. The multiple sclerosis, discovered in 1975, certainly didn’t help, and burns that covered 43 percent of his body made things even more painful, but what may have saved his life — it certainly saved the quality of his life — was the incremental recognition that came his way as more and more people discovered who he was and what he had done. Even in the atmosphere of moral recrimination in the aftermath of the war, enough people far from media centers and universities were still attracted to the Spartan simplicity of his life and battles and to the integrity of his heroism.
His biography, “Marine Sniper,” written by Charles Henderson, was published in 1985; it sold over half a million copies. In the brief blast of publicity that followed, he stood still for interviews with The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and others. The general population may have soon forgotten about him, but in the world of target shooters, hunters and police and military shooting, he was a revered figure. And particularly as shooters came to perceive culture, he became a symbol of the heroic man with a gun. He connected, in some atavistic way, to other American heroes, like Audie Murphy or Sgt. Alvin York, perhaps even Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. They were all men like Hathcock who grew up on hardscrabble farms far from the big cities and learned early to shoot, read sign and understand the terrain.
Other gun culture enterprises kept him visible in a specialized universe unmonitored by the media, and put some money on the table. He authorized a poster that showed him in full combat regalia, crouched over his Model 70 Winchester, his face blackened, his boonie cap scrunched close to his head, the only identifier being a small sprig of feather in its band. In fact, a long-range .308-caliber ammunition was sold as “White Feather,” from the Vietnamese Long Tra’ng, his nickname. He consulted on law enforcement sharpshooting, a growth area in the ’80s and ’90s as nearly every police department in America appointed a designated marksman to its de rigueur SWAT team. He appeared in several videos, where he revealed himself to be a practically oriented man of few but decisive words, with a sense of humor dry as a stick. He inspired several novels and at least two nonfiction books, and his exploits made it onto TV, where a “JAG” episode featured a tough old Marine sniper, and even into the movies, even if he was never credited.
In both 1994’s “Sniper” and, more recently, “Saving Private Ryan,” heroic riflemen dispatch enemy counter-snipers with rounds so perfectly placed they travel the tube of the enemy’s scope before hitting him in the eye. In both cases, the shooters are tough Southerners (played by Tom Berenger and Barry Pepper), very much in the Hathcock mold. According to “Marine Sniper,” Hathcock made such a shot, dispatching a Viet Cong sniper sent to target him specifically.
Also according to that book, he ambushed a female enemy interrogator, a North Vietnamese general and a VC platoon that he took down, a man at a time, over a 24-hour engagement.
Finally, and perhaps best of all, he ascended to a special kind of Marine celebrity. The Corps named the annual Carlos Hathcock Award after him for its best marksman. A Marine library in Washington has been named after him and a Virginia Civil Air Patrol unit named itself after him. In 1990 a Marine unit raised $5,000 in donations to fight multiple sclerosis and presented it to him at his home. They brought it to him the old-fashioned way, the Marine way: They ran 216 miles from Camp Lejeune, N.C., to Virginia Beach.
It was a tribute to his toughness that Carlos Hathcock understood.
According to the account in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, the old sniper told the men, “I am so touched, I can hardly talk.”
In the end, he could not escape the terrible disease that had afflicted him since 1975. But death, with whom he had an intimate relationship, at least came to him quietly — as if out of respect.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
Q: I wanted to start with this quote that I heard about you, and I wish I could remember where I heard it, that you were “a liberal and a gun man at the same time.”
It sounds unbelievable, but it’s true.
I was raised in the liberal tradition, I’m from an academic family in Chicago, my father was a professor at Northwestern, I grew up to worship Aldai Stevenson and the progressive tendencies in the Democratic party, and to some extent I still do. But for some reason, I don’t know how, I don’t know where, I picked up this affinity for firearms. I enjoy firearms a great deal, I enjoy shooting, I don’t want to stress the guns that I own too much because I don’t want any burglars sneaking into my house some night. If you’ve read the books, you’ll see that guns and the gun culture are very important to my imagination.
I think it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said that the mark of a great mind is that you can embrace two opposing philosophies. I’m a great deal to the left of the NRA, but a great deal to the right of many of my colleagues because of my gun philosophy.
Q: Has this caused you any problems?
It’s never really caused any problems. We’re all so busy putting out a newspaper, we never really have any time to sit in the lounge and chat about it.
Q: What do you think about gun control?
I’m not crazy about gun control, because it doesn’t seem to equate to crime control. At the same time, I’m not crazy about 14-year-old boys carrying 9mm pistols in their lunch boxes.
There seems to be some evidence that the way to approach criminally misused guns is to attack criminally misowned guns. The approach of attacking the tiny percentage of misused guns. By focusing on illegally carried guns — it’s the illegally carried guns that cause havoc and violence in our society — we can be much more effective, particularly in the light of our steadily disappearing base of resources.
