David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Stephen Hunter Interview: The Hunter Becomes the Hunted

Originally published January 2, 1995 in the Baltimore City Paper.
Read the complete interview transcript.

stephen-hunter.jpgIt’s the kind of first paragraph that makes your jaw hit the floor with an audible clunk, a paragraph that sends the more timid browser at Waldenbooks scurrying out the door in a hurry:

Three men at McAlester State Penitentiary had larger penises than Lamar Pye, but all were black and therefore, by Lamar’s own figuring, hardly human at all. His was the largest penis ever seen on a white man in that prison or any of the others in which Lamar had spent so much of his adult life. It was a monster, a snake, a ropey, veiny thing that hardly looked at all like what it was but rather like some form of rubber tubing.

It’s also the first paragraph of Dirty White Boys, the sixth novel from Stephen Hunter. Yes, that Stephen Hunter, the curmudgeonly Baltimore Sun film critic whose off-beat reviews adorn the paper’s pages every week. The Stephen Hunter whose very name causes movie screening patrons to flee from the conspicuously taped-off row of seats.

But there are more sides to Hunter than meets the eye. In addition to being Mobtown’s best-known film fanatic, Hunter is also one of the publishing industry’s best-kept secrets, a thriller writer who has sold two million novels and quietly earned a reputation as a gritty, adrenaline-inducing storyteller. Random House shelled out big bucks for Dirty White Boys in the hopes that the bloody Fugitive-esque thriller will propel Hunter to the ranks of a Tom Clancy or a Robert Ludlum.

And, irony of ironies, Hollywood is interested.

“It puts me in a very awkward position,” Hunter admitted in an interview last month. “Hollywood is not built to make good work. If good work does happen, it’s not only an act of integrity and professionalism, it’s an act of genuine heroism. Every step of the way, people are saying ‘you can’t do this’ and ‘you can’t do that.’ You’re dealing with a bunch of assholes who want nothing more than to see their thumbprints on the product.”

Dirty White Boys: A Discussion of Family Values

So how good is the book that’s earned stellar advance reviews and caught the interest of some of Hollywood’s hottest properties?

On the surface, Dirty White Boys tells a tale that’s seen a thousand incarnations on the big screen over the past decade: depraved badass Lamar Pye escapes from prison, and cool trooper Bud Pewtie makes it his mission to track him down. We have a prison catfight, a shootout at a tattoo parlor in the dead of night, the inevitable one-on-one brawl to the finish.

But talk about timing. Not only does Dirty White Boys appeal to the same audiences that are flocking to see The Fugitive and Speed and all of their big screen clones, it also features at its core a discussion of family values that would seem at home on the floor of the Republican-controlled House or Senate.

“From the outside, the Pewtie family looks like a paradigm of middle class American virtue and Bud looks like an ideal father figure, while the Pye clan looks like this troglodyte group of sub-human mutants,” says Hunter. “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.”

This role reversal is the central irony of Dirty White Boys. Model citizen Bud regularly betrays his family by sneaking into bed with his partner’s wife Holly, while sadistic killer Lamar stays unflinchingly loyal to the gang of misfits who have helped him escape from prison and avoid the law. The Pewties live a life of bored disinterest and stony silences at dinnertime, while Lamar and his three cohorts stand firm together in the face of a massive police manhunt.

So when all the action culminates with a showdown in the woods, there’s more than just two lives at stake. “It has a real mystic quality, like two high priests fighting to be the head of a cult of manhood,” says Hunter.

Despite the apparent sermonizing, Hunter claims that what he’s after isn’t a rehash of Dan Quayleisms, but simply a sense of empathy and believability.

“It’s an acknowledgement of a fact of life, that even the most sacred and profane monsters like Pye have human needs,” he says. “In fact, it’s their human needs that make them compelling figures. Lamar would not be an interesting character if he was a sheer force of violence and evil. People wouldn’t care about him. The book as a mechanism wouldn’t work — meaning that it wouldn’t be publishable — if he wasn’t interesting in a variety of other ways.

“Lamar Pye is prison-trained and psychopathic, but still he’s extremely intelligent. He’s got a tactical mind, he’s good at figuring things out. But as I continued writing 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.”

Thus Dirty White Boys messes with our conceptions of good and evil by making us feel the occasional pang of sympathy for a man who will taunt and then murder a truck driver simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Thwarting Expectations

Hunter likes thwarting readers’ expectations. His last novel, Point of Impact, performed a similar trick by choosing as its hero the most unlikely protagonist possible: a reclusive gun nut living in backwoods Arkansas. Persuaded by a shadowy military group to help thwart a presidential assassin, former Vietnam sharpshooter Bob Lee Swagger unwittingly ends up becoming the assassin’s fall guy — and the most hunted man in America. After all, reasons the too-quick-to-crucify media, who would believe that there’s a clandestine conspiracy behind an assassination attempt on the president when you’ve got a gun-crazy Vietnam vet on the loose?

“It’s probably the only book in history that has gotten rave reviews from both the New York Times Book Review and the Green Berets,” Hunter quips.

