David Rich writes elaborate, powerful and skilfully assembled crime thrillers, such as Caravan of Thieves and The Middle Man. Readers easily get to know and like, if they wish, the many deeply layered characters Rich creates. The unremitting, often ruthless, action plays out on a global stage, familiar to fans of cable news.
In Caravan of Thieves, the hero, Rollie Waters, discovers his father, Dan, helped steal a billion dollars, in US cash, from secret stashes in Iraq. The US Marines send Rollie undercover to find the money; only in such a role is he comfortable. Rollie finds the missing money as well as more about himself than he believed possible or wanted.
New York Times Best-Selling authors enthusiastically praise Caravan of Thieves. C J Box says it “busts out of the chute and never stops bucking.” “The ending is a stunner,” says Christopher Reich. “Bourne-like actions,” reports Kirkus Reviews.
In The Middle Man, Rollie continues to track the money his father, Dan, helped steal. Constant conversations, with the now dead Dan, keep Rollie focused. He discovers and kills the person pulling the strings on the stolen money, against a backdrop of much deceit and the hint of a human side to Rollie.
More authors, of New York Times best-Selling books, heap eager praise on The Middle Man. Ace Atkins says, “From the first bullet to the last, [this] is Ludlum-style action at its best.” Howard Blum says, “Rollie is as tough as Reacher, clever as Bourne; cool as Bond.” Craig Johnson says Middle Man is a rapid-fire read. Its [pages] fly by in this kinetic and compelling burst of a book.”
Of Caravan and Middle Man, Roland Person says Rich devises “a labyrinth of violence, deceit and villainy. The villains lose. Yet, they may reappear, later.” These stories are much fun.”
The fun is possible because David Rich is a gifted, widely experienced writer. Before his recent novels, Rich wrote thirty-five screenplays, including the cult movie, Renegades. As well, he wrote episodes of television shows, such as MacGyver and Stargate GS-1, as well as three plays, The Interview, The Rescue and W. A. R (Women’s Armed Resistance).
When Rich wrote Caravan of Thieves, he hoped to start a franchise, a novel with many sequels. Film scripts, he says, involve one appearance by a character. “The chance to develop a character, across a series of novels,” Rich says, “is seductive.”
Rich credits much of his success to being a staircase writer. “I write, write, write. Then, suddenly, I stop. I jump up. I walk up and down the staircase. I think of the story. I try to decide what comes next.
“Then I go back to writing,” he says. “After a while, I suddenly jump up and start pacing the stairs. Another decision needs making.”
In this interview, David Rich talks mostly about his novels and some about his films. He describes how his years in Hollywood, writing, reading and pitching film scripts, influenced his novels. He also offers insight into how he writes.
Grub Street (GS) You write thrillers, but not of the usual sort. What adjective best describes your books?
David Rich (DR) That’s a tough one. I’m not sure I have a good answer. My publisher, Dutton, labelled Caravan of Thieves and Middle Man as thrillers. I said fine, those books are thrillers, if you say so.
My agent and editor said I must read thrillers to familiarised myself with those writers. I did. There are many good writers of thrillers.
What I discovered, reading thrillers, was that I wasn’t a writer of thrillers, at least as far as I’m concerned or in what the writers I read wrote. Caravan of Thieves was not a thriller. Nor was Middle Man a thriller. I felt a bit out in the cold.
GS Where did you decide your books landed?
DR I write crime stories.
GS Edge of your seat, elaborate crime stories, set on an international stage.
DR There you go. Crime thrillers set on an international stage. That’s what I write.
GS What are the themes of Caravan of Thieves?
DR First, how children don’t know their parents, as they believe they do. Parents can and do present falsely or not fully to their children. Parents too often hide their true selves from their children.
Second, the staggering temptation soldiers face when looking at endless stacks of stolen $100 bills, in US currency. US cash, in $100 dominations, is the mostly widely circulated and in demand currency in the world; buyers for US $100 are everywhere. What happens when regular members of the military or officers, for that matter, find hundreds of millions of dollars in such US currency?
Third, how does a man, with little formal education, survive, no flourish, in a violent, corrupt and unstable world, without too many friends and a great many enemies. By his wits, as there’s no alternative for him. This is a story how of an intelligent, if uneducated, man finds ways, such as callousness, pigheadedness and feral understanding, to survive.
GS How did you find the ideas for Caravan of Thieves?
DR The first flicker was learning that American soldiers, in Iraq, found stores of US cash hoarded by Saddam Hussein. He and his cronies hid cash all over Iraq. The military found stashes amounting to almost one billion dollars, in hard US currency.
GS Probably a great deal more remains hidden.
DR No doubt, one group of soldiers took down a cinder block wall and found stacks of boxes. Each box had a label, signed and dated. Each box contained four million dollars, in neatly ordered, equal size packages.
GS How bureaucratic is that?
DR Yes, other soldiers stumbled on vases stuffed with US cash. Looking for a chainsaw to cut down a tree, two soldiers found $320 million. US cash, mostly $100 bills, was everywhere.
Major Kent Rideout praised the ethics of the soldiers for handing over all this money. “A single bundle,” he said, “is more than three times what these men make in a year.”* As far as this went, it was a good, honest deed.
Then I heard about the Army catching several soldiers stealing some of the found money. A group of soldiers discovered 112 million one-dollar bills, hidden in dog kennels. They began skimming the cash on a small-scale; fifty boxes of cash found, forty-seven reported.
The money belonged to the people of Iraq and the Army acted fast to end the skimming. It forbade soldiers from looking, specifically, for more cash. By this time, Caravan of Thieves was churning in my mind.
GS Was there more.
DR Yes, as the crime-thriller plot was taking shape, I was also thinking, a great deal, about parents and children. I wondered how parents can and do run their children into a lifetime nightmare. The child doesn’t know what’s going on or where it’s taking him or her.
Let me give you an example. A fellow walks into a bar and finds his father, having a drink. He doesn’t want to talk to his father, but he must, so he does. They sit together at a table. Other people join them or crowd around from all directions.
Then the son wakes up. He’s in this strange prison. He can’t escape from his upbringing.
GS The children are helpless. They believe that’s life.
