Monday, October 21, 2013

An Interview with Stephen Mertz

A big thanks to Stephen Mertz for doing this interview – Stephen should need no introduction, as he’s had a huge impact on the men’s adventure genre over the years. In this interview he discusses his early days working with Don Pendleton, his years with Gold Eagle, the creation of the MIA Hunter series and others…and the promising tidbit that there might be more Mark Stone adventures on the way!

Tell us about yourself – how did you get into writing, and what were you doing before?

I was born a writer. Started scribbling stories when I was 13 and never stopped. Broke away from the 9-to-5 day job world 40 years ago and have been living by my wits on back roads ever since. I’m a musician, so I’ve fronted blues bands. Managed a resort for a summer, owned a secondhand bookshop in a small mountain town and ran a used record shop in a big city. Spent much of the ‘70s and ‘80s on the road just to see what was around the next bend. Settled in Arizona. Always writing.

What was your first published work?

First pro sale was a short story in 1975. First novel was Some Die Hard, four years later. A private eye story. Rock Dugan's first and only appearance. Funny how many writers of my generation (Reasoner, Lansdale, Randisi, Shiner, etc) first emerged as private eye writers in the tradition handed down from Hammett, Chandler and Spillane. There's just something about that sort of poetic hardboiled stuff that got us, I guess. If you've never read Spillane, you must sample One Lonely Night; the first chapter of that one makes for a brilliant noir short story, and the novel itself vividly shows the literary (?!) roots of action/adventure.

How did you become involved with working with Don Pendleton?

I wrote Don a fan letter out of the blue after discovering the Executioner series in 1973. I received in return a most gracious and down to earth letter that invited a response. I revealed that I was an aspiring writer and Don offered to read the manuscript I was working on, which became Some Die Hard. He kept it for about a month, and then sent back a 6-page single-spaced critique, pointing out trouble areas in character, plot and pacing, and suggestions on how to remedy its considerable shortcomings. When the book appeared, I dedicated it to Don and in fact used a couple of his “suggestions” word-for-word.

What was the working relationship like with Don – what was an average day like working with him?

At first, not long after we connected, Don was looking for someone to help him with his 4-book-per year production schedule, which he found daunting. Don was a craftsman, not a human word machine, and in retrospect there seems in his career to be periods of high productivity and then times when he had to cool down and step back; of course, contractual deadlines have no respect for such artistic foibles. Don paid me to write a draft of Colorado Kill Zone to the best of my then-ability. I was still living in Denver at the time. When the job was done, he dutifully paid me, and then threw away everything I’d written and rewrote an entirely new novel, which is the one that was published, naturally. My only contribution to that book is its first sentence.

A few years later I was on one of my open-ended road trips and took Don up on his invitation to visit and hang out for a spell at Pendle Hill, his home in the rolling hills of Brown Country, Indiana. We got to know each other and became friends. That trip also later took me to Bakersfield, California (I did say those trips were open-ended), where Don had requested that I meet up with Mike Newton, another Bolan fan who had made contact with Don. Mike and I hit it off and not long after that, Don invited us both to resettle in Brown County where the plan was to produce Executioner novels as a team for Pinnacle. Mike and I plotted and wrote a draft of Cleveland Pipeline. We’d have weekly story conferences with Don, then Mike would go and write these scenes and I’d go write those scenes. Don then took what we’d written for the Cleveland book, used it as an outline, holed up in the A-frame he used for an office on Pendle Hill and rewrote the book word-for-word in about a week.

That was the coldest winter in Indiana since God was born, so come the first sign of spring, Mertz hightailed it back out west. Mike stayed on to write Arizona Ambush and Tennessee Smash, after which Don regained his stride and, on his own, wrote the remainder of the Pinnacle Executioner series.

What can you tell us about Don Pendleton the man? I’ve often read that he would “act out” scenes from his manuscripts in an effort to ensure realism; is this true?

Naw, that’s PR guff. He might have paced off positions to block out an action scene now and then, but most writers do that. I’ve heard the term Renaissance man bandied about often but hands down, Don Pendleton is the only true Renaissance man I ever knew. He was my mentor. A warm Arkansas drawl and chuckle offset eyes that glinted with steely Bolan resolve. A thinker of the first magnitude; a dynamic man, embodying all that word implies. A disciplined free spirit who could discuss Copernicus or the craft of writing and marketing commercial fiction with equal ease and enthusiasm. WWII and Korean War veteran, musician, philosopher, metaphysician, lover of life in all its many manifestations, and a gifted writer who created a genre, Don Pendleton was one hell of a guy. Anyone interested in Don or in his work will learn much about both from his book on writing, The Metaphysics of the Novel.

How did you become involved with Gold Eagle?

Don hooked me up with Harlequin’s Bolan program on the ground floor. I wrote 12 Bolan novels and one Mack Bolan short story.

What was it like, working with Gold Eagle?

