Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Interview: Stephen Mertz (author of THE CASTRO DIRECTIVE)

Stephen Mertz is a veteran popular author best known for his mainstream thrillers and novels of suspense, including several titles in the popular Mack Bolan, Executioner and MIA Hunter series. Additionally, his work includes darkly paranormal titles such as Night Wind and Devil Creek, hardboiled noir (Blood Red Sun), as well as historical speculative thrillers like Blood Red Sun and his latest — The Castro Directive. .

His work has been well received critically. Booklist called Night Wind a “fast-paced...a white-knuckle read” and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine labeled Mertz “an action specialist." Writing peers have also praised his work — Edgar-winning bestseller Joe R. Lansdale says Steve "writes a hard-edged thriller for those who like their tales straight and sharp and full of dark surprise"; and another Edgar-winner, Max Allan Collins, says "Stephen Mertz is one of my favorite novelists … a wonderful writer."

Steve is also a popular lecturer on the craft of writing and has appeared as a guest speaker before writer’s groups and at universities.

Recently, Steve agreed to an in-depth interview with yours truly. He's a pro's pro and I think you will enjoy this exchange:

WD:  Although we've known each other and have stayed in touch, on and off, for over thirty years, it occurs to me I know little or nothing about you, family-wise. Does your creativity (writing; music) run in the family? Did you get support/encouragement from anyone in particular as you were developing these talents? Marriage? Children?

SM: Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin though I’ve now been a westerner for most of my adult life. Normal middle-class upbringing in a small, loving family. Mom and Dad, bless them, encouraged and never discouraged my creativity. Marriage and children? Well, a couple of ex-wives in the slipstream of life but no kids. Happily domesticated these days with the same woman for nine years, so I’m settled down at last. Life is good.

WD:  You have called yourself a born writer and said you started "scribbling stories" when you were about 13, and never stopped. What do you remember about those very early stories? Were they genre-related, traceable in any way to your later work? 

SM:  Oh, sure. In fact my first novel, not published for another fifteen years, was actually dreamed up during a Geometry class that I was flunking in high school.

WD:  Speaking of influences --- All good writers start out as avid readers. Can you name some of your favorite writers, past and/or present? Were there any who influenced your own work at any stage along the way?

SM:  Well it all starts with Hemingway, doesn’t it? Where would any of us be without Papa? After that, I dunno, the usual suspects. Steinbeck. Hammett. Of course before that I’d begun with the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift, and by eighth grade I’d discovered Mike Shayne and Mike Hammer. The hardboiled tough guy private eyes constituted much of my extracurricular reading during high school. Spillane was king but I read ‘em all. Yes, there were influences. But when I first turned pro and broke in writing those Mack Bolan novels, one of the main reasons I signed on was to concentrate on refining my prose while maintaining a degree of anonymity. A learn-while-you-earn kind of deal. I revised those early Executioner novels quite a bit (which in itself is a rarity in writing of that sort), and by the end of my tenure on that series I’d pretty much consciously pruned from my writing the sound of any writers who I felt had a discernible stylistic influence on me. Of course with the Bolan books I was being paid to write like someone else but by the time I started in on my work, I’d found my own voice.

WD:  As a young man, you served a hitch in the Army and attended college. I'm not sure in what order. First of all, please accept my sincere gratitude for your service to our country, especially during that turbulent time, which – by my reckoning – would have been the 1960s. It was a time when military service and the mood in much of the country, especially on college campuses, were not always compatible. Can you tell us about any of your experiences during that time?

SM:  I’m like the guy in Little Big Man; I managed to survive in both worlds. I graduated from high school the summer that I Can’t Get No Satisfaction and Like a Rolling Stone were crackling the atmosphere from every car radio in America, and I heeded the rebel yell. Tried a semester of college but that didn’t take. You want to be a lawyer? Go to college. Same if you want to be a doctor or an accountant. But you’re 18 and you want to be a writer? Hit the road, jack. Travel as much as you can. Keep your eyes, ears and heart open and never stop reading and writing. At least, that’s how I did it. Headed out as a roadie for a rock band that never went anywhere except one trip to NYC where I lingered on the fringes of the hipster Village scene. Cold water walkup on McDougal. Nights digging Nico & The Velvet Underground at Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Headed south on enough train fare to get me as far as Atlanta, where I drove a delivery truck for a florist. Talk about your range of human emotions for a writer-in-training to observe! One minute you’re delivering flowers to a joyous wedding party, the next stop is a funeral service where they’re crying buckets. Eventually the draft board caught up with me in Tallahassee where I was sitting in on lectures and drinking too much beer. Campus life suited me just fine except for that business of taking classes and studying for tests. So for the next two years I wore OD green and rocketed to the rank of Specialist 5th Class, but with no “what did you do in the war, daddy” stories to share. In His wisdom, Uncle Sam sent me to Germany to push papers and keep an eye on them durn Ruskies. Probably would have sent me to Vietnam if it had been World War II. Had me an apartment off-base, an Italian girlfriend and got to travel around Europe and the England. The Army treated okay.