DR Yes, exactly, and this is how I started on the leitmotif. It involves Rollie Waters, the protagonist and his father, Dan Waters, one of the antagonists, of a sort. Dan is an unapologetic con artist.
I began thinking how soldiers skim found money and the son of one of the skimmers has parenting issues, thus Dan and Rollie. These are two solid stories, each worthy of a book. When I combine the stories, the possibilities become almost endless.
That’s how Caravan of Thieves took shape.
GS Dan Waters is a troublesome parent.
DR Yes, if I’m going to have a parent that drags his son into a nightmare, Dan Waters is the perfect character. I wanted the extreme case. That was Dan Waters.
DR The hero, the protagonist, of Caravan of Thieves, is Rollie Waters, the son of Dan Waters. As the son of a con artist, how cynical is his view of the world? How does Rollie learn to trust anyone, ever? He sees through the claims of others, right away.
GS How does he learn intimacy?
DR As the series continues Rollie will try to develop intimacy, with someone. If he gives himself up to someone, he knows there’s danger involved, but he’s not a coward; he will try. Until I move my fingers over the keyboard, I don’t know how that will come about.
Rollie mostly hates his father. He doesn’t want to be like his father; yet there’s so much of his father in him. There’s the infinite internal struggle.
Father and son are interesting characters. Dan has few qualms about his lifestyle. For Rollie, life is full of conflict, struggling against the life lessons learned from his father. He must find his way in the world, using what he knows, and that doesn’t mean always following a conventional path.
GS Perhaps fighting evil, plumbed from the depths, is a form of therapy for Rollie Waters.
DR I think that may be true.
GS He uses these lessons to save his own life.
GS When you began writing Caravan of Thieves, did you intend to create a recurring character?
DR Yes, I hoped to develop a franchise in a recurring character. I wrote screenplays for years. Screenplays mostly involve writing one appearance of a character and moving on to another.
I wasn’t sure the book franchise would happen. Caravan of Thieves was my first novel. I had no idea if it would sell. Would it find a readership? Besides, I wasn’t sure exactly how to write a recurring character.
When I sat down to write Middle Man, I believed I had the series I hoped to develop. Now, I had to think more about franchise features. The main feature is how Dan and Rollie, father and son, get along, now that Dan is dead.
When someone passes away, even someone you claimed not to like in life, you miss him or her in some ways. You may come to understand him or her differently.
GS There’s a continuous search for continuity: past, present, future.
DR Yes, in Middle Man, the second Rollie Waters book, Rollie learns much more about his past and himself. This allows him to make peace, although an uneasy peace, with Dan. In a way, Dan becomes the partner of his son, maybe even the conscious.
At the end of “Caravan,” five graves, ostensibly holding coffins filled with US cash, stolen from Iraq, remain hidden. In Middle Man, readers find out what happened to those graves. Rollie poses as a hedge fund manager, interested in energy investments. He discovers the missing US cash supposedly funded the take-over of the oil-rich Kurdish area of Iraq. He must dig deep to find out who’s behind such a large-scale, international scheme and stop it.
GS When you began writing Caravan of Thieves, did you know how it would end?
DR No, I’m not a big outliner. I try to develop outlines. I fail.
I wrote Caravan in the first person. Rollie, the main character, is always in development, always defining himself. Other characters define, I hope, through the perspective of Rollie and his contact with them.
When I begin to write, I have an idea of how the story goes. I get into it. There are so many changes. The finished book doesn’t necessarily look much like the idea that got me going.
GS There’s a theory, of writing crime stories, that suggests writing the conclusion first.
DR How does that materially differ from an outline? I did try, in a way, to write a conclusion first. When I tried to write the end before the rest of the book, I didn’t come close to how the book developed or ended.
I couldn’t do it. For me, writing the conclusion first was a waste of time. I threw that writing away.
GS Some of the ideas that people, often non-writers, come up with, to improve writing, such as write the conclusion first, baffle me.
DR Sure, it’s too limiting to know, before, that I must go to this point, then that point and so forth. The target, the end, is too narrow. I need to look into different avenues, as I write, and not stay on a highway to a predetermined end.
I see certain ideas or settings won’t or don’t work. Other ideas or settings need expansion. Characters are wrong and so forth.
GS Once you change a character, plot changes may need to follow.
DR Right, mine is not a great method for writing. I’m a staircase writer. I write, write, write and then, suddenly, I stop.
I walk around, up and down the staircase, thinking about the story. I need time to decide where the story is going, say, or how I hope it’ll turn out. Then I write, write, write, again and stop, suddenly, again.
GS You write as Raymond Chandler wrote.
DR Remind me how Chandler wrote.
GS He opened a bottle of rye, put paper in the typewriter and wrote, wrote, wrote.
DR Right, I was on a panel at Thriller Fest, recently. The panel topic was how writers write. An interesting consensus emerged.
GS Thriller Fest is an annual gathering of writers of thrillers, in New York City.
DR Yes, the consensus was there are two types of writers. First, there are Clockers. They plot and plan action and dialogue before starting to write.
GS A fill in the blanks approach, which, I think, Dashiell Hammett used; a version of this writing style, anyway.
DR Pantsers take another approach to writing. They start to write whatever comes out of their head, through their fingers on to the keyboard and ending on the screen or page.
These writers go by the seat of his or her pants, I guess. They build the frame later. Maybe halfway through or once the story seems finished, they build a frame.
GS This, too, reminds me of Raymond Chandler.
DR Yes, what I said about this distinction might come across as harsh. It isn’t harsh nor did I intend it as harsh. Supposedly, we’re all friends at Thriller Fest. We talk freely and openly.
Pantsers let the words flow. Characters, if you develop them properly and set them in the right circumstances, speak for themselves. This something I think every writer, back to Homer, knows, well.
Clockers are not doing any of that. They’re working out what happens. A car goes off the cliff. The survivors go to the hospital. This is what they’re outlining; otherwise, the book is boring, maybe too predictable or sterile.
GS Clockers, I guess, claim all the parts fall into place as a string of dominoes because of deep outlining before starting.
DR I’m sure. I don’t understand how that can work. I guess I find much fun in letting the story play out, with limited guidance from me. I’m a pantser that walks up and down the stairs, thinking. Not the most conventional or good theoretical writing style, but it works.
GS How long did it take to write Caravan of Thieves or Middle Man?