It was fun at first. In the beginning Gold Eagle was concerned with sustaining the readership Don had built up to that time and so I saw myself in a sort of caretaker status, trying to preserve what Don had created. I worked hard on those Bolan books and one of them, Day of Mourning, is still ranked by the hardcore fans at as one of the top ten Bolan novels ever written (over the hundreds of other titles), thirty years after I wrote it.

It’s my understanding that Sylvester Stallone bought the rights to The Executioner #43: Return to Vietnam (July, 1982), which you wrote. Three years later, Rambo: First Blood Part II came out, bearing a similar storyline of Rambo freeing American POWs in Vietnam, yet you and Gold Eagle were not credited. Do you have anymore information on this situation, and did you ever hear what drew Stallone to this particular volume of the series?

Ahem, its quality, I would presume. At the time, Stallone owned screen rights to the entire series. At first everyone thought it was because he was going to make a Bolan movie but as it turned out, he just didn’t want anyone else making a Bolan movie that would compete with his Rambo interpretation; screen rights also allowed him to dip into the GE novels for source material. Given my respect for the guy, and especially that second Rambo film which I feel is the best of the movies, I’ve always been proud that they chose one of my novels to draw from.

I’ve heard that when Don Pendleton was having trouble with Gold Eagle, you came to his defense. Could you shed some light on this situation, and what all was going on?

I’m no lawyer and you’re talking 30 years ago but off the top of my head, it went like this. When Don sold the Bolan franchise to Gold Eagle, apparently the contract included a non-competition clause; i.e., Don could not write action adventure novels for anyone else. Well, Don was a writer and writers write, so sometime in the mid 1980s, his agent placed the Ashton Ford, Psychic Detective series with a competing publisher. The pinheads at Harlequin decided this was a breech of the non-competition clause and took Don to court. In truth, for anyone out there who hasn’t read one, the Ashton Ford novels are paranormal New Age allegories involving flying saucers, time travel, metaphysics, and stuff like that. There aren’t even action scenes in the books! But as I recall it, GE’s position was that there are only two types of fiction, romance and adventure, and since the Ford books weren’t romance novels, they were obviously adventure novels and therefore violated the terms of the contract. It was a greedy, nasty thing for a publisher to do. They were basically trying to keep Don from ever writing and selling again. Anyway, he needed a wingman and I was privileged to join the team. I flew back to NYC and testified in court as to the specific elements of action adventure, which clearly did not apply to the Ashton Ford books. Long story short, Don won what was essentially a nuisance suit. Naturally, my participation lowered the curtain on my work for GE but I was glad to go. I’m a restless sort. I’d gone into the program promising myself that I’d write no more than ten of the things and I ended up writing twelve because the money was good. In those days, Mack Bolan authors received a cut of the royalties, unlike today. But I’d grown bored being someone else’s product.

Please share some insight into the origins of the MIA Hunter series. It was always my assumption that it was intended to capitalize on the “POW-rescue” aspect of First Blood Part II, but it would seem that the series was already planned and being written a year or so before that film even came out.

That Bolan novel, Return to Vietnam, pretty much knocked people out when it first appeared. The book was a tremendous success and made several trade bestseller lists. An editor at Berkley saw the potential and asked me to sketch the MIA concept as the basis for a series. They liked Mark Stone, Terrance Loughlin and Hog Wiley, and so The MIA Hunter was born. By the way, those books ended up resonating with a broad audience of readers beyond the general men’s series readership. In the 1980s, there was a genuine concern among many that there were living American MIA/POWs left behind after the end of the Vietnam War. Anecdotal evidence kept filtering out that we’d left men behind who were still alive, though nothing ever materialized to the best of my knowledge. You can still see the black MIA/POW flags flying.

MIA Hunter wrapped up right around the time the genre was dying so ignobly, so I'm curious if Mark Stone's adventures ended or if you got word from the publisher that the series was over and thus never wrote a final volume?

It was the ever-changing marketplace what done in the original MIA Hunter series. This is why I’m so jazzed about the whole ebook revival of Mark Stone. He will remain at the age when he’s in his physical prime, in the time honored tradition of Mack Bolan, Mike Shayne, etc.

While The MIA Hunter was being published you were also writing the Cody’s Army series, correct? What was the background on that series?

That would be John Cody, honcho of a badass commando unit operating with White House sanction; Cody’s men are Richard Caine the Brit and big Rufe Murphy. Those boys kicked it for several books but they never did catch on like The MIA Hunter. I wrote the Cody books as “Jim Case,” and they’re all available under that name as ebooks. Cody’s my second string guy; good, but he’s no Mark Stone. With both series, I brought in co-writers to help when the deadline grind got to be, well, too much of a grind; pretty much for the same reason that Don had originally brought me into the fold. I’ve always admired, and sometimes envied, those prolific writers who seem to effortlessly turn out a dozen or more books every year, but I’ve never been able to do that. For a couple of years there I was as much a book packager as I was a writer. I was buying time, using income from the series work to subsidize development of my first “real” novel, Blood Red Sun (i.e., the first hardcover published under my own name).

What other series fiction did you work on in the ‘80s and ‘90s?

