Stephen Hunter: From Pultizer Prize Winning Critic to Bestselling Novelist

Stephen HunterStephen Hunter is the bestselling author of The Third Bullet, Dead Zero, Point of Impact and many other novels.

The retired chief film critic for The Washington Post, where he won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism, he has also published two collections of film criticism and a nonfiction work, American Gunfight.

The Third Bullet was Hunter’s blockbuster novel that featured sniper Bob Lee Swagger and his friend, Washington Post reporter Kathy Reilly, discovering the real story behind President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

His most recent work, Sniper’s Honor, is an unusually timely book, with the world’s eyes on corrupt Russian officials and warmongers in the present day, Swagger and Reilly try to uncover clues left generations before in the Carpathian mountains.

Stephen Hunter Interview

Scroll down for a complete transcript of the interview or click the Play button below to listen to the interview now. And don’t forget to leave a comment to let us know what you thought of this interview!

Books by Stephen Hunter

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Stephen Hunter Transcript

Tim Knox: Hi friends, welcome to Interviewing Authors. What can I say about author Stephen Hunter that hasn’t already been said? Stephen Hunter is a legend in the publishing business. He was the Chief Film Critic for the Washington Post for many years, actually won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He supposedly retired in 2003 but he hasn’t stopped writing. He just published his 23rd book, A Bob Lee Swagger Novel. I love Bob Lee Swagger books. It’s called Sniper’s Honor.

Now Stephen is an interesting guy – 68 years old now and very open and very forthright and very honest in his advice to authors about what they should do to achieve success and quite simply quoting Steve, “Put your butt in the chair and keep writing.”

So a great interview. Stephen talks about his early beginnings as a critic, how that drove him to write other books. He’s written a couple of non-fiction books but mostly fiction works, a lot of them military, a lot of them sniper related. A couple of his books have been turned into movies. One of my favorites is The Target starring Gene Hackman.

So this is a wonderful interview with legendary author Stephen Hunter on today’s Interviewing Authors.

Tim Knox: Hi friends, welcome to Interviewing Authors. What can I say about author Stephen Hunter that hasn’t already been said? Stephen Hunter is a legend in the publishing business. He was the Chief Film Critic for the Washington Post for many years, actually won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He supposedly retired in 2003 but he hasn’t stopped writing. He just published his 23rd book, A Bob Lee Swagger Novel. I love Bob Lee Swagger books. It’s called Sniper’s Honor.

Now Stephen is an interesting guy – 68 years old now and very open and very forthright and very honest in his advice to authors about what they should do to achieve success and quite simply quoting Stephen, “Put your butt in the chair and keep writing.”

So a great interview. Stephen talks about his early beginnings as a critic, how that drove him to write other books. He’s written a couple of non-fiction books but mostly fiction works, a lot of them military, a lot of them sniper related. A couple of his books have been turned into movies. One of my favorites is The Target starring Gene Hackman.

So this is a wonderful interview with legendary author Stephen Hunter on today’s Interviewing Authors.

Stephen, welcome to the program.

Stephen Hunter: Thank you very much. I’m glad to be with you.

Tim Knox: I appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to be here. We have much to talk about you and I. Before we get started give us a little background on Stephen Hunter.

Stephen Hunter: Well let’s see. I am not young. In fact I’m old. I’m 68. I published my first novel in 1980. I worked in newspapers for 38 years. I somehow managed to publish a book during the last 20 years of my newspaper career, about every two years or sometimes only a year. Since I retired in 2008 I’ve managed to publish a book about once a year. That means I’m always on a state of near collapse because I work far harder than any man should be required to but it’s great fun.

I’ve just had a great life and I look back on it, on those rare occasions when I do, and I realize I have nothing to complain about. I complain all the time but I really shouldn’t.

Tim Knox: Let’s go back in time a little bit because you retired just a few years ago. You were the Chief Film Critic for the Washington Post for many years.

Stephen Hunter: I was indeed for 11 years. Before that I was for 16 years the Chief and only film critic and the first full-time film critic of the Baltimore Sun. I had quite a long time alone in the movies, God help me. I have to say that at a certain point in my life I thought that it was the biggest thing in the world and now at my age I think what was the big deal? Why was that so important? I don’t get it. Anyway, so I’ve just been doing this kind of work full-time ever since.