Q: So what would you recommend?
I’m not a gun control expert, and I’m not really prepared to have a discussion on gun control. One thing I’ve read about is how the Kansas City police created a gun squad to go after illegally carried guns on the street, and people who purposefully go out to find the suppliers who go around giving kids guns. That seems to have had some success.
Metal detectors also prevent guns from being carried in a specific environment. There are very few murders committed at airports, for instance. I don’t see a problem with extending these principles.
Point of Impact did something that’s really never been done before in that it refused to demonize or marginalize gun owners. It’s the only book in history that has gotten rave reviews from both the New York Times Book Review section and Green Beret Sniper Team 556 of the Special Forces.
One of the secret pleasures of that book was taking someone who is America’s furthest exile — the rural gun nut — and making him a hero.
Q: You seem to have a lot of empathy for those types of people.
As a novelist, there are certain types I can bring to life. And there are certain types I can’t — I haven’t had a great deal of success bringing women to life, for instance. I couldn’t do a particularly good job bringing a corporate lawyer to life. I doubt I could even do a good job with a movie critic living on the Eastern seaboard. However, I do have an empathy for strong, stoic military types like Bob Lee Swagger and if one is going to write a novel and be enmeshed in one project for months, and in certain situations for years, you have to go with your strengths.
Guns are much more important to Swagger than to Bud. He’s different from the standard police officer in that he doesn’t just see guns as a hunk of metal that helps him do his job, he’s aware of guns.
Q: What similarities do you share with people like your heros?
Virtually none. One of the pleasures of doing these things is immersing yourself in a different mindset. The creative writer’s first gift is the gift of empathy. He tries very hard to create from the whole cloth a different mindset, a different set of reflexes, a different set of prejudices. The books generally succeed to the degree that that’s successful. I suppose if you commit long sections of prose to words on paper, just by the natural law of psychological osmosis, you bleed certain portions of your psyche into your characters. I don’t consciously model anyone on myself. The books aren’t about me and about how darned wonderful and sensitive and underappreciated I am. They’re rigorous exercises in disciplined imagination in which I figure out what someone else’s life would be like.
Q: One thing I do imagine you would find a similarity with is your heros’ preoccupation with family, especially in Dirty White Boys. What I liked about Dirty White Boys was this irony that there’s two families, one a group of criminals and the other a cop’s, and in many ways the criminal family is the better example.
Dirty White Boys is constructed around a principle irony, that from the outside Bud’s family looks like a paradigm of middle class American virtue and he looks like an ideal father figure, while the Pye clan looks like this troglodyte group of sub-human mutants. Some reviewers seem to have gotten this, and some haven’t. But as the book goes along you start to understand that in some odd way, Lamar Pye is a better exemplar of family values than Bud Pewtie is. In some degree, old Bud learns that too.
Q: It, in fact, helps Bud to solve his own problems in the book.
You try not to make these things little cartoons or Dan Quayle speeches or something like that. If there’s some flavors, some odors available to the perceptive reader under the overarching energies of the plot, that is indeed pleasant. It seems to make the books more believable, the characters more believable. It’s very difficult and boring to write about paragons. The more human the face, the more provocative the text.
Q: You say that you’re not into writing Dan Quayle speeches. It does seem to me, though, that Dirty White Boys does project at some level a certain philosophy about family values.
What it seems to be is an acknowledgement of a fact of life, that even the most sacred and profane monsters like Pye have human needs. In fact, it’s their human needs that make them compelling figures. Lamar is not an interesting character if he’s sheer force, violence and evil. People don’t care about him. The book as a mechanism won’t work — meaning that it won’t be publishable — if he’s not interesting in a variety of other ways. The book began as this image I had of this titanic, earthy man. If I were to define someone that scares me, it would be Pye. Prison-trained, psychopathic, but still he’s extremely intelligent — he’s got a tactical mind, good at figuring small things out. He knew how to break down systems, he knew how to escape from places, he knew how to fight, he knew how to terrorize opponents. As I continued with the book, I understood that that wasn’t enough. I began to wonder where he came from, what created him. I began to look for provisional graces in him. I’m not suggesting that Lamar is a victim and that he deserves two years of, of —
Yeah, and afterwards deserves a copy job at the Baltimore Sun. He lives by certain principles and must accept the consequences of these principles, one of which is a bullet in the brain.
Creating him is only an interesting process for me if he is a whole man. Lamar is to armed robbers what Ted Williams is to baseball players. Think how boring a book about Ted Williams would be if it was just about his hitting. If you’re to believe in a character in a story, you need information. You need to see him in his best moments and his worst moments. That rather than any formal decision to deliver this sermon on family values formed Lamar Pye.
