Normally I always include some sort of image on these stories, even if it’s one of the those boring landscape images of eastern Iowa or those shots of my writing desk. 🙂
Oftentimes, if I’m talking about a particular author I like, I’ll usually take a photo of the book cover of an author I’ve read to illustrate a post. I tend to want to avoid copyright issues – although I think I’m covered by fair use rules. Today, however, I wasn’t able to do that. There’s a story behind that, and part of this section of the writing biography.
As a kid, I was obsessed over reading about the military and about military equipment. When my family and I had a chance to travel to Washington DC, the one place I had to visit was the National Air and Space Museum. It absolutely dovetailed with my existing interests in science fiction and space travel (the sci-fi obsession I’ve touched on before, although I’ll probably go into more detail in a later post). Anyway, all of these interests in cool vehicles that made things go boom, the technologies that made them possible and their sci-fi possibilities, and the strategies and tactics that involved their use, all converged in a big obsession tornado in my pre-adolescent mind.
It was right around this time that The Hunt for Red October hit the shelves. I don’t recall when I first read it, but it had to be sometime after it came out in paperback because I read it in the paperback format.
The minute I started to read it, it hooked me in. Why? Like I said, I was a military tech faddist back then, and Tom Clancy knew his stuff. Not just the amount of detail about the American military and its technology, but what he knew about how the Soviet Union and its military and navy worked. A few years later, I was amazed to learn that Clancy had never even served in the military, and the book was a result of something like five years of research while he worked at an insurance agency.
(This was a great inspiration for me to see that you could write intelligently about anything, regardless of your life experience, as long as you did your research. For years I had wanted to write a novel about soccer, but I believed that I didn’t have enough life experience or background knowledge to write about it and not sound stupid. A few years of reading about the history and business of soccer and intense soccer fandom, and I’ve finally gotten started on that project.)
The pace and the structure of the novel was also highly influential to me, as well. I’d often heard of unfilmable books and books that were not able to translate into a visual format. But when I read October, I read a book that could have been assembled on a Hollywood film storyboard. Clancy was telling a large story with a lot of moving parts, different characters, and different locations. The way he shifted perspectives and moved where the action was fascinated me, took me along for the ride. In years since, I’ve often talked with writing students about how deciding to move to a new paragraph or section works in the same way as a film director deciding to change a camera angle or location. Reading October and seeing how Clancy did this was the first time I really started to “see” how that worked. (I learned from Andrew Vachss about how you can keep chapters as short or as long as you wanted to, but that’s another tale.)
As with most obsessions, this one expanded. By my count, I’ve read at least a dozen of the novels that he has put out, and maybe a few of those that were put out by Zombie Tom Clancy, when other authors write books under Clancy’s name. (Entertainment Weekly had a good article on the practice here; I just wonder how these guys manage to get the gig. It sounds like easy money to be honest.) At some point, I had as many as four of his books in my personal collection, and some by a couple of other authors with similar styles, like Vince Flynn.
Now, however, my shelves are bare of Clancy, Flynn, or any of their like. (That’s why I needed the Internet to find my art today.) What happened? Essentially, I got tired of the guy’s politics. (I try to avoid politics on this page – I’d probably consider myself a socialist if I had to define myself – but since it fits in with how I feel about a writer, I think I needed to get into it.)
More and more as he wrote later in his career, all of this stupid conservative beliefs started bleeding out into his books. There was his blind faith in the military and military leaders, little acknowledgement that government needs to act transparently, an outdated view of women and reproductive issues, and a blind faith in market and libertarian solutions to problems. There were just a lot of ideas that were both wrong and gross to me. It started getting bad around Executive Orders and just kept getting worse from there.
All I wanted to do is read the action, but all I could see in those later books were stupid political ideas. For the first time, how I felt about the way the world should work clashed directly with authors I enjoyed. I’ve heard many say that they can separate the author from their personal views. I can’t however. There’s simply too many authors out there that I can read and that have reasonable political or personal views that I don’t believe I have to compromise myself in that way.
The truth is, how you feel about society and personal opinions does affect what you write. For example, the main characters in books by Clancy, Flynn, and others were alpha males for whom finding the right guy and guilty party was easy and the way to solve almost any geopolitical problem involved bullets and explosives. I never saw Jack Ryan or Mitch Rapp from Flynn’s series catch the wrong guy and kill or torture them, or see them accidentally kill a whole flock of civilians. But that does happen, because I see that happen every day. Since those authors were so fascinated by the military or military solutions, it eventually eroded their credibility to me as a reader. I’ve always said that ideology is how you wish the world would work if only humans weren’t the way that they were. If someone has an ideology that’s too stupid for me to buy into, I have no interest and taking a tour of that author’s head by reading a book.
EDIT: Since I wrote this, apparently they are adapting the Mitch Rapp character for a film, American Assassin, based on one of the Rapp novels from 2010. I’ve seen some preview clips and I have to admit I’m more than a little intrigued. The kid they have playing him, Dylan O’Brian, seems to be willing to show how damaged such a person like Rapp would have to be to be the person he is, rather than going the full 80’s action flick guy he seemed to be in the books. Now I might have to watch it on Netflix.
So, Tom Clancy became a teacher for me as both how to and how not to write books. He is nowhere near the last one of those I have run into as a reader. To paraphrase Stephen King, you can learn something from both the great writers and the terrible writers.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I’m starting to tag and headline these writing biography posts as either Volume I or Volume II. Volume I are biographical reading and writing posts about things I first encountered as a kid or young adult. Volume II will touch on stories taking place in my adulthood since then. Hope you enjoy both, because I believe I will start doing both Volume I and Volume II stories simultaneously as we go along. I’ve also retroactively re-titled those previous Bio posts to reflect those changes, but that won’t affect their URLs.