Tim Knox: You might have retired but you certainly haven’t slowed down. One other thing quickly – you actually won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism. How does one win a Pulitzer for criticism?

Stephen Hunter: Well since I think about 1975 that’s been a category in the Pulitzer. It tended for many years to go to architecture critics. I think the reason for that was movies, book, music it’s all ephemeral but a building is forever so that means that architecture critics must be serious. Gradually the board and the judges relaxed and they understood that other forms of criticism were legitimate and were important to newspaper readers and they began to branch out and they gave it to book reviewers.

In fact the year before me they gave it to a guy, a very good friend of mine on the Post… the Post has done very well on the critical Pulitzers. They gave it to Henry Allen for his photography criticism. He was a very, very visually acute brilliant writer. They had given a Pulitzer in film criticism only once before me and that was Roger Ebert and that was very early in Roger’s career. I think it was sometime in the early ‘70s.

I was the second film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize and I was very pleased and that was a moment of shear bliss when I found out that I don’t think I’ll ever achieve in my life again. It was a wonderful moment. I felt like I had been recognized and I worked very, very hard as a critic. I was a fool for work. I was a slave to work. I was a work idiot, you know. I was the guy who wished he spent more time in the office. That was me. Now I’m happily done with that.

Tim Knox: You call yourself retired but it certainly doesn’t sound like you’ve slowed down any.

Stephen Hunter: I’m not sure if I’ve slowed down or not. What I’ve learned is that you don’t have to be at the keyboard to be a writer. What you have to have to be a writer is an imagination and the imagination works all the time. It works very odd hours. It solves problems. It comes up with ideas and images in the middle of the night or while you’re watching a baseball game or while you’re lying drunk and passed out on the floor.

If you were given something of a gift, and I would regard my own as very tiny, you’ve got to listen to it and trust it and I guess you would say nurture it and not ignore it. It’s a sometimes thing. It’s a random thing. I feel that there are times when it is more powerful and there are times when it just wants to be left alone.

To the degree that one can give advice in this business, one of the things I can say is that you should listen to those little weird voices that come to you in the middle of the night. I mean the ones that don’t say, “Date Charlize Theron.” You can safely ignore those voices because she ain’t going to return your emails, believe me, but the voice that says, “Tell that scene from a different point of view,” or comes up with an amusing line of dialogue, that voice. That’s the voice you should pay attention to.

Tim Knox: It’s really interesting that you say that because I hear that from a lot of writers, especially ones that have been doing it a long time. Even when they’re not in front of the keyboard, the voices in their head are continuously working on stories and characters and writing. Before journalism when you were in high school and younger, did you always have dreams of being a writer?

Stephen Hunter: Oh it’s very old behavior. It was the only thing I was ever any good at. I was a mediocre athlete. I was lazy. I was a perfectly despicable child. All the people loathed, hated and feared me but when we were given creative writing assignments mine would always be the piece that the teacher read. I can’t begin to tell you. I’m the product of a very good public education from the ‘50s and I can’t begin to tell you how important that is.

If you’re screwing up everything and you’re always the last guy picked and yet your little story is the one that the teacher reads to the class, it just gives you an identity. It gives you a purpose. It gives you a core of self-belief. It gives you pleasure and recognition and it really can change your whole life. I think of those teachers who as harassed and as busy as they were who were able to pick me out and give me that little boost; that not only saved but invented my life and God bless them all.

Tim Knox: If there hadn’t been that encouragement from that teacher do you think you would have pursued a writing career?

Stephen Hunter: Honestly I don’t know how to answer that question but it asks me to imagine a world that I’ve never experienced and I don’t know if talent – as I say I seem to have a very little bit of talent – I don’t know if it expresses itself if it’s not encouraged. I just don’t know. So much of succeeding in life is being called out early and whether it’s athletics or academics or language or gift for dance or anything. If you’re called out early and made to feel special early and made to feel the pleasures of being special so to speak early then that’s going to make such a difference in your life. It’s going to give you a passion and a direction and a motive.