WD:  You've said that you broke away from the 9 to 5 grind about 40 years ago and never looked back. What type of work did you do during that 9 to 5 grind period? Since then, you have traveled extensively – always writing – and have worked at various other jobs along the way. Can you expand a bit on that also?

SM:  After the Army? Hell, everything from janitor to office clerk to the summer I managed a resort. But I was the world’s worst employee. A day gig for me existed only to make money so I could write. In retrospect, though, I now realize that I was watching, listening, learning and retaining in every one of those jobs. It’s all grist for the mill. You pay attention to the little stuff. I worked one winter as a janitor for a service that would go into teen beer bars in this college town. We’d hit them about 3 AM after the place had been emptied and everyone had gone home. Now, every night of the week these dumps were jam packed with college guys trying to pick up college girls and vice versa. Dim lights, loud music, the place is jumping. Loose change dropping left and right but in an atmosphere like that while you’re hustling a hottie, who’s going to say, “Excuse me, I dropped a quarter” and get down on your knees in the dark to look for it? But throw on the fluorescents for us hungry janitors and, man, you wouldn’t believe the loose change you could pick up. I found fifty bucks one night in three bars, and we were a four-man crew! So anyway, I knew the perks of being a janitor and one day in some way, into a book it goes.

WD:  In addition to your writing, you are an accomplished musician. Tell us more about that, please. What instruments do you play, favorite artists, etc? You wrote a wonderful book titled HANK & MUDDY a few years back (one of my favorites from you) and now I understand that you've recently finished a work about Jimi Hendrix. I assume these stemmed, to some degree, from your own interest in music? Care to tell us a little about the Jimi Hendrix book? Is it, like HANK & MUDDY, a fictionalized account of some event in Hendrix's life, or is it more biographical?

SM: A little of both. The book is set in London in 1970 during the final 48 hours of Jimi’s life, which have always been shrouded in mystery amid suggestions of foul play. At a deeper level the novel is about those two tracks of American youth culture that ran parallel to each other during the turbulent times you speak of. Half were safe and sound, getting high and listening to Jimi Hendrix, the other half was trying to stay alive in a deadly combat zone, getting high and listening to Jimi Hendrix. Dichotomies like that trigger my imagination, and they’re everywhere. My music novels stem from a lifelong love of music, everything from jazz to rock and classical too. I worked for a spell as a DJ in country radio. Worked for seven years on the road as a rock musician. Vocals and harp (blues lingo for amplified harmonica). Never recorded professionally. Played the beer bar circuit, college towns, ski resorts, cowboy bars, biker bars, after hours dives. Writing eventually pushed that aside. Better working conditions and you only travel when you want to. Thank you for the kind words about Hank & Muddy. Writers are always supposed to say they’re latest book is their best, and maybe that’s true, but Hank & Muddy is my personal favorite of the ones published thus far.

WD:  For years you were associated with paperback adventure series like Cody's Army and Mark Stone: MIA Hunter, for which you turned out many highly entertaining titles. Recently, however, you've slowed down the pace and are turning out stand-alones like the aforementioned HANK & MUDDY, thrillers like DRAGON GAMES, THE KOREAN INTERCEPT, BLOOD RED SUN, and THE CASTRO DIRECTIVE (just released in print format). Can you comment on the contrast between the two types of books, as far as research, writing discipline, personal satisfaction, etc.?

SM: I intend my series novels to constitute strong examples of stories crafted to meet the expectations of readers who know what they want. I take pride in delivering those goods in a series like the Mark Stone books. That’s the sort of writing that can be fresh and dynamic when judged on its own merits. But I always liked the way some of my favorite old movie directors like John Ford or Hitchcock could make intense little movies like Liberty Valance or Psycho, and then turn around and paint their pictures on a larger canvas, so to speak, with films like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or North By Northwest. Yet all of their work bears their distinctive motifs and style. That’s the difference. My stand-alone novels present stories on a bigger canvas. 

Also, you've done a number of collaborations with writers like Don Pendleton, Bill Crider, and Joe Lansdale. That must be a whole different writing dynamic. Comment on that also, please.

SM: I’ve always been proud of the apprenticeship that my friendship with Don Pendleton afforded me. In the other cases, some top notch friends, who happen to be top notch writers, have helped me out at times by pitching in as series co-writers when deadlines collided with reality and I needed someone to bail me out with a first draft. The three MIA Hunter novels that Joe R. Lansdale and I did have stirred considerable interest over the years, and there’s anticipation for the three-in-one collection of them scheduled for publication by Subterranean Press in 2014.

WD:  Some of your MIA Hunter books have recently been re-issued and are getting a good response as eBooks. Is it true this is stirring an interest in you to perhaps write some more adventures for Mark Stone and his crew? I'm sure a lot of readers would love to have confirmation of that. Additionally, what are your feelings about the whole eBook movement?

