American Handgunner Interview: March 2003

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.

MBSo 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.

MBBut 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.

MBEverything 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.

MBWhat 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.

MBYour 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.

MBSo 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!

MBDid 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.

MBDid 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.

MBWhen 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!

MBThe 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.

MBI 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.

MBYour 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.

MBLet’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!

MBWhat 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.

MBIs 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.

MBThat’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.

MBAs 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!

MBI 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!

MBThe 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.