It’s a very interesting question. Take someone with my talent and ignore him. What does he turn out to be? Is he also a publishable novelist or maybe the struggle makes him great? Instead of merely good it makes him great. Or maybe he ends up in the gray bar hotel having been arrested the third time for shoplifting. I don’t know. I can’t answer that. It’s a fabulous area for speculation however.

Tim Knox: I find that to be such an interesting point and I think something that’s so vital. You really can’t discount the encouragement of a teacher or parent or someone who when you’re a youngster and you have a dream or an aptitude, I think that encouragement is very important. What were you writing at the time? Were you writing fiction, short stories? What were you writing?

Stephen Hunter: For some reason fiction was my forte early. I remember the very first story I wrote. What I remember is being very stimulated powerfully by my reading. All writers were great readers when they were kids I believe. What I loved to read, and this was the ‘50s, was there was still a number of in the old school libraries, there were boy’s books from the ’40s and they were always with a World War II background.

What I remember is a guy, people don’t much remember him but his name was R. Sidney Bowen. He wrote Dave Dawson and the Air Corps, Dave Dawson on Guadalcanal, things like that. I found those books so incredibly stimulating and they just took me places and made me feel things and made me see the world in very profound ways.

My first story was an imitation Dave Dawson story and of course my hero continues the alliteration and was something like Billy Bates or Johnny Jones. I don’t know. He shot down seven Messerschmitts in the first paragraph. I acquired with them to understand that you should spread your Messerschmitts over a whole book. He doesn’t have to do it all in the first paragraph. He can get the seventh Messerschmitt on page 425.

Tim Knox: You’ve carried on his legacy very well in your own work. Do you remember what the first thing was that you wrote that you actually tried to sell?

Stephen Hunter: I’m not sure. What I do remember is I… because my talent was very conventional and it was very much a narrative talent and also I had a critic’s voice. I had a non-fiction gift to write the 800 word “review” and those were not marketable talents in high school because the creative writing in high school was very avant-garde. It was very drawn to new forms of expression, to images, surrealism, things like that. There was no way they would have published a story in which a guy shoots down seven Messerschmitts in the first paragraph.

I was kind of frustrated. Even though my stuff was being read in all the English classes, it was never published. It wasn’t until I got to college and I got into journalism that I began to acquire something of a public reputation as a writer and was asked by someone else to contribute something to the newspaper, an essay. When I did it, it was like my first bestseller – that’s the only way to describe it – in the sense that it hit that campus with a great power and it became the big talker of the day.

Everybody who knew me patted me on the back and girls who were too good to date me smiled at me and remembered my name. That was sort of my first sense of the profession of publishing something beyond the English teacher’s voice and it was an incredible narcotic. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a jolt of the system, such a charge, such an explosion of satisfaction. A lot of my life in journalism was about trying to replicate that I have to say.

In those days newspapers hadn’t shrunken to the raisins that they are now. They were formats for great writing. Newspaper writers were among the best writers in America. The Sun and the Post, my deepest and most abiding pleasure away from the books, was having a piece that people really liked and really got talked about. I had a sense of suddenly expressing the fabulosity of my being to a much greater audience. Again, it was a narcotic. It was something that all people until the internet came along loved about the newspaper business – the pleasure of having what was called the talker or sometimes it’s called the five alarm story, whatever you want to call it. Every three or four days any good paper would publish something that really had a dramatic piece of writing that had a really dramatic impact. Trying to get that was the desire of my life for many, many years.

As for the first piece that I ever sold, it was actually a book review and it wasn’t very good. I think I got $15 for it and it was the first time I’d seen my name in print in a professional publication and seen a little bit of extra money in my paycheck. Again, that was quite enjoyable. It just stimulated me and made me want more and made me, even though I am congenitally lazy, it made me want to do more and get that blast every once in a while.

Tim Knox: It certainly sounds like you fed off of that. It’s almost like it was an adrenaline rush every time that you would get that encouragement and acknowledgment.

