I write thrillers.
On occasion, people are puzzled when they learn that I also have a PhD in American literature from Penn State and that I was a full professor at the University of Iowa, where I taught Hawthorne, Melville, Henry James, and Edith Wharton.
For me, the two worlds blend perfectly. In my youth, I earned the money for my undergraduate tuition by working 12-hour night shifts in factories. In one memorable task, I made fenders for automobiles, shredding several pairs of thick leather gloves during each shift as I handled razor-sharp sheets of metal. When I was transferred to another area of the factory, the man who replaced me lost both his hands in the fender-molding machine.
I noticed that, even though the workers had the glazed look of zombies, they read books during their lunch hours. When I looked closer, I discovered that every book was a thriller. The excitement of the plots took the laborers away from the terrible tedium of their lives.
One morning, after my factory shift ended, I drove to the nearby university, where I was scheduled to meet with my advisor about the requirements for finishing my BA studies. During that drive, I had an epiphany. I had already made the decision to become a writer, and I had no doubt that I wanted to write thrillers. After all, they had given me a psychological escape when I was a child and family arguments so frightened me that I frequently slept under my bed. I knew that the kind of stories that had been my salvation would be the kind of stories I would write.
But how would I do it?
My epiphany came in this form. Struck by the contrast between the factory I had left and the university I approached, I wondered if it was possible to write thrillers that satisfied two different types of readers at the same time: those eager for distraction, and those who wanted the kinds of themes and techniques that I was accustomed to in university literature courses. A thriller—by definition—must be thrilling. Could it accomplish that primary goal and simultaneously have other purposes? I was reminded of illustrations that seem to depict one thing when observed from a particular angle and then depict something else when seen from a different perspective.
Back in 1915, Van Wyck Brooks, a famous analyst of American culture, deplored the use of “highbrow” and “lowbrow” as labels that critics used to categorize fiction. Brooks condemned both extremes and suggested that there weren’t inferior forms of fiction, only inferior practitioners. In his view, it was possible for popular fiction to have serious intentions without ever sacrificing entertainment appeal and narrative drive.
That became my goal. The letters that most gratify me are of two different types. In one, readers thank me for distracting them from the harsh reality of fires, car accidents, lost jobs, divorces, serious medical problems, and similar calamities. In the second kind of letter, readers tell me that, when they reread my books, themes and techniques that weren’t obvious upon first reading suddenly emerge from the background, with the result that the books become different with a later reading.
This shifting nature of reality, depending on the angle from which we perceive it, is one of my favorite themes. My upcoming novel, Murder as a Fine Art, takes place in 1854 London. Its main character, Thomas De Quincey, uses the theories of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (“Does reality exist objectively or only in our minds?”) to solve a series of mass killings that imitate the infamous Ratcliffe Highway murders that occurred forty-three years earlier.
Call me schizophrenic—or the sum of my contradictions. All these years after I left the factory where I worked and drove toward the university where I studied, I continue to be two separate people when I write, with two different kinds of readers in my imagination.
[Editor’s Note: We are proud to announce today that Mulholland Books will publish David Morrell’s novel Murder as a Fine Art in 2013. The novel is a historical thriller featuring Thomas De Quincey investigating a series of crimes which appear to be based on essays that he had written.]
“The mild-mannered professor with the bloody-minded visions,” as one reviewer called him, David Morrell is the author of thirty-two books, including First Blood, the novel in which Rambo was created. Morrell is a co-founder of the International Thriller Writers organization. He is a three-time recipient of the distinguished Bram Stoker Award, Comic-Con International honored him with its Inkpot Award for his lifetime contributions to popular culture. With eighteen million copies of his work in print, his work has been translated into twenty-six languages.