DR Each book took about 10 months. Each is roughly eighty thousand words. That’s about eight thousand finalised words a month, roughly one finalised page a day.
GS How much of your writing, during that ten months, do you think you discarded?
DR I remember discarding a long section, roughly 5,500 words, which took place in New York City; it slowed the pace too much. Another time, I discarded 6,000 words in a scene set in Erbil, Iraq. I still wonder if I should have found a way to keep it, although it would have called for a much twisting; maybe I`ll use it in another book.
I rewrite everything many times. The French restaurant scene went through at least ten drafts. The chapter, set in the Citadel, in Erbil, I rewrote many times; originally, it was much longer. I changed the re-entry, of Rollie, into the US, several times, with a much shorter version making it into the book.
Research slows my writing, too. I spent many hours researching the heroin trade in
Southwestern Afghanistan. Research means accuracy, which takes much time.
Given how I write, I may throw out half or two-thirds of what I write. I guess I write up to 250,000 words over ten months, maybe more. Each of my books is roughly 80,000 words.
GS Do you have a writing routine or rituals?
DR I’m mostly a pantser because I want to find out how the story ends. Thus, I write continuously until I finish the first draft. Then the hard word begins.
GS You write a full draft of a book, first.
DR Yes, I wake up and start writing, as immediately as I can. I go for a couple of hours. Then I get ready for the day.
I try to go back to writing, as fast as I can, but I often waste some time. Eventually, I work my way back into the writing. I usually knock off around 5 pm or 6 pm.
I’d like to work a bit more in the evenings. I try to do work this schedule seven days a week, when I’m on a book. Weekends, I might not work in the afternoon, only the morning.
I aim for two-to-four pages a day, which includes rewriting. If I don’t work a seven-day schedule, my writing becomes a mess. It takes forever to get back in the routine. Sometimes I doodle for hours, trying to recapture my rhythm.
GS Your schedule works out to one roughly completed page a day, over time.
GS Are you showing people chapters along the way.
GS When a draft is complete, who sees it first?
DR For Caravan of Thieves, I sent the manuscript to a friend, Howard Blum. He’s a former journalist and author of “American Lightning," "The Floor of Heaven" and "Dark Invasion." He understands the publishing world. He knows what makes a good story.
I also sent the draft of Caravan of Thieves to another friend, Norman Bernstein. He was the first film producer with whom I worked. Bernstein no longer produces movies, but he and his wife devour thrillers.
GS How did you feel when you receive first-reader comments?
DR Good, the response, to the draft of “Caravan,” was positive. I learned, from writing a great many scripts and having people read what I wrote, how to judge the tone of the responses. The tone is often more revealing than the content of the comments. I could tell from the tone that I wrote a book most readers of thrillers would enjoy.
GS Writing thirty-five scripts and having early readers dump all over you toughened your skin.
DR I learned from the responses. I wrote a play a long time ago and hired a woman to type the manuscript. Although she said she didn’t care for the play, I could tell, from her tone, that she did like it. She identified with the characters and the story.
GS She was trying to seem detached so you could trust her work, trust that she didn’t add anything to your story.
DR Yes, I think so. Through the years, I learned to gauge response. Sometimes, an early reader will say, “Oh yeah, it’s fine.” I could tell she or he didn’t care, at all, for what I wrote.
GS How did you pitch publishers?
DR First, I gave the manuscript to a couple of agents that a friend of mine knew. I emailed the agents, saying my friend, our friend in common, recommended him or her. I outlined who I am, that I wrote almost forty film and television scripts. I briefly outlined Caravan and asked if he or she would read it, with the idea of representing my book and me.
One agent, Kim Witherspoon, got back to me right away. By the way, “right away,” in publishing, means a few weeks and that’s what it took. Witherspoon is a top literary agent, having represented Anthony Bourdain and Susan Cheever, among others.
Witherspoon loved “Caravan of Thieves.” We met. I could tell she was sharp.
She laid out what she’d do for the book and how. Witherspoon had a strong plan. I made a few quick changes she suggested.
She sent the book to several publishers. Interest ran high among publishers; there was much enthusiasm. I had phone conversations with some publishers.
It was a great feeling. The publishers told me I had a good book. They said I was a good writer.
A few companies wanted to bid on “Caravan of Thieves.” Dutton, a boutique imprint in the much, much larger publisher, Penguin, won. I’m glad I went with Dutton.
GS Why did you pick Dutton?
I don’t think I could have made a big mistake. Sevier edits Harlan Coben, who has six consecutive New York “Times” Best-Sellers as well as Mark Owen and Keven Maurer, who wrote the book about killing Osama Bin Laden. Sevier has an outstanding record of successful editing.
When Sevier became Vice-president, Jessica Renheim took me over. She’s great to work with, too.
GS Did Dutton give you enough support for Caravan of Thieves?
DR Oh, yes, it promotes itself as publicity-driven. Dutton is its own imprint, thus, it makes its own decisions about book promotion and so forth. Dutton doesn’t need to clear every decision with Penguin.
GS Penguin may be too large to micromanage its imprints.
DR That’s possible. Dutton arranged for jacket blurbs from high-profile writers. It didn’t allow me to languish. It did a beautiful job for me.
GS Yes, Dutton got you a whack of blurbs from A-list writers.
DR When I do a book signing, I tell everyone how well Dutton treats me. After thirty years in the movie business, I felt, in a way, I got out of jail and I did.
Now, I don’t have to stuff food in my pockets. No one is going to take anything away from me. Dutton is great.
GS When Dutton signed you, how many books did you sign for?
DR Two was the original deal.
GS You’ve fulfilled your commitments.
GS Are you working on a new Rollie Waters book.
DR No, I have another, different book in mind.
GS Did Dutton not want another Rollie Waters book?
DR We haven’t talked about it, yet. I want to write a different book that I have in mind, first. Afterward we can talk about more Rollie Waters.
GS I get the sense the characters, in the new book, will speak on their own, as they flow out the end of your fingers?
GS Nancy Lynn Jarvis, she writes the Regan McHenry mystery series, said she work up one morning to find the characters, in “Mags and the AARP Gang,” clamouring to get out.
DR I know what she means. I have a new story and it begs telling. Right now, I prefer not to say much about it.