Stephen Hunter: Yeah, exactly. That’s what I fear about the internet is now the vessel of all young writer’s dreams because I think you might come with something on the internet that 8 million people read and you get nothing out of it. I guess the only thing you get out of it is the comments. I’m sure there are young writers who are obsessed by and absorbed in and desperately want comments on their work but that marketplace is so incredibly huge that it’s not immediate and it’s not persuasive. I just fear that it’s not enough to keep younger talents going. Maybe I’m wrong and I don’t know much about that world anymore. I don’t think it’s quite the same thing as we had in the newspapers.

Tim Knox: I haven’t thought of it before but I think you’re right. I’m in my 50’s and I’m an old newspaper man. I think the younger generation doesn’t have a clue the quality of writing that used to populate magazines and newspapers. That used to be where writers wanted their work published, in print, in newsprint.

Stephen Hunter: I couldn’t agree more. You are preaching to the choir. Amen, amen!

Tim Knox: You were working as a journalist full-time. You were writing books at night. What attracted you to criticism?

Stephen Hunter: I was always a critic. I was a critic from the first week of school at Northwestern. I went to the Medill School of Journalism. We took some basic writing course and the professor asked us to stay home one day and watch a day of television and write a piece about a day of television. So I wrote a piece and I knew that it was a good piece; I knew that it was very vigorous and athletic if you will. I was pretty sure it was going to get read and indeed it did get read. What astounded me was it played like comedy. I had no idea that I had a gift for wit. Hearing that laughter spontaneously erupt in the classroom, that to some degree changed my life too because I really loved that.

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From that point on I sort of had two goals. One of them was to be a critic and in the likes of the newspaper I had a natural critic’s voice. It was knowing, it was sarcastic, it was clever, it was witty. It was usually long but it was great fun to read. I wanted to do that but at the same time ever since I’d read R. Stanley Bowen I wanted to write what I would call a sort of action driven hard male thrillers. I was not the guy who thought he was going to write the great novel. I was not going to sell short stories about the summer I got hepatitis to The New Yorker or no artistic epiphanies of exquisite sensitivity. My stories were always going to have seven Messerschmitts getting shot down in them. I understood there was a market for that though nothing in education made you aware of that and you sort of had to find your own way into it.

So I wanted to do that and I also wanted to be the critic. I was fortunate I also worked like a dog and I also, as I say, I was smart about my talents. I understood one of the things that hobbles young writers is that they don’t understand how segmented the… it’s like sports. There’s a lot of sports and if you’re a gifted athlete you’re pretty good at most of them. You’ve got to understand which one you’re best at and that’s where you’ve got to dedicate your time and your talent and your effort. If you’re not realistic about the opportunities and the nature and the breadth or lack of breadth about your talent, you’ll be very, very disappointed.

All the way through the early years of journalism so many people were going to write so many great novels and now at the end of the day none of those people have written a thing and I’ve written 23 novels that are, whether they’re great or not isn’t my decision, but they’re publishable and they seem to sell a great deal. There’s a market for them. There’s a fan base for them.

One of my sort of great advantages was that I had a very small specific target. I wanted to win the Pulitzer Prize for film criticism and I wanted to write bestsellers about men with guns. I did both of those things. I never thought I was Hemmingway. I never thought I was Pauline Kay. I just wanted to do those things as a professional life. I wanted those two things, one by day and one by night, or reversed depending on the schedule. I wanted those to be my profession. I understood that one of the things that means is that you have to do it whether you want to do it or not.

If you want to do it professionally, you may not be in the mood to do it. Too blanking bad. Do it anyway. You’ve got to cultivate and develop and habitualize the process of doing the work every day. It’s not about inspiration. It’s not about genius. It’s not about greatness. It’s not about any ephemeral thing like inspiration or some great story to tell or political points to make. It’s really only about putting your butt in the chair. If you can’t do that simple physical act of putting that hunk of meat in that hunk of upholstery, you’re out of luck. You’re nothing. You’re never going to get one damn thing. Your life is going to be bitter and disappointing and full of ‘what ifs’ and convictions that you’ve been overlooked and confusion as to why the world never bowed before you. Too bad for you, loser.