Besides lodging Hunter on the national bestseller lists, Point of Impact brought out another side of the film critic most Baltimoreans know little about: his passion for guns, which he both collects and shoots regularly. Whereas most authors would be content to write “he pulled out his gun,” Hunter often pays more attention to his descriptions of firearms than to his descriptions of people, as in this passage from Impact:

[The gun] had a heavy varmint barrel which almost neutralized vibration when he fired, though Bob had since replaced the original barrel with a stainless steel one from Hart, which he’d then finished with Teflon so the whole piece had the appearance of old pewter. The barrel, action and even the screws were bedded in Devcon aluminum into a black fiberglas and Kevlar stock. The screws were torqued through aluminum pilars, tightened to sixty pounds.

Got that?

Hunter’s passion for firearms doesn’t stop him from maintaining a liberal ideology, however, a contradiction that he seems to relish. “It sounds unbelievable, but it’s true,” he says. “I grew up to worship Adlai Stevenson and the progressive tendencies in the Democratic Party, and to some extent I still do…. I think it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said that the mark of a great mind is that you can embrace two opposing philosophies.”

“You Have to Go with Your Strengths”

So despite the affinity for packing heat Hunter’s characters share with their creator, the stoic John Wayne types that populate his fiction are largely creations based on a very different mindset than his own. “As a novelist, there are certain types I can bring to life, and there are certain types I can’t,” he says. “If you’re going to write a novel and be enmeshed in one project for years, you have to go with your strengths.

“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. But 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.”

Occasionally, however, Hunter’s imagination falls short of the mark and becomes prey to many of the thriller clichés that typically dog male-oriented fiction. One is a tendency to slip into hokey ultra-macho mode. “I got man’s work to do!” yells Pewtie to his lover Holly at one point in Dirty White Boys. Point of Impact‘s Bob Lee Swagger has a similar Marlboro moment when contemplating the dangers of leaving the seclusion of his Arkansas home for the outside world: “He’d have no part of that, no thank you. No women, no liquor, never again. Only rifles and duty.”

Certainly if Hunter patterned his novels after his own life, there would be fewer grim loners stalking through the fields with high-powered rifles and more family men sitting at their desks typing. Aside from two years in the Army, Hunter has been plugging quietly away at the Sun for over twenty years, both as book review editor and (since 1982) as film critic.

It was during his stint as book review editor that Hunter published his first novel, The Master Sniper (1980), a thriller which brought him “more money than I thought existed in the world at the time.” Eager to expand on his success, however, Hunter instead fell into a sophomore slump with his next two works, The Second Saladin (1982) (“Talk about timing — that was a book about the Kurds ten years too early”) and The Spanish Gambit (1985) (“I was trying to be the young George Orwell”).

By that point, a despondent Hunter realized that he had squandered whatever momentum the success of The Master Sniper had given him in the publishing world. Careerwise, another mediocre book from either the critical or commercial perspective would be the kiss of death. It was then that inspiration hit in the form of a mountain and a book about tunnel warfare in Vietnam. “Suddenly, in a quarter of a nanosecond I had every single detail of The Day Before Midnight,” says Hunter.

From the Bestseller List to Premiere Magazine

This sudden flash of inspiration single-handedly resuscitated Hunter’s career as a novelist. Midnight, a taut, believable thriller about a battle to recapture a mountain nuclear missile silo, has over 800,000 copies in print. (One of the Special Forces teams attempts to penetrate into the missile silo through a series of underground tunnels; thus the Vietnam influence.) From there came the equally successful Point of Impact, the new novel Dirty White Boys, and now the calling cards from Hollywood.

Still, it’s a long way from the bestseller list to the cover of Premiere magazine. Hunter has sold all three of his last books to Hollywood and has yet to see a single minute on celluloid. The film version of the Cold War-oriented Day Before Midnight died a sudden death with the falling of the Berlin Wall, while Point of Impact has been stalled at the scripting stage.

“I actually left the Sun at one point to take a leave of absence to work on those scripts, which is why they’re so fucked up,” admits Hunter candidly. “I’ve discovered that as a screenwriter, I’m not exactly Robert Bolt.”

Dirty White Boys, however, caught the attention of director Joseph Ruben (Sleeping With the Enemy, The Good Son), and 20th Century Fox quickly snatched film rights for him. “Dirty White Boys is in very good shape,” Hunter says enthusiastically. “The script is very, very professional — they got about 80% of the book.”

Still, treatment for the screen has involved more than a few changes, many of which Hunter takes with a resigned sigh. The character of Ruta Beth, the twisted serial killer fanatic that takes Lamar’s gang in, has been significantly changed: “In my book, she’s sort of a mutant, a real unattractive woman with a dark secret,” says Hunter. “In the film, she’s a chick.”

But who can better appreciate the concessions one has to make to attain big studio attention than a film critic that’s always been cynical about Tinseltown? “I have to admire the screenwriters’ professionalism because they know what it takes to get a movie made,” he says. “I don’t.”

Even if Hunter never makes it onto the big screen, he’s still hoping to have a lasting impact on Hollywood in a different way: through a book-length anthology of his movie reviews forthcoming from Baltimore-based Bancroft Press.

“I have to say that I’ve really given my adulthood to the Sun,” he said. “It would satisfy me immensely to see a physical object called a book come out of all of that.”

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