GS Do you have a publisher?
DR I don’t know. Dutton doesn’t know if it wants the book. I’ll show the new book to one or another Penguin publisher, first, I’m sure.
GS You wrote film scripts before “Caravan of Thieves.”
DR Yes, I wrote thirty-five screenplays.
GS What drew you to movies?
DR I’ve always been a movie addict, in a huge way. When I was in graduate school, I came up with a story for a book. It was a detective story. At the time, I was reading Hammett, Chandler and Ross MacDonald instead of what my professors said I should read.
I don’t remember trying to write the idea as a novel. I do remember trying to write it as a screenplay. Then I thought I try to write it as a play.
GS Film was thus never far away.
GS How does writing a screenplay compare with writing a novel?
It’s easy to write one screenplay. Everybody can write one.
GS Are you sure.
DR Yes, everyone has one screenplay in them. You may not think so. Yet, everybody can finish 120 pages, once.
GS I had better double check for my screenplay.
DR The more you know, the harder it becomes, though. I grew used to writing screenplays. Still, the more scripts I wrote, the more difficult the writing.
GS What becomes more difficult?
DR Keeping scripts continuously entertaining. There’s a temptation to moralise when creating and developing characters or scenarios. If the writer isn’t wary, she or he begins to build relations among characters, say, in a way that suggests this is the way to act.
GS The writer doesn’t necessarily realise he or she is moralising.
DR Right, the more scripts anyone writes, the more likely she or he slips away from entertaining the audience and into moralising. It’s a slippery slope.
It was a huge change to write a novel. I didn’t want to go backwards, into a writing style that moralised. I wanted to entertain and find new ways of entertaining.
GS Do you think writing a film script is easier than writing a novel.
DR Well, no, but a script may seem easier to write because you haven’t studied film or scriptwriting. You study a book, say, “Far from the Madding Crowd,” by Thomas Hardy. Then, when you try to write a novel, after a few words you realise you’re at a great distance from Hardy. This, I suspect, is how Frederic Raphael felt when he scripted the 1967 film of “Far from ….” This happens all the time.
GS A new writer may have too much knowledge of books and not enough of film.
GS Scripting seems easier, as the writer isn’t as familiar with the medium as she is or he is with novels.
DR The biggest difference, for me, was form. A screenplay and a book don’t share a form. For a movie, the story starts with form. First, something happens. Now, this next event must happen. Later, something else must happen and so on. Eventually, the film has a frame, ready for dialogue insertion.
For “Renegades,” the story revolved around a sacred lance, stolen by criminals. First, I had to show how and why the lance became sacred, what it meant to the tribe. Then I had to show how and why Hank Storm, portrayed by Lou Diamond Phillips, had a sacred duty, what that duty was and how the lance was part of that scenario. I had to show that someone stole lance, then how Hank Storm recovered it.
GS That's form as a puzzle to solve.
DR Yes, but with a book, you must start moving your fingers. Words must appear on the page. You can always throw the words out, move words around or find better words. I threw out many words, often.
GS Is this why screenwriters refer, first, to blocking the movie.
DR Yes, to some extent, but for a book, the page must fill with words, from your computer, your pen or your quill. You can’t worry too much about form. Until you have a draft of a book, you must fill pages with words: description, dialogue, conclusion.
GS From what you’ve said, I get the sense a screenplay is bureaucratic and a novel is a controlled form of verbal diarrhoea.
DR Well, I don’t know if I’d use either of those phrases.
GS Use your phrases.
DR I think the writer builds the screenplay, with levels built on a foundation.
GS It’s form.
DR Yes, everyone believes the dialogue comes first. Dialogue is the least of a screenplay. If you build the scene correctly, if the scene falls in the right place, at the right time, the dialogue is the easiest part.
GS It comes to you.
In the novel, building is less specific than in a screenplay. As the author, I have ideas. These characters go to the hospital or they go to a bank where a robbery is coincidentally taking place. Maybe I decide, early on, that they’ll foil the robbery or they won’t. That’s how I build the story.
I have characters. I have general ideas and specific ideas about the characters. Then everything comes out the end of my fingers.
My fingers move on the keyboard, putting bricks into a wall. I keep writing. Before I know it, a story unfolds that interests me; the wall built, but modular, as I can move the bricks around all I want.
GS You couldn’t do that with a screenplay.
DR No, I think a screenplay needs a large frame, first. As long as the floors and rooms fit, the screenplay is good. It’s not that simple to write a screenplay, but you get the idea.
GS Form before content in a screenplay.
DR Yes, but in a novel, I can go off, adding a chapter here or there, taking one or three out. Maybe I can return those chapters to the manuscript, but in a different location. I can rejig the frame of a novel, as I go along, much easier than I can with a screenplay.
GS Does content come before form in a novel.
DR Yes, that’s my take. I was reading Benjamin Black the other day; that’s John Banville, the author; he writes thrillers, such as “Christine Falls,” as Benjamin Black. Banville is a great writer, whatever name he uses; he's way above most writers.
I’m reading Black when, suddenly, the location shifts from Dublin to Massachusetts. I don’t know why. I wasn’t sure what was going on. I believe I’m a shrewd reader, but he has me with this one.
Black goes on to sell me the sudden move. It was a story. I went with the story.
I couldn’t do that in a movie. Black did it, roughly a third of the way into the novel. He made it work.
To shift the scene, add new characters or help other characters, he makes it all work. He tied it together, beautifully. Black qua Banville is an exceptional writer.
GS This why books don’t look like movies and movies don’t look like books. Each is a different form. Each has different needs and results.
DR Movies have no responsibility to the book, in the least. Someone must make a good movie. The movie needn’t be true to a book.
GS Truth in film is unnecessary.
DR Yes, but some accuracy is necessary. When writing about Chicago, locate the Wills Tower, the old Sears Tower, on South Franklin near West Adam. If a reader or viewer notices the Tower is somehow on North Lasalle near West Randolph, the writer is inept; readers don’t like inept writers. Readers and viewers catch such mistakes.
GS The question is accuracy, not truth.
DR Yes, if I describe a gun Rollie Waters uses and want to go into detail, for whatever reason, I must research the weapon, thoroughly, to ensure accuracy.