I beat you not because I’m more talented, not because I’m smarter, not because God singled me out but because I put the meat in the upholstery every day and you didn’t. That’s something that I think is somehow lost in all the chit chat about what it takes to write professionally.

Tim Knox: That seems to be a running theme among all the great authors that I have interviewed, those that have been doing it for a long time and have established a great career. Their advice bottom line is you just keep writing. If you are going to announce to the world that you are a writer then by God go write and keep writing and don’t worry so much about the money and fame and success. Just keep your head down and keep writing.

Let’s talk a little bit about your prolific career because you’ve written 23 books now.

Stephen Hunter: Something like that. I’m proud to say I don’t even know how many and that’s where you want to be at my age.

Tim Knox: You want to get to the point where you’ve written so many books you don’t know how many you’ve actually written. You’ve written fiction and non-fiction and you created one of my all-time favorite characters, and this is sniper Bob Lee Swagger. I just love the name. That’s one of those names that will go down in literary history. Let’s talk about the new book which I think is the 8th or 9th in the series. That’s called Sniper’s Honor. Tell us about that.

Stephen Hunter: Yeah, Sniper’s Honor. I’ll spare you the long story. It arose from… an idea crashed and burned and I couldn’t make it work but I salvaged one idea that the publisher, Simon & Schuster, liked very much. It was a female sniper. I pointed out to them that the only female snipers were in the Soviet Union in World War II so I’ve written a book where Bob Lee Swagger is investigating a mysterious disappearance of a Soviet female sniper 70 years ago. The interesting thing about it is as he investigates it, people suddenly start to try and kill him.

The book cuts between his investigation in Ukraine today and what happened in Ukraine in 1944. For me, the great pleasure of it was recreating or trying very hard to recreate the War on the eastern front in 1944, not just the events and the guns but the personalities, the mindset, the heroism and the evil and the folly and the genius. I would say the people of World War II is Lord of the Rings in real time. It’s just such a magnificent human cataclysm with genius and evil and ugliness and heroism and sacrifice. It’s such a pleasure to work in that area. It was great, great, great fun.

The book has done well. It’s on the Times bestseller list and I’m getting very good reviews all over the place and a lot of attention. As a commercial endeavor it paid off and it was one of the books where I thought this probably is not going to do so well because it’s so obscure. I’m very glad to have proved myself wrong.

Tim Knox: I mentioned your hero, Bob Lee Swagger. He’s such an interesting character. Let’s talk a little about character development. That’s always a topic that’s on the minds of our audience. How did you initially come up with the character, Bob Lee Swagger?

Stephen Hunter: Well I think there’s a philosophical origin and there’s a physiological origin. In terms of actual the physics of what happened – the who, what, where, when. I needed a character and I had just read a book called Marine Sniper about the great Marine sniper, Carlos Hathcock, who was extremely heroic in Vietnam. He really stuck in my imagination, not merely for his heroism but also because his spotter… snipers work in two man teams and the spotter is the guy who looks for the targets and handles flag security and all that stuff. He got killed and that made Carlos interesting to me because not only was he a hero but he was a hero with grief and regret. I just thought that would be such an interesting character. I tried to make him sort of honest to my perception of what a salty Southern, alpha male Marine Sergeant would be like and not to make him sensitive and expressive but to try and capture the cunning and the savviness of his mind.

When the book was done… it turned out that it was a very hard book to write. It turned out very well. People, still many of them, consider it my best book. I still didn’t have all the answers about Bob Lee Swagger. I sort of tried to get away from him for a book but even in that book I was pulled back to the Swagger story. After that I still wanted to learn more and the only way I could learn more about him was by writing more books.

If you had told me I would write nine books about one guy, three about his father, all of them from west Arkansas, I would have laughed in your face 20 years ago but that’s what my life turned into and I’m very proud of what I did even if I didn’t know I was doing it when I was doing it. It’s been a wonderful trip and Bob Lee sent my kids through college, got them into the workplace without being saddled with debt and so I feel I’ve been good to Bob Lee and Bob Lee has been good to me. That’s what that was.

