His advice is simple: “make peace with the chair”—the chair your butt fits in every day.
Stephen Hunter has used his ethic of dogged persistence to great success—both as the creator of Bob Lee Swagger, the deadly protagonist of going-on 13 suspense novels, and as the second honoree for movie criticism by the Pulitzer-Prize committee.
“I was able to write a book every two years, while writing 400 or 500 pieces for whichever of the two newspapers I was working for at the time,” he says, looking every bit the cliché of an author in his home in tony Federal Hill, Maryland, wearing a rust-colored sport coat. “I don’t remember it as being a particular ordeal. I don’t remember a transition. Because I liked both. I was getting a different set of pleasures from each. I just saw myself as a writer.”
That vision led him in two directions. Born in Kansas City, in 1946, Hunter was raised in the college town of Evanston, Illinois. His journalism degree from Northwestern took him to the copy desk of The Baltimore Sun, where he became a critic in 1982, and then on to The Washington Post in 1997. (He left print journalism in 2008.) But in his spare time he created a novel hero straight out of rural Arkansas. Swagger is so proficient with firearms (391 kills) that he is nicknamed Bob the Nailer.
Toiling at his day job, Hunter wrote reviews that in 2003 would prompt the Pulitzer committee to write that he owned “an irreverent, fearless, spontaneous explosively funny voice and, like the critic Pauline Kael, is forever suggesting that art can be a good, lusty, happy thing that doesn’t always have to be an immersion in a new level of human misery.” Yet, for almost three decades, Hunter has been intimately connected to the killing machine Bob Lee Swagger, a name that Hunter jokes is an “algorithm from every Nascar driver in history.”
Hunter saw a connection in the two careers, however. In 1995, he’d published Silent Scream, a collection of his film reviews. It followed the Oklahoma City bombing, an act of domestic terrorism killing 168 people. Not a month later, the number one film was Die Hard: With A Vengeance, with terrorists detonating bombs in New York City. As body parts flew, it was hard to separate Hollywood sinew and flesh from the real killing. “What a perfect microcosm for our complex responses to violence: we abhor the authentic stuff and turn in revulsion from it,” Hunter wrote. “Then we go pay seven bucks to watch it in Technicolor in the mall. In our heart of hearts, in our secret places, we crowd into dark, anonymous spaces and lose ourselves and our souls in its celebration.” Ever refreshing, Hunter pointed the finger at himself: “Reconciling the two may be the movie critic’s most difficult dilemma, particularly a movie critic who doubles as a suspense novelist and in the private world of his fiction has killed hundreds. I would venture to suggest that I have more blood on my hands than any movie critic or movie killer in history.”
Hunter’s youthful reading might serve as a clue to his later work in fiction. “The most influential [author] was actually a writer I read in the ’50s—[Robert] Sydney Bowen. He wrote boys’ adventure books set in World War II, against an aviation background. I just gobbled those up. I inherited the Sydney Bowen style.” Being prolific is something else he inherited. Aside from penning his Dave Dawson and Red Randall series about pilots in the War, Bowen wrote an otherworldly 10,000 unedited words a day and could finish novels in 10 days.
Bowen’s choice of subject matter also stuck with Hunter. His next book follows a counter-sniper operation led by Bob Lee Swagger’s father, Earl, in late June and early July of 1944. “As a kid in the ’50s,” Hunter says, “I loved the big novels of World War II—The Caine Mutiny; Run Silent, Run Deep; The Naked and the Dead and so forth. We were soaked in war memoirs, war novels, war stories, war movies, war television. There is this secret pleasure of going back to my childhood and the simplicities of childhood. That’s fun. So The Bullet Garden is both a tribute to and an evocation of those books that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. It’s a sniper hunt in the middle of a very big war.”
Fictional style came easily to Hunter. Witness the opening to his first novel, Point of Impact (1993): “It was November, cold and wet in west Arkansas, a miserable dawn following on a miserable night. Sleet whistled through the pines and collected on the humps of stone that jutted out of the earth; low overhead, angry clouds hurtled by. Now and then the winds would rush through the canyons between the trees and blow the sleet like gun smoke. It was the day before hunting season.”
Point of Impact was made into a movie called Shooter released in 2007. A television series would follow. “That whole process was educational and very entertaining,” says Hunter.
Other entertainment for Hunter includes (naturally) range shooting and smoking cigars with his “Pennsylvania Boys,” Gary Goldberg and Dave Dunn. “Like cigars, I like guns that are mild. I like the physical act of doing it. I like the serenity and the concentration it brings. In both cases you get the smoke.”
Dunn owns a gun store in Lancaster, where Hunter made a publicity appearance. “We hit it off fabulously,” the author says. “I’ll go up there or we’ll go out for dinner or we’ll meet in his garage. We’ll sit around and smoke cigars and drink Bourbon and whine, as men do, about the state of the world. I’ve never done that and not been thoroughly satisfied with the experience.”
Hunter has a long history with cigars. He smoked his first the day after his last race as a quarter-miler in high school, in 1964. Today, he points to Romeo y Julieta as his default smoke, but declines to call himself an expert in matters of types of tobacco and construction. Nevertheless, he has certain strong opinions. His round-frame glasses accentuate a large, friendly head, which tilts backward in a pontifical manner when making a precisely worded point: “The best thing about a cigar is the other men who are smoking and watching the Bourbon level in the bottle descend. I like the layers and the density of the cigar smoke. It’s like its own ecosystem and I find that fascinating.”
Unlike that smoke, the future is anything but hazy for Hunter and his famous sniper. Years ago, in about 30 seconds, the idea of Bob Lee Swagger came to him. That 30-second epiphany generated 17 books that reference the character. “It’s a bizarre experience,” Hunter says. “I have no explanation for it. It’s either a treasure trove or a Pandora’s box. But I opened it accidentally that night, and I haven’t been able to get the damned thing closed. It’s where I am and who I became.”
His utter immersion in writing pays dividends. “It takes over your entire mind and at odd moments when you think you are not working on it, your subconscious is churning out and editing and examining and ultimately presenting you with ideas. That always feels good, even if it comes at inconvenient times.”
As ever, the scribe’s prescription is to write on.