The first producer I worked for was Norman Bernstein. He knew a great deal about guns. I wrote a scene where a character picks up a gun and holsters it. That was hugely inaccurate.
Bernstein and I met after he read the script. He threw the script on the table and said, “This script sucks. Everything in it sucks.”
He shocked me. It was a good script. What could be so wrong?
It turns out I made a grave mistake in overlooking a detail. The character that picked up the gun didn’t check to see if it contained bullets. Bernstein said, “No one would ever do that. It’s terrible.”
The character was supposedly an expert gun user. No one, who knows about guns, would pick up a gun without checking if it contained bullets.
That guffaw was an easy fix. I asked about the rest of the script. Bernstein said, “I don’t care about the rest of the script.”
GS I would never have guessed.
DR Checking to see if the gun contains bullets is now part of me. The other night, I was watching a movie, with my daughter. I said, “Did you see the mistake the character made?”
GS The character didn’t check to see if she or he had a loaded gun.
GS Does a visual, of that sort, play out in a book.
GS What, if any, screenwriting “tricks” did you bring to your novels?
DR In writing for film, one rule is to start a scene as far into it as possible. Too much build up or context is expensive to shoot. I think this a habit helpful in novels, too. Some novelists might consider trying it, although it might lead to shorter books.
GS Has anyone come after the movie rights for Caravan of Thieves or “Middle Man.”
DR No, no rights have sold.
GS That’s interesting.
DR Isn’t it. I don’t know why. I do think the rights will sell.
GS Caravan is especially visual.
DR I agree.
GS Johnny Bannion, the large-than-life villain in Middle Man, is a character most suited to film.
DR Again, I agree.
GS Would you write the screenplay.
DR Yes, I would. I don’t fret over movie rights to my books too much. I think that’s putting the cart way before the horse. When the time is right, for ready a film, we’ll make the deal.
GS You wrote a movie, Renegades (1989), that’s become a cult favourite.
DR I didn’t know it had an audience. I get little cheques for it, now and again. I knew it was showing somewhere. I cash the cheques and am grateful.
GS What’s the story of Renegades?
DR In a few words, an undercover police officer teams with a Native American to recover a sacred lance and bust a ring of thieves.
GS Did you pitch the idea or a script?
DR Here’s what happened, with Renegades. For a while, I walked around with an idea about Circassian rebels. Circassia is on the east side of the Black Sea, roughly between Abkhazia and Crimea; it’s not all that far from Sochi, Russia, home to the 2014 Olympic Winter Games. I pitched the Circassians as treated much the way we treat Native North Americans.
DR My wife would hear me telling someone about how Circassians and Native North Americans are similar. One day, she says, “Why the hell don’t you just make them Indians, instead of telling everybody they’re like Indians?” I liked her suggestion.
I pitched the idea hard. My agent didn’t like the idea. No one liked the idea.
GS Sometimes it’s difficult to get your vision across to others.
DR I wrote the script to boost the pitch. Nobody liked the script, either. I was sure the movie would film, one way or another, but didn’t know how.
GS Why do you think no one liked the script?
DR The script had a particular style. No one responded to the style. That’s why I rewrote the script.
GS Was the original script unconventional.
DR It wasn’t that unconventional. I took a page from Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, such as Fistful of Dollars. I dropped all psychological motivation as a cause for the action.
GS Was the rewrite more conventional.
DR Yes, I would say so, but not one hundred per cent conventional.
GS How did the new script become a movie?
DR Through a friend, Melissa Bacharach, I found a new agent, Joe Ross; Melissa worked for Ross. At the time, he was working out of a trailer on the Fox Lot while filming Young Guns 2, in Arizona, with Kiefer Sutherland and Lou Diamond Phillips. Unknown to me, Ross gave my Renegades script to Sutherland and Phillips. They loved the script.
I landed a producer, too, David Madden. He now runs Fox Television Studios. The film became Renegades, starring Lou Diamond Phillips and Kiefer Sutherland.
GS The film shot because the right people saw your script.
DR Yes, I finally reached the right agent, actors and producer.
GS You pitched movie scripts when you worked for George Englund Productions.
DR I also worked, in the same capacity, for Norman Bernstein and Jack Ballard. They were independent producers.
Selling creative work, scripts and books, is hard work. It’s much harder than movie fans or book readers know. The first phrase, the first words, you speak must catch attention.
Pitching a film idea or script is an audition, often with a brief lifespan. In the middle of the first sentence, the producer or movie studio executive may stop you, cold, saying, “Thanks for your time.” Then you’re on your way out of his or her office.
GS We’ll call you. Don’t call us.
DR That’s it. I worked for George Englund for about two years. He grew up and around entertainment. His mother was Mabel Albertson; he was the nephew of actor, Jack Albertson. Marg and Jack had a vaudeville act, in the 1920s. He knew what he was doing.
Essentially, this fellow pitched the same story that’s about to film. Laurel had substance abuse problems, blew all his money in the days before residuals and ended his life living in a motel in Santa Monica, with his fourth wife.
He was findable. His address was in the telephone directory. A few people looked him up.
I thought this pitch was great. In those days, the television networks were still making movies. I worked up a pitch, supported by Englund, about the last days of Stan Laurel, for a television movie.
I pitched it to the head of television films at ABC. He said, “Oh no, no. Who cares about Stan Laurel, forget this.”
I said, “This is a great story.”
After some discussion, the fellow at ABC said, “Okay, I’ll test it.” The studios had a way of testing ideas, the mechanics of which I never knew.
The ABC Vice-president calls me about ten days later. He says, “I have good news and bad news for you. The good news is the idea for a movie about the last days of Stan Laurel tested the highest ever. The bad news is Brandon Tartakoff doesn’t like Laurel and Hardy.”
Tartakoff headed ABC, at the time. If he doesn’t like an idea or script, it goes nowhere at ABC.
I asked, “Why did you test it? Why didn’t you just ask Tartakoff?” I didn’t get an answer.
As years pass, I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who saw what a good story ABC turned down. Seemingly, this story pitched repeatedly; writers worked on different scripts, endings and so forth. Now, the Stan Laurel movie is set-up somewhere.
GS The rediscovery of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy is long overdue.
DR Oliver Hardy was a family man, a solid citizen. Laurel had been a terrible drunk. This may have sullied some opinions of him.