Q: This preoccupation with crime and family values has made the book very timely. I mean, it’s coming out right when these topics are hot and the Republicans have taken over the House and the Senate.
Curiously enough, none of that was in the original idea or the outline. I’ll tell you about my timing. I wrote a book about the Kurds ten years too early.
Q: Which book was that?
The Second Saladin. That shows you about my timing. In many ways that was a flawed book anyway, and that’s probably why it went straight into el tanko.
Q: Tell me a little bit about your publishing history, about how you went from these first two books to Point of Impact and now this one, major bestsellers.
Well, the first book, The Master Sniper, was quite successful for a first novel. It earned me more money than I thought existed in the world. Still not enough to do more than go to Europe and buy some neat shoes and a burbury raincoat with. I was really excited and thought I was poised on a major career. My second book didn’t quite work, a bitter work for some reason, about people fighting this war in some place nobody had ever heard of back then. It didn’t quite work. I then wrote a book about the Spanish Civil War, The Spanish Gambit, which was a fucking killer — it took me years to write the damn thing, I made a plot mistake that cost me a year. This was in my British period when I came to work in a tweed jacket and tie every day of the week, even in the middle of July. I was trying to be the young George Orwell. The book was a pastiche of Homage to Catalonia and Brideshead Revisited with a little For Whom the Bell Tolls thrown in. I was in my high pitch of British imagination. That book was a commercial failure, but it got really good reviews. At that point, my career was going nowhere and I’d squandered whatever momentum I had from my first book. I couldn’t just write another so-so book, another publishable book but nothing spectacular.
So I’ll never forget, I was driving with my wife in the car to Dayton, Ohio — the Shangri-La of the Midwest, Dayton — and I’d just read a book called The Tunnels of Co Chi about tunnelling in Vietnam. The idea of men fighting these most hideous battles underground in these cramped spaces really captured my imagination. And then I saw a mountain and I thought about a rocket silo. I was inflamed with special operations at the time. In a quarter of a nano-second, I had every single detail of Day Before Midnight. The next day, I went to a bookstore and bought everything they had on nuclear warfare. Writing that book was such fun, and it was sold for quite a bit of money. Halfway through it, I signed a blind contract for a second book to be invented later.
Q: Which was Point of Impact.
Point of Impact was one of the few books where I basically changed the fundamental theory of the book at the three-quarter mark. It took me ten drafts to get the fucking thing right.
It started out as a novel specifically about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It was explicitly clear that the Ramdyne team was the same team that hit JFK.
Q: There’s still a hint of that in there.
What remains is just a whiff of that, which I like. But the original didn’t work. At page 100, it stopped being a novel and became an essay for another 75 pages, which raised a whole bunch of questions about the Kennedy assassination. The book went on for another 500 fucking pages. Then the last 50 pages were another essay answering the questions that were in that other 50 pages. I knew that wouldn’t work, and a very patient, good editor finally nudged, cajoled, soothed, licked, caressed — I’m sure you can think of a better word — me to see that that just wasn’t working. One of the problems was with the villain. In order to be who he was, he had to have two separate elements. Eventually I had to jettison all but the basest hint of the Kennedy assassination and split the enemy into Raymond Schreck and — Hugh something-or-other, I can’t even remember his name anymore. I was surprised how well it worked once we got to that point. It turned out to be an extremely successful book — about a million in print, same with Day Before Midnight. I still get two-three letters a week about Point of Impact, I used to get midnight calls. The thing is, I made a couple of technical mistakes in the book.
Q: Were they angry?
No, not really. Oh, there were a couple of letters from real pedants. But I came to review the mistakes with good humor, because it let me meet and talk to literally hundreds of people.
After that book, I was exhausted. I was in a very dark mood, a survivor’s bleakness that doesn’t have much flavor to it. I wanted to write a book that’s not nearly as plot complex, not as thrilleresque, a much purer simpler story that was geographically united in a single locale with four or five vivid characters. I knew it would be in a small town. One of the things that I liked about Point of Impact was that, unlike thrillers that are set in Paris and Canton and places like that, most of the action took place in rural Arkansas.
I would not want to make my living as a farmer, I wanted to write about a life that I knew nothing about. I wanted it to be really tough, to have some values. Suddenly, somehow, who knows how, I came up with Dirty White Boys.
Q: I wanted to talk a little bit about the film versions of your novels and what shape they’re in. It must put you in a very interesting position to see your books going to Hollywood.
It puts me in a very awkward position is what it does. I’ve actually had three movie sales, for Day Before Midnight, Point of Impact, and Dirty White Boys. I actually left the Sun at one point to take a leave of absence to work on them, which is why they’re so fucked up. I’ve discovered that as a screenwriter, I’m not exactly Robert Bolt. But I’ve actually done things most movie screenwriters haven’t done — I sat in on the meetings and so forth.