There was a two-book Vietnam deal called The Tunnel Rats, a couple of westerns in the Trailsman series, some ghost work that I can’t cop to. Contract writing paid the bills and, as I say, subsidized more ambitious, less formula-bound work efforts.

What led you to make the decision to leave series fiction/ghostwriting and to write and publish under your own name?

I hooked up with Writers Digest Magazine as an instructor in their on-line writers’ workshop program, which has really been rewarding at several levels. I’m able to share what I know about the craft with new writers, and the income that provides freed me up to get off the series treadmill. I now write mostly without those looming deadlines. This strategy has hardly made me a brand name author, but I have managed to sell everything I’ve written and for the most part I’ve been published to good reviews, so I’ll take that. Not that I’ve in any way lost my affection for pulp fiction. Since leaving the series field I’ve written a couple of short stories that are pure pulp. I mean, does it get any pulpier than “The Lizard Men of Blood River?” With my own work, the intent is to retain the vigor and immediacy of pulp fiction while delivering more than formula cliché in terms of character and plot.

Which of your own novels, both standalone and series, stand out in your own mind, and why?

The Castro Directive, my latest, is available from Crossroad Press in paper and ebook format. I suspect most writers of my generation have a Kennedy book in them and this is mine. It’s about the Bay of Pigs. A reviewer called it, “a kick-ass history lesson.” I like the sound of that. Of the others, Hank & Muddy comes straight from the heart: Hank Williams and Muddy Waters bump into each other one August night in Shreveport in 1952. Misadventures ensue. I guess that’s my favorite so far. Two others that did pretty much what I wanted them to would be Blood Red Sun, a WWII thriller, and Night Wind, a novel of dark suspense. Of the series work, an MIA Hunter novel, L.A. Gang War, is the best.

What projects are you currently working on?

Writing-wise, I’ve just finished a novel about Jimi Hendrix. As for the writing business, I’m busy promoting The Castro Directive and the resurgence of interest in the MIA Hunter, thanks to Crossroad Press republishing the series as ebooks (except for the three I wrote with Joe R. Lansdale, which will be published together as an omnibus from Subterranean Press). I’m enthused about the vibrancy of the ebook market and if the current demand keeps up, there will be new Mark Stone adventures to come. Stay tuned for details…


RJR said...

Great interview with one of the icons of my era who many people know under many different names.


Walker Martin said...

Thanks for this interview with Stephen Mertz. I knew Stephen back in the 1970's when we both attended Pulpcon in Ohio. We both were interested in pulp magazines like BLACK MASK, etc. I went on to build up a collection of the pulps and Stephen went on to write original paperback novels. Looks like we both are still at it after all these years.

James Reasoner said...

Great interview, you guys! Steve, I'll have a review of THE CASTRO DIRECTIVE coming up soon on my blog. Many thanks for the dedication. It means a lot to me.

AndyDecker said...

Great interview. Never knew that Mr. Mertz was that much involved with the early Executioners.

Funny what things stick in mind. I first heard his name when Max Allan Collins mentioned him in one of his early softboiled "Mallory" novels, as the hero was a crime writer himself. Something like "a writer of a dumb but succesful string of violent novels." Without a doubt he phrased it nicer, don't have the book any longer. It was a first clue that the new Executioner books were not being writen by Pendleton himself any longer.

I liked his Bolan novels, but wasn't wild about them. Still he got what is in my mind one of the most iconic titles and covers ever on the series. Just look at "Save the Children" and you see what I mean :-)

wayne d. dundee said...

A terrific, informative interview! I've read much of Steve's stuff (HANK & MUDDY, something of a departure for him, is a real standout!) but I somehow never got around to the MIA HUNTER books. I'll have to remedy that soon, what with their new availability as eBooks) ... Never knew about the Bolan MIA book's association to to RAMBO II. Like Steve, that's my favorite of the film series, too ... Again, an extremely well done interview, gentlemen!

Linda Pendleton said...

Very nice interview! Steve was a big part of the early Gold Eagle program. And a couple of his books will always be favorites with Bolan fans.

I do want to add one thing in the question asked about Stallone. His company had the option on the series for a year, I believe in 1988, and about the time he began getting it together, the Writers Guild of America 1988 Strike came about and stopped the progress (which at the time did not amount to much except for a couple of meetings and phone calls). So when the strike was over Stallone moved on to other projects and the option ended. I believe that the Rambo II movie came out a few years (1985?) before Stallone had the film option on the Executioner Series. But where he got his ideas for his movie, who knows. :-)

Thanks for the good interview, Steve and Joe.

And good luck with your new projects, Steve.

Greg said...

Great interview!

As a point of reference, according to imdb, Kevin Jarre wrote the story (or treatment) that Rambo: First Blood Part Two was based on.

Having read Return to Vietnam I remember thinking that the similarity to Rambo II was uncanny. Perhaps a few too many similarities to be a coincidence. I'd be curious to see the pages Kevin Jarre wrote.

I'm with Mr. Mertz and Mr. Dundee, Rambo: First Blood Part Two is my favorite of the series.

More MIA Hunters could be fun. Looking forward to seeing where the series goes!