The secret of Bob is when I discover him he’s a bitter alcoholic isolate living in a trailer deep in the Arkansas backwoods. In the course of the book it’s been his return to society and his reengagement to society and his ability to bring his gifts and to contribute and to fall from being an exile to become a solid pillar of what is right and what is just in society and become I suppose what I like think of him— a non-super superhero. He has great gifts but also has great flaws.

He has a family now. He has a wife. He has children. He’s back in society in Sniper’s Honor. He’s contributing to society. It’s important to him to bring the story of this brave woman to society and get her the respect and the honor that she deserves. He’s contributing. He’s not alone anymore. He’s part of the main if you will.

Tim Knox: So he’s working to bring this woman’s honor back but it’s also a story of redemption for him.

Stephen Hunter: That’s exactly true. Through her redemption he is seeking his own redemption. That’s the mechanism in play.

Tim Knox: Stephen, let’s talk a little bit about how things have changed because you’ve been doing this a long time, traditionally published every time. What are your thoughts on self-publishing and independent publishing, which seems to have opened up the door to a lot of authors? They may have otherwise not been published by traditional houses.

Stephen Hunter: I understand that there’s a new mindset out there and that there are opportunities out there for ways that to some degree publishing has been democratized. Well, all of communication has been democratized. One of the upsides of the internet is that if you have a keyboard you’re a novelist. If you have a keyboard you’re a movie critic. It used to be that Mandarin forces, that is to say newspapers and publishing houses which were very snippy and difficult – it was difficult to attract their attention, it was difficult to get them to notice you. They were very much sort of an inbred society, true on a very small pool of talent. You had to find some way to crack that.

That was the model in which I came up, which I somehow managed to penetrate. This is the cruelty of that business is so much of it has to do with two things – luck and suck. Luck that you may get noticed or suck, that you know somebody that knows somebody who will call somebody who owes somebody a favor. The whole sort of political aspect of becoming published comes into play. That was something I never mastered and I was never too good at. Let’s not kid ourselves and people on the outside all know that that is a system that obtained for years and years, maybe centuries and that system to some degree has been broken down. There’s no more stigma to self-publishing.

Here’s the point. You can now get your work to the market and let the market decide as opposed to letting three people from Harvard in an office in the 25th floor on the East Side of New York decide whether or not you get published. No, no. You get published and then the market decides if you’re any good. It has worked out very well for some people. It has not worked out well for other people but at least I think there is an opportunity there and God bless those who make that attempt.

It’s too late for me. I mean there’d be no sense in me going back to that I don’t think. I published two books on film criticism but I would like to publish one more and I’d also like to collect a lot of essays that I’ve written that have not been collected, not because it’s important to the world but it’s important to me. That’s not going to happen at Simon & Schuster unless I get a huge bestseller. I can publish those books on the internet and that would be very attractive to me because I would at least get some more readers. Again, we would let the market see what would happen.

Tim Knox: You make such a good point. I think the internet has leveled the playing field, meaning that anyone with a keyboard can write a book and look to get it published but the marketplace is still going to determine whether or not you are successful as an author.

Stephen Hunter: That’s so true.

Tim Knox: Sniper’s Honor has been out a couple months now. What are you working on now? I know you’re not just sitting back enjoying retirement.

Stephen Hunter: I am indeed working on something new. I’ve got to keep up with that book a year rhythm and I’m very, very excited about this book. It’s a non-Bob Lee Swagger book. I’ve always been fascinated by Jack the Ripper – fabulous mystery, hideous crimes, incredible atmosphere of elegance and decadence next to each other and a period so much like our own it’s remarkable. I’m working on that now and having a great time.

Tim Knox: Fantastic. We hope to get you back on the show once that’s out and talk about that some more.

Stephen Hunter: I would love to do that.

Tim Knox: Do you have a website? How can folks find out more?

Stephen Hunter: I have a Facebook page, a professional Facebook page that Simon & Schuster runs for me. I’ve not done too well on the web business. I ought to get myself a really first class professional site. Maybe I’ll do that with Jack the Ripper.

Tim Knox: You seem to be doing just fine without it. Stephen, this has been great. We hope to have you back on the program very soon.

Stephen Hunter: Thank you so much.

 

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