Q: So how are the movies going?
The Day Before Midnight is dead because the Cold War is basically over, the Russians had to fucking end it. Point of Impact has gone through a jillion writers, and it’s on its second studio. I don’t keep too up on these things. My last contact with the West Coast is that they had a very good writer make a draft, but there were certain things he didn’t get. He didn’t know which end of the barrel the bullet came out of, he was a very cosmopolitan sort of guy. So they put in a kickass guy that had actually pulled the trigger once or twice, and he went a little too far. He’s now trying to rework his reworking to tone the whole thing down. So who knows if we’ll ever see a movie made.
Dirty White Boys is in very good shape. My Hollywood agent says it’s in very good shape. Very, very professional script written by two guys whose names I can’t remember. They really wrote a good script. They got about 80% of the book. Some of the changes they made, I didn’t particularly appreciate, but I understood that they had to be done. For instance, in my book, Ruta Beth, the woman who takes in Lamar Pye, is a real twisted mutant with a dark secret, she’s an unattractive woman with dark undertones. In the movie, she’s a chick.
Q: She’s a starlet.
Right. And while I’d rather see a movie with my Ruta Beth, I know that that will help the movie get made. Another change, my climax was a very hard, bitter to the death fight between two men in a glade of trees, it has a real mystic quality, like two high priests fighting to be the head of a cult of manhood. They turned it into a Hollywood thing where there’s a wheat field and all these wheat thrashing machines running around. What happens is that Pye is stabbed with a stalk of wheat or corn or something, and with this thing sticking out of his throat he tumbles into the path of a thrasher and is chewed to a pulp.
I have to admire these guys’ professionalism because they know what it takes to get a movie made. I don’t. One thing they really got correctly is a sense of place. It looks like they actually went out to Oklahoma. Just as a read, it’s a very good read.
Q: I see where it says that Joseph Ruben bought it.
Yeah, Joe Ruben bought it. I can tell you that as money goes, it was not a huge sale as a movie. We took the bad deal on the basis that the most important thing is to get a movie made that will really stir up interest in my work.
Q: Have they come up with any big stars to look at it?
One big star has read it and expressed some interest.
Q: Can you say who?
[Unfortunately, the “big star” Mr. Hunter mentioned here is still off-the-record.]
Q: So that’s definitely good news. Has seeing your movie get made changed your attitude towards Hollywood? Not that you were enamored with the whole thing in the first place.
Right. It’s made me more cynical, I’m even more gimlet-eyed now than I was before. I’m more cynical about the usual Hollywood crap, and more extraordinarily impressed that some really good work comes out of that town. The place is not built to make good work. If good work comes out, it’s not only an act of integrity and professionalism, it’s an act of genuine heroism. Every act of the way, people are saying “you can’t do this” and “you can’t do that.” You’re dealing with a bunch assholes who want nothing more than to see their thumbprints on the product. When I see people making stuff against the grain, I’m really impressed.
Q: Now tell me a little bit about your journalistic career. I know that before you were the film critic at the Sun, you were the books editor.
From ’74 through ’82 I was the book review editor. But it was much different then, because it was an editorial job. The book industry is much less intense than the film business. I virtually knew then and still now know nobody in New York. It’s done entirely in the mail and sometimes on the phone. The most awkward thing I had to do was find a reviewer for my own novel. Eventually what I ended up doing was giving it to a colleague of mine to find a reviewer. My colleague found Jonathan Yardley’s wife here in Washington, and she reviewed it for the Sun. She actually said some bad things about it.
One thing I’ll never forget is that I wrote to Peter Benchley. I had reviewed Jaws years back when I had been a jealous little obnoxious punk, and I said some really nasty things in that review that I regretted. I still think it was a bad book, but I don’t think it’s the paragon of evil I had before. So I wrote to Peter Benchley and I said “I wrote this review of your book three or four years ago that even now I admit was pretty nasty. Anyway I seem to be publishing a book. If you want to review it, I can promise you that I won’t edit your remarks at all.” He very graciously wrote back and said, “thanks, but it would make me feel awkward and I’ll pass.”
I’ve never been actively involved in reviewing for the Sun. I’ve never really gotten very good reviews there. I always walk away when it comes to my books getting reviewed.
I must confess I have cheated this one particular time. The woman who reviewed it for the Sun misspelled Lamar’s name as “Lemar” with an “e” instead of an “a”. I vacillated over whether I should tell someone or not. It was my loyalty as a Sun employee vs. — well, who knows what. Eventually I told them and they fixed it. I discovered, though, that she sold the same review to the Boston Herald, and they spelled Lamar’s name wrong there. How could she make that mistake? That name was on every fucking page of the manuscript.