SM:  This is probably the most exciting, uncertain time to be a writer since the birth of paperbacks, and I’m lovin’ it. The writer’s task is to communicate. Ebooks means more readers. How can that be anything but a good thing? There is a new, unpublished MIA Hunter in the pipeline, but Crossroad Press still has a ways to go in reissuing the original series so we’ll see. As a reader, I’m old school. I prefer old-fashioned real books. But so-called “legacy publishing” needed a big time kick in the ass and here it is, folks. As a writer, I’m just happy that people read and enjoy my books and whatever delivery system works best for them is just fine with me.

WD:  Any firm plans for what we can expect next from Stephen Mertz on the writing front?

SM:  There’s always something in development but I won’t jinx it by talking about that before it’s done. Right now I’m all about getting the word out about The Castro Directive and the MIA Hunter series. They’re great books, folks, and they’re cheap!  There, that oughta do it for the sales pitch.

WD:  There was a time when you and I didn't hit it off. I was young and a little too cocky for my own good back then, and you called me on it. But then our mutual friend Mike Avallone intervened and got us patched up. I always found it a bit ironic that the peacemaker role was played by Avo --- who was, shall we say, a bit pugnacious in his later years and always seemed to be firing off letters to raise hell with somebody about something (God, can you imagine what a terror he would be if still alive in this age of Tweets and e-mail). You got to know Avo better than me over the years and he even dedicated his last book to you. Recognizing there may be some folks reading this who, sadly, won't be familiar with the Avallone byline --- got any good Avo stories you want to share? (I've got a couple of my own, but will hold that for another time.)

SM: Hmm. Truth is I don’t remember us ever buttin’ heads! Drawing a total blank, and I don’t care to remember. Interviews notwithstanding, I’m about the present and the future.

My Avallone story concerns an actual short story that I wrote for and about him. I adored Mike. He was the first professional writer I ever knew. I wrote him a fan letter after he made the cover of a Writers Digest in 1970. He was burning up the paperback racks in those days. I’d been reading him since high school and the Army. I really liked his stuff. As a young fella who wanted to write, I didn’t know anything about all the flaws people say they find in his work these days. I just knew that when I picked up an Ed Noon novel or anything with Avallone’s name on the cover, I couldn’t stop reading. So I wrote him a fan letter. We became and remained good friends until his death almost 30 years later. Mike always called me his “loyal Boswell,” and in fact dedicated two of his Ed Noon books to me.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t long after we made contact that his markets started drying up. By the late 70s, Mike was in a very dark place. Mike said they (the editors and agents) blacklisted him. They said he was difficult to work with. Mike was a real character with personality coming out of his ears. He was a link to the past (he’d actually met Chandler) and I wasn’t the only young newbie writer of my generation that he encouraged early on. Then, to see him sliding into this angry, dark, bitter place mentally and emotionally….he  started blaming people. He picked fights and sometimes blamed writers for his misfortunes who were friends of mine and who I knew to be good people. So I finally decide I’ve got to let Mike see that he’s maybe pushing too hard. That he should reassess, reboot, whatever. I’d suggested this in a variety of ways during our regular phone conversations but this time I went full bore and wrote a story called “The King of Horror,” about a troubled writer named Rigley Balbo who was quite obviously Michael Avallone. It was published by Dutton and later Signet in a collection called Murder Is My Business, edited by Max Allan Collins and Mickey Spillane. The story was pretty harsh. It’s a cautionary tale for all writers, but also an open letter specifically to Mike, meant to wake him and shake him. So I held my breath, waiting for his reaction.

Well, he loved it. In fact, he said it was such a great story and so faithfully written in his voice, people would think Stephen Mertz was a pen-name for Michael Avallone! That was the irrepressible Avo. For years after that he often wrote Rigley Balbo as his return address on the letters he sent me, and he once referred to that story as my love letter to him…and he was right.

WD:  Thank you, Steve, for your time.

SM:  Thank you, Wayne, for your interest.


Brian Drake said...

Terrific interview! I read Stephen's Mack Bolan books growing up (Mack Bolan was about ALL I read growing up!), so I always perk up when I see his name. Looking forward to the new material!

Walker Martin said...

Thanks for this excellent interview with Stephen Mertz. I knew Stephen when we both attended some early Pulpcons and were looking for copies of BLACK MASK and other pulp magazines.

Concerning Mike Avallone and how he might be using tweets and email. Mike died in 1999 and in the 1990's he once complained to me about how his friends were not answering his letters like they used to. I explained that just about everyone was making the switch to email, etc. Mike never did really make the switch to computers and email.

Hey Stephen, I made Specialist 5th class in the army also. I was ticketed for Vietnam as a machine gunner but they found out I knew how to type. The army was drowning in red tape and paper, so I spent my two years pounding a typewriter.

My welcome home was funny and sad. As I returned to the streets of Trenton, NJ after being discharged in my uniform. A car passed by and they screamed "Baby Killer!" I looked around to see the baby killer. They were yelling at me...

Anonymous said...

Steve Mertz and I have been friends going on 18 years now (or near enough), and he still rates a great interview! He has also been a great mentor. Go get em, Mojo!