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Monday, January 29, 2007

Author Interview ~ Brian Garfield

Brian Garfield is a novelist, screenwriter and producer who wrote his first published book at the age of eighteen. His novel, Hopscotch, won the Edgar Award for Best Novel. He's best known for his novel Death Wish, adapted for the film of the same title. He is also the author of The Thousand-Mile War: World War II in Alaska and the Aleutians, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for History. The film sequel to Death Wish, Death Sentence is currently scheduled for a 2007 release. Brian and his wife Bina divide their time between homes in Los Angeles and Santa Fe.

What book or project is coming out or has come out that you’d like to tell us about?

The current book, just out, is "The Meinertzhagen Mystery". I think of it as a corrective biography. It's intended to show how gullible we all can be. Several biographies have been written about the heroic Richard Meinertzhagen (British war hero, spy, natural scientist, explorer), and he figures as a historical character in a zillion histories and in various movies (e.g. "The Lighthorsemen") and tv shows. He lived from the 1870s to the 1960s, was a model for James Bond, worked for Winston Churchill and worked with T.E. Lawrence ("of Arabia"), bestrode the earth and impressed a great many leaders.

His legend -- largely based on his own yarns and the thousands of pages of his diaries, some of which he published -- is a marvelous construction of exploits and heroics and scientific "finds". Some of them are true. Most of them are false. He was a wonderfully convincing fraud. . . . A moment's suspicion, years ago, led me on a quest that's lasted an absurdly long time and provided a convoluted mass of documentation, but it's created several great friendships, and the result shows how even celebrated leaders and earnest historians can be hoodwinked.

I’d imagine you use a lot of your fiction writing skills to make a biography interesting. It must be tempting though to want to embellish or put in clever twists that would fit the “story” perfectly but didn’t really happen. What are the challenges of writing biography as opposed to a novel?

Those temptations didn't apply, in this case. I've written nonfiction before -- "The Thousand-Mile War" is a history of World War II in Alaska, and contains no fictional elements; and "Western Films", a sort of encyclopedia. I've written pure fiction as well. Somewhere between those poles come a number of novels based on real people and events, or based on claims made by real people, and in those cases I've enjoyed adding elements to make the stories more exciting or to give us new views of characters.

(All the same, sometimes, even in historical novels, I do feel obliged to honor the facts -- for instance in "Manifest Destiny", a lightly novelized version of young Theodore Roosevelt's life as a rancher in Dakota Territory, TR's dialogue is made up almost entirely of his own words from his letters and other writings.)

"The Meinertzhagen Mystery" is fact and interpretation; the only fictions in it are those that were created by Richard Meinertzhagen as he constructed his mythology. It takes vastly longer to write this kind of book because you can't make anything up. Every fact, no matter how small, must be proved -- but this kind of investigative work makes the job fascinating. So you use muscles that are altogether different from the ones you use in writing fiction (or writing screenplays, which require still another separate set of muscles).

Impressively, the first novel you had published, you wrote when you were just eighteen. How did you learn the craft of fiction writing?

By reading and by imitation. My high school English teacher, Don Everitt, who is 100 years old now, encouraged me to write stories in place of class themes. Then I kept writing short stories and sending them off to pulp magazines. That was the very end of the pulp era, and the magazines kept folding.

I took it personally -- I'd send in a story, and the magazine would die. Made me feel downright guilty. Also I had a marvelous mentor in a great and amiable writer named Fred Glidden, who wrote novels and stories under the pen name Luke Short. He was generous enough to read my childish scribbles and criticize them as if I were a grown up and might actually understand what he was saying. In all, I think I became a writer because so many good people encouraged me to keep doing it until I got it right. I never did get it right, but am still trying.

Your bio is amazing. You’ve won the Edgar Award, were a finalist for the American Book Award and the Pullitzer. Seventeen films have been based on your writing, more than twenty million copies of your books have sold worldwide and you even earned a performance on American Bandstand with a top forty hit as a musician. It seems everything you touch is a success. What’s your secret?