In the 1950s, someone said to Oliver Hardy, “You and Laurel are still big in the UK. You and Laurel should go over there. You’d be a huge hit.”
Stan Laurel, who was from Ulverson, England, didn’t want to go. He didn’t think anyone wanted to see Laurel and Hardy. Hardy talked him into it.
It was hard for Laurel to get going. Hardy didn’t need Laurel, at this point, but wouldn’t give up on him. Hardy pushed the UK tour more for Laurel than his own benefit.
They flew, landing first in Cork, Ireland. Media reports claimed it was the biggest crowd in Irish history. Huge crowds showed up everywhere they went. Laurel and Hardy earned such a reception.
GS That’s heart-warming.
DR Yes, exactly what they deserved. Laurel and Charlie Chaplin came to American, from the UK, in the same Fred Kamo troupe. Stan Laurel was Arthur Stanley Jefferson, at the time. Obviously, both became huge stars, but Laurel never got as much recognition as did Chaplin.
GS Hollywood is an unusual place.
DR When I moved to Los Angeles from Chicago, I worked as a bartender. I also wrote scripts for Norman Bernstein. He paid me five hundred to a thousand dollars a script.
Two comedy writers often visited the bar I tended. They, too, were from Chicago. We talked a great deal.
Every time these comedy writers came in to the bar, they would tell me how well they were doing. They were doing better all the time. I continued to make a few hundred dollars for the scripts I wrote.
Eventually, I left the bar and went to work for George Englund, in development. Marlon Brando was a good friend of Englund. Sure enough, Englund had me write a spec script for Brando.
One day, in a package store, I bumped into one of the comedy writers from the bar, at the checkout. The clerk says to me, “What are you doing these days?”
I say, “Well, I just wrote a script for Brando.” I figure I that topped a comedy writer. What’s bigger than a script for Marlon Brando?
The clerk asks the comedy writer, “What you doing?”
“I’m on the writing staff of The Jeffersons,” a top television sitcom at the time.
The clerk puts the bottle he’s bagging on the counter. He leans toward the comedy writer. He says, “You write for The Jeffersons. Wait ‘til I tell my wife.”
GS Did the script for Brando find a buyer?
DR No, that script flounder and now gathers dust on a shelf, somewhere.
DR It shows you where people live.
GS You wrote for television.
DR Yes, I wrote episodes of MacGyver, Stargate GS-1 and a short-lived show, Legend. As well, I wrote a pilot for Paramount that went nowhere.
For MacGyver, I wrote the Jack in the Box and Split Decision episodes. For Legend, the episode was Skeletons in the Closet. The episode I wrote for Stargate was Upgrades.
With Upgrades, the producers took parts of that episode for use in other episodes. Although what I wrote found its way into several episodes, of Stargate, there was only one payday; now get a small residual cheque, occasionally.
I wrote two episodes of MacGyver. One shot in Vancouver, British Columbia. “Stargate” also shot in Vancouver, by the way; Renegade filmed near Toronto. Most of what I’ve written shot in Canada, now that I think of it.
GS You can blame Canadian Content laws and government funding.
DR Yes, someone said I had to come to Vancouver for the first episode of MacGyver I wrote. The city was a wonder. I took a helicopter tour of Vancouver, which is such a beautiful city. We scouted locations. It was an interesting experience.
GS Writing MacGyver was surely an intricate task.
Someone at the company would say, “You want a small explosion, using certain ingredients easily found in the factory. Here’s how to do it.”
For the second episode, of MacGyver, I wrote, Dick Butkus, the former linebacker for the Chicago “Bears,” was the guest star. He was going to box the villain, with MacGyver in his corner. Thus, no ordinary boxing moves and strategies would do, it had to be MacGyver style.
I called the company in Tarrytown. I don’t know boxing, let alone MacGyver boxing, I’m a writer. I could do the research on my own, but this was much faster. I called and summarised my needs. Someone at the company told me how to make an ice pack using the same materials used to develop photographs, for example.
GS It was that easy.
DR Yes and MacGyver used a writer, Stephen Kandel, who is brilliant. He wrote episodes of Burke’s Law, Mission Impossible and many other television shows. His strength was he could write a shootable script in one week.
GS That’s a rare skill.
DR Yes, roughly fifty to fifty-five pages in one week. As well, Kandel knew a great deal about science. He was valuable to the show.
GS Is writing television is markedly different from writing for film or a novel.
DR The three are much different. You must remember, on television, there’s going to be a Tuesday night show, at nine o’clock, in the evening, no matter what. The writer must have the script ready, so someone can film the show and have everything done on schedule.
With movies, well, “We’re going to make this movie in May.” “Maybe we’ll make it in June.” “Maybe we won’t make that movie.” “We’ll make a different move.”
Television and film are different worlds. Television is right now, working on a tight schedule. Film is more fluid. A novel arrives in its own time.
GS There’s more money in film.
DR True, much more money, but film also a different animal.
GS Your first novel published after you spent roughly thirty years in Hollywood. Do you think age might affect writing a novel?
DR There are many pearls of wisdom, about age and art, which are wrong. One such pearl is only the young can write or create. These pearls are general and stupid.
Some thirty-year-olds are publishing books with good plots and characters; most thirty-year-olds aren’t. Life experience is necessary to pull together a novel, say, to see the context, the larger as well as the smaller picture, and the effects of that. Writing is difficult for everyone, regardless of age.
Knowing how to pitch a manuscript takes experience, too. The person you pitch, at best, is half listening. He or she may say something about one or another character being great, which confirms she or he has stopped listening.
Always, at a pitch, the first question is, “Who’s the writer?”
Someone says, “She won a Pulitzer Prize or he’s married to Michelle Pfeiffer.”
“Okay, make the deal.” Never mind the pitch. They know what they want to know.
If you say, “The writers are two middle-aged fellows, with a few or no credits,” the response is, “Don’t make the deal.” It doesn’t matter if the idea or script is great.
Story cogency is irrelevant. These women and men, the Hollywood decision makers, go to many parties. They want to shine their own apple to other producers.
One producer wants to say, “I made a deal with a writer that won a Pulitzer Prize.” The next one might say, “This week, I made a deal with a Nobel Laureate.” No one says, “I signed for a great idea and two older scriptwriters; the idea, story and writers have enormous potential.”
