Filed under Interviews on September 7, 2011
Tagged: Alistair MacLean, Dixon Hill, Pirates & Swashbucklers, Pulp Empire, pulp fiction, Raymond Chandler, Relvan's Rescue
The release of Pirates & Swashbucklers, the anthology featuring my short story “Relvan’s Rescue,” quickly approaches. We’ve had some great interviews with the other authors I share the table of contents with, and I’ve got the last batch of them for you this week. Today’s interview is with Dixon Hill.
When did you first realize you were a writer?
I’m 48, and sold my first story at the age of 41. So I got started writing – backwards! By gaining life experience. I spent ten years in the army. I used the G.I. Bill to attend a community college, hoping to eventually get a university degree in Engineering. However, when circumstances necessitated that I drop some classes, I discovered that the only class I stayed with had nothing to do with Engineering; it was a writing class instead. A year later, I had a new plan.
I couldn’t find an undergraduate fiction writing program at Arizona State, at that time, but realized classes at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism were staffed by visiting editors from national magazines (such as National Geographic), as well as past senior editors of several major daily newspapers. These editors were the professors at the Cronkite School and, if nothing else, I figured they could certainly teach me to write. In 2002 I graduated with a B.A. in Journalism and Mass Communications. During my senior year, I made my first sale to a national magazine.
What authors influence or inspire you?
I love the old pulp masters: guys like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Isaac Asimov. John Creasey, who penned over 500 novels in his lifetime, is terrific; check out his rollicking Toff series at your local used bookstore! Alistair MacLean is great too; this is the guy who wrote The Guns of Navarone, which stands with his Ice Station Zebra as one of the all-time best suspense novels in history IMHO.
Heinlein holds a special place in my heart, because he wrote about Special Forces Engineer Sergeants and clearly understood the place of the military in Sci-Fi. New masters, in updated versions of those old pulp shoes, include: Lawrence Block, Loren D. Estleman, and Bill Pronzini. My entire being often seems to be captured for the length of a novel, when it’s written by Dick Francis or John D. MacDonald (and anybody who’s never read MacDonald’s Travis McGee series is cheating themselves out of one of life’s great pleasures).
For military adventure, I enjoy the Brotherhood of War, and The Corps series by W.E.B. Griffin; I spent ten years in the army, and Griffin knows that sweet green bitch as intimately as I do. The stunning realizations presented in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged make it must reading, IMHO —though I disagree with her on some subjects. But the man I consider the greatest living novelist of our time is Dean Koontz, who fuses multiple genres – mystery, suspense, horror, literary, and even the supernatural — into seamless novels that grab a reader by the balls, the scruff of his neck, his mind and very soul!
What book(s) have you read more than once? What drew you back?
The first book I read repeatedly was about the Great Johnstown Flood. It was non-fiction, but the excitement of the story forced me to check it out of my elementary school library every September.
The first fiction book that had this effect on me was Ice Station Zebra. I had never read a novel with an unreliable first-person narrator before. And the way Alistair MacLean used it to his advantage completely blew me away. I was eleven years old, and read it in almost one sitting over the course of a day and very late night. The next morning, I started reading it again.
In 25 words or less, how would you define “pulp” as a genre?
Pulp is like Crackerjacks: fun to munch, filling—satisfying as hell! And, when you’re lucky, you discover the “Toy surprise inside” is a real gem.
What made you decide to submit a story for the Pirates & Swashbucklers anthology?
To begin with, I really like what Pulp Empire is about. I think the old pulp editors, who published on newsprint (hence the “pulp” moniker) because it was the cheapest way to put out their magazines, would have jumped on the internet bandwagon like ravenous dogs. And for the same reason—it’s a medium that provides great ‘bang for the buck’: inexpensive mass marketing combined with the low physical inventory requirements that come with print-on-demand.
It’s great to see contemporary editors who realize these benefits, and I like to do everything I can to support good editors trying to accomplish great things. Additionally, I discovered that Pulp Empire would take longer stories than many print magazines, and I’ve got longer stories hanging around my computer, which I can’t find a print market for. This isn’t because magazine editors are parsimonious; they just have very limited space, so they have to hold down the story size.
When I saw they had Pirates & Swashbucklers coming up, I thought: “How great is that? How often do you get to write a pirate story?” So, when I submitted a story for another anthology, I queried if they’d be willing to take a contemporary pirate story set off the coast of Somalia, the Caribbean, or maybe the South China Sea. They said they’d be interested, so I got started.
How did you come up with the idea for your story? What is your writing process like?
I spent about ten years in the army—the first half working for Military Intelligence, and the last half running around Central & South America and West Africa with a Girl Scout hat on my head. So, I know what it’s like to work in denied areas and participate in covert ops. Consequently, it made sense to me that contemporary counter-piracy operations might theoretically be set up in a similar manner—with multiple compartmentalized elements conducting complex operations orchestrated by higher echelons. In my story “Blooding of the Black Shark,” I tried to show a little of how I thought this might play out. Some of the elements clearly know about some of the other elements. But none of them knows about all of the other elements, and this adds a little note or two of surprise I think.
I always strive to ensure details in my stories are right, and make sense. I know weapons and explosives fairly well, and get bent out of shape if I read an action/suspense story clearly written by somebody who has no idea what it’s like to pull a trigger, or how weapons or demolitions operate. I got a buddy who’s an ex-Navy Commander (equivalent to an army Lt. Col.) to look over the story and vet all nautical terms and designations. He initially balked at one place where I let an ensign have the con of a large vessel for about twenty minutes, but after talking it over with a few beers, we decided, “Well, it might work out in this particular situation, given crew choice.” So, I let the ensign keep stand his post-er-watch.
I spent time researching the languages spoken in Somalia, in order to ensure I portrayed the pirates’ spoken language pretty accurately. And, of course, it’s necessary to tell the pirates’ story too, because not all pirates are bad guys, and noting the difference is important.
I freely admit to making up the GAU-75 Gauntlet gun. I have enough experience calling for fire from MC-130 gunships (Specter) that I have a good feel for what such a weapon does to a target—and I believe I did a good job of describing that, though I was worried it might prove too graphic. Thankfully, the editors kept my description.
Do you consider yourself a “pulp” writer? Why? Is there another genre you like to write?
I consider myself a “fiction writer” and believe that Pulp represents fiction at it’s most wild and woolly. The old pulps were out there because there wasn’t any television, and movies often cost more than pulp mags. The plethora of pulps gave budding authors a place to cut their teeth, and provided a proving ground where more experienced writers could hone their skills. This is why, while many proclaim that pulp is vapid entertainment, I believe it often presented classic literary gems. Further, these great stories are proof that “literary” does not have to mean “lacking action.” Read Raymond Chandler, and you’ll see what I mean.
That’s why I strongly enjoy being published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Pulp Empire and similar media. It gives me the chance to earn a buck and improve my writing. My attitude is like that of Babe Ruth, who said he could hardly believe they’d actually pay him to play baseball.
Care to weigh in with your opinion of the e-book?
I think of the e-book as a hybrid concept, which acts as a stepping stone in history, as readers transition from the printed word to relating with fiction media through digital gaming-type interaction.
Where can someone find more of your work?
More of my stories may be found in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Boys’ Life, and other national magazines.
Anything else you’d like to tell us about your writing?
I’m currently shopping for an agent, and if I sell my latest mystery novel manuscript I’ll let you know.