Luck. That's not false modesty, it's fact. I work hard, and may or may not do good work, but in the end nobody in the arts can anticipate what will succeed and what won't. If there were a formula for hits there'd be no flops. The publishing and entertainment industries keep thinking they've got a lock on such a formula, and they keep proving they're wrong. If you look at any given bestseller list you'll find excellent works right next to dreadful trash. There's no relationship between quality and popularity. . . . Having said all that, I must add that the one sure guarantee of failure in the arts is to give up. Persistence comes second only to luck. If you keep trying, you have a chance to succeed. If you quit, you have no chance.

Success is said to change a person. Do you find that to be true of you? If so, how so?

I'm not sure how to answer that because I'm not sure what I'd have been like, or what sort of life I'd have had, if I hadn't been able to make a living as a writer. I love writing, as a craft, and have enjoyed it for a lot of years, but am lucky enough to have flown beneath the radar -- I'm not a celebrity and do not get recognized. Anonymity is freedom.

"Success" to me is largely the sense that I've done a good job, and once in a while it's reinforced by a compliment or two from peers. Celebrity in itself is not a measure of success, and in fact celebrity is horrible punishment. I've worked on the fringes of the movie business long enough to know that the only person more miserable than an out-of-work actor is a successful actor. I can't imagine why anybody would want to be a star. . . . In the monetary sense, I suppose material success has changed some things -- (a) I can do a lot of unpaid research and follow my nose wherever it leads me, and (b) I've become more generous over the years because we can afford to work with a lot of charities now.

What, in your opinion, is/are the element(s) your highly acclaimed works contained that made them so well received?

Suspense is the key to the stories (novels, movies). I don't know what else to suggest. Suspense, by the way, is not violence and it is not action. Suspense is jeopardy -- it's anticipation. What's going to happen next? Often it consists in the anticipation of danger. Too many people fail to understand that distinction.

With all your successes, you’re still best known for your novel adapted to movie: Death Wish. Is there a downside to that kind of notoriety for a certain work?

Sure. The new movie's title is "Death Sentence". Friends tell me the only way I can get anything produced is to put the word "Death" in the title. . . . They're kidding, sort of, but one early critique of my new Meinertzhagen book -- a critique written by someone who has not seen or read the book -- dismisses it as having been tossed off by "the guy who wrote Death Wish". One does get stuck with a reputation. Sometimes one may deserve it. All one can do is keep working and ignore the idiots.

What piece of writing have you done that you’re most proud of and why?

That's tough. Many prolific writers will say "They're all my children -- you're asking me to pick a favorite child?" To an extent I agree with that. I did a long apprenticeship in paperback Westerns and most of them are ephemeral, but of the books I've written since then, I'd be hard put to point to one with more pride than others. I think "Kolchak's Gold" is the best historical novel, and "Recoil" may have the edge among the thrillers, and "Wild Times" is my best (or at least longest) novel of the old West.

Of the movies, on the other hand, I can easily single out "Hopscotch" (Walter Matthau, Glenda Jackson). It was hell to write (26 drafts) but pure joy to produce, to film, and to see. Movies rarely give a writer that kind of satisfaction because film is not a writer's medium. Among the films my second most proud choice is "The Stepfather" even though my connection is more ephemeral -- I was its creator and original producer, but the excellent screenplay is by Don Westlake, and we had to sell the project in order to get it filmed. It's not "my" movie, really, but I think it's a good one.

You have a movie coming out that you adapted as a screenplay from your novel. Can you tell us a bit about that?

It's the aforementioned "Death Sentence". Cast is headed by Kevin Bacon, Kelly Preston, John Goodman and Aisha Tyler. Director is James Wan. I wrote the novel, and the first two screenplay drafts. Subsequent scripts are by Ian Jeffers. At this writing, filming is completed and the movie is being edited -- it's tentatively scheduled for release in April (20th Century Fox). I haven't seen it yet.

The novel, which I wrote years ago as a sort of penance for the movie version of "Death Wish", attempts to demonstrate in dramatic form that vigilantism is not a solution -- it's a problem, and tends to destroy those who attempt it. So far as I know, the new movie preserves that intention, even though the details of the story have changed a great deal from book to movie script.