GS Everyone wants to maximise his or her status claims.
DR That’s how it works in Hollywood. The story isn’t important, maybe the director can find a way to make it compelling. The point is to make a deal with someone that others, such as the Nobel Committee, anointed as important and will make your ostensible friends envious.
That’s how Hollywood thinks about story ideas and writers.
GS You wrote Stargate and MacGyver scripts as you wrote and pitched film scripts.
GS You lived on the money paid by studios or producers that took an interest in your scripts.
DR Yes, that and rewrite money. Paydays were good, if often far apart. It took much discipline to do that for thirty years.
GS You appeared in a movie called, Corporate Affairs.
DR Yes, to take a small acting job, I had to join the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). SAG meant I get residual payments every time that movie shows on television, say. Once, I received a residual cheque in the amount was $1.24.
GS Cost more to prepare and mail the cheque.
DR Right, but every little bit helps.
GS Did the Los Angeles qua Hollywood lifestyle get to you?
DR Yes, but it was great when I was young, before I had a family. Then I started looking ahead.
I knew how option and rewrite money was inconsistent. I never knew how long it would last. I didn’t know what it meant for a family, until I had my own.
We, my wife and I, didn’t want to back our children into a nightmare. We had to think it over, a great deal. The day came when we had to get away from Hollywood. We moved to Connecticut.
GS What is your favourite movie?
DR Lawrence of Arabia is my favourite film.
GS That’s a great choice.
DR Lawrence has everything: a complicated character, in Thomas Edward Lawrence, known as T E, presented, fully, without many long speeches. David Bolt wrote a beautiful script. David Lean directed masterfully.
There are many great moments in Lawrence of Arabia. For example, when Lawrence comes out of the desert and one of the boys dies in the quicksand.
Another great part of Lawrence is at the Officer’s Club. Lawrence says, "I’ll have one of your lemonades." The bartender serves the drink. Lawrence takes a sip and says, “He likes your lemonade,” talking of himself in the third person.
Then Lawrence goes up the stairs to meet with Allenby, who wants to send him back to Arabia. Lawrence says, “I can’t go back.” Allenby asks why. “I killed a man,” says Lawrence. Allenby shrugs. “No,” says Lawrence, “you don’t understand. I liked it.”
Bolt wrote a great script. There are so many great scenes, in “Lawrence of Arabia,” that don’t dump information, when the temptation to dump surely soared. The spectacle adds to the grandeur of the movie.
David Lean did magnificent work. There’s no one ever better than Lean. He also directed Bridge on the River Kwai, Dr Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughter, among many others.
GS What other movies do you enjoy?
DR Withnail and I is another favourite. It’s a British film from the late eighties. It’s a great cult favourite, which, in some respects, matches my experience in the UK.
Bruce Robinson wrote and directed Withnail and I. Set in 1969, the film concerns two resting actors, Withnail and Marwood.
GS They’re resting actors.
DR Resting, in the UK, usually means unemployed or unemployable. To escape their substance abusing lives in dire poverty, Withnail, portrayed by Richard E Grant, and Marwood, portrayed by Paul McGann, flee to the countryside. Withnails’s uncle Monty, portrayed by Richard Griffiths, lets them live in his stone cottage in Penrith. As it turns out, they escape from one mess into another that’s different, yet worse.
When I was a child, The Five Pennies was my favourite movie. It’s the story of Red Nickels. He played jazz trombone and fronted a band called, “The Five Pennies.”
He had a daughter that contracted polio. He left the band to ensure a steady pay cheque to cover the medical bills. Danny Kaye starred in the movie.
GS What’s your favourite fiction book of any era or any time?
DR I’ll tell you the greatest book is Tom Jones. It’s unbelievably funny. Originally, the title was The History of Tom Jones. Henry Fielding wrote the book that published in 1749.
GS You enjoy modern writing.
DR All the time. Every line, in Tom Jones, is brilliant. The characters are so real, but exaggerated enough for the reader to identify with them. It’s an exceptional book. You can read “Tom Jones, over and again, which I do, without losing its effect.
GS What advice would you offer to someone wanting to write crime thrillers?
DR First, learn stubbornness. That’s what helped me most, in my writing career. Stick with writing and write what you believe.
I urge an aspiring writer to find a job on a newspaper. There a writer learns to tell a story on deadline.
Read the Ten Rules for Writing, by the late Elmo Leonard. Tip number one is leaving out the boring parts. This is hard for many writers or so it seems.
GS Would the boring parts be mostly information dumps.
DR Yes, information dumps are easily boring. You can’t dump pages about the setting or character on readers, without adverse effect, usually. Readers either skip the dump or, more likely, find another book to read.
As well, writers must write. Almost no first book is a best-seller; it happens, but not often. Most writers that have best-sellers have written half a dozen books that interested no publisher.
GS It might take five years and five rejected manuscripts to become an overnight success.
DR Exactly and I think writers should writer what interests her or him, not what she or he knows. I didn’t phrase that well. There should be some adventure, something new, for the writer to hold his or her interest; such interest easily moves to the reader
GS That’s a good distinction.
DR What a writer knows may bore him or her. Writing what she or he finds interesting is different. The journey through what interests the writer is great for the reader and the writer.
I started writing movies when I was twenty something. My attitude was I could write any movie. One day someone asked me to write about a topic that did not interest me, at all. I couldn’t do it. My heart sank.
I got a little older. I grew more mature and understanding. I realised that it was best for me to let someone else write scripts in which I had no interest.
GS Elmore Leonard used “said,” such as, “He said” or “Ricco said,” as his only dialogue tag.
DR Mostly, I use “said,” although I’m aware Elmore Leonard cautioned to avoid any tag except “said.” It’s a good rule. I have Rich’s Rule, too: don’t follow any rule too strictly.
Yes, Leonard is right, but it can start to sound silly or stilted after a few hundred pages. Sometimes the dialogue calls for something else. I think I stayed close to what Leonard cautioned, though.
GS Yet you use dependent clauses as part of the attribution.
DR Yes, I do many. It’s a first person style. Rollie, as the hero of Caravan of Thieves and Middle Man, never or rarely accepts what somebody says as it appears; he digs deeper into less obvious meaning. This, I think, often calls for more than “said.”
GS Leonard believed his readers learned to ignore “He said” or “She said,” which improved the story and the reading experience.
DR I think he’s right. He was shrewd. His use of “said” is as a place keeper. At every third or fourth line, he throws it in so you know where you are on the page or in the dialogue.
GS The reader doesn’t worry over getting lost.
DR Yes, but I suspect this rule, to use “said” as the dialogue tag, is way of saying most writers can’t pull off other means of attribution. John Banville, also writing as Benjamin Black, for example, doesn’t adhere to this rule.
Banville qua Black writes that someone “spoke mournfully.” He has his own style. He can effectively describe the manner of speaking, making it a key part of the story.
Any rule is subject to overuse. Leonard, I think, also believed if the dialogue is good, well written, the tone is clear. The writer doesn’t have to tell the reader how to interpret dialogue.
GS Robert B Parker used, “said,” to speed up the story. This added to the excitement or the tension.
DR That’s exactly right, too. I’ll give you another author that doesn’t adhere to the “said” rule strictly, but no one would think of him this way as a poor writer, that’s Evelyn Waugh. He limits attribution, often to none.
Waugh builds his characters and stories, well, with near perfection. This is clear in Brideshead Revisited or A Handful of Dust. The dialogue and its source are always clear. You know whose speaking. You know their tone and intent.
GS How do you develop dialogue?
DR Characters, placed in the right circumstances, get the writer thinking from their viewpoint. The dialogue thus comes out, naturally.
GS That’s what all great writers say.
DR It’s true. For the writer, it helps to think like an actor. It helps me, as a writer, to think as an actor. When I do, scenes improve, as does the dialogue.
Actors think, “This scene is about me.” If the writer thinks like an actor, the story moves more smoothly. Elmore Leonard said he hated some of the movies made from his books because they treated his characters as clowns, although he wrote them with serious intent.
GS Do you ever sit in a restaurant or coffee shop to listen to conversations at other tables.
DR I do, sometimes, for fun, when I’m not thinking about writing. I was a bartender at one point. I heard much as a bartender. I don’t steal those lines. I don’t need to borrow dialogue. My characters have lines they give me.
GS The characters can speak for themselves.
DR Yes, I have a place a character is going; she or he is going there for a reason. In Middle Man, there was Johnny Bannion and his dialogue wobbled a great deal. The problem was I had him wrong, when I started to write the book.
Originally, Bannion felt wrong, but I didn’t respond quickly enough. His dialogue felt forced. The character wasn’t right.
Eventually, I threw out my original idea for Bannion. I restarted the character. I know I got him right because I could have written two hundred more pages of him.
Unfortunately, Bannion dies in Middle Man. The story demanded his death. Readers seemingly like the character, but he’s gone.
GS You attended Tulane University, in New Orleans.
DR Yes and I did an MA, in English, at the University of Colorado, in Boulder. During my BA, I spent a year studying in Cardiff, Wales. I think that’s where the idea for the Johnny Bannion character, in Middle Man, came to me.
GS Why did you go to graduate school?
DR I had a vague idea I’d become an English professor. I’d wear a tattered sweater, my elbows poking through the sleeves, and write books. In the end, an MA makes you able to impress others and depress yourself.
GS You got the book writing part right.
DR Yes, but it took a while.
GS Would you advise graduate school for those who want to become best-selling authors?
DR No, they should write, write, write, until they die. If graduate school supplies confidence, fine, go for it. If it’s going to make them arrogant, stay away from graduate school.
David Rich writes crime thrillers. Chris Allen writes action thrillers. Steve Berry writes historical thrillers. Rich, Allen and Barry weave remarkable, intricate stories, each much different from the other.
How do all these novels qualify as a thriller? The noun, thriller, seems hollow. The word pleads for help. What form of thriller? Without an adjective, the word lacks any authority.
Readers easily identify with the crime at the core of Caravan of Thieves and “The Middle Man.” In Iraq, American soldiers find stores of US $100 bills; the most sought currency and denomination. Some soldiers try to keep the money or skim, off the top, before turning it over.
Greed is an age-old theme. There are suitable levels of want for everything, even love and affection. A rapid or vapid craving for money or power leads to chaos and great crime thrillers.
The leitmotif, of these stories, how fathers and sons get along, echoes widely. Many adults have a dialogue with long dead parents. It’s a common event.
Part of us never stops being a child. We seek parental advice or reassurance, even when we are elderly. Parents never lose their influence or children their dependence.
When it comes to writing, Rich is a Panster; he writes by the seat of his pants. Once he has an idea, he sits at the keyboard and goes. Whatever flows from his mind through his fingers is what he writes. Occasionally, he gets up and walks around, maybe going up and down the stairs a few times. This way, Rich writes roughly fifteen hundred words a day.
The opposite of a Panster is a Clocker, a planner. Clockers outline a story and, more or less, fill in the blanks. Elizabeth George may be the supreme Clocker. “For a complete book, her outline can run hundreds of pages,” says Eileen Cook, the author.
Rich sees a huge difference in screenplays and novels. A screenplay begins with a frame. That is, it starts with an event that causes action leading to a resolution. For example, someone steals a sacred icon. Action to find the icon takes place. The icon returns to its rightful owner.
Brian Linse, the movie producer suggests a simpler movie frame. Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king’s men and all the king’s horses couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together, again. Not a Hollywood ending, but a good movie frame, nonetheless.
A novel begins with an idea. For example, ‘a clumsy man inherits the props of a famous magician he did not know.’ ** How the idea flourishes is up to the writer. Maybe the clumsy man becomes a world famous magician. Maybe, once broken, a secret code, he finds in one prop, leads him to solve an infamous crime of the past. The maybes are endless.
Form may hamper screenwriting. A novel needs only a good idea; otherwise, the writer is without limits. Writing a novel seems much more difficult than writing a screenplay.
* Julian Coman (2003), “Troops tempted by Saddam’s $780m hoard,” in the “Telegraph for 27 April.
Roland Person on http://bookclubs.barnesandnoble.com/t5/mystery/featured-new-release-the-middle-man-by-david-rich/td-p/1470717
** This is a variation on an idea Woody Allen had.
dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.
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