How did you go from novel writing to screen writing?

There's an assumption in Hollywood that if you're a successful writer in one medium (say, musical theater, or fiction) you're likely to be successful in others (say, movies or tv). This is not necessarily true -- they all are different art forms. Some writers are equally at home in several, but that's not a given. I'm a hopelessly bad playwright, for instance, and can't write songs or verse. I had published a number of Westerns and therefore, encouraged by my agent, Universal hired me to write a Western movie. It didn't get filmed, but it opened the doors.

If a novelist wanted to make that jump, how would you suggest they begin?

Find a good agent. Other than that, there are as many answers to this question as there are writers.

Of all the types of writing you do: novels, screenplays, non-fiction, etc., what’s your favorite and why?

The novel is the most rewarding, because it's your own. It comes from who you are -- what you feel, what you think, what you imagine. I enjoy the detective work of nonfiction, but feel limited by the facts, which exist separately from me. As for screenwriting, it's fun as an exercise and it can pay very well, but it's a poor third at best because unless you're producing and perhaps directing as well, a hundred people have the authority to "fix" your work, and most of them have no talent and no qualifications other than ego.

Newsweek reported that your suspense writing tips are the secret behind John Grisham’s success. Would you be willing to share a few with us … pretty please?

It's an article that was published in Writer's Digest in Feb. 1973 and reprinted in the 1994 Writer's Yearbook. Thanks for reminding me -- rather than take up more space here, I'm posting it on my website at

With all the success you’ve experienced, do bad reviews (if you get them) get to you?

Oh yeah, I get 'em. They did bother me at first. After a while I began to realize that reviews aren't addressed to the author. They're addressed to the reader. I don't think I've ever learned anything useful from reading reviews of my work. (This is partly because a review comes after the book is published, when it would be too late to make changes even if I wanted to.)

If you could go back and talk to yourself at eighteen, what advice or warning would you give you?

At eighteen I was in the army. (Wrote my first-published book there.) With hindsight, I think I'd advise the young "me" to pay more attention to human behavior and less attention to pseudo-lit'ry formulas. My early stories were derivative of other writers, and relied more on convention than on observation. It's better to use your own eyes than those of a predecessor.

Is there a writing dream you still want to accomplish?

I want the book I'm writing now to be better than anything I've done before. That's always the dream.

Is there an upcoming author you’re particularly excited about?

He's too established by now to be called "upcoming," but I'm a great fan of the novels of Alan Furst.

What are a few of your favorite novels?

Anything by Graham Greene, John Le Carre and Michael Dobbs, among others.

Parting words?

Wanting to "be a writer" is silly. WRITING is great. First learn the proper use of the language. Then write.


  1. Brian, thank you so much for allowing me to interview you. What an interesting life you have. You seem like a really great person as well as writer. Best wishes.

  2. Thanks, Brian, for the interview. I love where you said success is knowing you've done a good job.

    You also said, "...the one sure guarantee of failure in the arts is to give up. Persistence comes second only to luck. If you keep trying, you have a chance to succeed. If you quit, you have no chance."

    So true. Someone said, "People don't fail; they quit."

    Thanks again. You've given us some pearls of wisdom.

  3. Wow! Great interview Brian and insightful questions, Gina. But my favorite are Brian's parting words, "Then write."

    Thanks you for sharing your journey with us, Brian. And that tiger is about the size of my mastiff or will be when he finishes growing, ;)

  4. Brian, what a treat to see you here! Thanks for the interview. Any man with a taste for Le Carre and Greene has a lot of class, and of course, I've raced through a few of your books--"Hopscotch" was the first, but not the last.

  5. Great interview. Le Carre and Greene are in my top five. I'll have to pick up some of your books.

  6. I have never read any of your book Mr. Garfield but I have seen a few of the movies.

    I have always wanted to write and now I will.

    CD Deroche

  7. Death Wish is one of my favorites. I highly recommend the book, as well as the first film.


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